The good news is that Orange County has a surfeit of fine Chinese restaurants, many of which are small, family affairs with food good enough to make a person weep. The bad news is that finding most of the good, small ones is a matter of trial and error; restaurants like these hardly ever have outward indicators of quality. It's like the Chinese say, I guess. You just have to be lucky.
Lucky for me, I stumbled onto Sun Hai, a tiny dumpling house located in a Korean mini-mall on Garden Grove Boulevard. It wasn't pure luck because I was following a tip from a Chinese friend, one of the few Cantonese I know who holds northern dumplings in high esteem. But I have been burned by this fellow before, and it is always dicey to follow up on anything he says. One time he sent me to eat dim sum in a laundromat.
Garden Grove Boulevard is a street literally lined with Chinese restaurants: gaudy, colorful places with big parking lots and enormous bilingual signboards, so it is hard to know which are the ones to remember. Sun Hai's sign is written in Hangul, the script used to write Korean, and English is nowhere in sight. There is no way to guess that this is even a Chinese restaurant, unless you read Korean. I guess the family who runs it didn't bank on a mixed clientele. At least they had the business sense to print an English menu.
The family is named Wang, and they are from Pusan, South Korea, where they still operate a successful restaurant. Sun Hai is their first venture on these shores, and apparently, they do not yet realize the power of the local language. Only their 15-year-old daughter speaks any English. You will have to use her to communicate with the rest of the family.
They also don't seem to realize that there might be large numbers of people around here who would be happy to break down doors to get at their pan-fried dumplings and spicy fried chicken.
Because the Wangs are from South Korea, there is a touch of that country's hospitality in their restaurant. Diners are greeted with a big plate of kimchee , a burnished pile of pickled and fermented cabbage. This condiment, which absolutely glistens with red chili here, is identified with Korean cuisine the world over, and no Korean meal is served without it. A thick sauce made from fermented black bean and a dish of marinated spring onion also appear; neither of these taste Chinese either.
Sun Hai specializes in the four basic varieties of Chinese dumplings; boiled, steamed, steamed round and pan fried. All are variations on a simple theme, a wheat flour dough and a minced pork filling. Every one of these dumpling houses seems to have a wizened old grandparent pinching little packets of dough with the requisite fillings, and Sun Hai is no exception. Before I ordered, I peered into the kitchen, and there he was, rolling, poking and squeezing. Everything is made to order in this restaurant, and the food will stand up to anyone's. That includes the vaunted Mandarin Deli in downtown Los Angeles, and not just for dumplings, either.
Boiled meat dumplings, soei chow in Mandarin, come 12 to an order arranged nicely in a bamboo steamer. These are the lightest dumplings because there is no oil and little enough dough. Soei chow are juicy and moist, and you'll be surprised by how many you can eat. Douse them liberally with rice vinegar, as the Chinese do. They are delightful.
Steamed meat dumplings, eight to an order, differ in that there is finely chopped celery in the more abundant filling, and in a thicker skin. It is assembled exactly like the pan-fried dumpling most familiar to Chinese food lovers, only cooked differently. Steamed round dumpling, bao dz in Mandarin, is the heartiest of the four and served six to an order. It is really a yeasty bread dough stuffed with meat. These dumplings are eaten widely in Japan and South Korea. Like anything containing yeast, it is best eaten immediately.
The masterwork at Sun Hai is the pan-fried dumpling. It is the best I have had anywhere. The ingredients are simple, but preparation takes magic. The slightest misstep ruins the day. A perfect pan-fried dumpling has to be golden brown on all sides, with no errant oil on the inside. It must be served piping hot, have no soggy edges and should burst with steam when bitten. Sun Hai's dumplings more than meet these lofty standards, an amazing achievement when you consider that most Chinese places don't even come close. A dumpling maker is an artist. That's all there is to it.