United Dumplings’ fare in Rockridge ‘meant to be enjoyed together’
By Lou Fancher
The story behind the traditional northern Chinese and California-updated cuisine served at United Dumplings, the newest entrant in the bustling restaurant scene of Oakland’s Rockridge district, is a little like that old Coca-Cola song. You know the one: the British jingle rewritten in 1971 by songwriter Billy Davis and ad exec Bill Backer that had people around the world belting out “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” and hoping to “Buy the World a Coke.”
The dumpling-centric restaurant at 6247 College Ave. is the third location for owners Julia Olson and Sandy Zheng. The two women entrepreneurs launched the first United Dumplings in October 2020 in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights district and quickly expanded with a second location in the Marina district. Just two years after inception, their northern Chinese-style menu is rocking the scene in Oakland.
The connection to the Coca-Cola song isn’t simply that Coke happens to be among the beverages available. It’s the owners’ emphasis on creating harmony and wanting to share it. Olson first found tangible — and palatable — connection to her family’s roots in northern China while dining frequently at Zheng’s Beijing Restaurant near her home.
In an interview, she said the two women eventually bonded and formed a tight friendship through commonalities: grandmothers from whom they’d learned the art and technique involved in making dumplings; as mothers, the dietary preferences of their young children, and enthusiasm for northern Chinese food and for tasty, healthy, fun-to-eat food in general.
The menu includes the requisite Grandma’s Pork Dumplings and Grandma’s Pork Pot Stickers of their heritage but also three varieties of xiao long bao, the soup-filled dumplings enjoyed by many; and sheng jian bao (aka SJB), chicken-filled pork buns, pan-fried and topped with a single scallop.
Behind it all is strict adherence and love for traditions and detail, such as the number of tiny pleats that best seals a dumpling wrapper, the proper timing for gluten to form the best dough “chew,” the balance of flavors, either traditional blends or surprising, updated fillings and sauces; and the size, shape and color of the plates on which each dish is presented, plus more. The focus on families and positive community experiences weaves its way into every facet of the intimate space in Rockridge.
“In Rockridge, people are familiar with our menu,” Olson said. “They know what they want to order from going to the San Francisco locations. Or they come in, and it’s like an entire neighborhood came in wanting to try new things. The chef we have placed to be working by the window is fascinating to watch. People see how the dumplings are made in-house. That was an update we added that is eye-opening for people.”
Their children’s dietary health and preferences also came into play.
“The Mission Chicken Pot Stickers came from Sandy’s kids, who like corn and cheese and chicken together. It’s like a Mexican dish. My kids love cheese too. But getting it into the dumplings wasn’t working until my husband helped us to decide to put the cheese on the outside. He used to go to a well-known burger place in Sacramento that has cheeseburgers with the cheese on the outside. So from my kids there’s a Dumpling Mac and Cheese. We can put veggies in to boost the healthiness.”
The vegetarian dishes complimenting more traditional, meat-based options like beef noodle soup and pork dumplings were vastly improved, says Olson, by her mother-in-law.
“She is a seventh-generation vegetarian, so she came in and tasted things and said our vegetarian dishes could be better. She suggested fillings that have the right consistency and texture and don’t fall apart when you bite into them. After two weeks of work, I brought her back, and she was pleased.”
While growing up, Olson and Zheng did not have the variety of the dumplings they now offer.
“There were only pork dumplings. In the wintertime, there weren’t a lot of veggies and no greenhouses so there was only cabbage. For northern China, there wasn’t access to a lot of seafood. I didn’t grow up having fish, beef or chicken dumplings.”
At all United Dumplings locations, the regular customers and fans of northern Chinese fare gravitate to the traditional dumplings and prefer the chewier gluten-based dough over southern Chinese dumplings’ rice-based wraps. Careful timing and kneading is needed to achieve the right thickness and delicate texture.
“Knead too hard, it’s too tough; knead to little, it falls apart,” Olson says.
Similarly, superior fillings result from allowing enough time for flavors to intermingle and knowing chicken doesn’t produce much juice so creating the best flavor profile for a soup comes from hours of experimentation.
“Sandy has a great palette for what is good,” Olson said. “It was fascinating sitting with her on restaurant tours while we prepared our menu. She would talk about sour flavors that didn’t match the pork, for example. Or that they used a lot of Chinese five spices that were overpowering the fish.”
For novice dumpling eaters, they first introduce people to pot stickers.
“It’s pan-fried and has more flavor compared to boiled dumplings so they can accept it more easily. The Korean BBQ Beef dumplings are the first thing we’d move them to after that, or the XLB (xiao long bao soup-filled dumpling) that comes in little steamers and isn’t technically a dumpling.”
Once a year, to keep their ideas fresh and stay up to date on recent culinary movements, the women choose a destination and conduct an online “spin-the-wheel lottery tour” to pick the restaurants they plan to visit. The last trip was to Miami to sample Cuban cuisine. In one night, they visited three restaurants.
“We have kids so if we have to travel, we pack it in, then hurry back to try out the restaurant. We have fun and the hope is to have different flavors to implement in our restaurants.”
With the work divided according to who does what best — Olson handles more of the marketing and social media and Zheng more of the menu development and kitchen practices — an unmistakable harmony rings out in a shared purpose. Olson said United Dumplings “expresses who we are, where we came from, our values.” Seeing happy families and groups of friends eating together is a major perk; a reward for the hard realities of operating three locations and upholding standards throughout.
“Dumplings have been important to us, and that’s why we do this together,” Olson said. “Our food is meant to be enjoyed together, that is our message.”