Puyallup’s My Lil’ Cube is back with its excellent soup dumplings and ramen
Puyallup has its ramen spot back.
My Lil’ Cube reopened Feb. 18 after an 11-month closure that the restaurant’s owners thought would last just a few weeks.
The downtown Puyallup eatery is the county’s only destination for long xiao bao – juicy soup dumplings that burst open with a cascade of porky broth. My Lil’ Cube is one of just a few ramen houses in the area aside from Tacoma ramen destinations Moshi Moshi in the Stadium neighborhood, a trio of Zen Ramen & Sushi Burrito locations and Kizuki Ramen at Tacoma Mall.
Xuan Fang, who most customers know as “Faith,” said the nearly one-year hiatus was completely unexpected. She really thought they’d reopen in April 2020.
“Most customers, they come back and they ask ‘how was the whole year?’ And I actually have to be honest. I had a really tough year. But it was also a tough year for most people,” said Fang, who opened My Lil’ Cube with husband Wei Wei He in 2014.
THE ORIGIN OF MY LIL’ CUBE
The menu is a merge of Japanese-style ramen and Chinese snacks. Chinese soup dumplings have made My Lil’ Cube a regional destination. The boiled dumplings, scallion pancakes and ginger pork on the appetizer menu are other standouts. The starter menu blends those Chinese snacks with Japanese mainstays such as steamed edamame, agedashi tofu, takoyaki and tempura.
The ramen menu lists 11 styles of the soup, including one that is kid-sized, and features the three primary ramen broths – shoyu, miso and tonkotsu. There are also two kinds of udon and a list of donburi bowls.
The entire menu is a delightful collision of Japanese and Chinese, perfectly mirroring the owners’ restaurant backgrounds.
Fang and He knew they wanted to open a restaurant in Puyallup when Fang’s aunt told them Takashi Sasaki was closing his longtime Kanpai sushi restaurant and the downtown Puyallup space would soon be available. (Sasaki is rolling sushi at Tacoma’s Miyamoto, the last I checked).
“We came down and we saw that Puyallup had a lot of teriyaki restaurants, but no ramen,” Fang told me in 2014.
Before settling on Puyallup as a location for the first restaurant they would own, Fang and husband He worked at a melange of Seattle restaurants. He cooked at Chinese restaurants and Fang worked in ramen restaurants. When they were planning on opening their restaurant, they couldn’t decide which style of cuisine to focus on at My Lil’ Cube, but the kitchen space ended up driving that decision. Lacking space for a wok station, they scratched Chinese wok dishes and focused instead on their Japanese-Chinese menu.
The name was something that Fang selected because she wanted something memorable. She had selected the name when she originally thought she was going to open a coffee shop. She liked that the name was unusual and, well, made her happy.
CLOSING ON MARCH 15, 2020
Fang said she started her work day on March 15, 2020 exhausted. “We were still open, but I was tired,” she said. She had been following the news of the pandemic and knew that the news was not great. Before the shut-down order came from Gov. Jay Inslee for restaurants to close dining rooms, Fang said the couple witnessed a serious drop in customers. “Slowly less and less customers came in. Then on that Sunday, normally we are so busy on Sundays, because most restaurants are closed on Sundays, it was really slow. I wanted to go home. We decided to close for half the day.”
And then they never reopened.
There were several false starts and they at one point thought they were going to reopen in September, but that was sidelined when Fang had to have her wisdom teeth removed. Fang said He woke up one morning in intense pain all over his body. He had shingles and was in excruciating pain (he’s better now).
There were also other complications. Fang’s mother, a doctor, was visiting from China when the pandemic began and it took quite a bit of effort, quite a bit of time and a very expensive plane ticket to get her back into China where her patients needed her. Additionally, family members moved to the area and they needed Fang’s help in translating housing paperwork and to help them get settled. “Trying to help them move across the country during a pandemic was so, so, so hard,” she said. Everything that normally would take days or weeks ended up taking months.
The stress, Fang said, felt so overwhelming.
But then there were the bright spots. These are the things that Fang said restored their hope that all, eventually, would be OK.
GRACE AND HELP WHEN IT WAS MOST NEEDED
“Our landlord, we’re just so lucky, was so kind,” she said. “He called me and said, ‘Faith, how about you don’t pay this quarter?’ He kept calling me and giving me help,” she said.
In all, their landlord gave Fang and He at least six months of free rent, she said.
“He is so considerate, so sweet. I’m so lucky,” she said.
The customers kept her going when the stress of the situation felt overwhelming.
“Our customers pretty much every day, I received messages on Facebook. They’d ask, ‘Are you going to open again? When are you going to reopen? Are you going to permanently close?”
Interspersed with the questions were affirmations, “We miss you. We want you back. What can we do to help you?”
And there’s this: “Everybody said, ‘Take care of yourself and whenever you reopen, we’ll be there. They were joking, ‘I’ll be the first one in line.’”
She added, “I think my customers, they’re fabulous. I have no clue why my customers are so patient and they’re so positive. Everyone, after I reopened, nobody complained about it. Nobody was like, ‘Faith you should open earlier, we need your food.’”
When Fang and He reopened last month, the customers made good on their promise. They stood in line.
Said Fang, “Five or six years ago, I didn’t know the area or the people here. I had no clue how lucky I am when we opened. All of my customers are angels. They came to save me, all of them. They’re standing there for me. I don’t know how to say this, but they’re funny, patient and generous and I love them.”
She said she’s felt terrible about the wait times extending to two hours, but they’re settling into the rhythm and trying to serve as fast as they can. Due to the layout of the space and how far apart tables are required to be, they do have limited seating and aren’t able to increase capacity. Take-out, of course, is always an option.
“The customers, they tip my servers very, very good. They never complain. The kitchen and restaurant are small and they’ve had to wait, but they never complain,” said Fang.
MAKE A POINT TO TRY THESE SOUP DUMPLINGS
My Lil’ Cube truly is a regional culinary asset and diners should put this little ramen and dumpling spot high on the list of places to eat. (But do know that their seating is limited).
Never been? Don’t know the menu or what to order? Here are tips on what to order on a first-time visit:
STEAM JUICY PORK BUNS: Chinese long xiao bao, often called soup dumplings, are impossible to find elsewhere in Pierce County and My Lil’ Cube’s version is a treasure. These handmade dumplings take longer to cook, so expect a bit of a wait for these, or order them the minute you sit down to give the kitchen time to steam them to order. Or, expect them to arrive after your ramen because of the time it takes to steam.
The dumplings are filled with tasty ground pork and are an engineering marvel. Encased within each dumpling is a splash of pork broth, which releases easily from the springy dumpling wrapper. Insider tip: Allow the dumplings to sit for just a minute on the table, then gently pry and lift each dumpling into the provided dumpling spoon to capture any sauce that might spill out. You don’t want to waste that porky goodness. The cascade of soup broth is one of the most pleasurable dumpling experiences you’ll ever have. They’re priced exceptionally well at $5.50 an order. I’d pay double that.
SCALLION PANCAKE: Feathery light with crispy edges and studded with fresh-cut scallions, these savory pancakes are cut into wedges and served piping hot. $6
BOILED DUMPLINGS: A tweak of ginger, a thump of garlic. These pork-filled boiled dumplings are hand crimped and laden with aromatic flavor. A splash of vinegar and soy complements the ginger. $8
TONKOTSU CHASHU RAMEN: Does any ramen get better than one made with long-cooked bone broth? Tonkotsu Ramen comes with a cloudy broth made from slow-simmered pork bones. The texture is lush and unctuous. The bowl is fortified with a slippery tangle of ramen noodles, sunk deep into the bowl, and a raft of scallions, bamboo shoots and bean threads atop sliced chashu. $13
MY LIL’ CUBE
Where: 402 N. Meridian, Puyallup; 253-840-2158
COMING SOON TO UNIVERSITY PLACE: FUSION BISTRO ASIAN RESTAURANT. Click here to read about the opening this spring.