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Restaurants | THE REVIEW

The best dim sum in town

October 15, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

My friends have just arrived from Portland, where it's been raining for days. In Los Angeles, though, it's a shorts and sunglasses kind of day. California's budget may be in crisis, we've just elected the Terminator as governor, but right now, this is paradise. Even the freeway seems charmed. The force is with us as we turn onto the 10 heading east. Expecting gridlock, we've somehow caught the late-morning traffic just right and ride smoothly past downtown, past the 5 junction. Our luck holds as we slip onto the swift-moving 60, at this hour a parade of heavily laden trucks and motley cars speeding farther east.

Well before noon, just 30 minutes from Hollywood, we're already at our destination in Rowland Heights. It's Hong Kong Palace for dim sum. A Chinese friend who keeps up on all the restaurants tipped me off to the address. I've already been once, but so late in the afternoon there wasn't much of a selection. But the siu mai dumplings I tasted that day were enough to convince me this was a real find.

A suburb just east of Whittier, Rowland Heights is Monterey Park redux, with a slightly more prosperous look. We squeeze into the last available parking place at the restaurant's end of the shopping center. It's 11:30 and we're primed, visions of dumplings, barbecue pork and steaming bowls of congee dancing in our heads.

It's early enough that we're seated immediately: The place is only half full. It's a weekday after all, I'm thinking. Right away a waiter in a fancy brocade vest brings us tea in a bulky white porcelain pot with a fat spout that looks like a faucet. The smells, the sight of food on the tables -- everything is so enticing that we need to steady ourselves for a moment before plunging in. We take a sip of tea.

Smaller than the giant Cantonese seafood houses in Monterey Park, Hong Kong Palace is more restrained in its decor. In other words it's not dripping in chandeliers. Windows, though, get the extravagant swag treatment. The wall at the back of the dining room is deep red and embellished with a gold dragon and possibly a phoenix (it's hard to tell from my vantage point). Another long wall is devoted to fish tanks filled with huge snow crabs, lobsters, drifts of live shrimp and rock cod and other fish. In one tank, geoduck clams extend their oddly long necks.

Now the fun begins, as women dressed in yellow and green embroidered Chinese blouses and ruffly aprons parade around the room with their carts, calling out the names of their wares. The first to stop at our table holds snowy rice-flour noodles rolled up with shrimp. She splashes a little light soy sauce on a plate, loads it up with the wide noodles, and sets it down on our table, not forgetting to stamp our dim sum ticket with a small symbol. (That's how the cashier will know what we had.) Chopsticks poised, we dive in. Incredibly soft and billowy, with firm, breathtakingly fresh curls of shrimp tucked in the middle, it's so tender it takes major chopsticks skills to pick it up.

Then the steamed dumpling server arrives, lifting lids on her stacks of aluminum steamers to show us plump dumplings filled with shrimp, scallops and greens in various combinations and drum-shaped siu mai. We take them all, and she lifts the steamers, dripping water, from her cart onto the table. The finely pleated wrapper on the har gow is so fine, it shows the outline of the big pink shrimp through the rice-flour dough. Steamed just long enough to barely cook the shrimp, this is dim sum at its purest.

Scallop dumplings shaped like half moons are filled half with snowy slices of scallop, half with shrimp. The taste is so pristine, they could have been plucked from the sea that morning. Siu mai with their shirred wrapping of fine dough are almost pure pork, juicy and sweet.

The only way you'll find better dim sum is to get on a plane to Hong Kong. Everything at Hong Kong Palace is terrific. The seafood is impeccably fresh, the pastry and dumpling skins particularly fine.

Waiters go out of their way to be helpful to non-Chinese, telling us the names of dishes in English if they can, or if not, finding someone who can. A tall woman pushing her soup cart asks us if we want rice porridge. Absolutely. Congee is one of my favorite things. And this one is a bowl of boiling-hot rice porridge laced with bits of pork and thousand-year-old egg.

She comes back later to see if we liked the congee, and then wants to know if we'd like to try sweet tofu. I don't know quite what she means, but we're game. She hands us a bowl of the most silky tofu I've ever tasted. It looks almost like ice floes in the faintly sugared water.

When I remember to look up, the entire room is filled, mostly with big tables of friends and family. More people are crowded into the foyer. I notice a number of very elderly people with their grandkids or great-grandkids. Everyone at my table has the same thought: If we reach that advanced age, we hope someone will be taking us out for dim sum too.

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