Taste the magic of soup dumplings at ROC Kitchen, a rare outpost of regional cuisine
By Richard Foss
The Westside is littered with tattered and faded “Opening Soon” banners announcing the imminent debuts of various restaurants. Some of these are relics of overly optimistic business plans, while others are there to build anticipation for a place that actually will serve food someday. Landlords like these signs because they make the properties look successful, and food fanatics like me like them because they tease us with delights to come.
Occasionally you have the opposite. The signage still isn’t up at ROC Kitchen in Playa Vista, even though it’s been open since August, but there’s no question that this place is a success. There’s often a line to get in, because it offers something almost impossible to find: authentic regional Chinese food on the Westside.
The ROC in ROC Kitchen stands for Republic of China, otherwise known as Taiwan, which has a different cuisine from the mainland. The island was ruled at various times by the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese, as well as having an unusual level of immigration from other regions of China, so a fusion cuisine developed over the centuries.
So did a style of art that incorporates aboriginal elements, though you wouldn’t know that by dining here. The room is stark and modern and very loud; my decibel meter clocked it at 96 dB, comparable to a power mower or jackhammer. We really wanted Chinese food so we put up with it, but understood why some people like to get theirs to go and sit at outdoor benches to eat. A patio dining area is scheduled to open in a few months, which will be a great improvement.
The most famous specialty of Taiwan is soup dumplings, originally a specialty of the mainland province of Jiangsu that morphed while crossing to the island. These packets of dough are filled with a chilled broth mixture that turns back to soup when the dumplings are steamed, and you should get some. The kitchen makes 10 different kinds here, so the only question is what flavor, and then you can start thinking about accompaniments. We decided on pea sprouts sautéed with garlic, pork chop sautéed with jalapenos, steamed vegetable buns, chicken noodle soup and crab fried rice.
The scallion pancakes are listed on the appetizers section of the menu, but that doesn’t mean they showed up first. Things show up when ready, and the first items to the table were the pea sprouts, fried rice and fried pork, followed closely by the soup. The pea sprouts were the star of the three, lightly sautéed so they were hot but still crisp and tossed with soy sauce and garlic. This was almost a hot salad, the simple natural flavors subtly enhanced, and alternating bites with the crab fried rice was delightful.
The pork was a slight disappointment because it was so mildly seasoned — on the first bite I braced myself for peppery jalapeno, which was almost entirely absent. There were some wheels of pepper along with the shreds of green onions and pork, but the peppers had been de-seeded and probably kept in a cold water bath to make them milder. The dish wasn’t bad, but it was like boarding a roller coaster and getting a scenic train ride instead.
The soup dumplings showed up next, and they were every bit as good as I had hoped. The menu suggests that you bite off the top and pour vinegared ginger inside, which is possible but risks squirting out the liquid filling. I just put the dumpling in my spoon, splashed some vinegar around it, topped it with ginger, and then put the whole thing in my mouth. It’s a delightful experience to bite into the dumpling and have a flood of warm soup on your tongue, a magnificent bit of culinary legerdemain. There are eight dumplings to an order; some people have been known to finish and immediately order more.
We didn’t, because we had the vegetable buns and chicken soup that arrived while we were eating the dumplings — and guess what, there’s the scallion pancake appetizer bringing up the rear!
The soup was another simple preparation that showed off good ingredients, house-made fresh noodles in an intense stock along with a little green onion and baby bok choy. Freshly made noodles have a different texture than those that have been dried (they’re less dense), and these were very soft with just a little springiness. It wasn’t exciting, but comfort food knows no national boundaries.
The vegetable buns were a bit more interesting, similar to the pork-filled steamed buns that are popular dim sum items, but filled with mildly seasoned chopped spinach instead. There are two per order, and as they are small you should probably get as many as you have people at the table, because they will disappear.
Having the green onion pancake last actually worked just fine, as it ended the meal with a burst of crunchy flavor, modified by a dip into the ginger-soy mixture that was thoughtfully provided. We probably would have been happy with this whenever it arrived, as it was a nice contrast with the rich but mildly seasoned items that dominated the meal.
Tea, juices and soft drinks are available, but no alcohol and they do not allow BYOB. We contented ourselves with water, and our bill ran $63 for three people with some leftovers. It’s a little high for Chinese food on the Westside, but this is no ordinary Chinese meal — it’s an expertly crafted taste of a corner of China that you’ve probably never experienced before.
ROC Kitchen 12775 W. Millennium Drive, Playa Vista (424) 835-4777