The first thing one will note at Gajiza Dumplins, the resident dumpling pop-up at the Lost River tiki bar in Detroit’s east side, is the commitment to quality noodles. All too often, gyoza are made with frozen wrappers encasing frozen filling, and it shows in the somewhat mushy textures. What a dumpling noodle should be is fresh and bouncy, even slightly chewy — evidence that it was made recently in a small batch. When dumpling noodles are done this way, there are few better foods under the sun, and one would have to travel to Noodletopia in Madison Heights or Kung Fu Brothers in Westland to find dumpling wrappers of this caliber.
The fillings, like an excellent sweet and savory longanisa, are also noteworthy, as are the Chinese barbecue staples like char siu chicken and lap cheong that Gajiza implemented elsewhere in its menu.
Owner Jasmine Haskins is a grandma who previously worked at Johnny Noodle King and started popping up with Gajiza at spots like Motor City Wine in 2018. It’s been a hit, and now effectively functions as the kitchen at Lost River, where it serves up changing weekly menus built off a mishmash of Asian flavors; the menu during our visit prominently featured ingredients and preparation elements of Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese cuisines.
Of course, the noodle shells mean nothing if the fillings inside don’t work. The best of the three we tried was the longanisa, a traditional Filipino sausage Haskins packs in house with ground pork that’s cured for several weeks, paprika, ginger, palm sugar, chili pepper, garlic, and fried shallot — a bit sweet but more savory, and the package is paired with a sriracha sauce. Again here, not a lot of longanisa floating around Detroit these days, and the fusion dish is a bit of a rarity altogether. Haskins said she has several Filipino-American chefs who said they never would have dreamt up a longanisa dumpling, but, folks, it’s a perfect marriage.
Also solid were the shrimp and chive dumplings. Haskins said she uses high-quality shrimp that’s minced with Chinese garlic chives and ginger, and the package is topped with a bit of scallion oil. Simple and it sings. Meanwhile, the curry roasted vegetable dumpling is Haskin’s take on an Indian samosa and is stuffed with potatoes, carrots, celery, sweet yam, and butternut squash, all of which is enhanced with a tamarind dipping sauce. If one orders the dumplings spicy, then Gajiza will add homemade chili paste to the ponzu sauce. Or order them “dressed up spicy” and the restaurant will include a sauce of housemade chili paste, housemade chili crunch, scallion oil, and sriracha with the ponzu.
The lap cheong and char siu chicken each came in bits tossed in separate yakisoba noodle dishes. The char siu is frequently made with pork, but Gajiza’s bird is marinated in a sauce of fermented tofu, soy sauce, palm sugar, Chinese five spice, and beet to give it a fiery red color. That renders the chicken sweet, smokey, and salty with a distinct flavor from the fermented tofu. Lap cheong is a dried sausage that I’ve heard described as “Chinese bacon,” and is sweet and salty. It’s one of the few processed components not made in house because it takes months to dry, and Gajiza doesn’t have the facility to do so.
The noodles are wet with Haskin’s version of a teriyaki sauce made with Worcestershire, hoisin, soy sauce, oyster sauce, palm sugar, and pineapple juice that she cooks down to thicken. Though I enjoyed it, I found myself really wanting a plate of the lap cheong and char siu by themselves, though that’s not really how they’re served.
The food is served in Lost River, so there is a long list of tropical drinks, and the server recommended several excellent runs I had never tried before. Gajiza also sells frozen dumplings, and Haskins is planning on opening a brick and mortar spot on the east side in late 2023, so stay tuned for those details.
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