The Nam Wah Tea Parlor is one of those small dark restaurants on a small dark alley in New York's Chinatown. In the early '50s, it was where Chinese-Americans took their Anglo friends to introduce them to the wonders of dim sum, the little dumplings that are served for breakfast in southern China. Dour waiters walked around carrying trays covered with small steamed dumplings and deep-fried shrimp magically puffed up to the size of chicken legs and fat round albino puffs in which were hidden a minuscule amount of roast pork (my brother called these "pork sandwiches").
When I was 5, I thought it was just about the most wonderful restaurant on earth.
I liked being presented with a visible menu: The only possible surprise was what you might find lurking inside the dumplings. I liked the manner of calculating the bill too: The waiter simply came over and counted the empty plates. My parents, of course, liked the price: I think it was hard to spend more than a couple dollars per person.
My second most interesting encounter with dim sum came many years later in Macao. I was taken to another small dark restaurant off of a small dark alley, only here the dour waiters with trays had turned into smiling women with carts. What they had on those carts bore the same relationship to the dim sum at the Nam Wah that Peking duck does to chicken chop suey: It was astonishing, exotic, wonderful stuff.
This is what I remember from that meal in Macao: water-chestnut pancakes, cooked before our very eyes on a little rolling stove; shredded turnip cakes in very flaky pastry; chewy rice dumplings filled with sweet bean paste; shrimp dumplings of an unearthly lightness.
My third most interesting encounter with dim sum came a couple of weeks ago in Chinatown at the new Ocean Seafood Restaurant, which occupies the site of the venerable Miriwa. Three of us walked past the waterfall that gurgles in the lobby, up the mirrored, plant-festooned stairs, plunked ourselves down at a table and flagged the first rolling cart that came by. " Siu mai ?" asked the waitress, opening up a lid and holding out one of the little metal containers. We nodded. " Har gau ?" she asked, opening another. We nodded again. She put the two containers down, stamped the card on the table and rolled off.
My theory on dim sum is this: When you first walk into the restaurant, grab something off of the first cart that comes by. You never know when the next one will come along. Besides, if you aren't appropriately enthusiastic, the women who push the carts will start passing you by. You never know what you might miss. Har gau is not normally the sort of thing to which I give the nod. It is the most commonplace dim sum there is--a sort of Chinese shrimp quenelle that can often be leaden. Here, however, the quenelles were particularly airy, and the mixture contained thin strands of white Chinese chives, which gave them just the perfect bit of bite. They were wonderful.
The siu mai were even better. Siu mai , which are shaped like little kettles (the name translates as "cook and sell dumplings"), are another standard of the dim sum kitchen. They are generally a sort of bland mixture of shrimp and pork; here a small whole shrimp was perched on top of a lightly spicy, very juicy mixture of pork and spices. Each bite was a small explosion of flavor.
These were so delicious that I began looking frantically around, desperate not to miss anything that might come my way. Did I want woo gok , the crunchy deep-fried taro balls? Yes indeed. Turnip cakes? Of course. A woman came by with little dumplings filled with scallops--better even than the siu mai-- so good that after one bite we called her back to get another order.
By now the cart pushers seemed to know that we are game for anything, and every one of them stopped by the table to try and offer us her wares. A woman held out a plate filled with translucent slices of raw geoduck--giant clam; would we like some? We would. She dipped the slices into boiling water, briefly, then covered them with a mixture of soy and scallions. The thin slices were delicate, slightly briny, just chewy enough to make them interesting--and with their bracing sauce a clean, fresh contrast to the fried dumplings.
So too were duck webs, delightfully chewy bits that I like so well I've asked for them on every return visit. The spare ribs in black bean sauce were just a little bit better than they are in other places, and the congee --rice soup--was blandly soothing and delicious.
But it was chow fun-- those long, flat rolls of very white noodles--that turned out to be the real revelation. In ordinary dim sum joints these noodle rolls can be fat, rubbery, totally unappealing. What distinguished the ones at Ocean Seafood were the noodles; they were as light as butterfly wings. Biting into them, they were just a bit of resistence that quickly gave way to a filling of fresh shrimp. The noodles themselves left only a lingering impression of silken texture.
It's no wonder that Ocean Seafood is packed at lunchtime; this has quickly become the place for dim sum in Chinatown. At night, however, the restaurant tends to be less busy. That's a shame; this is also a terrific place to eat dinner.
The thing to remember when eating in Cantonese seafood houses is that the strength of the Cantonese kitchen is in using the freshest ingredients and treating them very simply. Don't order dishes such as kung pao chicken or hot and sour soup; they won't be good here. Do order steamed seafood, pan-fried vegetables or clay-pot dishes.
Above all, if the menu offers anything in a live version, order it, even though it is very expensive. It will be worth the money. The live shrimp, which are sold by the pound (a pound and a half is about right for four people) certainly are. I like them best simply boiled. They arrive at your table, rosy creatures, head still on, beautifully arranged on a plate. You break off the head, pull off the shells and dip the shrimp into the accompanying sauce of soy, chiles, vinegar and cilantro. They are also wonderful baked--the added attraction here being that each shrimp is skewered before it is cooked so what you get is shrimp on a stick.
Crab is in season now, and this is a great place to have it. Try it baked: in spicy salt, in spicy sauce, or in ginger and green onions.
The kitchen does well with whole fish--steamed, braised or fried--and the geoduck at night is as good as it is in the daytime. There is also steamed chicken--its flesh as soft as velvet--that is a triumph of simplicity and flavorfulness.
Ocean Seafood has the least expensive Peking Duck I've found--$20 for a whole one. I thought that must be why it was on every table--until I ordered it. The regal bird is paraded to your table where the crisp skin is ceremoniously sliced and served in little steamed buns. The duck then disappears--momentarily--until the meat reappears in a platter on your table. This rich dark bird provides a perfect contrast to the smooth, pale flesh of the steamed chicken.
The menu also has some of the most interesting vegetable dishes I've found in Chinatown. Pan-fried Chinese broccoli with wine is crisp and fragrant, while snow pea greens with dried scallops and shiitake mushrooms are slightly rich, slightly gooey--and entirely delightful.
Dessert? If you're not feeling adventurous, opt for the mango pudding, which is what Jell-O would be if it could. If you're in the mood for something more exotic, order water chestnut soup. It is sweet, with the sneakily crunchy quality peculiar to water chestnuts; I find it curiously comforting.
I find it even more comforting to know that these days when Chinese families want to introduce their Anglo friends to dim sum, they can bring them to a place as good as Ocean Seafood. What 5-year-old wouldn't think that this was the most wonderful restaurant on earth?
Ocean Seafood Restaurant
747 N. Broadway (or 750 N. Hill St.), Los Angeles, (213) 687-3088.
Open daily, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine only. Validated parking in lot. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$80.
Recommended dishes: Live shrimp ($14 per pound); baked crab, about $20; Peking duck, $20; boiled geoduck, $12; steamed chicken, $8 for 1/2 chicken; pan-fried broccoli, $7; mustard greens with garlic, $5.