You can experience Chinese soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, as most diners do at Yu Noodles: for the delirious, jump-scare blast of flavors, textures and contrasts. But you can also experience them as Yiying Lu does: as a metaphor for something larger and more cosmic than a Shanghai-style dumpling.
Lu is an artist based in San Francisco. She’s something of a dumpling savant, not only designing the image that would serve as the basis for dumpling emoji across the social landscape, but also studying the history of the doughy bundles. She may not be the first to draw a linguistic parallel between the Chinese word “hundun” — which can represent “primordial chaos” or a mythical creature that looks like a plump dumpling with wings and feet — and the variety of stuffed packages commonly known as wontons. But she was the first to express the connection in a way that spoke to me like a poem.
“Every time we take a bite, metaphorically we open up a new universe,” Lu once said.
I learned about Lu’s work while scouting Yu Noodles, a trio of establishments that specialize in Chinese street foods, with an emphasis on those from Chongqing, that sprawling municipality in southwest China. Yu, as you might know, is the official abbreviation for Chongqing.
I found it impossible to ignore the synchronicity between Lu’s research and the many opportunities I had to open up new universes with every steam bun, pan-fried dumpling and spicy wonton that I popped at Yu Noodles. Eating, I was reminded, is a sensual pursuit, but one deepened by that organ known for more abstract thought. That someone, somewhere, had the imagination to draw a line between the big bang and the explosion of a soup dumpling filled me with a joy that no wonton alone could match.
Yu Noodles is something of an expanding universe, too. Its two principals, Andy Qiu and Tony Cai, opened their first location in 2018 in Rockville. They have since debuted locations in Fairfax and Herndon, with plans to launch perhaps 10 more shops in the future.
You might wonder how a place devoted to housemade noodles, dumplings and wontons can find enough talent to fill those kitchens, especially when the hospitality job market is tighter than Questlove’s snare drum. The answer lies in automation, machines that stamp out long, delicate noodles and even fresh, fully composed soup dumplings, each just waiting to explode into new galaxies.
The gods that shape matter at Yu Noodles, it seems, are mechanical.
The god who develops the flavors at Yu Noodles, however, is quite human. A former chef and partner at Bob’s 88 Shabu Shabu in Rockville (a place that died way, way too young), Cai studied at a culinary school in Chongqing while he and Qiu worked on opening their first Yu Noodles. Cai is a master at layering flavor, frequently using Sichuan’s characteristic spicy and numbing sensations to accentuate a dish, not define it.
Cai’s style is probably best experienced through his Yibin spicy dry noodles, a bowl in which ground beef and pork are combined with chewy wheat noodles sporting the thinnest sheen of chili oil. The spicy anesthesia of the ma-la oil is present and accounted for, but it occupies a sort of middle ground, surrounded by sesame paste and housemade soy sauce, their nutty and umami qualities treated as equals in this terrific dish.
The chef uses many of the same flavors in the Chongqing noodles but adjusts the ratios to give the chili oil more room to roam, perfect for those who seek heat even in the dog days of summer. The beauty of Cai’s noodle menu, though, is its diversity: the barnyard funk of the flounder with sour pickled cabbage, the five spice undercurrent of the hot and sour foon, and the supreme sesame-seed nuttiness of the Yu village cool noodles, a dish served exquisitely cold.
Despite its devotion to Chongqing, Yu Noodles does have a wandering eye, as evidenced by Cai’s small line of soup dumplings, with their roots in Shanghai cuisine. The chef injects a little Sichuan into his peppercorn spicy soup dumplings, whose salmon-colored skins are courtesy of carrot juice in the dough. Once you pierce the membrane of the dumpling, its heat is slow to arrive, but once it does, it will cling to you, like humidity.
Cai offers robust snack and appetizer menus. I have yet to encounter a dish on either that I wouldn’t order again, and again. First among equals are the pan-fried chive and pork dumplings, their perfume leaning, without apology, to the onion side of the spectrum. But I also marveled at the siu mai, that dim sum staple stuffed not with pork and shrimp, but with chewy glutinous rice. And if I’ve had a better scallion pancake, a crisped and layered thing, I can’t remember when.
If you’re not in the mood for noodles, I’d suggest the chicken leg over rice, a dish with a somewhat misleading description. The dark meat — marinated in oyster sauce, soy and black pepper before roasting — is deboned and layered atop the rice with a poached egg. The dish cries out for acid, which you quickly discover is already provided, with some lightly pickled vegetables buried in the grains.
The only dish I can’t recommend is the potato tower, a spiralized spud fried and served on a skewer. The second time I tried to order one — to confirm that it was as bland as the first — the server tried to stop me. He said I wouldn’t like it. He called it children’s food. I later asked Qiu about this. His response surprised me.
“Even children don’t like it,” he said.
An owner honest enough to diss his own food. Talk about having my mind blown.
368 Elden St., Herndon, Va., 703-480-0326, yunoodlesherndon.com. 11217-C Lee Hwy., Fairfax, Va., 703-877-0818, yunoodlefairfax.com. 9 Dawson Ave., Rockville, Md., 301-978-7693, yunoodlesrockville.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily for all three locations.
Nearest Metro: Only the Maryland location has a nearby Metro, the Rockville station, located about a half mile from the restaurant.
Prices: $2 to $13 for all items on the menu.