Too bad no one can make it to Lumi.
The restaurant is far more interesting than its immediate neighbors, although I say that with some hesitation. Just to the south sits Patio Bar & Grill. And there's nothing wrong with Hook, Line & Sinker, on the other side. Sometimes you crave fried fish, fried cornmeal and fried potatoes, after all. In fact, enough of Dallas feels the occasional Deep South pang to require loads of additional parking. So the longstanding dive rents out a lot adjacent to Lumi.
Herein lies the problem: Hook, Line & Sinker has cornered what looks like, oh, 500 spaces for their 40-seat restaurant.
Yeah, yeah—bit of an exaggeration. But there's a vast (in Uptown terms) horseshoe of asphalt surrounding the corner lot. Meanwhile, the folks at Lumi make do with 10 spots off the alley 'round back. They claim 20, actually, though just try wedging anything larger than a Smart Car in there on a busy night. Hell, backing out of the narrow slab is a good way to measure one's patience through a 12-point turn: back, hard on the wheel; forward, turn; back, hard on the wheel...
Sure, you can trespass on Hook, Line & Sinker territory. Signs taped all around Lumi's entrance warn of risks, however. On my first visit, they practically escorted me back to the door, urging me to swing around back. When I finally sat down after moving my car, the manager waved angrily toward his neighbor. "They have a tow truck waiting over there," he said. "They will tow you in 30 seconds." Later, when Dallas Observer reporter Megan Feldman called to discuss the issue at my behest, Lumi owner Susie Bui downplayed the dispute. "Uptown is tough when it comes to parking," she told Feldman, pointing out the obvious. "We try to catch everyone who comes in to see where they parked."
So, like I said, you can't really go to Lumi. But if you could, you'd find a neat little house and a kitchen prone to a few shallow slopes, though capable of some impressive peaks. One of these is the classic Brazilian cocktail—the caipirinha—of cachaça, lime and sugar. Theirs shows the expected tart burst and crisp bite, as well as a smoky side that reins in the acidic sting and pairs well with just about everything on the restaurant's menu. It slices through feijoada, the heavy, hearty stew of Portuguese origin, adapted into something special by Brazil's working class. Chef Michael Robinson dispenses with meat scraps (the second ingredient in versions I've tried in the past) and sticks with tender hunks of good, slow-cooked pork in a thick base of black beans, softened by jasmine rice and sautéed collard greens, a fairly traditional presentation, except he forms the rice into a mound within the stew, rather than serving it on the side. At $8 it's just a buck more than the tiny side dishes at Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen, though it could feed two quite hungry adults. The caipirinha picks up brighter flavors in the restaurant's Vietnamese-style "summer" roll, a combination of ham, vegetables and Romaine lettuce that comes across as cool and sweet, but with a somber background.
Vietnamese, Brazilian...what gives?
Instead of working some complicated Southeast Asian/Southeast South American fusion, Lumi picks dumplings and simple dishes from each country. Bui's parents emigrated from Vietnam. Her sister-in-law is Brazilian. So much for clever concept; Bui had Robinson train on a few family recipes and stretch a few traditional flavors, that's all.
Duck dumplings lean on five-spice powder for an earthy-sweet sensation that tends, unfortunately, to camouflage the meat. Order pan-fried instead of steamed, however, and you're treated to malty, caramelized streaks that seem to beckon the spice. The sharp plum dipping sauce carries enough ginger to dominate the entire dish—powder, duck, browned bits, though not all at once, so the effect is rather enticing. Blue crab fried rice features a whole battered soft shell on the side and plenty of meat in the main dish. Instinctively you know the flavors will be complementary: sweet, musty crab, nutty stir-fry rice, similar notes from the soft shell. Like the feijoada, this entire plate can easily satisfy more than one guest (although you may fight over the crispy soft shell). But you can, eventually, shove the stew aside. Not so the fried rice. My arm kept jerking toward the plate long after I'd had enough.
It was far too hot on my visits to step out on the patio. Inside, however, there's basic warmth, fueled by banks of windows that let Uptown stream in. The feeling is so comfortably chic, a friend I brought along on one visit began encouraging me—repeatedly and annoyingly—to grow some sideburns. Not the long, bushy rugs I used to see in the late '60s and early '70s, thankfully, but the mod, trim sides sported by so many guys in this part of the city. Years ago you couldn't venture into a bar along McKinney without running into a few dozen guys leaving their shirttails dangling, and now this. What is it about Uptown that makes people want to conform, or at least force others to conform?
Lumi has the hip-but-casual feel down, which should be enough to bring success in this location. Maybe the parking fiasco helps out, lending a "playing hard to get" appeal to the place. The kitchen is competent without stepping over the top, although some plates are interesting enough to draw folks from other parts of town.
Not the ba noi, however. The dish is so popular you find kind of edible versions in the frozen food aisles, and here it presents an attractive, muted sweetness and the curious, musty layers created when shrimp and pork press together. But the shell, ideally flaky, yields like a grocery store brand. And for middling age types versed on those heat-and-serve egg rolls so abundant in the '80s, Lumi's shrimp and crab empanadas will strike either an amusing nostalgic chord or resurrect disturbing memories of the stuff you (meaning me) lived on while trying to get through grad school on a $6,000 a year teaching assistantship stipend. Damn—the same one-note vegetal heat, the same tinny background, the same chewy dough with the mushy undercoating. It's La Choy, all over again.
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Oh, well. I lived through it back then. And, really, the ba noi and empanada could be one-off mistakes. In general, the kitchen brings dishes to a level above homey, below pretentious and nowhere near the point where one must begin deconstructing to appreciate the flavors.
Lumi, in other words, is a good neighborhood spot—the type of place you can drop in for easy meals several times a week. Every part of town should have at least one place like it.
Of course, you'll probably need to hoof it, considering the parking situation. But that's just part of the neighborhood vibe, right?
Lumi Empanada & Dumpling Kitchen 3407 McKinney Ave., 214-979-2424. Open 11 a.m.-midnight Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. $$