888 Seafood has the same grand style as other seafood palaces in the San Gabriel Valley. That is, it looks a lot like a ballroom, except for the giant bas-reliefs of dragons and phoenixes at either end. In the evening it specializes in seafood, but at lunchtime the dim sum carts rule, with a remarkable range of choices: some 60 on weekdays and 70 or 80 on weekends.
"Northern"-style dumplings, with the Shanghai-style twist at the top, have characteristic northern Chinese flavorings like garlic leeks in the filling. Crunchy fried shrimp wontons look like bright yellow butterflies. Mushroom caps are stuffed generously with pork and topped with scallops. We particularly liked the pearl ball: minced shrimp rolled in sticky rice, with a "stem" of Chinese sausage sticking up. For dessert, don't miss the tiny custard tarts in buttery crust, so delicate you can scarcely pick them up.
Ocean Star Sea Food
With its noble columned foyer and classy style, Ocean Star Sea Food has managed to stay among the top restaurants in Monterey Park for more than a dozen years, with scarcely any of the momentary dips in quality that result from the local game of musical chefs. Perhaps the reason is that it makes some of the most adventurous dim sum in the area.
In our experience, though, you have to wait for the unusual items. Early in the day the carts hold a sedate selection of familiar favorites. But then around noon, the carts come out with striking items like "tempura fried" (minced seafood wrapped in nori seaweed and fried) and shrimp balls rolled in strips of spring roll pastry and deep-fried, giving them a head of crisp hair. Layered coconut and taro squares are a subtle, not overly sweet tropical gelatin dessert.
This kitchen likes vegetarian ingredients such as taro and tofu. Sometimes it uses tofu skin as a crisp wrapper for a giant burrito stuffed with shrimp, pork and vegetables, served with a satay sauce. Pillowy ovals of taro, shaggily coated with roasted almonds, have a sweet lotus seed filling.
Empress Pavilion was the first Hong Kong place outside the San Gabriel Valley. In fact, it was the first business to open in L.A. Chinatown's Bamboo Plaza when it was built in 1989. And it's still popular. On a Saturday, it's a quarter full at 10 a.m. and three-quarters full half an hour later. By 11, there's a line out front.
People are not coming for the décor, which is understated: pink walls with a few pastel decorative panels. Some of the dim sum carts, it must be said, are showing a little wear.
But the food is still among the best. The pork and shrimp siu mai have a very clean taste and perfectly textured wrappers (though the wrappers might be a little more neatly pleated). The chewy sesame-crusted ball called gin dui ("gold bar") has a particularly luscious filling of lotus seed purée. It's one of the things the cart women offer to cut open for you with scissors.
Even that ancient Cantonese cliché shrimp toast is worth getting here, because the shrimp are huge and thickly coated with sesame seeds, and the thick toast melts in your mouth.
That's the thing. These days we have upscale dim sum and we have hip, cutting-edge dim sum. But most of all, we have top-notch dim sum.
Don't miss these Chinese nibbles
Navigating dim sum menus at restaurants without carts can seem tricky for those accustomed to simply pointing to what looks good and continuing to order and eat until satisfied. If there is a menu, is it best to order in flights? Or should you order everything at once but count on the restaurant to handle the pacing? Though it's tempting to order all at once (these places can be so frantically busy), if you do, you risk having all the dishes appear at the same time, in which case they'll get cold. Instead, order maybe a third of what you want, then summon the waiter when you're almost ready for more. Save the sweets for last.