Thursday, July 21, 2005

Sea Harbor

I love the randomness of dim sum - one is at the whim of the capricious kitchen and its carts. Which is why I am conflicted about Sea Harbor [3939 Rosemead Blvd, Rosemead, 91770 - (626) 288-3939]. On one hand, it is hands down the best dim sum I've eaten in L.A. Then there is the menu-based ordering system, which guarantees freshness yet removes the delightful surprise... In the bad ol' days dim sum was simple, a tea + dumplings Cantonese breakfast that evolved into our modern extravaganza, so the menu quibble is really a trifle. Certainly Sea Harbor innovates in other areas - see descriptions below.

*** out of this world
** equivalent to excellent SGV rivals
* average L.A. dim sum

reasonably traditional dim sum
ha gau/shrimp dumpling*
siu maai/pork and shrimp dumpling***
fung jau/chicken feet (black bean sauce)**
beef balls**
lo mai kai/sticky rice in lotus leaf**
kai lan with hou yau/Chinese brocolli in oyster sauce***
sin juk gyun/tofu skin wrapped around assorted julienned filling**
#1 bun of the universe*
cheung fan/fat rice noodle sheets, wrapped around minced beef***

Ha gau and siu maai are the benchmark dim sum, which everyone always orders for comparison purposes alone. Here the siu maai are awesome, topped with flying fish roe/tobiko. Ha gau were just OK, odd given the exceptional quality elsewhere. Lo mai kai were the small individual portion style, instead of the large communal parcel which they cut open with scissors to share. My family orders the ha cheung fan (shrimp in rice noodle sheets) as our personal standard of quality - the noodles should be very soft and the shrimp perfectly steamed. Here my friend chose the minced beef style which I have not had before. Actually, the ground meat was a really nice change of pace. At most dim sum, steamed veges topped with hot oil after cooking are a menu standby rather than a special item. Here, the kai lan and oyster sauce are so fresh and tasty they enter a new category as a must-order. Oddly, the highly touted "#1 bun of the universe" which is actually brought around as well as served from the menu is not too flash, it seemed like a regulation baked pork bun to me.

dim sum I hadn't had before
#1 pastry of the universe***
do chyun yu (fried)**

In contrast to the #1 bun of the universe, the #1 pastry of the universe was a completely thrilling experience, certainly one of the most superb dim sum innovations I have had. Pastry shell that wraps in a meticulous coil around thin shreds of seafood and radish and other things I couldn't identify. The contrast between flaky pastry and delicate filling is astonishing. Do chyun yu are stogie-sized fish that can sometimes be filled with roe - a generous serving of these was perfectly fried and garnished with cilantro.

killer desserts
deep fried durian rolls**
bittermelon and sesame balls***

Durian is at the outer edge of my culinary horizons, despite the fact that my parents love it so. Somehow the smell is alluring to those raised in Southeast Asia whereas in most of us it activates the fight-or-flight response. When durian flesh is encapsulated in into a spring roll the smell is neutralized and the flavour - OK, it's delicious - can be enjoyed. Sea Harbor is famous for the dessert ball with a bittermelon/fu qua flavoured rice coating and black sesame inside. The filling is much tastier than usual, and given that black sesame is a particular favourite of mine I loved this dumpling from first bite. My friend Victoria claimed that the sesame could have been ground finer and that the coarser texture was to demonstrate how fresh it was - no complaints here!

Old-skool Cantonese folks might well complain about Sea Harbor, the wait is really long on weekends and it's a few $ more than the competition. I say you get what you pay for and it's still darn cheap. This is my #1 choice for dim sum, the food I have considered the most exalted form of eating since early childhood (editorial bias fully acknowledged). Enjoy!


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