Name: Tai Pei Chicken Potstickers
Price per dumpling: $0.32
Preparation method: Microwaved
I was reluctant to include these, since the filling is made with chicken, rather than pork. I was worried about introducing that level of inconsistency in ingredients to our testing. Ultimately though, I felt like it was more important to taste as many varieties as I could, filling vagaries be damned.
If part of the fun of ordering Chinese food is in having all of those little cardboard containers around, Tai Pei makes the frozen dumplings for you. The container is reminiscent of a takeout box, and the dumplings are super easy to prepare: Add a little water, and throw the whole shebang in the microwave. Unfortunately, this results in some pretty soggy dumplings, with some random dried out crispy spots, thanks to microwave heating technology, the secrets of which no one truly understands.
The dumpling wrappers are thin but substantial, with no tears or filling leaks. Unfortunately, the wrappers are all suctioned tightly to the filling itself, leaving no airspace to fill with the accompanying dipping sauce. The filling doesn’t taste like much, on its own, but that’s okay; Tai Pei gives you a HUGE quantity of salty sauce, with a very faint amount of spice. We liked these best when we just poured the entire packet of sauce all over the dumplings, and let them swim in a kiddie pool of sodium goodness.
Score: 2.8 out of 5
Name: Pagoda Pork Potstickers
Price per dumpling: $0.29
Preparation method: Microwaved
Notes: The frozen pork potstickers from Pagoda didn’t offer any instructions for boiling, so it was back to the microwave for these. The irradiated vapor blast that permeated the house was palpable; these smell terrible, with a fog of minced pork clinging to my countertops for hours. I liked that these dumplings were split into two individually sealed portions of five dumplings each. The wrappers do suffer a similar fate in the microwave, with some dried-out bits, but stay mostly moist with an ideal chewiness. The bland filling was loosely packed, with plenty of space in the wrapper for pouring extra sauce into each dumpling mid-bite.
And oh, that sauce. Pagoda really swings for the fences with their pale yellow chili lime ponzu sauce, which was a welcome break from the generic vinegar-and-soy-sauce blends in the other frozen dumplings. It’s amazing stuff, with the characteristics of standard-issue dumpling sauce but lots more sweetness and acid, adding a big pop of flavor to the smooth ground filling.
Score: 3.8 out of 5
Name: Signature Select Chicken and Vegetable Potstickers or Whatever
Price per dumpling: $0.23
Preparation method: Boiled
Notes: What I noticed about these generic Safeway-brand frozen dumplings was their appearance. After boiling, they’re downright gorgeous, with a perfect shape, beautifully crimped edges, and a gloss and sheen that would put any Chinese restaurant to shame.
The wrapper was the best of any we tested; not too thick, not too thin, with just the right amount of chew. Unfortunately, that’s where things kind of fall apart. Though I have to confess to feeling more than a little dumpling-burnout at this point in the testing, the chicken-based filling, flecked with whole bits of cabbage and ground too finely, doesn’t taste like much of anything. The sauce does little to bring them to life; it’s super salty and the HUGE bag means that while these dumplings are a decent value, if you don’t love them, you’re going to have to suffer through eating them for a very long time.
Score: 2.2 out of 5
Easiest Preparation: You can’t get much easier than “through the whole thing in the microwave and turn the dial to whatever,” and for that, Tai Pei’s Pork Potstickers get the nod. When you’re settling into an evening of “Hawaii Five-O” with a box of cheap frozen Chinese food, ain’t nobody got time for all of that pan-frying business, and Tai Pei offers a respectable product.
Best Looking: Though they didn’t offer a ton in the flavor department, it’s hard to get past how gorgeous the “Signature Select” brand chicken potstickers were. If they were served on an actual plate at an actual Chinese restaurant, they wouldn’t look the slightest bit out of place. Unfortunately, a cute face and a hot body were all these dumplings had to offer.
Best Overall: While none of these frozen dumplings can truly satisfy the takeout Chinese itch that lurks deep inside of us all, Pagoda’s dumplings are the only ones we tested that we would buy again for casual, non-scientific use. This is due mostly to a game-changing sauce, with tons of flavor from the ponzu and flecks of chili that made me want to ladle this stuff on top of everything.