YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Grab That Cart! : Ocean Seafood has quickly become the place for dim sum in Chinatown, and no wonder

January 13, 1991|RUTH REICHL | Ruth Reichl is The Times' restaurant critic

The Nam Wah Tea Parlor is one of those small dark restaurants on a small dark alley in New York's Chinatown. In the early '50s, it was where Chinese-Americans took their Anglo friends to introduce them to the wonders of dim sum, the little dumplings that are served for breakfast in southern China. Dour waiters walked around carrying trays covered with small steamed dumplings and deep-fried shrimp magically puffed up to the size of chicken legs and fat round albino puffs in which were hidden a minuscule amount of roast pork (my brother called these "pork sandwiches").

When I was 5, I thought it was just about the most wonderful restaurant on earth.

I liked being presented with a visible menu: The only possible surprise was what you might find lurking inside the dumplings. I liked the manner of calculating the bill too: The waiter simply came over and counted the empty plates. My parents, of course, liked the price: I think it was hard to spend more than a couple dollars per person.

My second most interesting encounter with dim sum came many years later in Macao. I was taken to another small dark restaurant off of a small dark alley, only here the dour waiters with trays had turned into smiling women with carts. What they had on those carts bore the same relationship to the dim sum at the Nam Wah that Peking duck does to chicken chop suey: It was astonishing, exotic, wonderful stuff.

This is what I remember from that meal in Macao: water-chestnut pancakes, cooked before our very eyes on a little rolling stove; shredded turnip cakes in very flaky pastry; chewy rice dumplings filled with sweet bean paste; shrimp dumplings of an unearthly lightness.

My third most interesting encounter with dim sum came a couple of weeks ago in Chinatown at the new Ocean Seafood Restaurant, which occupies the site of the venerable Miriwa. Three of us walked past the waterfall that gurgles in the lobby, up the mirrored, plant-festooned stairs, plunked ourselves down at a table and flagged the first rolling cart that came by. " Siu mai ?" asked the waitress, opening up a lid and holding out one of the little metal containers. We nodded. " Har gau ?" she asked, opening another. We nodded again. She put the two containers down, stamped the card on the table and rolled off.

My theory on dim sum is this: When you first walk into the restaurant, grab something off of the first cart that comes by. You never know when the next one will come along. Besides, if you aren't appropriately enthusiastic, the women who push the carts will start passing you by. You never know what you might miss. Har gau is not normally the sort of thing to which I give the nod. It is the most commonplace dim sum there is--a sort of Chinese shrimp quenelle that can often be leaden. Here, however, the quenelles were particularly airy, and the mixture contained thin strands of white Chinese chives, which gave them just the perfect bit of bite. They were wonderful.

The siu mai were even better. Siu mai , which are shaped like little kettles (the name translates as "cook and sell dumplings"), are another standard of the dim sum kitchen. They are generally a sort of bland mixture of shrimp and pork; here a small whole shrimp was perched on top of a lightly spicy, very juicy mixture of pork and spices. Each bite was a small explosion of flavor.

These were so delicious that I began looking frantically around, desperate not to miss anything that might come my way. Did I want woo gok , the crunchy deep-fried taro balls? Yes indeed. Turnip cakes? Of course. A woman came by with little dumplings filled with scallops--better even than the siu mai-- so good that after one bite we called her back to get another order.

By now the cart pushers seemed to know that we are game for anything, and every one of them stopped by the table to try and offer us her wares. A woman held out a plate filled with translucent slices of raw geoduck--giant clam; would we like some? We would. She dipped the slices into boiling water, briefly, then covered them with a mixture of soy and scallions. The thin slices were delicate, slightly briny, just chewy enough to make them interesting--and with their bracing sauce a clean, fresh contrast to the fried dumplings.

So too were duck webs, delightfully chewy bits that I like so well I've asked for them on every return visit. The spare ribs in black bean sauce were just a little bit better than they are in other places, and the congee --rice soup--was blandly soothing and delicious.

Los Angeles Times Articles