Dumpling darlings: Full Steam taking the art of puffy, spicy Szechuan delights, plus ramen, to new levels

The Full Steam Dumpling crew knows how to reflect, bond and fire up before a busy night of culinary action.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Beyond the flavors being reached via sourcing fresh, local ingredients, Full Steam has made a commitment to providing its employees with a work-life balance previously unheard of in the restaurant business. “Nobody works full time, but we get paid like it,” says owner and chef Andy Huynh.

Red is the most appetizing color, but it can also serve as a warning. It’s good to keep this in the back of your mind while you’re waiting in line at Full Steam Dumpling’s Szechuan Night at the Food Lounge on Wednesdays, watching an endless parade of dishes that are almost chaotically colorful make their way from the kitchen.

Lily

Golden gyoza shouldering an intimidating amount of fiery house-made chili crisp and scallions; round and frilly shumai dumplings topped with a spoonful of neon tobiko and stuffed with pork, shrimp and water chestnuts; kung pao chicken, glazed and shimmering with chilis.

But don’t be scared. You’ll soon find out, if you didn’t know already, that Szechuan peppercorns have a cold heat that cools your palette, tricking you into thinking that the incredible bowl of beef noodle soup you’re slurping down isn’t that spicy.

Pork, chili and green onion gyoza.
No shortage of tasty, spicy colors coming out of the Full Steam Dumpling kitchen. Here it’s the pork, chili and green onion gyoza.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Owner and chef Andy Huynh tells me the Chinese word for this is “mala.” “The peppercorns numb your palette, and it actually allows you to eat way more spice than you would normally.” This makes sense, as it’s impossible not to devour multiple plates of red-stained dumplings and noodles, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a chili-loving hot head.

Then there’s Ramen Night, Full Steam Dumpling’s less spicy but still astoundingly good Friday night event where Huynh’s sous-chef, Zane Sawyer, takes the lead and dishes out four or five different deeply flavorful, umami-packed bowls of soul. Slices of char siu pork bob next to orange egg yolks, fuschia beet-cured pickles, and other house-made toppings in tantalizingly murky broths.

Sawyer compares ramen to hip hop — both have different elements that are unique unto themselves that work together to create a harmonious whole: “Hip hop has graffiti, it has emcees, it has DJs and beats. Ramen has fat, noodles, broth, toppings and seasoning. And within that world there’s just a limitless amount of things.”

It’s a labor-intensive dish, and Full Steam Dumpling makes all of its ingredients from scratch. Sawyer and Huynh often dehydrate ingredients and then rehydrate them in other flavorful liquids in order to create expansive umami flavor profiles.

“A lot of chefs use MSG, which is totally fine. Like 100% fine. But we try to get glutamate into our broth naturally. We dry our own mushrooms or we’ll use seaweed. We’ve even dried anchovies from Ocean2table and added those to our broth,” says Huynh.

Full Steam Dumpling ramen is only to be eaten fresh at the Food Lounge.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The dumplings and appetizers can be taken to go, but the ramen must be eaten in house. Sawyer explains that in Japan, ramen is a quick meal eaten on the go. In that spirit, Full Steam Dumpling does not do takeout for its ramen: “That’s the nature of ramen — how fast can you get a bowl out without jeopardizing any flavor.”

The flavors on their menus change weekly, and are influenced by local produce at the farmers market, the weather, and the team’s creative juices. Huynh says he also draws inspiration from other local chefs.

I’m always reading other people’s menus. What’s Café Gabriella doing? What’s Brad [Briske, chef at Home] doing? What’s Bantam doing? Because they’re the ones using the local produce.

“I’m always reading other people’s menus. What’s Café Gabriella doing? What’s Brad [Briske, chef at Home] doing? What’s Bantam doing? Because they’re the ones using the local produce.”

There are some popular menu mainstays, like the pillowy BBQ pork-stuffed char siu bao and chicken and leek gyoza. Huynh said that every week, Full Steam makes around 700 bao, 4,000 gyoza and 200 bowls of ramen alone. Then there are the crystal dumplings, pearl balls, shumai, wontons, Szechuan specials, ramen broths and toppings, all of which are handmade in house.

Full Steam Dumpling owner and chef Andy Huynh has even been asked to take his show on the road recently.
Owner and chef Andy Huynh has even been asked to take his show on the road recently.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Their passion caught the attention of Jim Denevan, founder of Outstanding in the Field, who recently invited Full Steam to cater one of his outdoor dining events on a beach in Pescadero. Huynh’s menu included seared halibut with ginger scallion sauce and pickled Jimmy Nardello peppers, crystal dumplings stuffed with house-made lingcod sausage served with hot mustard and chili oil, and salmon wontons with balsamic chili crisp butter and shelling beans.

Preparing for the event was a crazy whirlwind of a week, says Huhyn, but everything went perfectly: “It was an incredible experience.”

Huynh moved from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz a decade ago. A cook by trade, his culinary path shifted while working at Assembly, the now-shuttered downtown restaurant. It was there, working with chefs Jessica Yarr and Kendra Baker, that he became aware of the difference sourcing local ingredients could make.

Gyoza making their way toward perfection in the Full Steam Dumpling kitchen.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

His interest in eating and cooking seasonally brought him to Home restaurant in Soquel, where his inspiration blossomed under the tutelage of chef Brad Briske.

“I was watching Brad make pastas all the time, and he made these really cool agnolottis. I think they were stuffed with crab, maybe rabbit, and one day I was like, this is kind of like a dumpling.” Huynh began trying his hand at rolling his own dumplings, and before long he was doing it every day.

In 2019, he decided he was ready to start his own concept, and worked briefly at 515 Kitchen & Cocktails during the transition. It was there that he met Sawyer, his future sous-chef, who had his own dreams of making ramen. They decided to team up, and Full Steam Dumpling was born.

Full Steam Dumpling owner and chef Andy Huynh with sous chef Zane Sawyer
Owner and chef Andy Huynh met his future sous-chef Zane Sawyer while they both worked at 515 Kitchen & Cocktails.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After popping up at breweries and wineries for a few months, they took up permanent residence at the Food Lounge in late 2019. Having a restaurant space where diners could come have a sit-down experience was a turning point, says Huynh, and allowed him and Sawyer to create the quality of dishes they envisioned.

Huynh is Vietnamese, and says he didn’t grow up eating Szechuan food, which comes from China, or Japanese ramen. However, the ingredients that these cuisines use are similar and could be bought at the same Asian markets his family visited every week. As he began developing his own style, he drew on his familiarity with the ingredients while applying techniques he learned from working in professional kitchens.

Sawyer admits that his only exposure to ramen was the instant kind, and he has never been to Japan, but he has approached his exploration of one of the country’s most iconic foods with an almost obsessive curiosity.

Torching chashu pork at Full Steam Dumpling.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Their passion has drawn legions of fans to their twice-weekly popups and farmers market booths. Huynh says that in the future, they’d like to do a Japanese donburi night on Thursdays and Sunday dim sum, but for now they’re comfortable with the work-life balance they’ve achieved for themselves and their staff.

“Historically, cooking has been militant and almost abusive to the point where people work themselves to the grave. It’s exploitation,” says Sawyer. “Our earlier days were really hard. We had to make it work and we kind of had to go that avenue. But we always worked for the day where our people have a good work-life balance where no one is like, killing themselves.”

Art of the gyoza build at Full Steam Dumpling.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Nobody works full time, but we get paid like it,” says Huynh, who is a father of two. He says Full Steam Dumpling’s staff of 12 works around 30 hours per week, or more if they want. This is a dramatic shift from Sawyer and Huynh’s experience working 50 to 60 hour weeks in professional kitchens, often working unpaid hours before their shifts actually started. Now that they’re leading their own team, “We’re doing our best to change the way that cooking has to be.”

Full Steam Dumpling pops up at the Food Lounge at 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz on Wednesdays from 4:20-8:30 for Szechuan Night and Fridays from 5-8 p.m. for Ramen Night. Find them at the Downtown, Westside and Live Oak farmers markets. fullsteamdumpling.com.

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