It’s 107 degrees in the San Gabriel Valley sun, a blasting heat with a sulfurous, hydrocarbon edge, and the sweating hordes packed inside the lobby of the new King Hua huddle under the one vent in the room that even promises a bit of cool, jostling one another for the chance to have their cheeks licked by the hint of a breeze, and muttering threats toward the newcomers, whose entrance is accompanied by 100 cubic feet of stinking, superheated air. You stumble outside to the patio waiting area, and just as quickly, the heat forces you back in. After 45 minutes or so, you start to wonder whether any dim sum breakfast could be worth this. The woman at the podium barks out Cantonese numbers with a sneer you imagine more appropriate to a prison guard assigning new inmates their cells. And then your number is called, the crowd parts and you are in an air-conditioned heaven with a dripping glass of ice water in your fist, a pile of fried smelts at your elbow and a tableful of dumplings on the way.
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Lucky-clover shrimp dumplings; wolfberries are the secret ingredient.
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Is your number up?
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The dim sum of its parts
King Hua is the latest combatant in the Cantonese banquet wars, a big, elegant dining room lined with fish tanks, lobby displays of XO cognac and Opus One, and elaborate wedding menus focused on crabs, endangered sea creatures and barbecued squab. Luxurious private dining rooms line one side of the restaurant. A lot of the San Gabriel Valley wedding-dinner business tends to go to the newest and most elaborate seafood restaurant in town, and King Hua is certainly up to battling for supremacy bird’s nest by bird’s nest, abalone by abalone, banquet menu by banquet menu.
More to the point, the owners of King Hua seem to have leveraged away the Vancouver-trained dim sum chefs of Rosemead’s excellent Sea Harbour, so that the morning kitchen is already one of the top two or three in town, and the crowds are already impenetrable.
King Hua is not the most user-friendly dim sum restaurant in town, at least if you don’t have a pretty good grasp of Cantonese. You find the dishes you want on a pink picture menu, and you order them by ticking the appropriate boxes on a folded paper menu, all in Chinese characters and arranged by number — the process of menu concordance sometimes feels more like taking an SAT exam than like organizing lunch. (You will inevitably end up with at least one order of something like spicy duck web instead of shrimp/sticky-rice rolls no matter how diligently you double-check your work.) The headwaiters assigned to tell customers that there is no cart service will inevitably bump into the waitresses trying to talk you into taking from their trays fried pork capsules or a plate of baked chicken buns. If you think lobster congee sounds good, a captain might come over to warn you that a bowl of the stuff, marked “seasonal,” will end up costing you $60, while the plain-wrap congee with minced fish and peanuts, plenty delicious on its own, runs only $3.95. You should practice due diligence if you are in the mood for geoduck, fresh abalone or crab. You will be charged a buck per person for tea, so you may as well ask for an earthy, aged pu-erh or a fragrant ti kuan yin.
The price adds up quickly, and cart dim sum is more fun than menu dim sum, but you gain in return the privilege of experiencing shui mai cooked to order rather than taken for a long jog around the dining room.
If you’ve spent much time scouting dim sum in Alhambra, you have seen the restaurant before — it has probably assumed a half-dozen guises since it was built, including most recently Ritz Garden and Sea Star. And if you’ve been to Sea Harbour, which was the first of the new-wave dim sum parlors to open a decade ago, much of the menu will definitely be familiar, from the fried tofu puffs drizzled with thick abalone sauce and the particular salty-sweet savor of the baked barbecued pork buns to the duck-yolk-intensive stuffing of the lotus-leaf wraps and the mayonnaise-saturation of the seafood-salad rolls. You also may recognize some of the sillier dishes, including fried squid lozenges stuffed with a morsel of duck liver that wouldn’t be big enough to garnish a canapé for a gnat, or the mediocre Northern-style soup dumplings, xiao long bao, steamed in tiny individual tart tins like so many miniature apple pies. (Xiao long bao are never good in dim sum places, for the same reason that you probably wouldn’t order a vol-au-vent in an Italian restaurant.)
Like any fine dim sum restaurant, King Hua has its specific strengths: the gooey-skinned steamed shrimp dumplings called har gao, subtly flavored with white pepper; crisp, baked chicken buns whose creamy innards ooze like chicken à la king; flaky egg-custard tarts; and meltingly tender chicken feet braised in an angelica-scented broth. Vancouver dim sum restaurants make a big deal out of chicken knees with spicy salt, the crunchy bits of deep-fried cartilage that may be to Canada’s Asian restaurants what chicken wings are to the taverns of Buffalo, and King Hua’s version is spicy, crisp and almost buried in golden toasted garlic. There is a wonderful dish of steamed rice noodles wrapped around shreds of chicken and half-crisp slices of cooked bitter melon, whose bitterness is either refreshing or overpowering, depending on your mood; and the rice roasted with Chinese barbecue in a sizzling clay pot is fluffy and subtly smoky.
The signature dumpling is probably one stuffed with chopped shrimp and sautéed snow-pea shoots, whose top is trifurcated into a kind of clover decorated with wolfberries, peas and corn. And for dessert, you can get cubes of sweet amber gelatin in which red wolfberries and tiny white flowers float like a summer scene from an ancient scroll.
You have already forgotten the purgatory of your wait.
King Hua, 2000 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 282-8833. Dim sum and dinner daily. Full bar. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dim sum for two, food only, $24-$44. Recommended dishes: steamed shrimp and pea-tip dumplings; steamed rice noodle with chicken and bitter melon; chicken feet with angelica in meat broth; har gao; fried chicken knees with spicy salt; wolfberry gelatin.