Jen: Chinese food in the U.S.A. has a peculiar relationship to the letters of the alphabet. There are the meaningless restaurant names, such as NYC Seafood, CBS Seafood, JJ Cafe… and then the LA County restaurant ratings, wherein, for those in the know, “A” means Americanized and “C” is for Chinese. A couple of weekends ago, Zorn and I went for dim sum with my mom, staying clear of the crazy popular King Hua (my favorite) or Elite (high quality, but portion sizes too big) in favor of the less impacted NBC Seafood. My mom and I are from Hong Kong. Dim sum is in our blood.
“Dim Sum” literally means “dot-heart,” sort of like dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s. In Cantonese, we call it “Yum Cha,” or “drink tea.” The cuisine originally began as a small snack, usually eaten for a late breakfast or even afternoon tea. I prefer it for a gluttonous brunch, and have a habit of eating the leftovers (I always order extra, and I bring my own tupperware to avoid the styrofoam to-go containers at Chinese restaurants) for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
At NBC, the traditional aluminum carts are still lumbering through the carpeted restaurant/banquet hall. Several years ago, most restaurants canned the carts for made-to-order dishes. Since NBC is fairly busy, everything in the carts was still fresh and hot. Most Chinese dishes are difficult to translate without sounding ridiculous, so we’ll now proceed with an illustrated tour of our delicious dim sum.
There are so many amazing aspects of Chinese cuisine that our baked goods are often overlooked. Chinese baked items are fluffy, hot-out-of-the oven, springy and decadent, due to the high-gluten flour and the large consumer crowds that ensure you get the freshest batch.
The malaigao or layered steamed cake is completely magical. Each eggy, delicate layer is light and fluffy, separated by the slightest touch of soft, melty pudding. As with most Chinese desserts, it is not overbearing or cloying, just the perfect amount of subtle sweetness.
Fried sesame balls, with a mochi-like texture, are typically a crowd favorite. We got two kinds, one filled with black sesame paste and the other, lotus seed paste. Traditional Chinese cuisine doesn’t have chocolate, so our desserts are usually made with things like red bean, mung bean and taro. These ingredients lend our desserts an innate sweet/savory component.
Some of our savory items have sweetness to them too, like these honey baked pork buns! Chinese pork buns come in two varieties. The steamed ones are made with a white steamed dough, while the baked buns are a typical high-gluten bread dough finished with a slick of honey. Zorn’s favorite are both kinds of pork buns.
My eyes lit up when I saw a childhood favorite rolling towards our table–steamed pinwheel rolled rice noodles, with the addition of “the caviar of the east,” X.O sauce. The bold, pungent X.O. flavor was lacking, and these days there are so many imitators out there anyway, but the soft rice noodles in salty soy and hoisin were still delicious. I scrambled some of the leftovers with eggs the next day for breakfast.
Forget pasta for your next carbo-load. Head to dim sum for a much more exciting fuel up. How many forms can rice and flour take? It’s impossible to count the ways.
We end our dim sum tour with a shot of the classic shumai, a dish that has made it into the freezer section of Trader Joe’s. I love dim sum. As a Chinese-American, the only Chinese vocabulary I know is how to order dim sum.
David: Here’s my round eye P.O.V. on dim sum. There are basically two options: the kind that have carts, (which are more fun) and the kind that serve you made to order, fresh out of the kitchen dim sum (which usually have the better food). Both have their merits, but I tend to go for the carts more often than not.
NBC is a cart filled dim sum palace in the heart of Monterey Park. About 15 minutes past downtown LA’s Chinatown, the quality and diversity of dishes is worth the extra miles. It’s clean, inexpensive, the wait is never too long, and all the servers wear protective masks for sanitary reasons which is both awesome and weird.
I don’t know the names of half the stuff I eat there (with the carts you just point) but everything is pretty damn good. Go with a big group and get a ton of stuff. If one of you doesn’t like something there is a good chance someone else at the table will be all about it. So go nuts. Steamed pork buns, shrimp shu mai, sticky rice, and steamed shrimp dumplings (hargow) are a must for me every time. I leave the rest up to Jen.