IN THE ‘HEART’ OF A DIM SUM RESURGENCE
When I was small, there was only one Chinese restaurant in my hometown, and going there was a special occasion for our family. Before we were comfortably seated, it seemed, steaming bowls of egg drop soup and sticky, strangely red spare ribs would arrive. Then came mountains of dark-brown fried rice and those batter-fried dishes that, despite various names such as Flaming Volcano or Hong Kong Delight, always tasted exactly the same. There was chop suey, which nobody ever ate, and bowls of those little canned noodles that we munched on happily. The cuisine was Cantonese-American, circa 1950.
Over the following decades, the Chinese restaurant business changed. Mandarin and Sichuan restaurants spirited away much of the Cantonese business. But now the pendulum is swinging back, and with the “grazing” phenomenon sweeping the country, Cantonese food is enjoying a renaissance. This time, however, a more knowledgeable Westerner is choosing from an expanded repertoire. Nowhere is this more evident than in the newly conceived dim sum restaurant.
Dim sum, literally translated “touch the heart,” refers to the little snacks, dumplings and pastries consumed in Cantonese tea houses. These little dishes fit easily into the dining trends of the ‘80s, and it should be no surprise that new dim sum restaurants suddenly are opening all over Los Angeles.
Many of these restaurants have been Westernized beyond recognition, and to some purists they belong with ice cubes in Burgundy or American cheese on pasta. Like them or not, they are sure to be around for a long time. Here are a few you may want to visit.
The menu at Yien Yien tells us “some dim sum may not be available at all times.” They should sing that at the table. Dim sum have a half-life of about 15 minutes, and that implies freshness.
The dim sum here have a slightly homogenized quality but, overall, they are delightful. Pot stickers (five for $2.95) are done with flair and go crunch where you hope they will. Yun tsai bao (two for $2.95) couldn’t be better; they have that light springy texture akin to really fresh bread. Shui mai , little dumplings (five for $2.95), are juicy with a pungent pork and green onion filling.
Other dishes are hit and miss. The best salad is mien tsai ($3.25), cold noodles covered with an avalanche of chicken and greens in a zippy sauce. If this strikes your fancy, don’t plan on having room for another dish. Mu shu pork ($2.50), however, with its thick plum sauce, falls flat on its face, and the roasted meats are unremarkable.
The rice and noodle dishes are all fine. In fact, Yien Yien is at its best when working with the steamed dishes. The ownership is Korean and, while the waiters are Western and the design is modern, Yien Yien has a distinctly Asian flavor.
Yien Yien, 11907 Olympic Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 479-4774. Open for lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. Lunch for two, $12-$15.
Outside China is the fulfillment of a longtime dream for Morty Forschpan, the affable owner. His restaurant has two dining areas; inside is a metallic, pastel jungle with a tiny open kitchen. Outside there is a roomy patio with large heaters for chilly nights. You are served by people in black Chinese tunics who look weirdly stylish; the whole experience is self-conscious trendy fun.
Some of the dishes are amazingly good. Sweet pungent shrimp ($5.50), battered in a crunchy glaze, are a sensuous knockout. The honey spare ribs ($4.50) are tender and perfectly basted, and pan-fried noodles with seafood are crispy and spectacular.
Outside China has a large dim sum selection. Excellent pot stickers and meat buns (both four for $3) demonstrate that “small is beautiful.” They could be bigger. Other dim sum, like curried won tons (four for $2) and Sichuan dumplings, are noble failures, the former having a large clump of spiced meat in its center (which just doesn’t blend) and the latter being doused with pureed cilantro (which just doesn’t work).
Outside China also distinguishes itself with fine desserts. Forschpan serves little French pastries ($2.75): wrapped mousses, lemon cake, fruit tarts and the like.
Should you long for something other than tea, the restaurant has a beer and wine license. It is still a little new, but the beginning is bright. If quality is maintained, a loyal following and long lines are predicted.
Outside China, 12650 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 760-0896. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Lunch for two, $15-$25.
Farther west on the boulevard is Encino’s Bao Wow, formerly of Beverly Hills.
The menu begins with a silly explanation of their concept of dim sum, and goes on to boast the largest variety of bao (baked or steamed filled buns) in Los Angeles.
We began with a special appetizer combination called Tai Won On ($6.95), consisting of shu mai , fried shrimp, pork won ton, dumplings in a spicy sauce and little shrimp dumplings. They were quite well prepared and virtually oil-free, but all the fillings had the same texture and consistency, as if made in one giant food processor. No less an authority than our 7-year-old critic looked up after a few bites and said, “Mom, I don’t like this as much as real Chinese food.”
Bao Wow chicken ($3.95) is tasty and chopped up Chinese style, but the flavor is more Canton, Ohio, than Canton, China. Hot colorful salad ($4.50), which has a julienne of red and green peppers, baby corn and chicken served with a light dipping sauce, looks attractive but tastes bland. Ten-ingredient lo mein ($4.50) lacks pizazz. Try as we might we could only count six ingredients.
For dessert, there is a delectably gooey coconut almond haystack. Best, however, to forget the chocolate-covered fortune cookies; the chocolate only makes a bad dessert worse.
Bao Wow, 17209 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 789-9010. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Lunch for two, $15-$20.
Sprin Rol is not so much a dim sum restaurant as a Chinese fast-food place. (You stand in line to order, take a number, and they bring the food to your table.) They do have a few dim sum, but even their signature dish is not especially good. In some cases, it is downright bad: turkey and cheese spring roll (two for $1.88) is as ghastly as it sounds.
The shui mai , however, are wonderful, and from there the menu contains a few pleasant surprises. All of the stir-fry rolls are quite good. There is a satisfying creation called mu shu chicken roll ($2.50), a flat flour pancake stuffed with chicken and peanuts in a rich sauce.
The entrees aren’t too bad either. There is a beef with broccoli noodle that has a sauce so safe Lloyd’s of London would indemnify it against being disliked. Another popular seller is Oriental chicken salad ($3.50), which I found utterly bland.
The big draw at Sprin Rol are the prices. The only cheaper lunch in Beverly Hills is the free hors d’oeuvres table in RJ’s the Rib Joint. And the City of Beverly Hills offers free parking (two hours). It is no wonder that Sprin Rol is always crowded at noon.
P.S. Now it can be told, all of the four restaurants reviewed in this article boast “no MSG.” Perhaps some of the dishes, especially here, could use a little.
Sprin Rol, 340 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 278-9284. Open 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. (till 5 on Saturday). Closed Sunday. Lunch for two, $10-$15.