By Jay Friedman
October 23, 2017
The Dough Zone Dumpling House empire has expanded west, finally coming to Seattle and settling into the International District. It’s the fifth location of the chain—the first four can be found on the Eastside—and a significant one that further symbolizes change in the ID.
Co-owner Jason Zhai isn’t shy about attributing part of Dough Zone’s success to Din Tai Fung. He explains that Dough Zone is happy to follow in the footsteps of the internationally renowned chain (currently with four locations in the area, and likely more in store), which wowed locals with its popular xiao long bao (soup dumplings). In fact, Zhai wants to continue opening shops in the shadow of Din Tai Fung’s locations, offering more of a neighborhood feel—with shorter waits and lower prices.
The Dough Zone idea emerged when Zhai’s mother immigrated from Tianjin, China in 2014. Zhai was already running a couple of Sichuan eateries on the Eastside (Spiced and Twilight 7), but couldn’t find any restaurant serving the northern-style Chinese food he and his family craved. As a result, Zhai decided to do it himself, essentially commissioning his mother to develop the recipes and make the menu for a traditional, Chinese family kitchen-style restaurant. When the first Dough Zone opened at Crossroads to crowds willing to wait two hours, he knew he had a winning concept.
Dough Zone’s xiao long bao, a must-order, are as good as the ones at Din Tai Fung. They’re just as delicate, and they actually have more of the tell-tale droop that comes from the hot soup inside. (Bonus: They’re also less expensive.) Not available at Din Tai Fung are the newly named Q-Bao, pan-fried pork buns formerly listed on the menu as jian buns and more commonly called sheng jian bao. They’re hard to find in Seattle, and Dough Zone does them right. Meanwhile, the potstickers are finished with extra batter, adding “wings” of crispy goodness.
Turning to other doughy matters, there are house specials like spicy beef pancake rolls and pan-fried ground beef cakes, made with Kobe-style beef and super juicy—in fact downright dangerous if you’re in the squirt zone. The noodles are delicate and delicious, available with a variety of toppings or served in soup. Dandan, yibin, and ma la (numbing and spicy) are all good choices, but don’t overlook the noodles with onion soy sauce—wonderfully infused with green onion flavor. In some cases, portion sizes are smaller in Seattle, more easily enabling solo diners (and others not wanting to share their food) to get a couple of items without feeling full.
Desserts are tempting, with mango pancakes and banana naan bread among the options. While the Eastside’s durian pancakes haven’t made it here, there’s talk of an expanded milk tea program in Seattle, plus beer, wine, and sake arriving soon—sure to appeal to the late-night crowd when the restaurant eventually extends service to midnight.
Dough Zone is another marker of change in the International District. Zhai, who has lived and worked in the ID, reminisces about good times eating at old school Chinese restaurants in the area. He still loves the food at some of these places but feels that service and environment are lacking. Enter the new restaurants. Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot and Boiling Point sowed the initial seeds of change in the ID, he says, with Dough Zone continuing the trend. It’s in the new Publix building, along with Great State Burger and soon a slightly more upscale Japanese restaurant, all bringing models of modernity to the district. Zhai hopes that the early crowds provide proof that new restaurants will bring much needed revitalization to an area hungrily keeping up with the times.