I did promise to talk about som tam, but I haven't been able to find myself at many of the neighborhood's Thai places in the past week or two. Instead I've been eating a lot of dumplings and soup. I think that's what happens when "spring" turns out to be day after day of 45 degrees and grey drizzle. I thought I wasn't in Michigan any more, but maybe the greyness follows you after you leave.
So: dumplings. Yesterday I got off work and I really wasn't in the mood for cooking anything. I was, in fact, in the mood for curling up at a bookstore for a couple hours (which I did!) and then for going to my favorite Elmhurst dumpling house, Lao Bei Fang. I walked in fully intending to order boiled dumplings and eat them with plenty of chilies in oil - and then I smelled the soup. As far as I could tell, every single person in that place was either having soup or hot pot. Given that it was just over 40 degrees with that sort of chill damp outside, I couldn't blame them. But I wasn't hungry enough for noodle soup, so I went with dumpling soup.
For $3.50 there, you can get eight dumplings in a bowl of pork broth, with scallions, cilantro, and bok choy - Shanghai choy, I think - to add some green to your meal. The leeks and chives in the dumplings also help, but the dumplings have a slightly higher pork-to-green ratio than I would like. Nevertheless they are excellent - the wrappers are thick as I like them (I think they're wheat, but I'm not sure), and there is enough deliciously porky juice inside to make you think that Lao Bei Fang could turn out some fantastic soup dumplings if they had the inclination to do so (and any Shanghainese on staff, which I'm sure they don't). The meat is good quality and is just barely cooked, not rubbery or compressed.
The soup itself is a clean and clear pork broth, slightly salty but not too much so. Last night I had half the soup unadorned and then added a spoonful of chilies for the extra smoky and spicy notes in the second half - I like it both ways and didn't want to choose. The cilantro is an unusual flavor for me to associate with Chinese food and helps to cut the richness of the dumplings, and the few stems of bok choy make it feel like you're eating some semblance of a balanced meal. This is definitely winter food, but appropriate as it may as well still be winter here in New York.