PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRYSTAL BIRNS • STYLING BY LAURA COOK
Asian street food by Full Steam Dumpling is a hit in Santa Cruz
Chef Andy Huynh doesn’t get much sleep these days. The creator of Santa Cruz’s Full Steam Dumpling pop-up restaurant not only works 12- and 14-hour days, he’s also newly wed to his high school sweetheart and expecting a baby in January.
“Everything happened all at once,” says Huynh. “I started the business, we got married, she got pregnant—it’s been nonstop. It’s been really good. It’s full steam, you know, full steam ahead.”
Full Steam Dumpling launched April 20 with an event at Shanty Shack Brewing in Santa Cruz and has been going full tilt ever since. Huynh’s pop-up eatery, based in rented kitchen space at the Santa Cruz Food Lounge, offers an ever-changing menu of fresh, meticulously hand-shaped dumplings, steamed buns and noodles. The current menu leans toward Pan-Asian, with its Japanese-style gyoza, Chinese bao and crystal dumplings, Korean hand-cut noodles and Vietnamese vermicelli salads.
Full Steam has been a hit since its launch party, drawing repeat customers with beautifully plated food and delicious twists on classic recipes. A recent event at Sante Adairius brewery offered gyoza stuffed with butternut squash and Fogline Farm pasture-raised pork along with pan-fried lamb curry bao with scallion cream and mint chimichurri. The menu also included two vegan options, a shiitake and water chestnut gyoza and a soba noodle salad.
Huynh and his crew, including his younger brother Mikey, make all the dumplings from scratch, rolling the dough and filling and shaping the pillowy nuggets by hand. For an average event, the Full Steam crew will wrap 400–500 gyoza, 150–250 bao and 100–200 crystal dumplings, along with an assortment of soup dumplings, chili oil dumplings and noodles.
Which dumplings are most popular? “It’s hard to say,” Huynh says, “because the recipes are always different, and we usually sell out of everything.”
He learned the basics of Vietnamese cooking at home from his parents and grandparents who came to the U.S. as refugees during the Vietnam War.
Huynh, 27, grew up in West Covina, part of the vast culinary melting pot that is Los Angeles County. He learned the basics of Vietnamese cooking at home from his parents and grandparents who came to the U.S. as refugees during the Vietnam War. His mom’s homemade meals “were like a portal to Vietnam every time she cooked,” and his grandfather’s food and herb import business introduced a suite of flavors and ingredients rarely seen in U.S. markets.
Huynh moved to Santa Cruz eight years ago to be with his girlfriend Courtney, then a student at UC Santa Cruz. “This town is super beautiful,” he says. “It’s a good environment with less concrete. And the sky is blue, unlike L.A., where it’s always smoggy.”
His first job—at Burger King—lasted only a week. But it turned out to be the first rung of an escalating restaurant career. Huynh went on to cook at Chipotle, Mission St. BBQ and U.S. Meal. Then came stints at Roux Dat, Assembly and 515 Kitchen & Cocktails, and an inspiring eight months with chef Brad Briske at Home restaurant in Soquel.
“I actually hopped around quite a bit,” Huynh says, “lots of short runs, lots of different styles of cooking. It was fun to cook in so many different styles. At some point, I just decided it was time to do my own thing.
“I noticed that there’s not a lot of good Asian food in Santa Cruz,” he says, sensing an unfilled niche. “Why is that? It always stumped me.”
The focus on dumplings was inspired by Briske’s savory housemade agnolotti, stuffed with either rabbit or crab. “They were so good and they reminded me of Asian street food,” Huynh says. “I started reading up on dumplings, started making them and just went with it.”
What started as a side gig quickly turned out to be fully immersive, with pop-up events four times per week as well as catering jobs and special events.
“Hours per week? Oh, my god, I don’t even know at this point,” says Huynh with a pause and a laugh. “It’s pretty much all day, every single day. This week we cooked at four different places, four different days. Next week will be all different combinations because the menu’s always different.”
To date, regular customers have had to check Full Steam Dumpling’s Facebook or Instagram page for information about upcoming menus and events. But Huynh will pop up at the Food Lounge on Dec. 5, 11 and 18, then in January he’ll launch regular Wednesday evening service there, from 4:20–9pm throughout 2020.
“A regular schedule will allow us to calm down a little,” he says. “And I’ll be able to do a lot more with 12 burners, a hood and all my ingredients in the walk-in. It’ll be a different experience for the customers.”
Huynh would love to bring in his mom to collaborate on an event. “She’s stoked that I’ve got my own game going, that we’ve got a business.” The restless chef would also like to experiment with Turkish köfte dumplings, Polish pierogi and Italian agnolotti.
“It’s challenging but I enjoy it,” he says. “Sometimes at night I’ll have an idea and get so inspired it just keeps me up. At the end of the day, the end of the week, I’m pretty stoked.”
FULL STEAM DUMPLING
Maria Gaura is a lifelong writer, journalist and gardener. She lives in downtown Santa Cruz with her family, two elderly cats and an ambivalent garden that can’t decide if it wants to be a vegetable patch, a flower bed or a miniature orchard.