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We live in the dim sum capital of the country.
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.
As a result, we don't just have the most dim sum, we have the hippest, hottest dim sum — the most sophisticated and creative in the U.S. — because discerning immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan insist on it. The presence of this demanding and appreciative clientele has lured several restaurateurs from Hong Kong, the acknowledged center of the dim sum universe, to open branches here.
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.
A rambling Mission-style building has stood in San Gabriel's historic district for more than a century. Once upon a time, this was the location of the town's City Hall. Many people remember when the building was a Mexican restaurant named Panchito's. Today it's Mission 261, and diners are nibbling dim sum in its warren of rooms and out under the landmark 150-year-old grapevine.
Forget the hints of Old California: This is a special-occasion Chinese restaurant. The diners are stylishly dressed, and the waiters are all in gray suits. On a dais, a woman plays Chinese classical music on the lute known as the pipa.
Mission 261 serves very elegant, stylish, special-occasion dim sum. Simple poached vegetables often have shark's fin or dried abalone garnishes. Flaky pastry turnovers that look as though they've come from a four-star French kitchen are densely filled with barbecue pork slivers and dotted with firm chunks of salted duck egg. Bite-sized steamed pork spareribs are anointed with a bold XO sauce and studded with smoky ham and minuscule dried shrimp.
The most striking dim sum are the ones shaped like small animals: "ducklings" of fried taro, "bees" of minced shrimp molded around bits of salted egg (with "stripes" of finely sliced seaweed), seafood dumplings shaped like baby carp, custard-filled dumplings molded like inquisitive little rabbits.
Din Tai Fung
Technically, Din Tai Fung isn't a dim sum place. Dim sum is Cantonese, and Din Tai Fung is a branch of a Shanghai-style dumpling place in Taiwan. But as it enters its fifth year in Arcadia, people are still crowding in for those dumplings. Simple and spacious, with smart-looking woodwork and a measure of flair, it feels like a modern, Hong Kong-style café.
At Din Tai Fung, it's all about the dough. The restaurant uses a proprietary blend of flours for its wrappers, which are beautifully thin yet resilient.
A few fortunate diners will be able to get an order of the restaurant's trademark dish: No. 56, small dumplings in soup. They are literally full of broth — they look like tiny quivering water balloons, and they're served in soup because they'd barely survive sitting on a plate. You gently tease your soup spoon under one of them, lift it to your lips and gnaw a little hole; the sweet-savory pork broth spurts into your mouth. After you've drained it dry, you pick the dumpling up with chopsticks and dip it in soy sauce in the usual way.
These dumplings are only available on weekends, and even then there are only 30 or 40 orders a day. If they're out of No. 56, console yourself with No. 50, the regular juicy pork dumplings: larger, less delicate, with less broth, but still exquisite, and available all the time.
In fact, all the dumplings are outstanding, with lean, delicate fillings and sheer wrappers crimped into elegant swirls. Through a window into the kitchen, you can watch a sort of assembly line of chefs making them.
The latest entry is New Concept. It's the first American branch of a chain with 28 restaurants in China, five of them in Beijing.
As dim sum restaurants go, it's a small, exclusive place. The room has a retro look, '70s -classy with an edge of tiki: woven rattan wall covering, palm-pattern carpets, a water-pattern glass panel at the back of the room.
Here the "new concept" means lighter doughs and fillings and more refined presentation. The steamed raised dumplings (bao) are no larger than tangerines; their delicate pastry encloses just about a teaspoon of lean cha siu, with just a veil of spicy-sweet sauce.
Other dishes have a particular inventiveness. There's a dish of turnip cake stir-fried with a little dry chile and served in a bowl made by deep-frying a mushu crepe. Another is a turnip pastry: a puffy crust enclosing julienned turnips, roast scallops and flecks of dried shrimp. The subtle flavor of water spinach plays against silky fermented bean curd sauce, with an earthy mushroom-like flavor and a jab of hot chile.
New Concept is so new that it doesn't yet have an illustrated dim sum menu for those who don't read Chinese. One is promised in February. Until then, non-Chinese diners will be finding their way in the dim sum capital without a map.
The emergence of the new wave certainly doesn't mean our favorite old-line dim sum houses are yesterday's news: With all the newcomers nipping at their heels, they've taken serious steps to keep up. Take 888 Seafood Restaurant, opened in Rosemead in 1992. To stay competitive, manager Joseph Lee keeps up with the restaurant scene in China. As president of the American Chinese Restaurant Assn., he escorts groups of Chinese American chefs to cooking competitions around Asia. The largest was the one held last year in Guangdong, with 300 contestants from China and 130 from other countries. The Chinese Americans took home two gold medals and four silvers, but it was also a learning expedition — chefs socialize and exchange ideas as well as observing one another in action.
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.
Here are some new-style dim sum not to miss:
Bitter melon ball. The faintly bitter green wrapper contrasts with a sweet sesame filling. Beguiling, sophisticated and even faintly addictive. Sea Harbour Seafood, $3.20.
Hollow stem vegetables (water spinach). On their own, these earthy-
tasting greens are good, but dipped in the silky fermented bean curd sauce that accompanies them, they're outstanding. New Concept, $4.98.
Scallops and shrimp in spinach pastry. A delicate seafood shiu mai with a bright green wrapper and a topping of shark's fin and crunchy masago (capelin) roe. A gorgeous symphony of textures. New Concept, $3.98.
Shrimp balls in spring roll pastry. The seafood is rolled in strips of paper-thin pastry, which fry up as crisp "hair." The texture is lovely. Ocean Star, $2.90.
Three-layer squares. A light, refined dessert of orange-strawberry gelatin dotted with tart wolfberries and layered with coconut. Sea Harbour, $1.98.
Almond-crusted taro balls. A luscious, creamy lotus seed filling flows out of a baked taro pastry when you bite into it; it's all covered in toasted almond slices. Ocean Star, $2.90.
Tofu custard topped with dried scallops. Mounds of tofu are so luxuriously soft, it's hard to pick this up with chopsticks. Contrasted with the intensely flavored dried scallop on top, it's spectacular. 888 Seafood, $2.80.
— Linda Burum and Charles Perry
Dim sum's A-list
Sea Harbour Seafood, 3939 N. Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-3939; 1015 S. Nogales St., No. 126, Rowland Heights; (626) 965-2020
Mission 261, 261 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel; (626) 588-1666
Din Tai Fung, 1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 574-7068
New Concept, 700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 282-6800
888 Seafood Restaurant, 8450 E. Valley Blvd., No. 121, Rosemead; (626) 573-1888
Ocean Star, 145 N. Atlantic Blvd., No. 201, Monterey Park; (626) 308-2128
Empress Pavilion, Bamboo Plaza Centre, 988 N. Hill St., Los Angeles; (213) 617-9898