Dean Sin World is simply a wonderful little hole-in-the-wall place for xiao long bao, dumplings and other Shanghainese style snacks. You should know that by now. But, even if you're a regular visitor you're likely to have overlooked the most unique item on the menu: #34 Tianjin Style Special Cake. We certainly did until tipped to their existence by the intrepid Sinosoul. And if you haven't had these, you've missed out on one of the best dessert or snack items in the San Gabriel Valley.
It must be mentioned that Chinese desserts are not very sweet, at least not to the American palate and definitely not in the Westernized refined white sugar and heavy dairy sense. Instead, the sweetness is subtle, not overpowering. And that is a good thing.
The item has an interesting history. In 1892, Mr. Liu Wanchun began selling the pastries. His shop was located on a narrow alley-way, giving the cakes their name, “earhole” cakes. A renowned snack item in Tianjin, the cakes were declared a national treasure snack by the Chinese government in 1997.
The cakes themselves are pan-fried pastries made from leavened and kneaded glutinous rice flour dough. They can be filled with a variety of fillings, but sweetened red bean is the most traditional and the one you'll find at Dean Sin World. Of Chinese desserts, those featuring red beans are among the sweetest. They arrive, five to an order, piping hot. A crisp golden exterior yields to a soft, yet chewy texture — think mochi — followed by the sweetness of the red bean filling.
A word of advice: Take friends along, as these are at their best when hot and fresh. They don't transport particularly well. Much of the varying textures are lost fairly quickly to time, though the flavor survives. You also might be wondering how a place specializing in items from Shanghai wound up being the only place in greater Los Angeles serving the Tianjin specialty. A woman who was a Tianjin native worked alongside proprietress Mrs. Lu at the cozy restaurant, prompting Mrs. Lu to add the pastries to the menu.
We roamed the San Gabriel Valley's Tianjin style places, brandishing a photo of the cakes like a wanted poster. Responses ranged from “wow, that's our local dish, it's what my city is known for, but we don't have it here” to a broad smile of fond familiarity followed by a translation from a waitress: “Yes, we know it well, but we don't have it.” Which brings us back to Dean Sin World, the only place around Los Angeles that you can find this unique dessert item.
Follow Jim Thurman on Twitter @JThur01.