Miami's Momi doubles down with downtown dumpling den

Photo via Momi Gyoza
Photo via Momi Gyoza

You’ve got to love a specialist. And at Momi Gyoza the specialty is delicate, hand-hewn dumplings in more than a dozen (mostly Japanese) iterations. 

This industrial-looking Brickell bao bar, part of a growing empire by Jeffrey Z. Chen, is maddeningly stark and very much worth a trip. Especially in Asian-food-starved Miami, where getting decent dim sum is as tough as finding a parking spot on Saturday night.

An inside seat under glaring lights and loud electronic music is about as comfortable as a Hong Kong Metro at rush hour. Two long, stone slabs make up the communal tables with hard-backed chairs and plastic plates. Outside is a bit more cozy with two- and four-tops lining the sidewalk.

Sweet, college-age waitresses in jeans and Momi T-shirts hustle to keep up with the orders that seem to fly out of the open kitchen. Ask for water and a room temperature bottle lands on the table. Wine? Anonymous screw-top bottles of pinot noir, sauvignon blanc or malbec are poured in tumblers for $10 a pop. The only choice of beer, Lucky Buddha, a refreshing if blah Chinese lager, will likely prove your best drinking option. A choice of hot or cold generic sake is not really a choice at all, is it?

Chen, who was raised in Hong Kong and cooked in Japan for a decade, likes to keep things simple. He doesn’t accept credit cards, reservations or seemingly even phone calls. This is part of his growing biz that includes a soup shop, an oyster bar, a wine bar and, soon, Momi Ramen in East Hampton.

Here it is the luxurious ping-pong-ball-size gyoza from a menu that looks like a baccarat score sheet. Our absolute favorite is the delicate Chinese-style crystal shrimp har gao, plump balls rolled so thinly and evenly that the fresh pink shrimp glow through the translucent wrapper. Tiny bowls of sauces, including a light ginger-laced ponzu and a super hot, chunky green chili, are perfect for dunking. On one visit we had a chatty Venezuelan-Trinidadian chef offer up a taste of his own fermented hot sauce that was thick with a rosemary and garlic punch.

Shrimp shumai, steamed in little open cups of thin skins made chewy with tapioca starch and green with soybeans, are also delectable. The pork and chicken pan-seared gyoza (served by the dozen) are likewise delicious in their golden seared edges enveloping tender, gently seasoned fillings.

Daily specials can get experimental. We had the chicken dumplings, which a kitchen staffer came out to explain intentionally had no seasoning, but are dunked in the flavorful sauces. The delicacies were seared together into a crusty and gorgeously caramelized kind of cake that gave them plenty of character and crunch. A bit of bottled hoisin sauce mixed with our already-lovely hot dunking liquids made them a real treat.

Sadly, the soup-filled dumplings that I heard about from when the joint first opened a few months ago have disappeared. It seems like all his restaurants, Chen’s Momi Gyoza is constantly evolving in an effort to find the right formula. Chen seems to have done just that.

Seaweed salad, here a neon-green version of wakame, is flecked with bits of chile and blonde sesame seeds for a perfectly satisfying way to start a meal. The complex miso soup, too, is more intriguing than most watery broths from your local sushi joint. Here the stunningly cloudy red broth has an earthy, filling heft that is countered by nice bits of green onion.

Hot pots of rice dotted with the likes of eel, pork belly, oxtail, fish and vegetables are the stuff drinking food is made of: steamy, greasy, carby, crispy-edged main courses big enough to share. The best parts are the crusty bits stirred up from the sides and bottom where the rice has scorched against the cast iron pot.

The scallion pancake, a saucer-size disc of flaky, golden, papery layers, is a bit flat — literally but flavorwise, too. Still the vinegary dipping sauce again makes it a worthwhile sampler. I didn’t go for the “parmagiana” [sic] filled version, fearing that it was just a bit too cross-cultural for my tastes.

Don’t expect the waitress to ask if you want dessert. On both visits, ours dropped the check — there is an ATM attached to the building — before we had a chance to inquire. If you love the traditional glutinous rice-flour packets of mochi filled with sweet, sticky red bean paste, then have at it.

Service and setting might be a bit choppy for some, but this otherwise happy dumpling den is a real boon for Miami. 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter and Instagram: @VictoriaPesceE.