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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

A Taste of Dim Sum Reaches North County

June 04, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

One of the more important but less-noticed phenomena of the contemporary restaurant business is the gradual rise of a new type of ethnic restaurateur.

Although the majority of ethnic eateries at one time were opened by fairly poor immigrants who offered simple, everyday fare in modest surroundings (and who frequently prospered in the process), it has become more common of late for well-educated, sophisticated entrepreneurs to come here specifically to invest in America's ever-growing love affair with restaurants. Not all of them emigrate, in fact, and international chains, if still rare, are spreading.

The fading Mandarin Coast, long a Solana Beach landmark and long in need of updating in both menu and appointments, was recently taken over by the Cheng family, whose roots are in the Yangtze River Valley in China's Chiangsu Province, and whose members include a financial consultant, a medical student and a pair of nephews enrolled in master's degree programs. All occasionally assist co-owners Nian and Jimmie, brothers-in-law who have installed a new menu with several special features and are gradually refurbishing an interior that still has far to go.

One innovation is the introduction of the first dim sum list in North County, reliably available on weekends (when servers push carts laden with the savory dumplings through the dining room) and available to a degree on weekdays if you make it clear that you really want to try at least a few varieties.

Such a request led recently to a virtual avalanche of dim sum. The kitchen, after agreeing to supply a few types, evidently grew enthusiastic and sent more than half a dozen miniature steamers laden with moist, yeasty buns that hid hearts of sweetly sauced barbecued pork; rich, succulent siu mai (minced pork pastries) meant to be dipped in a tangy blend of Chinese vinegar and soy sauce, and har gow , or crescent-shaped bites of translucent dough wrapped around whole, lightly seasoned shrimp. There were also steamed meatballs, a little tough but succulent, and an interesting mixture of sticky rice and bits of flavorful Chinese sausage steamed in green leaf wrappers.

The most visually spectacular dim sum , the "crystal shrimp dumplings," were actually something of a bore to eat. Banded in dozens of streaming strips of won ton dough, these looked like newly born (if deep-fried) stars, and had as their nuclei golf-ball-size lumps of shrimp paste. The dough banners frankly were dull, and a hassle to fight through on the way to the shrimp paste hearts.

The majority of dim sum , served two or three per order (three or four varieties should make a sufficient lunch for one guest), cost $1.60 per plate. Other choices include turnip cakes; fried, aromatic taro turnovers; savory chicken buns; steamed buns filled with sweet lotus seed paste, and sesame seed-flavored rice balls.

The formal dinner menu offers an innovation of its own, a "light" menu of low-calorie dishes that also feature reduced oil, sugar and salt content; the restaurant bans the use of MSG altogether. Primarily vegetarian ( kung pao tofu, steamed vegetables in the restaurant's own Chiangzhe sauce, eggplant in plum sauce and steamed spinach), the list also includes such chicken choices as moo goo gai pan , moo shi and, surprisingly, chop suey.

The Chiangzhe sauce, light, sweet and refreshing, reappears throughout the menu, quite flavorfully on the shrimp salad, a blend of shredded lettuce, "thread" noodles and chopped shrimp. Eat this with chopsticks and enjoy, as an afterglow, a mellow feeling of accomplishment.

The pan-fried dumplings, rather strangely for a place that makes a specialty of dim sum , are not especially distinguished. In fact, with the exception of the Chiangzhe shrimp salad and a Mandarin chicken salad, the appetizer list sticks sadly to the well-worn path of egg rolls and the like.

As is true at many Chinese restaurants, the most interesting entrees appear under the "house specialties" heading, here a selection of a dozen dishes, including a deluxe platter of organically grown vegetables, the inevitable crispy beef, and hon hon shrimp, or batter-fried crustaceans finished with a hot, sweet and pungent sauce. The shrimp with "sizzling rice" (squares of compressed rice, not unlike those snack bars made from American breakfast cereal) is rather good, the flavor heightened again by sweet Chiangzhe sauce. Also likable, the tai chen chicken teams sliced white meat with sauteed black mushrooms, bell peppers and bamboo shoots in a flavorful brown sauce touched with just a bit of Szechuan heat.

Mandarin Coast

221 N. Highway 101, Solana Beach

Calls: 755-4115

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Most entrees $5.95 to $9.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $45.

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