May 26, 2014 – There’s a surprising lack of dim sum in our area considering how close we are to the dim sum mecca that is the Bay Area. But anyone who bemoans this deficiency is in luck: a new venture called Mortal Dumpling is pumping out small-batch, handmade steam buns, dumplings, and more at a weekly pop up in Santa Cruz.
Owner Noah Kopito, 26, is relatively new to the food business. The Palo Alto-raised UC Santa Cruz alum got his feet wet in the local food scene working for Uncie Ro’s Pizza two years ago and realized his passion soon after on staff at Hidden Peak Teahouse— a traditional Chinese teahouse in downtown Santa Cruz where he is responsible for the brief but tantalizing vegan dim sum menu.
A non-vegan himself (he’s had a lifelong affection for pork buns), Kopito found himself with more recipes and menu ideas than were possible at the teahouse, whose premises only allow for steamed items. “My mind works a lot faster than that,” he says. “In order to have a creative outlet—where I could think of something and serve it to people—I needed something else.”
So began Mortal Dumpling, which has rolled out through catering, special orders, and events. It’s headquartered within the Front Street Kitchen, a commercial kitchen and veritable hive of food artisans of every sort. “I like to do things really slowly,” Kopito says. “The thought of taking out a loan and starting a restaurant did not seem like something I should do right away.”
The company’s big Santa Cruz debut came May 2 when it took over POPUP, the new food event space adjacent to Assembly. A second pop up event will take place on June 19 from 6-10pm at Lúpulo Craft Beer House (233 Cathcart St. Santa Cruz) and will feature steamed bao with beer pairings.
“I think of steam buns and dumplings as sort of boring—I love them, but they are simple. Like, the simplest foods. Steamed bread,” he laughs. “And I’m around them all the time and sometimes I wonder, ‘will people really wait in line for these? Will people think they are special enough?’ And at POPUP people did—they waited in line, and they were having so much fun. Maybe they were getting a kick out of the fact that someone was making steam buns all by hand, in small batches, fresh, in Santa Cruz.”
Now, Mortal Dumpling hosts its own weekly event every Monday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Front Street Kitchen. The changing menu includes steam buns, dumplings, fermented vegetables, desserts, and tea, with items like Chinese honey-glazed barbecue pork buns, pork belly stew, water chestnut and chive dumplings, and hazelnut and red bean paste mochi. Patrons are invited to bring their own alcohol and orders can be called in ahead of time, taken to go, or eaten in. Eventually, Kopito plans to schedule more elaborate, fixed-price dim sum events, as well.
Dumpling, to Kopito, simply means “a filled food,” although he recognizes that even this broad definition isn’t correct in some of the world’s dumpling-eating regions. His favorite dumpling (and no, he’s not sick of them yet) is pork and cabbage, which he eats by the dozen. “They are the simplest one,” he says. “They are a comfort food.”
“What I like about dumplings is that they are elegant, special foods that are made with very simple ingredients,” he says, adding that he sources his ingredients from Staff of Life, New Leaf, and Shopper’s Corner, but hopes to forge relationships with local farmers when his business is larger. “The thing that makes dumplings special is the time and technique it takes to make them.”
“I’m not doing these dumplings in a traditional way,” he says. “I haven’t been trained by anyone who knows how to make these things. As much as I could want it to be, it’s not going to be your typical dim sum restaurant.”
At the end of the day, he says, “I want to make meals that are fun for people.”
Mortal Dumpling Mondays take place from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Front Street Kitchen, 504A Front St., Santa Cruz.
Visit mortaldumpling.com for more information.