It's hard to say how long Chinatown's dumpling houses have been around, but as I remember they really started becoming well-known five to ten years ago. Of course, this coincided quite well with the time I spent mostly outside NYC (six years before this past August), so I never really had the chance to try any of them. Not that I didn't make an effort. Several of my holidays from school involved long meandering trips around Chinatown, in vain search of a dumpling. I'm sure I passed a few places, but for one thing I don't think I was in the right part of the neighborhood, and for another all the places I passed had Chinese-only signs. I wasn't quite ready for that (I'm still not really ready for that, actually - does anybody around here read/speak Chinese and want to go on a food adventure with me?).
Now I love Ann Arbor and its food scene, but one thing it does not have in abundance is good Chinese food. Korean, yes - there are several excellent Korean restaurants around the campus area. But most of the Chinese is the greasy American variety - good sometimes, and especially for college students, but not for dumplings. Kansas City is similar if you replace "Korean" with "Vietnamese". Certainly no great Chinese there that I ever located. And rural Maryland...not so hot in general on the ethnic food (except for one excellent and surprising Mexican restaurant).
But back in New York since late summer 2010, I had plenty of chances to do my research properly and go find some dumplings. The first thing I learned is that Eldridge Street seems to be the dumpling locus for Manhattan's Chinatown. You have Vanessa's Dumplings, which is a wee bit touristy but still cheap and good; Prosperity Dumpling, which is a tiny shack of a storefront and probably the cheapest of the lot; and Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine (or just Fu Zhou), which, per its name serves shuijiao (boiled dumplings) rather than guotie (potstickers). Sadly I have not had a chance to try Prosperity's dumplings yet, although I will probably be doing so this Friday evening. Their pork buns (seasoned differently and round instead elongated, and I think pork buns are from Beijing as opposed to other parts of northern China) are excellent, though: crisp, juicy, and 4 for a dollar.
Fu Zhou merits special mention because of their menu and mode of dumpling-making. For one thing, you have two choices as far the dumplings go: "small" (7 for $2) and "large" (11 fo $3). None of this weird filling or fried/boiled stuff. The filling is standard (pork and chives), and the the wrappers are much more delicate than most, almost translucent. I normally like thick-skinned heartier dumplings, but these were an excellent change of pace.
After my few weeks of adventures in Manhattan's Chinatown, I moved to Elmhurst, Queens, and promptly found myself smack in the middle of another Chinatown. This one is a little more varied - so far I've seen Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Malaysian. I'm not sure it's possible to get a bad meal here, actually (with the possible exception of the pizzeria, but I haven't tried it so I can't say for sure). My first night here I went to a Vietnamese place for pho with my roommate, and we took a walking tour of the neighborhood on the way back to the apartment. He pointed out a dumpling house down one of the streets (Whitney St., I now know) and I made a mental note to try it. A few days later I got off at Elmhurst Avenue and tried to find the shop. I succeeded and was rewarded with four large and well-fried dumplings, along with a fantastic house-made chili sauce. I think the sauce is a variant on la jiao - it seems to be roasted or slow-fried dried chili bits in oil along with sesame seeds. It gives this amazing smoky spicy flavor to whatever it touches. Naming this dumpling house is a little more complicated - I think it's an outpost of Lao Bei Fang, which is down the street and is the subject of my next paragraph. However, at my last visit they had taken down the Lao Bei Fang sign, so it's hard to say for sure.
Lao Bei Fang (this time on Broadway) seems to be where the locals go - they have dumplings, noodle soups, hot pot, and various prepared dishes that are definitely not on the menu. The dumplings are very good - typically fried to a crisp, very large, slightly greasy - although that same house chili sauce cuts through that quite well - and slightly more expensive at $1.50 for four, but that's still quite a good deal. But for me the star is the la mian (hand-pulled noodles typically served in soup, becoming well-known from Xi'an Famous Foods and its ilk), the presence of which is announced by the noodle maker thwack-ing his dough on the metal counter near the back of the restaurant. Watching him is a lot of fun - if you really enjoy watching noodle making then the place to go is the Whitney St. outpost, as the la mian chef there is right up front next to the ordering window. The noodles end up chewy, springy, very wheaty, and with that slight variation in thickness that lets you know that they're really handmade. And for the kicker, giant bowls of soup - deceptively large, as you don't realize when you get the bowl that it's 2/3 full of noodles - cost between $4.50 and $6.25. It's certainly worth a stop if you find yourself in Elmhurst.
Vanessa's Dumpling House
118 Eldridge St., Manhattan
Highlights: potstickers, 4 for $1.25
Fu Zhou Cuisine
118 Eldridge St., Manhattan (this doesn't make any sense, but it's one storefront north of Vanessa's)
Highlights: boiled dumplings, 7 for $2 or 11 for $3
46 Eldridge St. #1, Manhattan
Highlights: potstickers, 5 for $1; fried pork buns, 4 for $1
Lao Bei Fang (Whitney outpost)
86-08(?) Whitney St., Elmhurst, Queens (address is not exact but should be close)
Lao Bei Fang (main restaurant)
83-05 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens
Highlights: potstickers, 4 for $1.50; 8 dumplings in soup for $3.25; la mian soups starting at $4.50
Up next: eating my way through the neighborhood, and a possible som tam comparison if I can get myself to enough Thai and Malaysian restaurants.