A great dim sum meal is the closest that restaurant-going comes to a fever dream, an endless pageant of tin trays, ceramic plates and stainless-steel baskets, circles of bamboo and deep ceramic vessels, processions of boiled vegetables, simmered viscera and floppy noodles that continue until you surrender, leaving you surrounded with what looks like the leavings of a thousand meals: steamers piled high, dumpling remnants underfoot, bones and chewed cartilage and ruined carapaces of a dozen undersea creatures. You call a halt to the feast not by politely signaling to the servers, who will keep offering you food even when your table is a foot deep in shrimp shells, but by waving to a headwaiter across the room like a drowning man begging for a life preserver.
At The Kitchen, a new, Hong Kong–style Alhambra restaurant spun off from a successful Millbrae original, the onslaught of dreamy pleasure is complete. Well before you have ticked off your selections on the written dim sum menu, your table is surrounded by waitresses bearing trays — hot, delicious-smelling trays straight from the kitchen, laden with crisp, deep-fried nests of shredded taro that conceal tiny hard-boiled quail eggs at their core; sticky rice noodles wrapped around fried Chinese crullers; and hollow globes of pounded sticky rice, tinted kelly green with powdered tea, encapsulating sweet bean paste. Once you have obtained a pot of chrysanthemum tea and powered through plates of glistening, golden baked pork bao; broccoli with oyster sauce; and white-topped buns, comically bursting out of miniature tins, that turn out to be filled with something like Chinese apple-pie filling, you can be forgiven for assuming that you have eaten lunch, even before you have ordered.
Most of the hip dim sum on the West Coast and in Hong Kong is ordered off menus instead of carts these days. An order of pan-fried fish cake that comes to you straight from the kitchen is relatively certain to be fresh and hot, while the same dish from a cart may have been orbiting the dining room for the better part of an hour. The first couple of times I visited the Kitchen, the dim sum menu was written in untranslated Cantonese, and I basically had the things I knew how to order, the har gow and shiu mai and chow fun and charshu bao that I had been eating since I was a teenager, but had largely ignored in favor of things like tripe and chicken feet and the latest high-style dumplings out of Shenzhen — it was amazing how straightforward and fresh the old stalwarts tasted after all those years. The Kitchen’s dim sum is a revelation.
When the salt-and-pepper tofu comes to the table, three dozen tawny cubes tossed with a mince of garlic and chiles, each bite carries a hit of crunch and tingly spice, followed closely by a burst of steamy, puddingy, almost liquid blandness as it dissolves under your teeth. The roasted pork belly, a shotgun marriage of friable skin, molten fat and savory flesh, demands as a condiment only a grain or two of white sugar. You would expect something called Living Lobster With Noodle to be glorious, and it is (although a shot of what I assume is Maggi seasoning in the curly noodles nudges the dish ever so slightly toward the taste of Top Ramen), but even the pedestrian stuff tends to be delicious here: rice porridge flavored with shreds of dried scallop, steamed spareribs with black-bean sauce that sing in the key of fresh pork, or pan-fried rice-noodle rolls with XO sauce that have the texture of exotic seafood. The boiled tripe, snowy white and untouched by seasonings, may be too austere. But even the chow fun with beef ?is good.
The Kitchen is not the most innovative dim sum restaurant in town — that would be New Concept — nor does it use the most luxurious ingredients (Sea Harbour uses way more shark’s fin, abalone and bird’s nest). Capital seems more like a bustling Hong Kong banquet hall. Ocean Star has a bigger menu. The presentation and the serenity of Mission 261 are superior. At the moment, though, the Kitchen may serve my favorite dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley, the most carefully prepared, the freshest. The rice noodles are gooier, the fried sticky-rice capsules cracklier, the steamed shrimp dumplings crunchier than ever.
The Kitchen, 203 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 289-4828. Open daily 9 a.m.–3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.–1 a.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dim sum lunch for two, food only, $25–$30. Recommended dim sum: taro nest with quail egg, steamed chicken feet, congee with dried scallop and pork, fried green-tea dumplings.