- Griffin Swartzell
- Bao bun chicken and dumplings rates superlative.
In its original usage, the term kung fu referred not to Chinese martial arts, but to the cultivation of a skill through mindful practice and refinement. Kung fu can be fighting arts, but by the broader definition, chefs also practice kung fu. It shows in consistent preparation, a steady hand on the sauté pan and the ability to flow like water from task to task during a busy service.
In the open kitchen at Lucky Dumpling, chef Brother Luck’s newest restaurant, we observe just such a meticulous process. Sous chef Eric Major rolls out scallion pancakes with a practiced hand while staff members ferry dish after dish into the packed restaurant — we’d had to wait an hour just to nab seats at the counter during early evening hours. Servers recite the specifics of various elements in our dishes without having to ask a chef, when fielding our questions. Luck clearly has a well-trained staff here, and in conversations, we learn that there’s a lot of cross-role education, too.
Location Details Lucky Dumpling
Lucky Dumpling sports a rough-hewn quality that fits Luck’s major conceptual inspirations: kung fu and hip-hop. A cool Bruce Lee mural graces the restaurant’s north-facing exterior wall. On the inside, decorations include a depiction of villain Sho’nuff from the 1985 film The Last Dragon. And every cocktail on the menu pays homage to the Wu-Tang Clan.
The Tical, for instance, gets its name from Wu member Method Man’s solo debut. It’s a mix of bourbon, mint, agave and ginger shrub. The whiskey and vinegary shrub grant a surprising depth of flavor to the drink, not spicy or sour so much as dark and intense, which plays nicely with the mint’s grassy, herbal elements. We find similarly good flavor balance in the Tiger vs Crane, a drink we found overly spicy at a preview event. On this visit, the blend of watermelon vodka, lime and spiced simple syrup offers a happy equilibrium between fruity sweet, tart and spicy, its Sichuan peppercorn notes as vibrant as the melon. (The eatery’s bar team appears to have been working on their own mixological kung fu since the preview event.)
Despite Luck’s absence this night — the area celebrity chef’s often traveling, sometimes keeping us in the dark on which TV show he’s next competing on — his signature touches appear everywhere on the menu. His Not So German Egg Roll, for instance, was the dish that got him eliminated on season 15 of Bravo’s Top Chef — the judges acknowledged that while it was delicious, it wasn’t German enough. We concur; it is delicious. Served as a “small bites” appetizer here, two egg rolls bear nicely seasoned duck that evokes five-spice powder without being too sweet or too heavy on the clove or star anise. Rather, the filling’s sweet nose gives way to prominent green onion and bok choy, all nicely spiked by sharp cheddar.
We split two orders of dumplings (six for between $7 and $9). The first, hot and sour beef, land with their skins a little torn but flavors intact. We find them salty, but sourness and a moderate heat balance that out, a sound mix of strong flavors. We’re less enthusiastic about our smoked eggplant dumplings, which speak of neither eggplant nor smoke. On the nose, they’re all ginger and green onion, and they taste of that plus cabbage. Side kimchi goes down too salty to contribute other flavors.
But when our chicken and dumplings entrée arrives, we’re blown away. It’s a twist on the soul food standard, two pieces of fried chicken under black pepper gravy, finished with a scorpion pepper jelly made from mango jelly and scorpion pepper powder. Two tender discs of steamed bao bun dough replace fat and fluffy “swimmer” dumplings, acting as pedestals for the chicken. The chicken’s super on its own, juicy from time spent in buttermilk, bearing a thick, crispy, spicy coating made from all-purpose flour. Black pepper gravy doesn’t usually inspire too much excitement from us, but the stuff on this plate bursts with pepper flavor, playing beautiful games with the predominantly sweet jelly.
We finish the night with dessert and coffee. Mochi doughnuts land three per order, looking like churros and bearing a tenderness and mild chew. They burst with five-spice powder flavor under a rich, sweet caramel sauce. Medium-roast Barista Espresso beans retain their more subtle flavors in a pleasant cup of coffee that bears not a hint of scorch.
On the whole, Lucky Dumpling’s plates resonate more with the fare at the now-retired Brother Luck Street Eats concept than the more fine dining-focused Four by Brother Luck. Focusing on smaller, shareable plates with big flavors suits the chef’s strengths. And by playing to his roots in San Francisco and incorporating his family’s soul food, he’s embodied the words of Bruce Lee: “Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely yours.” Through hard work and diligence, he and his team’s kung fu have produced something not before seen in the Springs, and plenty kick-ass.