The first time I visited Stony Brook’s Red Tiger Dumpling House was entirely by accident. I was pregnant and hungry and over an hour from my home in Sag Harbor. I was working as a wine sales representative, and, save for the liquor stores in Smithtown and Stony Brook, I knew nothing of the area. And I needed to eat. Stat.
I had driven past Red Tiger’s red barn before. The restaurant, which is indistinguishable from an iHop (sans blue roof), is visible from Route 347, the main thoroughfare known as the Nesconset Highway. On this particular afternoon, incapable of spending even one more minute in a car without food, I stopped in.
What I was met with, in that unassuming Brookhaven restaurant, was a preposterous wealth of genuine, rib-sticking, Asian cuisine. I was, it seemed, also the last to know about it. A lunchtime line snaked out the door and a cashier rang in order after order of takeaway meals. For twenty minutes, I paced outside until my table for one was ready.
Red Tiger opened in 2013 and has been serving authentic Shanghai, Beijing, and northern Chinese cuisine since then. The menu is sprawling and complex, with almost too much to choose from (pressed to choose an entrée, I’d have to confess my allegiance to the pliant rice cakes, sautéed with a crunch mix of Chinese vegetables) and excellent finds in every category. Scallion pancakes are part flaky, part flaky, and not at all oily, and a hot and sour soup roars with the kind of heat that no mediocre takeout joint can provide. Even ordinary dishes—General Tso’s, for instance—seem a little less heavy-handed, a little more homemade. Exploring the winding, fun menu could take months.
But, let’s be frank: I come—and stay—for the dumplings.
Unlike most dumpling joints—I’m talking to you, every Chinese restaurant I’ve ever been to in New York that’s not in Flushing, Queens—Red Tiger’s dumplings are never frozen. Dough is made by hand and filled each morning before the restaurant opens for business. Shanghai-style soup dumplings, six perfect beggars purses the size of a ceramic spoon that are filled with either ground pork or pork and crab, must be eaten with care. Bite the tip off the top, slurp the scalding liquid within, and then dip the remaining meat dumpling in the black vinegar-ginger sauce that arrives at every patron’s place setting. Joe’s Shanghai, the iconic New York City haunt known for its soup dumplings, has some serious competition in Red Tiger’s version, which are smaller and more delicate.
Red Tiger is the project of Bejing native Jun Burns, a 41-year-old Port Jeffersonite who wanted to bring some comfort food to the Chinese students at nearby Stony Brook University. Stony Brook is one of the most diverse in the country, in fact; nearly 20 percent of the student body is Asian, 10 percent is Latino, and over half of the population is either non-white or non-resident alien. The culturally diverse school, has, as a result, created a fulcrum of ethnic food, making the surrounding communities go-to places for authentic Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine. Long Islanders now reap the benefit of Stony Brook’s melting pot.
Indeed, Stony Brook, Brookhaven and Centereach have become notable for their wide-reaching ethnic food options. Around the corner from Red Tiger is Splendid Noodle, where soup lovers can enjoy hand-pulled noodles in rich bone broths. In an adjacent shopping center lies Oriental Groceries & Crafts, where Asian food enthusiasts can find any and every accouterment that his or her heart desires.
Still, I’m partial to Red Tiger and its springy, superb dumplings. You’d be hard-pressed to eat each and every one of Red Tiger’s available dumplings in one sitting—but there’s no shame in trying. On more than one occasion, I was informed by restaurant staff that I had ordered enough food for a family of four. Sometimes, the sheer volume of my orders elicits laughter. Never mind. Dumplings make excellent leftovers. Diners should order plentifully, but if you’re short on time or budget, make sure to catch the steamed pork and vegetable dumplings (stuffed with napa cabbage, scallion, and ground meat); the Kungfu buns (thick, doughy buns served piping hot in a steamer basket and filled with ground meat and vegetables); the pot stickers (bottom-crisp dumplings filled with, yes, meat and vegetables); and, of course, the delicate, inimitable soup dumplings.
I’m no longer pregnant, but I still find myself at a Red Tiger table for one, place setting covered in plates and bamboo steamer baskets. The staff no longer laughs when I order enough for an army. By now, they know that I know what I’m doing. And, in anticipation of some future meal enjoyed cold, I always bring the extras home.