Like many other college towns, Isla Vista is often targeted by aspiring restaurateurs eyeing the stomachs (and wallets) of 20,000 students. Sadly, most shops shuffle in and out of business similar to the four-year rotation of its consumers. When longtime student favorite The Cantina decided to close its doors last year, residents found themselves no longer able to satisfy their cravings for what many thought was the best breakfast burrito in town.
The good thing about dropping dumplings into this void is their versatility. They’re fitting for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, explained Dumpling King owner Jaguar Wang, who recently opened Isla Vista’s very first Chinese dumpling spot inside the old Cantina.
With UCSB’s ever-increasing population of both Chinese-American and international students, Wang seeks to deliver an honest dining experience made for, and by, those desperate for homeland flavors. Customers accustomed to Chinese cuisine will be familiar with appetizers like garlic cucumber salad and beef tendon. But the main focus, of course, is the dumplings. Wang emphasized that Dumpling King’s four main offerings — beef celery, three-flavor, fish, and vegetarian — are authentic to his native Shandong province. Similarly, he currently employs cooks that are already accustomed to Shandong’s rich history of dumplings.
So far, Isla Vista residents have greeted Dumpling King warmly. By its second week of operation in late summer, this once-Mexican restaurant has become a lightning rod for students looking for an alternative to standard supermarket dumplings. “I’m Chinese, and I can tell the difference between handmade and frozen ones,” said Rachel Yang, a part-time employee. “All of our ingredients are made every morning.” UCSB student Jonathan Chan concurs with Dumpling King’s claim of authenticity, specifically “judging by the skin and the filling, and,” he added, “the dipping sauce complements the balance of flavors.”
It remains to be seen whether Dumpling King will fall prey to the vicious cycle of restaurants that frequently start and then fail in Isla Vista. But Dumpling King’s mere presence carries more weight than just the filling inside the dumplings. Chan acknowledges that Isla Vista is “not particularly well known for delicious — even passable — Chinese food.” But Dumpling King?
“It’s a taste of home,” Chan explained. As the cultural demographic in this small town continues to shift, Wang and his Shandong-bred dumplings may be the torchbearers for a gastronomical revolution — one that isn’t limited to orange chicken and fortune cookies.
Dumpling King is located at 966 Embarcadero del Mar, Isla Vista. Call (805) 562-8800.