Tag Archives: San Gabriel Valley

Food Alley at Westfield Santa Anita, Arcadia

For a couple of years now I have heard about the growth of exciting, quality Asian dining establishments in Westfield’s Santa Anita Mall. First, it was Hai Di Lao, the first American branch of the pricey Sichuanese hot pot chain. Then it was the development of Meizhou Dongpo’s second US location and Din Tai Fung’s new larger 3rd Arcadia location. 

All this development has not been limited to big Chinese or Taiwanese chain restaurants. Late last year Westfield Santa Anita opened “Food Alley”, a food court of sorts between the Nordstrom and Din Tai Fung that doesn’t have your typical Panda Express or Sbarro mall food court options. To be clear, there still is a regular food court at Westfield Santa Anita on the first floor near JC Penney’s for all your McDonald’s and Sarku Japan cravings. However, Food Alley contains some out of the box, Asian oriented stores with food that I have never seen in any American mall.

Thus, I had to try out these eateries and see how they matched to all the great restaurants that dot the strip malls elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley. Since it would be very difficult to try them all by myself, I asked a friend if she would be interested in joining me and she thankfully said yes. These are the dishes and places we tried:

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick – Our first stop was at Side Chick, where the star dish is the Hainanese Chicken Rice. The chicken was moist and flavorful while the rice was a little dryer than I like (though saved a little by the church of the fried garlic). I loved the ginger scallion, sambal, and vinegary soy sauces that accompanied the chicken. While the rice is not as good as Savoy, the vaunted Hainanese Chicken Rice slinger in Alhambra, I think Side Chick has the edge as my favorite Southern Californian chicken rice spot for the chicken.
Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

  • Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo – While I would have wanted to try more bowls of udon, we were starting to get full from the Hainanese Chicken Rice. We settled on the spicy niku udon. I liked the chewy udon and tender beef slices, but wasn’t really feeling the thicker, kimchi laden broth. While I wouldn’t get the spicy niku udon, the udon and beef were definitely good enough that I am eager to try other bowls of udon the next time I am there.
Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Westfield Santa Anita

Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Westfield Santa Anita

  • Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung – Since the new Din Tai Fung was around the corner, I just had to try some soup dumplings. I ordered a half order of 5 soup dumplings. While none of them broke (making them better than the Glendale and South Coast locations), there were a couple with dumpling skin tops that were a little thick and chewy. They were certainly good but not up to the standard of the original Din Tai Fung in Taiwan.
Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu

Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu

  • Japanese Cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu – For dessert we had the Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu. The several slices were, in a word, sublime. It was like a creamier sponge cake that was light and fluffy and just a touch sweet. Honestly, if I didn’t have as much self control that night, I might have eaten an entire cake.

All in all, Food Alley blew away my expectations and definitely was the tastiest mall food court I have eaten at this side of the Pacific. And yet, I didn’t even try any ramen or skewers at the Backhouse nor any drinks at Matcha Matcha. If this is what new, modern mall food courts will be like from now on, I guess I’ll be spending more money shopping at Nordstrom and slurping noodles across the country.

 

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Egg Waffles (鷄蛋仔)

After dinner Sunday night my friends and I decided to go to a Hong Kong dessert place. We stumbled on the place by pure accident, but it gave me a chance to eat one of my favorite dessert items for my birthday: an egg waffle (or 鷄蛋仔 as it’s called in Cantonese and eggette as an alternative in English).

Egg waffles, if you don’t know, are very popular dessert/snack items sold on street stalls throughout Hong Kong. While the origins of this snack item is little known, the modern day form is an egg rich batter that goes into a waffle like griddle with egg-like pockets where puffs of chewy dough form. An ideal egg waffle is crispy and crunchy on the outside while also being soft, slightly sweet, and a little chewy inside the puffs. These can be enjoyed throughout the day, but usually I have them either as a mid-Afternoon snack or a post-dinner dessert.

雞蛋仔 at 利強記北角雞蛋仔  credit to Phillip Lai - "雞蛋仔 #lkk #hongkong" ( https://flic.kr/p/migDuc )

雞蛋仔 at 利強記北角雞蛋仔
credit to Phillip Lai – “雞蛋仔 #lkk #hongkong” ( https://flic.kr/p/migDuc )

The best place I have had an egg waffle is, of course, in Hong Kong. There is a famous stall in the North Point neighborhood called LKK (利強記北角雞蛋仔 in Chinese) on 492 Kings Road, at the corner of Kam Hong Street. On Kings Road it’s hard to spot, but once you turn the corner onto Kam Hong St. you will see an unmistakable line for these egg waffles. The place is an institution, with a number of photos of TVB stars, like Nancy Sit, eating egg waffles at the place plastering the wall of the stall. Yet, it’s location in a fairly working class residential neighborhood means it is never really mentioned in English or Mainland Chinese travel press, given the place a very local feel. They even have a couple of other locations in Hong Kong, testifying to its popularity. The egg waffles, of course, are super great as well with pretty much perfect texture and at a bargain of $2 USD for one.

However, you definitely don’t need to travel to Hong Kong to eat an egg waffle. If you live or visit a city with a large population of immigrants who were born and raised in Hong Kong, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, you can get a bite of one too.

San Francisco Bay Area

It should be no surprise that the Bay Area has plenty of food vendors and restaurants that serve egg waffles. After all, the Bay Area has the largest number of residents that are from Hong Kong according to the census bureau, and it’s the only major metropolitan area with multiple Chinatowns where Cantonese is the lingua franca.

雞蛋仔 at Hong Kong Snack House

雞蛋仔 at Hong Kong Snack House

If you live in the East Bay (around Oakland and Berkeley), like I do, there are a number of options for one to get a taste of an egg waffle. Probably my favorite is the aptly named Hong Kong Snack House in the Pacific East Mall. The tiny store is very reminiscent of a Hong Kong street stall and serve nicely cooked, if slightly underdone, egg waffles. In Oakland Chinatown there are a number of options. If you are on the go, there is the Quickly on 10th Street that can satisfy your on the go craving for both boba and egg waffles. However, if you rather have it at a sit down restaurant, you can go to one of several Hong Kong style cafes/cha chaan tengs like the more upscale Shooting Star Cafe or the more bare bones Yummy Guide.

雞蛋仔 at Creations Dessert House

雞蛋仔 at Creations Dessert House

The city and the Peninsula are not left wanting either. Just the other day my friends and I went to Creations Dessert House in the Richmond where they served perfectly crispy, if oddly misshapen egg waffles. There is also the 4 location chain called Eggettes where egg waffles are their raison d’être. Not to be left out is the well reviewed Kowlooon Tong Dessert Cafe. And if you want a feel of being on a crowded street in Hong Kong, there is Dessert Republic in downtown San Mateo.

Los Angeles

雞蛋仔 at Tasty Garden in Westminster

雞蛋仔 at Tasty Garden in Westminster

To eat an egg waffle in Los Angeles, one will have to do what they have to do to eat any other amazing authentic Chinese food item: drive to the San Gabriel Valley. Once you are in the SGV, however, the number of options are numerous. A vast number of Hong Kong style cafes/cha chaan tengs have them, so you can get your fill at places like Tasty Garden in Alhambra and Monterey Park, Cafe Spot in Alhambra, and Tasty Station in Rowland Heights. Don’t need a meal and just prefer desserts or snacks? Tea and dessert places like Puffect in Walnut and Fresh Roast in Alhambra.

If you prefer not to drive in the SGV, not all is lost. Tasty Garden also has locations in Irvine and Westminster, though I prefer the egg waffles at the Westminster location. And while I haven’t tried the egg waffles at Phoenix, they do offer them at their locations in Gardena and Garden Grove.

Elsewhere

Outside of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, egg waffles are a little harder to find in the United States. While there was an “egg cake lady” named Cecilia Tam that sold bits of egg waffles in New York City during the 80s and 90s, there is little presence of the egg waffles now. You still, however, can get them in Boston at a little stall in Chinatown. In San Diego, one can find them at E + Drink, which is interesting given that the place is mostly Taiwanese (albeit Hong Kong style dessert places in the Bay Area often serve boba instead of Hong Kong style milk tea).

But no matter where I have an egg waffle, eating one just brings me a sense of warmth and comfort. It’s the ultimate snack, a perfect way to finish a busy day of work or a nice bonus to a birthday celebration with friends. In fact, I wish I was eating one right now.

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King Hua, Alhambra

King Hua
2000 W Main Street
Alhambra, CA 91801

Of the top 5 restaurants serving Dim Sum in Southern California according to my Dim Sum Rankings, the only one I had never been to, until last week, was King Hua. According to a number of Chinese food writers, eaters, and observers in San Gabriel Valley, it is one of the top 3-4 places for Dim Sum around LA. In fact the restaurant rankings no lower than 7th in all of the Dim Sum ranking lists I looked at to compile my rankings. So when I had an opportunity to take a friend out to Dim Sum, I definitely used it as an opportunity to round out my visits to the top Dim Sum spots in Southern California (and the country).

After braving some LA traffic during the lunchtime rush, we arrived at about 1:30PM on a Monday afternoon. Much of the lunch crowd was just leaving, meaning we were seated very quickly. We ordered chrysanthemum tea and I quickly sat down and looked at their tick sheet menu to order our various dishes. While I wanted to order many items, I managed to limit our table of two to 7 items, which turned out perfectly. The items we ate were:

Baked Low Fat Milk Bun at King Hua

Baked Low Fat Milk Bun at King Hua

  •  Baked Low Fat Milk Bun – My friend loved these and the buns were nice with a lightly crispy exterior and a creamy, rich filled interior. Unfortunately these were served from a tray of buns that a server was hawking around the restaurant so it wasn’t as hot and fresh as it should have. Casualties of eating at a later hour for dim sum I suppose.
Shrimp and Pork Dumpling at King Hua

Shrimp and Pork Dumpling at King Hua

  • Shrimp and Pork Dumpling (Siu Mai) – These siu mai were nicely plump and juicy. The crab roe on top was just the perfect amount (as opposed to too much and overpowering at Lunasia). Albeit not the best I’ve ever had, it’s still probably some of the best I’ve eaten.
Poached Chinese Broccoli at King Hua

Poached Chinese Broccoli at King Hua

  • Poached Chinese Broccoli – I liked that the oyster sauce was on the side allowing for people to add as much sauce they feel is needed compared to other places where the sauce can be overwhelming in some parts and underwhelming in others. The broccoli could have been poached a little longer but otherwise they were very fresh and nice to cut the fat and meat of other items.
Shrimp Dumpling at King Hua

Shrimp Dumpling at King Hua

  • Shrimp Dumpling (Har Gau) – These har gau were nearly perfect with a skin that didn’t break when holding it but tore with a little chew when eating it. There was a large amount of shrimp albeit I could have used a little more seasoning in the shrimp filling.
Steam Shrimp and Pea Tip Dumplings at King Hua

Steam Shrimp and Pea Tip Dumplings at King Hua

  • Steam Shrimp and Pea Tip Dumplings – These were one of my friend’s favorites and it’s easy to see why. Not only are these dumplings beautifully presented, but the flavor and texture contrast between the sauteed pea tips, shrimp, wrapper, and corn melds perfectly. If we had any more room in our stomachs I would have ordered another.
Steam Rice Noodle w/  Minced Beef at King Hua

Steam Rice Noodle w/ Minced Beef at King Hua

  • Steam Rice Noodle w/  Minced Beef – These rice noodle rolls were pretty good with rice noodles that were soft but not soggy. The minced meat was nice, but perhaps it might have been better with a chewier, thicker filling.
Steam Beef Tripe in Special Sauce at King Hua

Steam Beef Tripe in Special Sauce at King Hua

  • Steamed Beef Tripe in Special Sauce – Admittedly I thought this dish would use omasum/bible tripe but the honeycomb tripe was nice here too. It was chewy but also tender and the lightly spiced sauce it was simmered in was tasty as well.

All in all, King Hua was a pretty great experience with service that was pleasant but not overbearing. The prices were on par with other higher quality dim sum places in the San Gabriel Valley, though I do agree that it is not at quite the level of Elite or Sea Harbour. One thing I did notice is that while the quality was great, the restaurant was not quite as innovative with items as some of the other better place in the area. Regardless, this is a solid place to take friends out to dim sum and definitely a solid #4 in my list of best dim sum of Southern California (after Sea Harbour, Elite, and J Zhou).

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Pho Ngoon, San Gabriel

Phở Ngoon
741 East Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776

When a American thinks of pho, they usually think of a beef noodle soup with a rich beef broth based spiced with a fair amount of cinnamon and star anise, thin rice noodles, and a wide variety of accoutrements that include Thai basil, culantro, and raw pepper slices. Well forget about all of that when you go to Phở Ngoon as they serve Hanoi/northern style phở.

What’s the difference you might ask? While I’m no expert, from my knowledge the much less lush and more harsh land of Northern Vietnam means that the people there have less fresh herbs and spices. Therefore the broth is typically simpler too the point that some may call it “bland.” However, you might also say that northern style phở is more “traditional” given that French and Chinese colonial influence in the north gave rise to the dish and, thus, phở in its more original form likely resembles northern style more closely.

So when I discovered that Phở Ngoon served Northern Vietnamese cuisine, I rushed to eat there at my next trip trip to LA, which happened to be this weekend. I stepped into the restaurant around 11:30AM when they were starting to get busy and took a look at their one sheet simple menu with maybe up to a couple dozen dishes, max. After asking the server for some of his recommendations, I ordered the following:

Pho Tai Lan at Pho Ngoon

Pho Tai Lan at Pho Ngoon

  • Pho Tai Lan – The beef in this dish is stir fried with garlic before it melds with the broth and noodles. While the broth on the whole was lighter than the usual Saigon style phở we have ubiquitous in the US, there were definitely tons of minced garlic to the point it was almost overpowering. However, the beef was marinated and cooked very nice and tender. The phở noodles were cooked decently too. They had slightly fewer accoutrements than a typical phở place, but I only sprinkled some bean sprouts as to try to stick as closely to Northern Vietnamese style as possible. Overall a dish I enjoyed and would eat again.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee at Pho Ngoon

Vietnamese Iced Coffee at Pho Ngoon

  • Cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese Iced Coffee) – The iced coffee not only was contained in its tiny press coffee filter, but it was served in mason jars as well. Hipster/modern yuppie drinking glasses aside, the coffee mixed in really well with the condensed milk. Blended together it might be my third favorite blended dark caffeine/milk drink; following Hong Kong style milk tea and Taiwanese style boba.
Pho Cuon at Pho Ngoon

Pho Cuon at Pho Ngoon

  • Phở Cuốn – These rolls are made with wide square cut pho noodles wrapped around lettuce, grilled slices of beef, and some mint. It is then dipped into nước chấm (fish sauce). While definitely less jam packed with flavor than Vietnamese spring rolls, these rolls were very delicious and I love them even more than ‘typical’ Vietnamese spring rolls.

All in all, my visit to Phở Ngoon was a great one and I think I really like the lighter flavor of Northern Vietnamese food. As a bonus, the service was pretty nice too, especially given that there is one server/cashier. And while I’ve seen some negative or snide comments about the rotation of Top 40 (mostly EDM and hip hop) music, I felt it was fine and in line with the more modern “hip” decor.

I definitely will be back again to try some other items and I hope you will too. This feels like a great place to expand anyone’s taste in Vietnamese food.

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Elite, Monterey Park

Elite Restaurant
700 S. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754

After coming in at #2 on my Dim Sum rankings I decided I had to take a visit to Elite. So near the tail end of my holiday break I took the chance to eat there again during my very brief visit in LA. My haircut appointment in Irvine went a little longer than usual so I got to Elite close to 2PM. At that point I began to be super hungry but it turned out to be perfect as I only needed to wait 5 minutes for a table instead of possibly an hour or more if I had gone earlier.

When I was seated I quickly went to ordering chrysanthemum tea and checking off the menu of the dishes I wanted to eat. After several minutes of looking at the menu I decided to eat the following:

Crispy Shrimp Noodle Roll at Elite

Crispy Shrimp Noodle Roll at Elite

  • Crispy Shrimp Rice Noodle (百花炸兩腸粉) – These rice noodle rolls are wrapped around Chinese crullers (油條) which are in turn filled with shrimp ball filling. These are an amazing play on texture and flavor, though I wish the Chinese crullers were a little crispier. All in all, very good.
Spare Ribs With Chili and Black Bean Sauce at Elite

Spare Ribs With Chili and Black Bean Sauce at Elite

  • Spare Ribs With Chili and Black Bean Sauce (剁椒蒸排骨) – The spare ribs were cooked just right, perfectly coming off the bone. These were probably the best pork spare ribs I’ve eaten although perhaps there could have been a little more spice.
Crystal Shrimp Har Gow at Elite

Crystal Shrimp Har Gow at Elite

  • Crystal Shrimp Har Gow (水晶蝦餃皇) – These shrimp dumplings were pretty good. The shrimp was fresh and flavorful and the skins had a perfect bounce but didn’t stretch too much. While not as technically good as the Yank Sing ones, these had an overall better flavor that melded really nicely with the hot chile oil.
Dry Scallop Roll Fun at Elite

Dry Scallop Roll Fun at Elite

  • Dry Scallop Roll Fun – While I didn’t get much dried scallop (maybe they ran out?), these steamed small rice noodle rolls with shrimp and diced vegetables were really good and contrasted nicely to the more heavy crispy shrimp rice noodles.
Crispy Snow Bun at Elite

Crispy Snow Bun at Elite

  • Crispy Snow Bun (杏汁雪山飽) – These buns were delicious with a crispy shell but a sweet, doughy middle. Unfortunately these came out first so I actually didn’t eat them while they were hot as I wanted to wait for it as dessert.

The service was pretty good, but as they were winding down the lunch hour it did get harder and harder to flag someone to get something. Despite that, the overall experience and food was pretty good and just as great as I remember it. However, I do agree that Sea Harbour is just so slightly better. Either way, you can’t go wrong going to either of these places for dim sum and Southern California is very blessed to have two of the very best places to eat dim sum in the whole country (though that’s not exactly by accident).

Next couple weeks will venture back to the Mountain West/Southwest but around Chinese New Year you’ll see my personal picks for best sum I’ve had.

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Best Dim Sum in America (Part 2) – Results!

As I mentioned 2 weeks ago, my month long side research project to find the “best dim sum in America” is over. Results are below, but before that I want to go over my methodology in more detail just so I’m as completely transparent as possible.

I wrote last week that my methodology was based on yelp scores, urbanspoon scores, and some bonus points based on being on a food loving writer’s top dim sum lists. Here it is in more detail:

Total score
=
[Yelp score + (# of Yelp Reviews x 0.0001)]
+
[Urbanspoon % score x 5]
+
[Bonus points using a weighted grade based on mentions on a ‘top dim sum’ list in their metro area in the last 2 years. 1 mention = 0.25 bonus points, 2 mentions = 0.5 bonus pointspoints, 3+ mentions = weighted average of the rankings x 5 bonus points, 5+ mentions earned an additional bonus point]

Dim sum at Lunasia

Dim sum at Lunasia

The first two scoring factors are fairly simple and easy to explain as scores on both sites build the foundation of my rankings. Though, there are a few caveats: 1. I gave an added boost to the number of yelp reviews because I thought the more yelp reviews, the more reliable and better your score was compared to those with few reviews. 2. For the few restaurants without an Urbanspoon review I opted to duplicate the stars they received from Yelp (i.e. a restaurant without an Urbanspoon score but 3 yelp stars got a 60% in my Urbanspoon column).

The third is a little harder so I’ll walk you step by step on how I came up with my score for Sea Harbour. For the first two point factors, Sea Harbour received a base score of 8.19 (Yelp score of 3.59 + Urbanspoon score of 4.6). For the bonus score based on metro area lists, I averaged its ranking across all lists (19.5/8 = 2.4375) . Since lists are based on #1 being the best, I subtracted that score from 10. I then multiplied the resulting number by 0.1 to get a decimal. I multiplied the decimal by 5. The result was a bonus score of 3.78. I added an additional point because I felt that if you had more than 5 mentions, you must be pretty good. So in the end that’s 3.59 (Yelp) + 4.6 (Urbanspoon) + 4.78 (bonus points), or a total of 12.97 points.

Dim Sum at Sea Harbour

Dim Sum at Sea Harbour

But that’s enough math. By now I’m pretty sure you’re hungry to find the results of all this data and research. So, without further ado, according to this methodology the top dim sum restaurants in the United States are:

  1. Sea Harbour (Rosemead, CA) – 12.97
  2. Elite (Monterey Park, CA) – 12.436
  3. Nom Wah Tea Parlour (New York, NY) – 12.352
  4. Red Farm (New York, NY) – 12.337
  5. Yank Sing (San Francisco, CA) – 12.217
  6. Dim Sum Go Go (New York, NY) – 11.844
  7. Koi Palace (Daly City, CA) – 11.794
  8. Hong Kong Lounge II (San Francisco, CA) – 11.752
  9. Mama Ji’s (San Francisco, CA) – 11.528
  10. Hong Kong Lounge (San Francisco, CA) – 11.525

For those who are passionate about Chinese food and write about it, Sea Harbour’s #1 ranking comes as no surprise. The restaurant has enjoyed near universal acclaim since it’s open in 2002 and is repeatedly lauded by Jonathan Gold, the first food critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. Sea Harbour’s reputation and quality is aided by the fact that it is run by very successful Chinese restauranteurs based in Vancouver, where some of the best dim sum outside of Hong Kong is served.

While Sea Harbour’s ranking is not shocking much of anyone, what will undoubtedly shock some is the #7 ranking of Koi Palace. To be clear, a #7 ranking out of nearly 500 restaurants is nothing to sneeze at, but Koi Palace is considered by some experts to be the best Chinese restaurant in America. By this methodology, it comes to 2nd place even in its own metropolitan area, bested by the venerable Yank Sing. My hunch is that its notoriously long waits, with reports of staff ushering friends in front of the line, has markedly affected their ratings compared to others on this list. If that’s true, it does note a flaw in the methodology where to many folks, service trumps the quality of the food and is reflected on sites like Yelp.

 

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Another interesting thing to note is the relatively small amount of places serving dim sum from the San Gabriel Valley  in the top 10 compared to those from San Francisco and New York. This is not to say that the top 10 places in New York or San Francisco are bad. However, there are a large number of  exceptional dim sum places in the San Gabriel Valley that many would argue are better than the San Francisco and New York restaurants in the top 10. This may indicate another flaw in my methodology because not all metropolitan areas are equal when it comes to overall quality of Cantonese cuisine. A number of people, especially of Chinese descent, generally agree that the Chinese food (including dim sum) is better around Los Angeles, with San Francisco and New York in 2nd and 3rd respectively. However, this opinion is fraught with contention as David Chan’s Asia Society article in 2012 elicited dozens of heated argument both on the site and Chowhound. I had briefly considered doing some additional weighting based on metropolitan area quality reputation but opted against it to keep my methodology as simple and non-biased as I could.

Nitpicking the various potential flaws of my methodology, though, obscures the big picture: the dim sum rankings and the methodology are a fairly good indicator of the quality of the dim sum restaurant. In general, a score of 10 points or more means that the place is excellent – where the dim sum is fresh, potentially innovative, and made with care and quality. More than 8 points generally indicates that the place is great, though not to the quality of those restaurants with more points. A restaurant in the 7 point range generally means they are good and fairly solid, though some items may not be very great. A score around 6 points means that the restaurant is ‘fair’ with some items that are good but many items that are not very great. The few restaurants in the 5 point range are ones to avoid with universally negative acclaim. You can take a look at my dim sum ranking spreadsheet here.

In practical terms, the list will be generally useful for knowing where to go and where to avoid to eat, especially when traveling for the holidays or for leisure. For instance, I’ll be going to King Hua (11.306 points) and not Lincoln Seafood (5.264 points) when I go to California in the next few weeks. It’s not a holiday without dim sum in my family and I’m certainly planning to stuff myself with delicious sui mai.

Next up: my favorite places for dim sum and deeper analysis of the rankings, including cart vs. menu order places.

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The Best Dim Sum In America (Part 1)

A little over a month ago, when I linked to my blog post on Red Egg on Facebook, I made a half-serious joke about how should I have a “dim sum bracket” akin to Nate Silver’s “Burrito Bracket” on his FiveThirtyEight site. The burrito bracket, as Silver explains, was born out of his love of burritos and his then-recent 2007 move to the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He then started a food blog to document his search the best burrito in the neighborhood, NCAA March Madness style. However, his work for Baseball Prospectus and start of what would become FiveThirtyEight deferred his search in the middle of the bracket.

I was really captivated by Silver’s relaunch of the Burrito Bracket as a nationwide search to find out what was the “best” burrito in the country. Thus, I decided to actually launch my half-serious joke into a project to find the restaurant that serves the “best”  dim sum in the country (and when I mean dim sum, I mean the Cantonese style food and not others that may market itself as dim sum).

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Of course, I don’t have Silver’s access to staff journalists, researchers, or a veritable selection committee of food journalists and celebrity chefs. However, I did have access to public access to crowd sourcing restaurant review sites, Chowhound discussion forums, and the online publications of numerous rankings of dim sum from various metropolitan areas. So I started similar to how Silver started his revived Burrito Bracket – Yelp.

Yelp scores and numbers of reviews may be a decent baseline, but even Silver himself acknowledges the potential flaws in Yelp. Renown Chinese food eater David Chan goes even further to describe the flaws of Yelp when searching for Chinese restaurants. Thus, I decided factor in other websites in creating my rankings, most notably Urbanspoon. Urbanspoon isn’t without its own flaws, but its another crowd sourcing restaurant view site used nationwide and I thought it would help balance some of the downsides of using Yelp. In addition, I factored in “bonus points” for the number of times a restaurant had been ranked as part of a list of best dim sum places in a metropolitan areas in the last two years by a food journalist and/or Chowhound. No ranking system is perfect, of course, but I thought that might be the best way in having a relatively objective rating system.

Critiques of the rating system (and scores for that matter) will be saved for another post, however, as I want to talk about some initial findings that I think are pretty fascinating in their own right.

In my search for the restaurant serving the best dim sum in America, I did a lot of scouring to find all these restaurants. All in all, I found at least 494 restaurants serving dim sum across 57 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. I got to 57 by searching for dim sum restaurants in both the 50 largest cities in America and the 50 largest metropolitan areas as defined by the Census Bureau. Honolulu falls below 50 in both categories, but has a significant population of those identifying as a person with Chinese descent so I included it too. In total, these metro areas account for 85% of all American residents that identify as Chinese in the 2010 census.

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Afterward, I was curious to see the correlation between the amount of Chinese identified Americans in a metropolitan area and the amount of restaurants in the metropolitan area that serves dim sum. As you might think would be fairly logical, in general there is a pretty big correlation between the two. Using rudimentary and free statistics software by the website Alcula (as I don’t have access to SPSS, STATA, or other more sophisticated software), I found that the correlation coefficient between the two is pretty dramatic at 0.946 as you can see from the scatter plot above.

While that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, I was interested to see which metropolitan areas matched closest to the regression line and which were significant outliers. The two metropolitan areas that looked most in line were Washington, DC, at 13 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 106,721 Chinese people, and Dallas-Fort Worth, at 8 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 55,568 Chinese people. Beyond those two metropolitan areas, I would say a vast majority of the other metropolitan areas were pretty close to the region with just a few major outliers.

The few outliers, however, were pretty significant. The most significant outliers, in fact, looked to have a lot MORE restaurants serving dim sum than their Chinese population would otherwise suggest. The two biggest in this case were the San Francisco Bay Area, with 72 restaurants serving dim sum in an area with just 649,496 Chinese people, and Seattle, with 33 restaurants serving dim sum for an area with just 100,763 Chinese people. This can be explained by the fact that both cities retain significant numbers of people with ancestry from Guangdong Province and/or ties to Hong Kong. Furthermore, both cities not only retain a significant and vibrant Chinatown filled with Cantonese families, unlike their counterparts in places like Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but they also have suburban areas with a significant number of Cantonese families are restaurants, like Bellevue in Seattle and Millbrae in San Francisco.

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

In contrast to San Francisco and Seattle is New York City, which has only 53 restaurants serving dim sum in the metropolitan area that is home to 705,721 Chinese people. This can also be explained by Chinese immigration patterns as the predominant majority of Chinese people that have immigrated to New York since the Immigration Act of 1965 have been from non-Cantonese areas of China, especially from Fujian, Taiwan, and Zhejiang. While the core of what most people see as Manhattan’s Chinatown is still predominantly Cantonese, it is dwarfed by Flushing’s much more diverse pan-Chinese Chinatown and is even smaller in land area than the Fujianese side of Manhattan Chinatown, just east of Bowery and along East Broadway.

Sacramento and San Diego also have less places serving dim sum as their Chinese populations would indicate. As a native San Diegan, my theory is that many Chinese families are willing to drive a couple hours to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, for their fix of really good dim sum on any given three day weekend.

Regardless, I feel the best finding in all my research is that in nearly every major metropolitan area of the United States, you won’t be far from a place that serves dim sum, most of them at least decent. Even in Albuquerque, with just a few thousand Chinese people, I’m never really more than a 20 minute drive from eating dim sum at Ming Dynasty.

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Tasty Garden, Alhambra

Tasty Garden
288 W. Valley Blvd. Suite 110
Alhambra, CA 91801

From what I know, my great grandfather’s family is from Hainan, a province and rather large island off the southern coast of China. It is the namesake of Hainanese Chicken Rice, a very tasty and popular dish, especially in Malaysia and Singapore. In fact, some call Hainanese Chicken Rice the national dish of Singapore.

Tasty Garden 2

It’s a dish that I also claim as comfort food for me, regardless of my ancestry, and it’s really no surprise I ordered it a couple weeks ago when I was hungry for lunch in the San Gabriel Valley before flying back to Albuquerque. I decided to eat it at the Alhambra branch of the Tasty Garden chain of restaurants that serve Cantonese comfort food in a slightly more upscale setting (similar to Noodle Village in last week’s post). The trouble I had was deciding what side dish I wanted to accompany the Hainanese Chicken Rice. After mulling it over for a couple minutes, I placed an order of Chinese broccoli stir fried with dried salty fish, a dish that my brother and I love to order at Golden City in San Diego.

The food came in about 15 minutes and I immediately dug in, considering it was 2 in the afternoon. The first few slices of chicken I had were delicious. The meat was tender and the skin was juicy and fatty, without overpowering. The ginger and scallion oil give a nice kick and the picked vegetables were nice to cut some of the oil in the chicken and sauce. The rice was decently flavorful as well, with enough chicken stock and oil to give it a wonderful aroma. The last pieces of chicken weren’t as great, but didn’t detract much from the overall dish. The Chinese broccoli came next and like thee Hainanese chicken rice, the first bites were also pretty good in that the texture was just al dante enough with the pungent aroma of the dried fish and garlic. Unfortunately, as the Chinese broccoli wore on, some of the pieces were not done as well, either by having a little too much dried fish to accompany it or the Chinese broccoli they had used seemed just slightly past ripe. It was not the biggest deal, but certainly not the best either.

Tasty Garden 1

The service, however, was excellent – far from my typical experience at even fancier Chinese restaurants. Perhaps it was because the dining room wasn’t as packed to the gills, but the waiter was very generous in making sure my tea cup was refilled with tea and that my plate for bones was emptied and replaced. I was very pleased, especially given the often rude service I got at Tasty Garden’s Monterey Park location. The decor, as I have stated, was modern, nice, and clean too, which is definitely not something I am used to very much.

All in all, this was the perfect meal to end my California trip (aside from, perhaps, an In-n-Out burger or order of carne asada fries). Hopefully I can take my brother and his fiance here as well, given that he recently mourned the loss of Maxim Cafe in Rowland Heights, where we dined many of times as teenagers and college students.

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NBC Seafood, Monterey Park

NBC Seafood
404 S. Atlantic Blvd. Ste. A
Monterey Park, CA 91754

As I stated about two weeks ago, no matter what kind of gathering is amassed, Chinese people will always have some sort of large banquet with multiple courses stuffing someone to the gills. This was certainly true over the weekend when my family celebrated the life of my dear cousin, who departed our world way too early. While my cousin wasn’t the biggest fan of extended course Cantonese banquets, she nonetheless loved good food and we certainly had plenty of that at her celebration of life banquet.

NBC 1

We toasted her life at NBC Seafood. While this was my first time here, NBC Seafood has been well known, whether by fact or myth, as the first San Gabriel Valley restaurant serving Dim Sum. While other seafood restaurants and dim sum palaces have usurped NBC Seafood in the decades since (see: Sea Harbour), even renown critic Jonathan Gold notes that the restaurant serves high quality food in one of the most competitive Cantonese restaurant scenes outside of Hong Kong.

The food, as I hinted earlier, did not disappoint. We had an appetizer plate of suckling roast pork and jellyfish, which were absolutely delights to eat from the crunch of the pork skin to the springy texture of the jellyfish. Next came a winter melon soup with roast pork, roast duck, and shrimp, which reminded me of the winter melon soups my mom used to make for me when I was young. We then had walnut shrimp, which was good given that I generally don’t like the dish to begin with. A giant platter of fish filet with mixed vegetables came in with a nice, light flavor to go along with the rice. Another vegetable filled dish, what most Americans would term as “Buddha’s Delight” or some variation thereof, came to the table.

NBC 2

By this point, the lazy Susan at our table of 11 was almost packed, but there was more! Next came my second favorite dish of the night (after the appetizer), a large dish of salt baked chicken. The crispiness of the skin was absolutely delightful and the chicken maintained some flavor and moisture. It didn’t hurt that the rice chips of sorts that come with it reminded me of large family meals I would have with my cousin as a child. There was a sweet and sour pork dish that came next, which was decently made given the fact that I generally do not like such dishes that verged on becoming too Americanized. For dessert there were oranges, which tends to be a staple of Cantonese restaurants.

The service was pretty good as well, helping to refill teapots regularly, clearing tables at a good clip as more and more dishes came out, and refilling water as needed. Though, I do admit that I wasn’t paying as much attention to service (or with picture taking) given that I was with my cousins and we were bonding over food and plenty of shared memories. In the end, family is more important than photos or how you write the service portion of your blog post, so I apologize.

All in all, it was a fantastic family meal to celebrate my cousins life. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I will get true closure from this loss when I go back to DC and have brunch with several of our mutual friends. Banquets are nice, but brunch became our family (and friend) bonding necessity.

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Sea Harbour, Rosemead

Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant
3939 Rosemead Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770

If you were to ask a number of Chinese food ‘experts’ on where the best Chinese food in America is, a lot of them would say the San Gabriel Valley part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Due to the waves of immigration, particularly of fairly wealthy families from Hong Kong and Taiwan, after the Immigration Act of 1965, the San Gabriel boomed with upper middle class Chinese immigrants. The gastronomic result was a continuing explosion of authentic Chinese food starting in the mid-1980s, including the recruitment of chefs from China to run the kitchens in many of the most successful Chinese restaurants.

I could certainly write a whole paper on this topic, but in the interest of your time, and appetite this Thanksgiving, let’s turn to Sea Harbour. Sea Harbour is considered one of the best Chinese restaurants in the nation, ranging from ‘celebrity diner’ David Chan (known for his experience at eating at 6,000+ Chinese restaurants in America) to renown LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold (who listed it as the best dim sum restaurant in Southern California). Therefore, it was the place I really had to go to during my one day in LA on this Thanksgiving weekend.

Sea Harbour 1

When my sister and I arrived in the parking lot, it was already at full capacity. This was during a weekday, so you can imagine how crowded this place would be on a weekend or holiday. We got seated promptly, at the only table for two available and was promptly given a picture menu of the dim sum items as well as an itemized tic sheet to place what you wanted to get (kind of like the order tic sheet you get at most sushi restaurants in America). There are no carts at Sea Harbour, similar to the trend in Hong Kong, which apparently can make the food items fresher when they are served.

Sea Harbour 2

We ordered the following items: sichuanese string beans, ‘soup dumplings’, siu mai, stick rice wrapped in lotus leaves, steamed daikon cake, buns with cream filling, and egg custard tarts. Most of them are items typical of any reputable dim sum parlor in America with a few, like sichuanese strong beans and buns with cream filling, being slightly harder to find. I eschewed some really interesting and ‘exotic’ items due to their price point.

The sticky rice came first, followed by the soup dumplings. The sticky rice was pretty good with rich, but not overpowering fillings, including a whole salty egg yolk. The soup dumplings were disappointing with dry skin and soup that was rather bland for a soup dumpling, even if the meatball inside was decent. Next came the siu mai, which was perfect with a mixture of both shrimp and pork (when most dim sum places go cheap with just pork). Along with that came the string beans which were absolutely amazing. The string beans had perfect crisp and the ground pork were seasoned well, with a hint of spice. The best part is that everything in that dish came together well and it was not very oily, which sometimes can happen with this dish. The best savory dish came last, which was the daikon cake. While steamed, rather than the traditional fried version, these daikon cakes were still very well flavored with a light soy sauce mixture to flavor at the base and bits of bacon as a garnish. The bacon gave this dish a crunch and saltiness that worked very well.

Sea Harbour 3

The desserts came last and they were pretty good as well. The buns came first with a rich, white filling that was sweet but not overpowering. The egg custard tarts were nearly perfect, with a good flaky crust and a warm, soft, and perfectly baked egg custard filling. It was probably the best egg custard tart I have ever eaten, even beating the oft-praised ones from Golden Gate Bakery in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The service was pretty good and efficient as well, with servers regularly checking to ensure water glasses were filled and picking up empty small steamers. There was no need to flag down waiters for 10 minutes in frustration, as you would have to do in nearly every dim sum parlor elsewhere in Southern California. The prices were fairly reasonable too, albeit somewhat pricey for the San Gabriel Valley. Items started at $2.98 for a small with my total bill for 7 items coming to around $32. Given the quality of the food, aside from the soup dumplings, I would say it was worth every penny.

All in all, it was one of the best dim sum places I have ever been to and it’s no surprise, given that the restaurant is an offshoot of one that has locations in Hong Kong and Vancouver.

Sea Harbour 4

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