Husband and wife team Lesley and Brian Triplett bring various international versions of the comfort food, along with other street food items, to the Iowa City restaurant scene. The restaurant at 213 Iowa Ave opens at 11 a.m. daily and stays open until bar close on the weekend, serving up late night snacks.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by this first week,” Brian said. “We are hardly keeping up with demand, our menu is halfway sold out — so we will be hiring more people and trying to make sure that we can keep everything in stock.”
The Tripletts met while they were in school, working at Atlas restaurant and bar. Lesley left to teach English in South Korea, and Brian came to visit and stayed. When they returned to the U.S., the couple missed the food they’d shared in Korea, and Lesley began experimenting at home.
“The kimchi mandu is where this whole idea came from, from getting dumplings at all hours of the day,” Lesley said. She recreated these Korean-style dumplings for a family reunion and they were a hit, so she decided to try a farmers market stand. As soon as they got started they knew a brick-and-mortar restaurant was a goal, Brian said. The business went through several incarnations, from a space at NewBo Market to sharing space with Pop’s Old N New BBQ, before finding its home on Iowa Avenue.
Now that they have more space, they’ve added dishes like pan-fried pierogi, crab avocado rangoon and salads, rice and noodle dishes from various countries but especially Korea. Lesley is particularly excited about the bibimbap, a Korean-style rice dish which is a bestseller, she said.
“Lesley has a real knack for coming up with a fusion creation or trying to recreate an authentic dish that we found along our travels,” Brian said.
The menu hangs from hooks above the counter so the kitchen can easily change it up to keep things exciting. Nearly everything on the menu has a story behind it.
“I hiked to Everest base camp in Nepal and ate the bison momos for almost two months straight. The potato pierogies, Lesley tutored a family that moved here from Poland in English, and that’s their family recipe,” Brian said.
Lesley does the cooking, along with kitchen manager Jody Escobar and a growing staff. Brian is more focused on the front of the house, hiring and design. Pat Barten and Kevin Bigger — who have designed other local restaurants like Pullman and Molly’s Cupcakes — helped create a functional space that reflects the food, Brian said. This includes dumpling steamer basket light fixtures, seating for 23 guests and a map on the wall.
“The map’s going to be a dumpling world map — we plan on writing in all the countries the dumplings are from, just having it kind of grow over time,” Lesley said.
Despite the stress of opening a new restaurant, Brian said the couple’s working relationship and personal relationship overlap in a good way and he feels lucky to work with his wife.
“It’s still so exciting to us that we love talking about it and brainstorming, so it is all intertwined. Our marriage, our business, our leisure time, our lives in general,” Brian said. “Not many people have the opportunity to spend this much time with one another, and she’s the easiest person in the world to get along with.”
Besides the restaurant, Dumpling Darling’s cuisine can be found at music festivals like Eaux Claires in Wisconsin, Hinterland in St. Charles, Iowa and 80/35 in Des Moines, and at Iowa City grocery stores like John’s Grocery, Bread Garden Market and New Pioneer Coop, and the University of Iowa Main Library’s Food for Thought cafe.