The always-evolving San Gabriel Valley teems with noodleshops of every description, new Mongolian hotpot emporia and restaurants featuring the hearty cooking of China’s far north. There are elegant Chinese superstores selling more kinds of imported shark’s fin than Sears has power tools, and Vietnamese cafés with dishes so localized that they have probably never before made it out of their villages of origin. For the first time in American history, I think, there is a fast-food joint that seems to serve nothing but mackerel, although the brightly lit monolingual wall signs make it fairly hard to tell.
Still, to most of the people I know, all of that pales before the news of a great new place to get dim sum, a major Cantonese restaurant with a seating capacity rivaling Dodger Stadium, a shrine to the miracles of global capitalism and pan-fried taro, modern techniques of crowd management and steamed shiu mai with shrimp roe. None of my Westside friends has ever called me up on a Sunday morning to ask me where in San Gabriel they should go to eat boiled mackerel.
Capital Seafood is the latest of the gigantic Hong Kong–style seafood houses to open in Monterey Park, its elaborate ceilings lit chartreuse and purple, its walls clad with polished marble, its chefs imported straight from Hong Kong, its wedding-banquet business reputedly booked solid through the beginning of next year. The restaurant, not to be confused with New Capital Seafood, is the newest and grandest branch of a small chain that includes restaurants in Garden Grove and Rowland Heights, a chain probably better known for its Chiu Chow and Southeast Asian–influenced crossover dishes than it is for its more orthodox Chinese cuisine. Dinners at Capital (which will be covered in a future column) include things like Vietnamese hot-and-sour soup as well as double-boiled wintermelon soup, and a rather Cambodian-seeming minted chicken-foot salad alongside roasted crispy whole squab.
But dim sum is the delicious traditional deal, carts laden with spare ribs steamed with black beans and baked buns stuffed with chicken; floppy rice noodles wrapped around beef and pan-fried dumplings that happen to be filled with snow-pea leaves and shrimp; fried sticky-rice capsules and northern-style soup dumplings that are better than they have any right to be in a dim sum house. The roasted duck and barbecued pork are perhaps limper than they should be, but there is an edge of freshness to Capital’s dim sum that puts it ahead of all the other cart-intensive places at the moment.
You will assuredly find all the steamed shrimp dumplings, the baked barbecued pork buns and the boiled Chinese broccoli of any decent dim sum restaurant, but Capital seems to specialize in the exotica of the dim sum kitchen — the squishy, fragrant, slightly unusual things that might be daunting if they were served in huge quantities, but seem just right in the two-bite portions that come off the dim sum cart: Jell-O-soft beef tendon tinted neon-orange with chile; steamed shrimp cake stuffed into rounds of powerfully astringent bitter melon; slippery slivers of cattle tripe, two or three different types per bowlful, cooked in a mild yellow curry.
That pretty cart over there, the one surmounted by two glazed pottery domes? The one to the left conceals sticky rice fried with bits of egg and Chinese sausage; the one to the right, a crock of sweet, red-cooked pigs’ trotters stewed in a sticky, ginger-laced brew of soy sauce and rock sugar. That peculiar-looking bowl? One of the few preparations of sea cucumber I’ve ever managed to love, a spiky beast simmered into an almost luxurious softness. That interesting-looking yellow pudding? The secret ingredient is Malaysian durian, a pungent tropical fruit whose aroma is somewhere between fresh strawberries and seriously rotted onions. (Some people love durian. I practically clawed it out of my mouth.) If you are in the mood to try pigs’ blood, transformed into trembly, supple cubes that make the stuff taste like a slightly gory version of tofu, there is a cart devoted to that too. And I have never had a better version of steamed chicken feet, gooey and slippery and tinged with chile — chicken feet good enough to overshadow the fact that you are sucking on the toes of a dead animal, like a demented, poultryphile version of Dick Morris.
Capital also makes a specialty of dessert. The moss-green jellies, the hot tofu with syrup, the mango pudding and the coconut gelatin studded with black beans are superb. I like the fried balls of green-tea-infused sticky rice stuffed with sweet beans. But the real tour de force is probably the crock of hot, sweet almond milk baked underneath golden domes of pastry, like the creation of a demented Sinophilic French chef. Boiled sea cucumber will never have universal appeal, but almond milk en croute may come pretty close. ?
Capital Seafood Restaurant, 755 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 282-3318. Open daily, 9 a.m.–10 p.m.; dim sum 9 a.m.–3 p.m. daily. MC, V. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. Dim sum $; dinner $$. Recommended dim sum: steamed chicken feet, fried calamari with pepper and salt, almond milk en croute.