Photograph by Noelle Luchino
Putting the Aart in 'A la Carte': Server Puiye wheels around dim sum at Saigon Harbor Seafood.
Everybody Yum Cha
Silicon Valley boasts one of the best dim sum scenes this side of Beijing
By Stett Holbrook
AT TEATIME, the English have their crustless cucumber sandwiches, jelly-smeared scones, sugary tea and lots and lots of doilies. The Chinese, by contrast, take tea with juicy pork and shrimp dumplings, steamed chicken feet and fat, wok-tossed noodles laced with garlic, chile peppers and green onions. Instead of sweetened black tea, earthy pu-erh or floral jasmine tea are the caffeinated beverages of choice for teatime, or yum cha.
I think I'd rather be Chinese.
While the Chinese diaspora has spread Chinese restaurants to every state in the union, dim sum, as yum cha is also known, is far less common. Silicon Valley is one of a handful of dim sum–rich zones outside China and Hong Kong. Other notable dim sum districts include San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver.
Dim sum is a subset of Chinese cuisine that refers to the array of intricate little dishes served with Chinese tea. It's served as breakfast, brunch or lunch. Yum cha ("tea drinking") is the term used to describe the dining session itself, as in "let's yum cha!" Instead of drinking tea after eating as is traditional in Chinese cuisine, with yum cha you drink tea with your meal because it's believed unsweetened tea helps digest the oily foods. Hearty pu-erh tea is an especially good match for dim sum.
I spent the past week yum-cha-ing my way through nearly a half-dozen Silicon Valley dim sum houses. I ate very well.
Of all the places I visited, Saigon Harbor Seafood Restaurantwas the most compelling. For first-time visitors, there's no preparation for the dizzying scene that awaits. Come for lunch and you'll find a roaring crowd of several hundred eating and drinking tea. Servers wheeling carts of dim sum dart and weave through the seething masses like Manhattan taxis at rush hour. Fish tanks holding live rockfish, lobster, crab, shrimp and geoduck clams bubble at the rear of the restaurant. It seems chaotic, but the lady at the front with the microphone calls out numbers for waiting diners like a bingo game and keeps the traffic moving.
Like all the restaurants I visited, the dim sum menu is quite long, with 100 or so items. As the carts wheel by, the servers hawk their wares, calling out the dishes in Mandarin and hard to understand English. You can go for the See's Candy approach and hope what's inside the boiled, steamed or fried little snack is to your liking, or you can grab a menu like I did and ask for the items that strike your fancy as the servers come by. Like most places, dim sum goes for between $2.50 and $6 a plate. The servers stamp your bill with each dish you select and add it up at the end.
Siu mai is a dim sum classic, and it's good here. The steamed shrimp and pork dumplings are cylindrical, open at the top and packed tightly into a wheat flour wrapper. Part of what makes Chinese cuisine so enjoyable is the variety of textures, often within the same bite. That's especially true for dim sum where a world of flavors and tactile sensations are packed into little dumplings like these.
I also liked the chive and shrimp dumplings. The chives are visible through the translucent pan-fried wrapper. Bite down and the little package squirts with savory juice and big shrimp flavor. Hargaw, a crescent-shaped dumpling filled with shrimp, is spring-loaded with shrimpy juices, but the wrapper itself was a bit gummy, as if the dish had made several laps around the dining room before it made it to my table. Better was the barbecue pork noodle, fat loglike rice noodles that concealed sweet, slow roasted pork. Doused with a little soy sauce, it was great.
In a city of great Chinese food, Mayflower Restaurantand ABC Seafood Restaurant are two of Milpitas' dim sum standouts. Mayflower is a cavernous hall of a restaurant where servers carry dim sum mostly on trays but also push a few dishes in carts. My favorite dish here was the fried dumplings packed with garlic, mushroom, shrimp and onion. Shanghai-style pork dumplings (ground, seasoned pork filled with savory broth and then bundled up and steamed in a wheat flour wrapper) are one of my favorites, but here the thick and clumsy wrapper cheapened the experience. The hargow and the char su bao, a fluffy barbecue pork bun, are better bets.
Over at ABC, the dim sum still comes fast and furious. The servers are like aggressive grandmothers, who didn't take no when I waved them off. "Eat it, you like. Good."
Most of the time, they were right. I loved the pan-fried noodles, thick and chewy rice noodles twisted to look like little rolled up carpets and fried with bits of pork, green onion, garlic, chili peppers. Pork buns are good, but take up too much stomach space; however, I was sold on the chicken buns—a lighter, less lofty version. Best of all was the fried bean curd roll with shrimp, a rectangular, crackling package of tofu skin that concealed fat, juicy shrimp and sliced green onions. Only the bitter fried turnip and sausage cake threw me off.
Sino Restauarant is the least traditional of all the dim sum restaurants I visited. Located in Santana Row, the restaurant is best known for its modern Chinese food, exotic cocktails and dusky, lounge setting. But Sino doesn't dumb down its dim sum for the masses. The hargow, siu mai and pillowy pork buns were as good as any I had at the more old-school dim sum restaurants. I especially liked the steamed chicken feet. They are a bit gnarly to look at, but the cartilage breaks down as it steams and suffuses the bits of meat with a fatty richness.
Joy Luck Place was the final stop on my dim sum tour. It's another crowded, rowdy place filled with big groups sitting around round tables while tuxedo-clad servers push their carts to and fro. In addition to using a menu to figure out what you want, another strategy is to play hard-to-get-at by declining any of the proffered dishes until you get a sense of what's circulating out there. You don't want to make the mistake of filling up on lesser dishes only to see better stuff come around when you're too full for more.
I held out for the jewel-like pan-fried shrimp and chive dumplings and the steamed bean curd wrapper shrimp and pork dumpling, two winners. Pork buns can go either way, and here the dish revealed too little meat and too much bun. A better bet is the shrimp and pork dumpling, a lively bundle loaded with crisp Chinese celery, ginger and shredded carrots. It makes for a mouthful that's crunchy, squishy and juicy and goes down great with a cup of rust colored pu-erh. That's my kind of teatime.
SAIGON SEAFOOD HARBOR RESTAURANT
Address: 1135 N. Lawrence Expy., Sunnyvale
Hours: 11am–3pm and 5–10pm Mon–Fri, 10am–3pm and 5–10pm Sat–Sun
Price Range: $2.50–$4
Hours: 428 Barber Lane, Milpitas
Hours: 11am–2:30pm and 5–9:30pm Mon–Fri, 5–10pm Sat–Sun
Price Range: dim sum $2.60–$5.50
Address: 782 Barber Lane, Milpitas
Hours: 11am–2:30pm and 5–10pm Mon–Fri, 5–10pm Sat–Sun
Price Range: dim sum $2.60–$6
SINO RESTAURANT AND LOUNGE
Address: 377 Santana Row, San Jose
Hours: 11am–10pm Sun–Tue and 11am–midnight Wed–Sat
Price Range : dim sum $3–$6
JOY LUCK PLACE
Address: 10911 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino
Hours: 11am–2:30pm and 5:30–9:30pm Mon–Fri, 10am–2:30pm and 5:30–9:30pm Sat–Sun
Price Range: $2.80–$6.50
Web: [ http://www.222.to/joyluckplace ]www.222.to/joyluckplace
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