While standing in line to order dry fried eggplant and pork dumplings at Gu’s Dumplings on a recent weekday night, I was drinking a cold, refreshingly tart pint of Anderson Valley Gose and considering a scoop of double toasted coconut ice cream for dessert.
I’ve never had those kinds of options at a Szechuan restaurant and, technically, Gu’s doesn’t even serve beer or ice cream. Yet, this small stall dedicated to China’s spiciest cuisine is part of Krog Street Market, a food hall where an unusually wide spectrum of culinary delights may be procured and then consumed, en masse, in a brightly lit hall of tables not unlike a mall food court.
The menu at Gu’s Dumplings is much shorter than the giant list of options once served at Gu’s Bistro, the Buford Highway outpost that earned Chef Gu his reputation in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the challenge of operating two locations proved too much for Gu, and the opening of this location coincided with the closing of Gu’s Bistro.
The abbreviated options here tend toward Szechuan crowd pleasers. There are two kinds of dumplings, a couple of noodle styles, a couple of soups, a half-dozen vegetable dishes, and a few stir-fried or sauteed meaty entrees. By the measure of standard Szechuan menu writing, which tends to offer options by the hundreds, Gu’s menu is a haiku.
I don’t mind the abbreviation. I usually find myself searching endlessly through those many options for the dishes served here. The Spicy Dried Eggplant is crispy, greasy, and spiced just enough with lightly numbing Szechuan peppercorns. Both styles of dumplings are thin and pleasantly chewy, doused in aromatic and mildly spicy oil. You may notice a trend here. Gu’s is not pushing the limits of Szechuan spiciness, a quality that many people love about the food. Even the spicy Chongqing chicken, which the menu warns is “Very SPICY but you won’t be able to stop putting it in your mouth,” is decidedly mild.
Part of the issue is that Gu’s serves everything in to-go containers and the chile oil that brings the heat and flavor in these dishes tends to pool at the bottom. That wouldn’t be such a problem on a plate, but in a packed full container, it is hard to swipe a bite back through the oil (or even know that it is there). Here’s a pro tip: Ask for an extra paper plate with your order and dump the container upside down into it. You’ll find some of the spice you were missing earlier. Still, Gu’s could use an extra handful of peppercorns in most of its dishes.
If you want fierce heat, your one option is the sauteed chicken with chile peppers, which comes with a mixed blend of sinus-clearing mélange fresh green and red chiles. I wouldn’t bother with the noodles, which are too thick and under-seasoned for my taste.
The Kung Pao Lotus Root, though, is perfectly suited to a mild presentation. The crisp but substantial consistency pairs with peanuts, the aromatics of garlic and ginger, and a lightly sweet marinade perfectly. Put that and a plate of spicy dry fried eggplant in front of me and I’m a happy man.
But I do wish Gu’s Dumplings hadn’t come at the cost of Gu’s Bistro. Especially when I was standing amid the brightly lit picnic tables, looking to squeeze a spot between the sprawling groups of athletic gear-clad beer drinkers and after-work cubicle jockeys, I missed the comfort of those big booths, the warm pot of tea, the dim lights, the real plates, and friendly servers. Despite the benefits of a food hall, the ambiance isn’t much and the service is nonexistent. I hope that the Gu is able to reopen a full restaurant one day.
The folks around me, though, they weren’t mourning the loss of a dim, old joint in a far-flung strip mall. They’d jogged here or walked over from a yoga studio or caught a ride from the office a couple of blocks over and now they were ordering dozens of chile oil-doused dumplings and boxes of dry fried eggplant and washing it down with pints of craft-brewed saison or self-service free club soda. They got the idea.
By itself, Gu’s Dumplings feels like it is missing something, but to put it in a vacuum is to miss the point. It’s part of this grand, weird, sometimes maddening food hall trend that means every stall happens to also have 60 craft beers on tap, top-notch ice cream for dessert, and a butcher that’ll sell you a dry aged rib-eye on your way out. How many Szechuan restaurants in America can claim that? I’m thinking only one.