That's right. Dim sum — that whole Cantonese way of life, or at least of lunch, with its endless parade of hot dumplings wheeled around a roaring dining room in flocks of burnished carts — has firmly established itself over the last 20 years here in the Southland, which is where the best dim sum in the country can now be found. More specifically, it's found in the San Gabriel Valley, home to the nation's largest Chinese community, nearly a quarter of a million people.
The newer places don't fit the old model of the noisy, cavernous hall. There aren't any carts. Instead, there's a menu with a color photo of every dish. To order your choice, you mark its number on a card and hand it to a waiter.
Many feel more elegant than the traditional dim sum parlor. Sea Harbour Seafood in Rowland Heights has several private rooms. One of them is the exact sort of big-night-out dining room you'd see in a Hong Kong restaurant today, down to the conversation area with leather furniture where diners gather for drinks before sitting down to eat. Another is an intimate table in the restaurant's high-ticket wine cellar.
The menus are a help because the choices aren't just regular old siu mai, egg rolls, potstickers and pork buns anymore. Luxury ingredients such as shark's fin and dried abalone are now sometimes lavished on dainty little dumplings. Desserts have dressed up: A beguiling bitter melon-flavored wrapper encases sesame filling; many-layered gelatin desserts gleam like gems.
"There's so much competition over there [in Hong Kong]," observes former City Councilman Michael Woo, "the dim sum places are always trying out new ideas to attract the fickle public, who flock to the latest places. The trend-following is also evident here."
Indeed it is. The hot place of the moment, which opened in December in Monterey Park, is actually named New Concept. All the top dim sum places do good business at lunch, particularly on the weekends, but New Concept has a line out its door even during the week.
At the same time that they want to try the latest thing, customers continue to demand some of the old standards. Har gow, the plain shrimp dumpling steamed in a translucent wrapper, is a benchmark for judging a restaurant on its pastry (which should be fine and translucent) and ingredients (the shrimp should be pristine and perfectly cooked), so nearly all the places still offer it.
A few years ago there was furious competition among San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants, with kitchens hiring chefs away from each other and chefs striking out on their own. Things have settled down a little in that regard. Now the battle is over creativity, thanks to the entry of restaurateurs from Hong Kong. "Business is so competitive over there," says Leo Chu, an international businessman who has frequent dealings in Asia. "Particularly in the high-end restaurants. So restaurateurs come over here to open."
The result is an explosion of new dim sum, as exciting as the early days of California cuisine. So where do you go for the best?
Sea Harbour Seafood
You might not guess what an impressive place Sea Harbour Seafood is from its unassuming exterior, lost between a bank and a gigantic 99 Ranch Market in a Rowland Heights shopping plaza. The plaster roosters out front don't exactly scream "high class." But it's the second American branch of a chain of about 30 restaurants in China (the first was the Sea Harbour in Rosemead). Ten chefs work exclusively on dim sum here.
Inside, on the back wall, there's a giant photo of a Chinese food celebrity: Yeung Koon-Yat, the Abalone King of Hong Kong. Dried abalone is one of the luxury ingredients most appreciated by Chinese gourmets — the best quality abalone fetch hundreds of dollars apiece — and Koon-Yat specializes in it at his Ah Yat Abalone Forum restaurants. His abalone talent may actually have influenced history. After tasting his recipe, Chinese president Deng Xiaoping reportedly said, "To eat abalone like this, we must accelerate our reform and opening to the outside world."
"[Sea Harbour owner] Tony He is a disciple of the Abalone King," observes banker Wilbur Woo. "By putting his picture on the wall, he's indirectly involving him with the restaurant, because it would reflect on his reputation if this restaurant wasn't good. It's like a guarantee of quality."
Abalone is a specialty here — in the wine cellar, with its single table for special parties, there's even a cooking stand for making abalone dishes.
But at lunch, there's a menu of 55 dim sum. Special soup dumpling exemplifies the restaurant's luxurious style. It's one big yellow dumpling with a pork and seafood filling, which nearly fills the soup bowl, leaving just a little room for broth; the whole thing is topped with a bit of shark's fin.
Sea Harbour makes excellent sweet dim sum. In the last few weeks, it has introduced "snowflake bun," a "low-carb" bun made from egg whites. It's quite delicate, with a spongy, slightly sticky texture and a subtly sweet filling with perhaps a touch of vanilla.