On the same driftless weekday in March that I desperately rigged a homemade Baby Björn out of an old sweatshirt to calm my Chihuahua-mix coworker during Zoom meetings, Lil Dumplings took to social media to reassure the gloomy quarantined masses that it would remain open for pickup and delivery. While the rest of us had lost track of our hairbrushes, the months-old global street-food counter was out there in the real world, enlisting the help of Grubhub and DoorDash, selling gift cards, keeping the lights on.
Soon after that, owner Carlos Salazar introduced a voluptuous NY Chopped Cheese sandwich on a sesame-seed bun that gave us hope. He calmly sprinkled waffle fries with seaweed-flecked togarashi seasoning and miniaturized the classic Chicago dog into a tiny steamed-bun version with a single sport pepper. Alongside ramen chef Kyle Humphreys, Salazar assembled ingredients for elaborate weekend noodle specials, braising thick-cut pork belly, cracking 63-degree eggs, and drizzling black-garlic mayu oil for the limited-edition bowls that lured people out of their caves for a taste of life.
As COVID-19 raged and restaurants around town retreated into temporary (at best … ) closure, Salazar was among the last chefs standing. But the 35-year-old food-industry veteran didn’t set out to be a hospitality hero. Less than two months before Governor Eric Holcomb officially shut down the state to slow the pandemic, Salazar, who was best known for his playful genius at Rook, where he often riffed on the Filipino dishes he grew up eating, was a proud new restaurant owner riding the wave of Hamilton County’s shiniest commercial development, The Yard at Fishers District. Inside the Sun King–anchored Fishers Test Kitchen—the 18-acre complex’s combination taproom, high-end performance kitchen, and culinary incubator—Lil Dumplings was killing it.
Playing to a packed house, Salazar and his staff of four sent out container after container of rich Viking Lamb sugo poured over crispy gnocchi, lobster corndog fritters drizzled with bacon-fat honey, a massive smashburger tucked inside savory Japanese okonomiyaki pancakes, and the headline act: a Philly cheesesteak oyaki dumpling seared crisp on the outside and draped in aerated Cheez Whiz. Customers squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder around the tables, sipping Sunlight Cream Ales and shoving fried-green-tomato bánh mì sandwiches into their mouths, unfettered by face masks or that now-familiar crush of existential dread.
During those first few innocent days, Lil Dumplings was one of just three vendors selected to open under the Fishers Test Kitchen umbrella, joining Korean-bowl concept Korave and Natural State Provisions, a grab-and-go tribute to Southern comfort food from the owners of King Dough. In fact, Salazar’s first solo venture might have gotten lost in the food court–style shuffle had it not stayed open through the entire springtime quarantine while its two neighbors temporarily packed up (though both Korave and Natural State Provisions have since reopened). “I wanted to show people that I was still there for the community,” says Salazar, a Fishers resident himself. “The other reason is that I wanted to keep Lil Dumplings fresh in people’s minds. We were a month old, and people loved us. I didn’t want them to forget.”
It’s not a lot to ask of his customers—especially the ones who have followed Salazar’s career from his earliest stints in the kitchens of Indy institutions like Oakleys Bistro, Tulip Noir, and Pizzology to his eventual 2013 post at Rook, which he continues to co-own and help run. It would be hard to forget a chef who has this much fun playing with a form, deconstructing and reconstructing classic global dishes, teasing out the flavors, and adding some of his signature ingredients, like pimento kimcheese and gochugaru ranch. He’s not afraid to apply a squirt of Japanese Kewpie mayo to a hot dog or flavor-bomb a dish with the spicy seafood umami of XO tartar sauce, Salazar’s version of the essential Hong Kong condiment. He has to explain to people, a lot, that this is not a dumpling shop and that “Lil Dumplings” refers to the nickname he uses for his two children, Ollie, 5, and Emmy, 7—who were high on his list of motivations for opening a restaurant close to his home in Fishers.
Departing from Rook’s predominantly Southeast Asian cuisine, Salazar travels the world with Lil Dumplings. He might land in Mexico, Italy, or Chicago—wherever he finds street-level inspiration. The menu has a daily ebb and flow, which means items like the avocado huarache and peekytoe crab salad might appear and disappear before anyone can get too attached. Salazar says he can sit down and write a brand-new menu in 10 minutes, channeling his inner index of flavor combinations. It’s how he came up with the parts of that perfect NY Chopped Cheese. The sandwich begins with ground chuck, brisket, and flank steak, to which Salazar adds some beef heart to deepen the meatiness. The portions are seared on the flat top and spiked with caramelized onions. “Then we chop it up back to ground beef and mix in the cheese,” Salazar explains. What you end up with is a piled-high loose-meat hybrid—part cheeseburger and part Philly cheese-steak—anointed with Dijonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. It is brilliantly understated and unapologetically sloppy in its presentation. Salazar assures me it’s one the few perennials on his menu. “I can’t get rid of it,” he says, and that’s good to hear because I can’t stop thinking about it.
I also fell hard for the Filet-O-Cod steamed buns that place pieces of battered line-caught fish inside soft, sweet steamed buns with generous globs of tartar sauce, “shrettuce,” and a slip of American cheese. You can’t ignore the similarities to the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich—the squish of the bun against the sturdy, satisfying crunch of the fish, along with the creamy-tart alchemy of those specific condiments. (But imagine a McDonald’s fish sandwich assembled by a trained chef.) Salazar says he did that on purpose, too. In fact, that one little fish sandwich represents his entire thesis at Lil Dumplings: “It’s something familiar, but people eat it and think, How is this so much better?”
Fishers Test Kitchen, 317-953-6400, fisherstestkitchen.com
Mon.–Thurs. 2–9 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
Boozy food court
Global street food ungraded with local ingredients
The NY Chopped Cheese sandwich and the day’s steamed-bun selection, along with a pile of fat, seasoned fries dipped in plenty of sweet banana ketchup