Even if you’ve been craving soup dumplings, know exactly what to expect and even know the particular flavor of a favorite soup dumpling maker, there’s something just a little miraculous about them each time.
It’s the way the steam blooms once you lift the lid on their bamboo serving box, the way the juice within these delicate bundles washes over your palate and how the tender noodle that encases it follows on the second slurp.
The French Quarter restaurant Dian Xin is a local master of soup dumplings, or xiao long bao.
Now Dian Xin has a second location, on the other side of the French Quarter, serving a different specialty that’s every bit as enticing — Chinese hot pot.
The essence of hot pot is the bubbling, heady broth in which you dunk an array of meat, seafood and vegetables on a table-top cooker. As you progress it adds up to an experience more than just a meal.
hot pot time
Hot pot is having a bit of a moment now. It’s also the specialty of YuYan Kitchen, a homespun Metairie restaurant focused on flavors from northern China. This new Dian Xin outpost gives another destination for such a feast in the French Quarter.
This new location opened late in May at 620 Conti St., a small corner spot on Exchange Place, the picturesque pedestrian mall. This is only nine blocks from the original at 1218 Decatur St., which may seem too close for a sequel. But the new restaurant is significantly different.
Dian Xin has always been a family-run restaurant, and this new one is specifically a mother-daughter effort. It blends ideas from founder Judy Ceng’s background in her native China with her daughter Bonnie Ceng’s first-generation Chinese-American perspective.
Judy Ceng once ran the Kenner restaurant Little Chinatown, which she later sold (it remains open under different management). In 2019, she opened Dian Xin on Decatur Street with a lengthy menu of dim sum and other Mandarin specialties.
It has been popular from the start and the response inspired the family to expand.
Dim sum from the heart
Bonnie Ceng explained that the name Dian Xin means dim sum, and that embedded in the term is the notion of food that can touch your heart. A literal translation of dim sum is “touch of the heart.” To Bonnie, it means something personal.
“When you’re not feeling happy, food will bring back your joy,” she told us. “That’s what we realized at the first restaurant, hearing from so many people who we made happy through food. That’s why we opened a second restaurant.”
The new restaurant has a shorter list of appetizers, dumplings (including soup dumplings) and the fluffier, meat or vegetable-filled bao (try the “pan-fried tiny bao,” two-bite delights with crisp edges). The opening menu also has a smattering of American-Chinese dishes like sesame chicken and Mongolian beef.
The new restaurant is BYOB while it applies for a license to serve alcohol, though this will likely be limited to beer only.
Hot pot meets dry pot
The new restaurant puts some of the dim sum craft on display, with a glass-fronted counter in the dining room where you can watch dumplings formed into shape and filled.
But this place really revolves around hot pot, and a related sub-specialty, dry pot.
This was new to me, but Bonnie Chang walked us through the process. Dry pot starts with the meat and vegetables you choose — in our case beef short ribs with peppers and a profuse amount of garlic, cooked in the kitchen and brought to the table ready to eat.
About halfway through, or whenever you’d like, you can ask for the broth and out comes a big thermos-like container of broth to transform dry pot into hot pot. And with that addition of broth, a single dish becomes a two-course meal.
Really though, with hot pot, every swipe of the ladle and chopsticks can be different.
We went to town on the items to add in, and soon had a banquet-worthy array before us, running through curled rolls of fatty beef that cook nearly instantaneously in the broth to sliced taro root, which takes a few minutes to cook and transforms wonderfully once it absorbs the flavors of the broth.
You can essentially poach your own quail eggs in the same broth, while rolls of fried tofu skin become like nutty-flavored noodles very quickly through the treatment.
Garlic chili oil, sesame soy sauce and other side bowls of flavors multiply the variation through the meal.
A hot pot meal requires your attention, or at least some commitment to timing, and a willingness to splash around a little broth. With a little coaching from the Cengs and their crew, it’s also delicious fun.
1218 Decatur St., (504) 266-282
620 Conti St., (504) 372-3372
Lunch and dinner Tue.-Sun. (both locations)
Hot broth in chilly weather is just a cornerstone of comfort food. The two dueling broths we experienced, side-by-side in the same divided pot…