One of the best things about living in Los Angeles is knowing so much about Chinese food. And eating a ton of it. It's a point of civic pride that the average resident can name different Chinese regional cuisines, perhaps even down to particular dishes.
Because we know so much about Chinese food, we tend to sort of forget about Cantonese food, which was the first type of Chinese food to show up in the United States. It's heavy on seafood and noodles, and is often on the sweeter side of savory. Dim sum is the shining star of Cantonese food, with its dumplings and buns and fried snacks.
But Cantonese cuisine gets short shrift these days. It's not often included in discussions of exciting Chinese food in Los Angeles County, and I believe that's because we're all so used to it. It's not new — and we almost resist learning anything new about it, as seen by the resistance to dim sum prices going above a very low threshold.
So I propose a civic celebration of Cantonese cuisine. By which I mean, let's all eat more of it. Specifically dim sum. And let's not quibble if it's more expensive than the shu mai we grew up with.
Here are some of the best purveyors of Cantonese food and dim sum at the moment. Try them out, and order something you've never had before.
No surprise that Sea Harbour has topped yet another one of our lists. You know you've stumbled into a quality dim sum restaurant when the chef is generous with the roe on top of the shu mai; no pathetic sprinkling of orange here. Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant is one of the few dim sum places that really pays attention to both quality and portions. Although the restaurant has become a Mecca of sorts for hard-core dim sum pursuants, there is no loss of authenticity. The staff is pure Cantonese. Even fluent Mandarin speakers struggle a bit, but the language barrier isn't that big an issue when you order off a checklist accompanied by a picture menu with numbers. Sorry, traditionalists: No carts here. But what it loses with the lack of speeding dim sum ladies, the restaurant makes up for in atmosphere. There's no heckling or unbearable noise levels; you can enjoy your breakfast in peace. Dishes fly out of the kitchen steaming hot, and the restaurant makes a point of creating a menu that combines classic dim sum dishes (har gow, pork ribs, rice noodles) with eclectic new flavors (radish cubes in pastry cups, baked BBQ buns). —Clarissa Wei
3939 Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead; (626) 288-3939.
In the increasingly competitive San Gabriel Valley scene, the reputations of top-tier dim sum houses can shuffle as quickly as NBA power rankings. But like the perennial team that seems to never miss the playoffs, Elite has managed to remain in the forefront. At this unassuming banquet hall on Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park, you’ll find no old-school carts but sharp service and an illustrated menu that will relieve some of the stress accumulated by hourlong waits on the weekends. Few establishments can top Elite’s buttery, flaky Hong Kong egg tarts or its golf ball–sized shu mai dumplings crowned with bright orange fish roe. And few culinary joys can match that feeling when your table is blanketed in metal steamer tins and you’re passing around niblets of spare rib in black bean sauce, crispy turnip cakes and soft cream buns that ooze yolk-colored decadence. Utter dominance can’t last forever — just look at the Lakers — but we’ll gladly ride Elite’s grand wave while we can. —Garrett Snyder
700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 282-9998.
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Since the changeover from Triumphal Palace, Lunasia has risen to the top of the dim sum ranks. It has a nontraditional setup, with large plasma TVs and a much more casual decor, but what distinguishes Lunasia from its competitors is that you can have dim sum here all day long. Yes, you can finally get your har gow fix after the sun sets, as dim sum is served until 9 p.m. In terms of food, Lunasia takes pork shu mai to a whole other level. No fillers here — the shu mai are huge. As with most dim sum places during key hours, the wait can be a little daunting, but thankfully there's a Tea Station next door to hold off imminent starvation as you watch the plates of spare pork ribs float by on silver platters and into the mouths of voracious patrons. —Clarissa Wei
Though it's located across the street from Target, King Hua exudes the atmosphere typical of a Chinese wedding banquet hall. The bottles of cognac lining the walls are an indication of higher prices. Though the menu is not unlike any other dim sum restaurant and mirrors that of Sea Harbour's, King Hua does have a good handful of standouts. For one, the rice noodle rolls have a unique bitter melon filling that distinguishes the dish from run-of-the-mill rice noodles. The steamed shrimp and pea-tip dumplings wins our nomination for most unusual dim sum dumpling: stuffed with chopped shrimp and snow-pea shoots and topped with wolfberries, pea and corn. It may not be the most user-friendly restaurant, but there's a picture menu and a complementary checklist. Tea is charged per head. —Clarissa Wei
2000 W. Main St., Alhambra; (626) 282-8833.