HB and I lived in the San Francisco bay area for 9 years, and we very happily ate our way through as many varied cuisines as we could (on the cheap–I was a grad student, he was a part-time (!) public radio news reporter). Just today over Korean bulgogi we were talking about how Los Angeles’ Chinese food has lapped NoCal’s.
HB: “Sure San Francisco has amazing Cantonese/Hong Kong-style seafood and great dim sum. But compare the variety of Chinese food available in San Francisco with the insane variety of Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley.”
I concurred. Everyone always points out the northern Chinese Islamic lamb joint that Los Angeles chowguru Jonathan Gold discovered and made famous. I doubt the bay area has that.
Me: “Not only that, but the Chinese food in the SGV is probably better than most of the food in China. ”
HB: “There’s not much good Korean up in the bay area.”
Me: “Uh-huh. But great Vietnamese and Indian. Oh, the Indian! But hardly any Cuban, which is intolerable. And I say our Mexican tops theirs any day.”*
(*Actual, true-life dialogue…you can tell because it’s dull and not been Punched Up for Entertainment Purposes.)
As proof of how much internal variation there is and how the appetite for Chinese food is an unfillable giant maw, I have to point out that venerable Din Tai Fung Taiwanese dumpling house, home of the rare pork soup dumplings (only for the first seating of the day), has opened a second location not too far from their Arcadia restaurant. Din Tai Fung #2 is two stories high and they still have lines around the block (so to speak) for the first seating at 10:30 am.
There are Din Tai Fungs all over Taiwan, and certainly all over Taipei. In Taiwan, you usually climb up a winding stair to the 3 or 4 story restaurant. On the way up, you pass the first floor kitchen where you can watch skilled dumpling makers pressing pork meat into tender little rounds of raw dough. A few flicks of the wrist and simultaneous squeezes of the thumb and forefinger, and presto! a dumpling with loose shaggy skin that when steamed, forms a perfect pouch to contain soup.
You gently remove the dumpling from its spot nestled on the parchment paper (or sometimes it’s a napa cabbage leaf or other vegetable; see thinly sliced carrot, below) and drop it into whatever mix of sauce you go for, i.e., slivers of ginger fine-cut like toothpicks, soy, and maybe some la jiao (hot sauce) or Chinese vinegar.
Falsity in advertising–these are Triumphal Palace steamed pork dumplings, and not the famous Din Tai Fung ones. But you see what I mean about the soup-pouch thing, and the imaginative use of vegetables to keep the steamed food from sticking to the steamer. So environmentally friendly!
I like to use the soup spoon to deliver the sauced dumpling to my mouth, nibble a small hole in the skirt-hem of the saggy dumpling skin, and slurp the hot pork soup out of the opening. Because you’ve done that, you can now eat the dumpling in one mouthful without a scalding explosion of hot pork dumpling soup inside your mouth. Or you can eat it like the Unreliable Narrator does, biting into it in such a way that the cooled soup dribbles out of the skin, down your face, and onto your chest.
The Unreliable Narrator says No! to papparazzi at Triumphal Palace.
Triumphal Palace is a newish upscale dimsum place in Alhambra. Mission 261 used to be the “it” spot–they feature an absolutely huge menu with every possible kind of sweet or savory dimsum offering, and it’s cart-free. They even have roast suckling pig, which is no small amount of trouble to make and prepare.
This is Triumphal Palace’s pork belly, not roast suckling pig. Delicious with a sort of tamarind-y sauce and lightly fermented soy beans on the side. The UN gobbled this up. Definitely recommended.
I love how Mission 261 is a Chinese dimsum restaurant inhabiting an old renovated Spanish mission, complete with dark wood floors, a brick outdoor patio, and dark wood trim interiors. (The Asian-Latin thing really works for me–my fantasy house is a classic California Spanish revival decorated in Shanghai Deco, recently popularized by this woman. A girl can dream.) Mission 261 is just a gorgeous building and so unlike most hideously tacky Chinese restaurants. Plus, for Chinese people, restaurants ARE church, food IS religion. So it’s perfect.
Scallop jook (rice gruel) with crisped noodles and scallions. Not enough dried scallop for me, but a winner with the UN. Ate everything except scallions.
Triumphal Palace is also a cart-free experience. It’s in a minimall with *great* covered and free parking. (The architecture of the restaurant is pretty cookie cutter “pastel stucco Cali minimall”–’nuff said about that.)
Empty leaf wrapper on the left, uneaten zhungzi (steamed savory sticky rice dumpling) on the right.
Triumphal Palace’s food is also terrific–like Mission 261, leaning more toward the watery Shanghainese end of things rather than the grease-bomb explosion of some Cantonese-style items.
Zhungzi filling: seasoned high quality meat, not at all fatty or gristly, plus sliced shiitake mushrooms, those mysterious dried shrimp I could do without, and short-grain sticky rice.) Another hit with the UN.
There were only three of us in our party–HB, me, and the Unreliable Narrator–so we didn’t get to order a zillion tiny plates. But what we tasted was pretty good.
Soft tofu in sweet ginger sauce with minced ginger.
This was the only dish I really didn’t like. I think soy can sometimes have a nasty beany aftertaste. And I’m not too keen on the texture. HB loves it, though. The UN sided with me: meh.
Mango pudding in mango-flavored sweetened condensed milk. Yum!
Generally Chinese desserts suck. They seemed to have evolved desserts independently of the entire rest of the world: steamed breaded puddings with dried fruit and/or beans. Black beans in sweetened soup. Lotus seeds in sugared soup. Most desserts are served warm and far too many are soup-based, or wobbly gelatinous masses of sticky rice flour studded with dried fruit (the equivalent of a western-style fruitcake). The Chinese are not really a bakey or buttery people.
Almond jello is probably as palatable as it gets, and that’s because it’s totally an invention of the diaspora. I mean, come on: a main ingredient is the contents of a can of Dole diced mixed fruit, with jello made white with the addition of milk. (Someone needs to take this to a nouvelle level, and make it with actual almond milk and garnished with slivered toasted almonds, or something.)
Anyway, if you’ve gone about your dimsum experience correctly, this is often the immediate result:
Napster. Who needs a pillow when you have cushiony cheeks?