Meet dinner, Hong Kong style
“LOOK!” my friend Joy whispers.
Our party of seven has just settled in at the Kitchen, a new Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurant in Alhambra, the Southern California outpost of the original spot in Millbrae, Calif. I knew that the Kitchen up north was extremely popular, especially for dim sum, so when a branch opened here, and I had enough friends on hand to fill a big table, off we went.
I turn my head, and there is the restaurant’s dapper manager holding a tray aloft with one hand while, with the other, he struggles to keep an enormous Alaskan king crab from crawling right off the tray. Pinning the crab down with his index finger, its yard-long legs thrumming, he blithely discusses the various ways the crab might be prepared -- steamed, fried, braised ...
I’m not so sure about being introduced to the crustacean we’re about to eat, but there’s no doubt that this guy is going to be very fresh. And when we’re talking Cantonese seafood, that’s the whole idea. Order practically anything, and the server will make sure you see how live and frisky the rock cod or prawns or lobster are. It’s expected. Freshness -- and its inherent quality and delicate, nuanced flavor --is, after all, what you are paying for.
And pay you do. When we ask the manager just how much that king crab will be, he tells us $30 a pound -- but for you, (presumably since we’d been to the restaurant the week before and are now regulars), it’s $26 a pound. Oh, and each crab is 7 or 8 pounds.
I make a quick calculation and ask if any are a bit smaller. Maybe one, he says, and rushes off to the kitchen, bringing back another knobbly-shelled crab for our perusal. It’s not that small, weighing in at 6 3/4 pounds. I do some more math: the price is $175.50. Expensive. But we’re seven at table, so that’s roughly $25 per person, about the cost of a normal entree at many restaurants in L.A. And since the crab is served up in two courses, it’s not as pricey as it seems. After discussing the possibilities, we decide to have the legs steamed with garlic, and the rest of the crab cooked Hong Kong style.
Laid out on a large porcelain platter, the crab legs look magnificent. The meat is snowy white and very tender, and tastes exactly like the crab it is -- nothing remotely like cottony frozen king crab. At the Kitchen, “steamed with garlic” turns out to mean steamed with great wads of the stuff, a boon for our blood pressure no doubt, but too much of a good thing. In the end, we push most of the garlic off to the side and dive into the pure crab meat, blushed coral where it touched the shell.
Part two, Hong Kong style, is the hacked crab body, deep-fried and crunchy, showered with golden fried garlic, scallions and a little chile pepper. The flavor and crunch together is fantastic, and we happily pick it up in our fingers, gnawing at the crispy bits near the shell, scraping off the meat with our teeth. My friends are enthusiastically eating away, going back for seconds and thirds. This, I don’t need to tell them, is not your typical neighborhood Chinese.
Dim sum delights
NEXT time, I’m dragging them to dim sum, which is the Kitchen’s strong suit. Here, as at most contemporary dim sum houses, you order from a printed menu, a little like the way you order sushi. Check off what you want, give it to the waiter, and very soon, the dim sum, all freshly made, is ferried over from the kitchen. You can practically close your eyes and point and not go wrong with the delicacies on offer.
Shiu mai laced with crab meat and puckered around the edges like a frilly cushion are succulent and delicious. But my current favorite is the astonishing chive shrimp dumplings, a plush rice flour dough shaped into a plump half moon with a filling of fresh, barely cooked shrimp and masses of flat Chinese chives. Every time, I wish I’d asked for two orders. And then I get distracted by the next good thing.
The Chiu Chow dumpling holds a more complex filling of diced Chinese vegetables, tree ear fungus and seafood. Its distinctly marine funk may put off some diners, but it is one of the best items on the dim sum menu.
When a server passes by with a tray of that day’s special seaweed salad, we grab one. Made from three kinds of seaweed sliced fine as thread and tossed in a fragrant sesame dressing, the salad is a refreshing counterpoint to the richer flavors of the dim sum. So are the “pork ribs steamed fun,” plain steamed pork riblets sitting on a bowl of thick, bouncy rice noodles. The pork is so sweet and tender near the bone, and the noodles so pure and good, that I’m sure this dish will haunt me until I come back and order it again.
Don’t miss the unusual green tea “dumpling,” which is more like a big green tea-dyed noodle rolled up with sweetened sesame paste and pan-fried to make it a little crisp on the outside. I’m crazy about the slightly bitter flavor of green tea against the rich, sweet sesame, but, for a Western palate, it seems it should have come toward the end, as dessert. Now I know.
The Kitchen also offers half a dozen variations on congee, the delicious Chinese rice porridge, including one embellished with shredded dried scallops and juicy pork balls. And of course, no dim sum feast is complete without barbecued pork buns. The Kitchen’s are a very refined version of the staple: The soft bun wears a shiny sugary glaze. Inside is a finely diced, and very wet, barbecued pork filling with a big dose of sweet. Not the usual, at all, and perhaps an acquired taste, but very good.
The one thing I’ve become wary of is the fried items: They can be a little greasy. And though you can also order pretty much anything from the regular menu during dim sum service, I never make it past these delectable little bites.
Dinner also has its delights. The night of the king crab, we get really extravagant and order a lobster too. Steamed with garlic and thick slices of fresh ginger, it is sumptuous and deeply delicious, a terrific match for the white Burgundy my friend Paul brought from his cellar in Oakland. The 4 1/2 -pound crustacean is a relative bargain at $63 (some steakhouses charge up to $25 a pound for live lobster).
Though I explain to the die-hard carnivores at the table that live seafood is the way to go at a Hong Kong or Cantonese restaurant, none can resist poring over the entire menu and trying to come up with a meat dish.
What about Peking duck, one asks. No, I tell him. That’s a Mandarin specialty and generally not something you should order in a Hong Kong style restaurant.
How about salt and pepper pork? This, a suggestion from the manager. Too salty, and it’s deep-fried.
In the end, someone manages to slip in an order for a couple of roasted squabs. They’re overcooked, without a hint of rose to the meat. But the meat guys are happy.
A lively scene
THE vegetables are excellent, especially the bright Chinese mustard greens in supreme broth, and the snow pea shoots. There’s also a long list of satisfying soups, including a light, savory tofu soup laced with pork, swatches of seaweed and cilantro. On a chilly night in a chilly room, it’s guaranteed to bring everyone up to temperature.
One caveat: Make sure you understand the price per pound of any live seafood before you order. When our server proposed geoduck clam one night, I forgot to ask. Who knew this Pacific coast critter and its giant siphon could weigh as much as 5 pounds? Or that it could cost $20 a pound? Or that we were ordering the whole animal? My fault. For that price, I’d have taken the lobster. But I couldn’t complain about the way the geoduck was cooked and, like the crab, it made two different dishes, including one of thinly sliced clam stir-fried with garlic. It’s good, but not what you’d call tender -- more like abalone in texture, but with a pronounced clam flavor.
The Kitchen’s service is a cut above that at most San Gabriel Valley restaurants. At least two of the managers speak English and are genuinely helpful. And truly, the service and the terrific dim sum are what set the Kitchen apart from any number of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, many of them much glitzier and better-appointed than this one. The Kitchen’s owners have tried to dress up the space (last seen as NYC Jumbo Seafood) by wrapping the pillars in gold lame a la Christo and draping swags of colored tinsel from the ceiling. It doesn’t help all that much.
But they’ve spent on flat-screen television monitors dotted throughout the restaurant, which are usually playing Chinese soap operas. I can’t understand a word and yet I’m deeply drawn into the story of young professionals in high-rise Hong Kong complete with the slick apartments and fashionable clothes.
There’s plenty of real life drama to take in too. Across the room, an elderly woman commands the attention of her entire extended table, telling a long and happy story, as she holds a barbecued pork bun aloft, poised to take a second bite. All around us, tea is poured into cups, chopsticks reach for neatly pleated steamed dumplings, babies decorously eat their rice, mesmerized by the goings-on at table. A beautifully turned out woman nibbles on chicken feet. A big table is crowded with a family drinking Coca-Cola and whiskey with their seafood feast. The entire restaurant is energized with the excited clamor of friends laughing and talking and eating.
I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be on a sunny Sunday morning.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Location: 203 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 289-4828.
Ambience: Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, with gold fabric-wrapped pillars, the usual bank of live seafood tanks and a large dining room crowded with big, round tables. Chinese soap operas play on flat-screen TVs while the mostly Chinese American customers order up round after round of dim sum at breakfast, or live seafood at night.
Service: Energetic and helpful.
Price: Dim sum, $10 to $15 per person (individual dishes, $1.88 to $6); appetizers, $4 to $9.50; Hong Kong and Chiu Chow style dishes, $6 to $24; soups, $8.50 to $20; chef’s specialties, $10 to $22; country style dishes, $10 to $22; clay pot, $10 to $15; meat dishes, $10 to $12; tofu and vegetables, $10; rice and chow fun, $10 to $12. Live seafood, market price.
Best dishes: Dim sum (shiu mai with crab meat, pork ribs steamed fun, chive shrimp dumplings, Chiu Chow dumplings, seaweed salad, barbecued pork buns, green tea dumplings, congee); tofu soup with pork and seaweed, roasted pork belly, fresh Alaskan king crab two ways, lobster steamed with ginger and garlic, Chinese mustard greens in supreme broth, pea shoots.
Wine list: Perfunctory. Bring your own (no corkage fee) or drink Chinese beer.
Best table: One near the bank of windows at the back.
Special features: Takeout.
Details: Open for dim sum and lunch, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily. Lot parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.