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The Power of Bao

Photos by Anne Fishbein

Like the offshore winds, or the ZIP codes of independent film producers, the locus of Los Angeles dim sum is forever moving east. Herein, a few of our favorites.

 

Sea Harbor. As much as it pains me to admit it, the Cantonese restaurants in Vancouver eclipse even our own, vast feeding halls that churn out oceans of shark's-fin soup, flotillas of bao and flocks of barbecued pigeons to the diaspora of Hong Kong's business elite. The best of the Vancouver restaurants, Sun Sui Wah, serves the dim sum to which all other dim sum must be compared. With Sea Harbor, a branch of a Vancouver seafood house ensconced in a former ice cream parlor in Rosemead, the Los Angeles area has its own version of Vancouver-style dim sum — which is to say exotic seafood, properly gooey dumpling skins, and a specialty in chicken knees with pepper-salt — crunchy bits of deep-fried cartilage that may be to Vancouver Asian restaurants what chicken wings are to the taverns of Buffalo. You have to tick off your order on triplicate forms rather than point to things on carts, and the price does tend to add up quickly, but it sometimes seems like a small inconvenience to endure for the privilege of eating food cooked to order rather than wheeled halfway to Shenzen. The soft, slippery stewed sea cucumber is good enough to let even the most squeamish Sinophile understand why the Cantonese value this sea slug so highly. And by no means miss the superb barbecued squab. If you've eaten most of your dim sum in Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco, Sea Harbor's dim sum will seem almost like an evolutionary leap. 3939 Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-3939.

 

Seaworld, a crowded wonderland of ziggurats and chandeliers and fish tanks, is somewhat of an underachieverä10

when it comes to its banquet menu, but the dim sum is first-rate, a parade of rolling steam tables, hampers full of rice porridge, trays of glistening baked pork buns, and segmented carts that conceal chile-spiked stews of tripe and various organic tubes. Here are fried crullers wrapped in slippery rice noodles; rich constructs of whitefish braised with Virginia ham; and fat, pale dumplings stuffed with an intensely green mince of vegetables, with shrimp and pork forcemeats, and fresh scallops.

Griddle carts circulate the room, preceded by wafts of their sweetly fragrant smoke, ready to grill to order rich squares of taro; fish cake-stuffed bell peppers; chewy rice noodles spiked with scallions and dried shrimp. But Seaworld's strength, at least in the mornings, is its deep-fried dishes: squid, shrimp and tofu, sizzled golden brown and sprinkled with pepper, salt and minced garlic. 8118 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (626) 288-2898.

 


A panoramic view of
the 888 kitchen, as
it unfolds

(Photos by Anne Fishbein)

888, which anchors a Rosemead mall, is a terrifically elegant Chiu Chow banquet hall at night, the place to go when you are in the mood for the braised goose, the shrimp balls and the tart, pungent soups that are characteristic of the cuisine. During the day, though, 888 serves a fancy version of traditional dim sum, and on weekend mornings the crowd is so vast that it actually seems to recede into the horizon. 888 seems at its best with slightly unusual dumplings, steamed concoctions of fish, black mushrooms, bits of dried seafood and vegetables, and I love its vibrantly pink steamed shrimp dumplings, the Chinese broccoli and the sliced geoduck cooked to order in a boil cart, and the sesame-scented jellyfish salad. 8450 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 573-1888.

 

New Capital's chief selling point is, frankly, its egalitarian pricing structure, just $1.60 for practically everything on offer from sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves to small platters of fried shrimp. Even more than at other dim sum restaurants, the pressure to eat, pay and leave can be overwhelming. But the quality at New Capital is remarkably high, the food remarkably fresh — especially if you manage to snag an order of the fried pork-stuffed sticky-rice capsules called ham sui gok, which are as irresistible as hot doughnuts, from a waitress passing by with a tray. You'll find no elaborate carts here, no costly shark's-fin soup, no shaved geoduck boiled to order, but you will find on almost every table, even at 11 in the morning, a platter (ordered off a wall sign) of the cheapest Dungeness crab in town. 7540 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (626) 288-1899.

 

 

Full House. Although it occupies an elegant space in one of the priciest corners of Arcadia, Full House is almost a throwback to the primordial L.A. teahouses: extraordinarily inexpensive, populated with a clientele that seems at least a decade older than that of the other restaurants, and specializing in elegant versions of the kind of dim sum some of us fell in love with in high school when we were still taking the bus down to Chinatown to eat at Tai Hong and Grandview Gardens. This is where to come for great baked buns filled with barbecued pork or with sweetened egg yolk; the basic shiu mai and har gao are wonderful. And some of the food is so old-fashioned as almost to defy description: gingery red-cooked pig's feet ladled from a giant earthen crock; crunchy shaved pig's ears tossed with chile oil and served over a bed of fried won ton noodles; and a soothing rice porridge laced with minced fish. When you're in the proper mood, Full House can be stunningly good. 1220 S. Golden West Ave., Arcadia, (626) 446-8222.

Hong Kong Low Deli. If you're the least bit nostalgic for the Chinatown that existed before the last wave of immigration, Hong Kong Low Deli is essential, tucked away in a back alley behind tourist Chinatown, a steamy, takeout-only redoubt of flaky chicken buns and squares of fried taro stacked behind greasy panels of glass. The deli serves what dim sum used to be back when everybody called it "teacakes," barbecued-pork buns and custard buns and gorgeous egg-yolk custard tarts the vivid yellow of a 5-year-old's painting of the sun, pulled straight out of ovens or steamers. Ten dollars' worth of shrimp dumplings and egg rolls will comfortably feed the UCLA starting five. Hong Kong Low Deli is the kind of thing the city's Cultural Heritage Commission should be dedicated to preserving instead of a bunch of old buildings that don't even have restaurants in them. 408 Bamboo Lane, Chinatown, (213) 680-9827.

 


Scenes from the morning
shift at 888

(Photos by Anne Fishbein)

Empress Harbor — who makes up the names of these places? — is still probably the fanciest banquet hall in Monterey Park, no longer quite the establishment standby that it was when the dining room housed Harbor Village, but still opulent enough for a grand wedding. I had pretty much given up on the restaurant after a mediocre dinner a couple of years ago, but a recent dim sum breakfast was superb, a procession of slippery rice noodles, barbecued duck, steamed scallop dumplings, griddled bao and whole fried shrimp on a stick that was everything you could ask for, executed with a crisp efficiency that other dim sum houses don't even attempt. In good Chinese restaurants, individual dishes can be memorable. In great Chinese restaurants, what you remember is the meal. 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (626) 300-8833.

THERE MAY BE NOTHING IN LOS ANGELES TO RIVAL THE major Cantonese restaurant, home to a thousand wedding feasts, a gleaming centerpiece of new development, a shrine to the miracles of late-model capitalism and the wonders of live steamed prawns. These places are huge, long as soccer fields and nearly as wide, some of them, dominated by wall-size fish tanks, encrusted with marble, glowing with the light of a thousand crystal chandeliers. The parking lots teem with double-parked Lexuses and the products of Mercedes-Benz. The priciest luxuries — sun-dried abalone, supreme shark's fin, the better grades of imported swallow's nest, bamboo pith and conpoy (dried scallop) — make the white-truffle dinners at Bastide or Valentino seem as inexpensive as breakfast at Rae's.

Yet even the most elegant of local Cantonese restaurants may express themselves best in the democracy of dim sum breakfasts — massive feasts, first-come, first-served where even the regulars pretend to check in and wait with the rest of us, where the impressive resources of the modern Cantonese kitchen are put to use producing dishes that may sell for no more than a buck and a half apiece, where ancient techniques of traditional cooking are harnessed to generate tasty and amusing snacks. If the unifying principle of Chinese cooking is undoubtedly harmony, dim sum breakfasts seem to be devoted to chaos. At maximum swell the seating capacity for Saturday dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley probably approaches that of a Lakers' game. And almost the moment a dim sum innovation pops up in Hong Kong — mobile gas-fired griddles, say, or scallop dumplings, or XO noodles, or pumpkin-size balls of glutinous rice stuffed with whole preserved eggs — it seems to make its way here.

 

I started to think a little differently about the dim sum process in New York, at a Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant that would get lost on an Alhambra street corner, but passes for the Chez Panisse of Manhattan's Chinatown. On a particularly crowded weekend morning, our party was directed to share a large table commanded by an elderly Chinese couple, who promptly left the restaurant in disgust. They had just settled down apparently; they hadn't yet bothered to order. But where I had been accustomed to seeing little dishes of Chinese mustard, they had been served ramekins of XO sauce, the expensive, spicy dried-fish condiment often seen on better Hong Kong tables. Instead of the usual wet-cardboard restaurant tea, there was a pot of pungent, smoky pu-erh, whose strong flavor punches through dim sum's rich sweetness like a nail gun through Sheetrock. I accidentally insisted on an order of pig's blood (the woman pushing the cart refused even to lift the lid to show us the dish), soft, custardy cubes that turned out to be the single best thing I ever tasted at the restaurant, which I had always associated with the sweet, rather thick batter that the chef used to blanket practically everything he fried.

And I realized — sometimes to get the best meal even at a dim sum house, where friendly pointing and waving seem to be the order of the day, you have to be proactive to be the kind of guy who insists on being told the contents of the crock you are assuredly not being shown, who insists on a particular kind of tea, and angles for the chicken feet so assiduously that the manager eventually brings over a fresh steamerful herself. If a beguiling cart hunkers by without slowing down, it is permissible to follow it around the room. Those little stand-up menus on the middle of the table? You are entitled to any dish thereon, and if you look around the room, you will find that most of the tables contain at least one of the specialties, usually menu dishes or discounted seafood, listed on the inside of the card. The waiters aren't there just to tally the check at the end — they are there to work with you, to help you get the best meal the restaurant is capable of providing. Don't skimp on the tip.

Because as much as one might crave the specific succor of juicy barbecued pork, or grilled bell peppers stuffed with fish cake, or the delightful, freshly made warm tofu carefully spooned out of rolling vats, the yearning quickly vanishes when the next cart rolls down the aisle. Dim sum is the perfect food for the age of attention-deficit order: At a dim sum meal, the only rule is: More is more.


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