Monday, June 30, 2008

Dim Sum Sunday

I'm the early riser in my family. [The Man I Love] and Our Son both like to sleep in whenever they can, so planning weekend morning activities requires some active pleading and reminding (read: nagging) on my part.

I've been yearning for dim sum lately, and you can't sleep till 11:00 a.m. if you want to eat dim sum on a Sunday in Los Angeles - you'll battle for parking and wait an hour in line for a table. So this Sunday morning, my family graciously agreed to get up early and set out for the San Gabriel Valley for a dim sum brunch.

The San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles, is home to the largest Chinese American community in California, and maybe in the US itself. Foodies consider it to be the place to get the best Chinese food in the US (yes, I'm talking to you, New York and San Francisco!).

Dim sum are little bites to eat while sipping tea. My first experience with it was in the 1970s, at a tiny restaurant in New York's Chinatown, a few steps below a crowded urban sidewalk lined with produce and fish stalls. We sat in red vinyl booths, surrounded by kitschy decor, and the bill was totaled up by counting the little plates left on our table. If your only dim sum experience is like that, you are in for a surprise in the San Gabriel Valley.

The unassuming front of Capital Seafood, in a strip mall in Monterey Park, does nothing to prepare you for what awaits inside. The parking lot also serves a huge Ranch 99 Market next door, and by 9:45 a.m., there were already lots of cars cruising for spaces. After parking we followed an Asian family to the door and stepped inside.

The double doors, ornate with beveled glass and shiny brass hardware, gave way to a marble-floored foyer bordered in Greek key design, a row of gilded classical columns shielding the dining room beyond from the noise of the parking lot. A hostess in a tailored suit led us across the floral-patterned carpet to our table.

We looked around in amazement. Glittering crystal chandeliers hung from the coffered ceiling, in recessed domes with gilded molding, indirectly lit with magenta and chartreuse neon. The walls were paneled in white and gold, and at intervals decorated with brocade drapes, beveled mirrors, or backlit pierced screens with Chinese designs. Holographic Chinese characters on the walls shimmered with iridescence.

This giant room was filled with the din and noise of people eating and talking. Elderly patriarchs presided over huge round tables with lazy susans at the center. Elegantly dressed matrons - fresh from church - were politely escorted by their husbands to tables. Behind us, two middle-aged men shared a 4-top, sipping tea and reading Chinese language newspapers. One fellow filled out a racing form. Teenagers in flip-flops and 30-somethings in designer jeans sat with their friends. Diners stood and hailed their arriving friends to join their table. Toddlers sat in booster seats - one little girl had pink sneakers and socks with pink pompoms. Kids occupied themselves with coloring books while the grownups talked. A large sign on the wall stated the room capacity as 385.

There are two styles of dim sum service here in Los Angeles. The newer restaurants have menu service, with waiters. But traditionally, dim sum is served from wheeled carts pushed by women servers, who stop at each table and offer items to diners. I like the traditional service. Capital Seafood is a cart-style restaurant.

A pot of tea appeared on the table when we sat down. Soon, the first cart arrived. The server lifted the lid from each stack of steel steamer dishes to show us the items inside. We chose har gao, or dumplings with shrimp gleaming pinkly beneath translucent rice paper wrappers, and siu-mai, gathered and ruffled dumplings of minced pork and shrimp, with a bit of orange roe on top.

The carts are made of stainless steel, and are each uniquely customized for its menu item. The most common type held stacks of steamer dishes. But others had receptacles for vats of porridge, or a flame beneath a griddle for frying - these had high curved hoods to shield diners from the heat. Open shelved carts held displays of delectable sweets. Each cart rolled soundlessly on the carpet on heavy casters.

The servers don't always speak English, and the noise level is pretty daunting, so you have to be adventurous and just make a selection. We chose a roll of fat rice noodles stuffed with shrimp. The server took a pair of sharp poultry shears and snipped it into bit-size pieces, ladling dark soy sauce over all. After she served it, she stamped an empty box on the paper form at our table, indicating how many items we had and at what price level.

The next cart held large ceramic crocks with pineapple fried rice. The server piled it into a perfect half-dome rising above the small bowl she left with us. It was delicious, with crispy bits of Chinese sausage, chopped vegetables, and scrambled egg.

A waiter in a brocaded vest brought a little dish half filled with sriracha sauce, half with Chinese mustard. Hum bao arrived next, perfectly steamed, as light and as white as a marshmallow, filled with barbecued pork. A golden baked bun was glazed with almond sugar, and filled with savory chicken filling - an interesting combo. We passed on the chicken feet - I wanted to watch someone else tackle them before attempting myself. There was broccoli boiled right there in the cart, and served with oyster sauce. There were steamed meatballs.

A server cooked flat squares of something on the griddle. It was a little like fried polenta, or scrapple, or kugelis (Ah! the universality of pork-loving cuisines!) It turned out to be turnip cake, or law bock gow - soft-cooked daikon enriched with bits of meat formed into cakes and fried crisp.

Other servers passed with sweet pastries - deep-fried crisps, puff pastry-topped souffles, flaky pastry nests holding custards, and gently trembling jellos. I chose a plate of little golden orbs, deep fried and studded with sesame seeds, containing a smear of deep red sweet bean paste, for my dessert.

We were full! We could eat no more. A cart bearing platters of sliced duck breast, its skin shiny lacquered and gleaming brown, passed our table - it looked delectable, but we reluctantly turned it down.

The service was fantastic. The cart ladies, in their cinnabar-colored smocks with pink and gold brocade trim, couldn't have been nicer. The busboys in pale gold tunics whisked away the empty plates and tins before you knew it. A dignified manager in a suit inquired if we enjoyed our meal.

While we waited for the bill, I went down the hallway, past a Versailles-like mirror, where a baroque console held an electric towel-warmer, a huge vase of plastic flowers, and a row of hot water carafes. In the tidy ladies' room, as I washed my hands at the granite countered vanity, one middle-aged Chinese lady demonstrated to an elderly one how to use the motion sensor to work the towel dispenser. Conversely, My Son relates that when he went to the men's room and stood, puzzled, before the same machine, an octogenarian kindly showed him how to make the towels come out.

When I returned to the table, the bill had arrived. For all that food - $33.00.

What a deal! My guys better get their sleep next weekend, because I want to go back! And this time I'll leave room for the duck!


KathyR said...

I'd get up early for that!

Tootsie Farklepants said...

WOW! That strip mall location IS unassuming! What a gorgeous place.

Barbara said...

This is a wonderful story. I want to go to that restaurant--now.u