For almost 15 years, there's been a movement growing in Madison: a cult-like devotion to Russian dumplings from Paul’s Pel’meni.
Paul’s has moved multiple times over the years, and just moved into a new location at 414 W. Gilman St. But the fans always follow, frequently leaving five-star Yelp reviews in their wake.
Those reviewers display infomercial-host-level enthusiasm, heaping praise on the taste, toppings and price in what can read like an evangelical sermon (“Before I Found Dumplings”), often with an alarming tendency to refer to dumplings by the affectionate shorthand “dumps.” They expound on the dumplings’ strong addictive properties and snake-oil-like healing powers.
“I don't know if it's the pregnancy or if it's just truly that addicting but all I want to eat after eating here is more Pel'meni,” reads one review.
“Had a horrible stomach ache for about nine days this past summer. Couldn't eat the whole time. What finally cured me? Russian Dumplings with the works!!! Truth!” another reviewer wrote.
The story of Madison’s dumplings began in 2003, when Paul Schwoerer opened the original Paul’s Pel’meni with his business partner on State Street. That lasted three years; the two split, and the partner kept it going for another two years.
But that was not the end of the dumpling glory days: Schwoerer also owns Oasis Cafe at 2690 Research Park Dr. in Fitchburg, so fans could find the dumplings there for a while, alongside a cup o’ joe or California BLT.
Then in 2013, a new Paul’s location opened at 201 W. Gorham St. But that space was getting a little cramped with just six tables, and the sale of the building meant an imminent hike in rent, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. So early this summer, Paul’s and the dumplings migrated to the current location.
For those who don’t know what Russian dumplings, or pel’meni, are, worry not, Yelpers say.
“What the heck is a Russian dumpling,” one reviewer wrote, explaining their initial confusion when walking into Paul’s. Then, summing up: “It is good. That’s what.”
(But, for the record, they’re similar to a pierogi with thinner dough.)
The restaurant continues to win new converts, said Ellen Merh, an employee at Paul’s.
“People come in the first time, then come in the next day or later that day for more,” she said. “We get people that come in like three times a week, every week.”
Some Yelp-ers straight-up admit they discovered Paul’s during a tipsy night out. With a late-night closing time (2 a.m. on the weekends) and a State-Street-adjacent location, Schwoerer has noted that it’s not unusual for UW-Madison students to come in seeking “their drunken pel’meni.”
Throughout the years, the entire menu, outside of beverages, has consisted of the following:
- Potato dumplings
- Ground beef dumplings (locally sourced from Black Earth)
- Dumplings with a mix of potato and ground beef, for those feeling particularly wild and adventurous
The new location hasn’t added anything new to the menu, although Schwoerer is considering possibly adding soups or salads, Behr said. If they added Kool-Aid, I bet the regulars would be into it.
A single-item menu feels pretty food cart-y, and walking into the front of the new restaurant feels like walking into a glorified food cart. Except it's completely un-glorified. It hosts a couple of tables in the corner and an ordering window that looks into the kitchen, allowing a direct view of the dishwasher, refrigerator and five huge steaming pots of dumplings.
But after placing your order, walk around the corner to find a cozier decor (including the instruction to “Keep Calm and Eat Pelmeni”), and a bar, leftover (along with the alcohol license) from the previous tenant, the Mediterranean restaurant Mezze.
The venue meets my personal/hipster definition of paradise, with sriracha bottles conveniently placed roughly every five paces. But before reaching for that sriracha bottle, consider ordering dumplings with “the works.”
Sour cream, butter and vinegar are traditional popular toppings for pel’meni, but Schwoerer has his own special sauce. I recommend this. So does literally everyone on Yelp.
With “the works,” the beautifully pale dumplings come dusted with golden curry powder, stained with sweet chili sauce, sprinkled with cilantro and blessed by a dollop of sour cream.
The dumplings aren’t drenched in this magical sauce (which is usually my strong preference), but it’s proportioned to add the perfect amount of punch. The combination is heavenly, and to some, inspirational.
“Pel'meni should be the poster child dish for world peace and global cooperation,” a reviewer said. “Apparently when you take meat- and/or cheese-filled little dumpling/tortellini/pierogi things from Russia, sprinkle them with curry powder, butter, hot sauce, cilantro, and add a side of sour cream, it feels like everyone really CAN work together and get along.”