Dining Report: Chowhounds at Dol Ho (long)
Melanie Wong was gracious enough to host a gathering of Chowhounds at one of her favorite dim sum spots. The restaurant turned out to be Dol Ho at 808 Pacific Avenue. Lunch was set for 11:30 am, but having arrived late (work, traffic, and parking), I was the designated stuckee.
Dishes selected at my table (there were two):
Stuffed Fried Tofu
"Intestine" Noodle with Shrimp
Spare Ribs over Rice
Beef over Rice
Shrimp-stuffed bell peppers
Egg custard tarts
Chive (Gow Choi) Dumplings
Some dish made of chicken and mushrooms wrapped with rice noodles (I didn't sample this, but it was highly rated.)
I think the flavor of dishes at this restaurant can be described as subtle. Almost nothing is strongly flavored or spiced. Salt isn't overused, herbs are used sparingly, and there was no trace of MSG! Thus, the ingredients had to shine for themselves or fall flat.
The Har Gow (shrimp dumpling) had a nice, fresh shrimp filling, but I found the skin to be too thick. The Siu Mai were better than the Har Gow with a good wrapper and a large and flavorful filling. Mind you, arriving late, I was trying these two somewhat colder than when they came out of the steamer.
Not too greasy and nicely crisped describe the exterior of the taro horn (taro puff, etc.). The filling had a faint hint of five spice to it and was both light and pleasant. The daikon cake (fried) was its usual mild self, without only a few other things in the batter to give it a minor texture. Turns out that the chili bean paste in the jar on the table helpfully livens this dish up. The chili bean paste wasn't particularly hot and had some complexity to it so that it was a well-liked condiment.
The "Intestine" Noodle with Shrimp (changfen in Mandarin) was made with pretty thick noodles, but tasted nicely of fresh shrimp.
We ordered two different rice dishes. These are metal bowls of rice that are topped with meat and then steamed. Upon being served, a soy-based sauce is poured on top to give the rice below some added flavor. The spare ribs over rice were generally viewed as being the best dish of those sampled. The ribs wwere tasty and meaty, with the subtle flavor of dried tangerine peel adding a nice note. The beef over rice was made with ground beef mixed with herbs (I detected cilantro) and probably held together with beaten egg. No one preferred this to the spare ribs.
Stuffed tofu held a paste made of shrimp and was simply deep-fried. The shrimp was pretty straightforward, the tofu lightly crisp on the outside, moderately soft on the inside. The same shrimp filling made its way into the bell peppers, which were served with a brown sauce that was light on flavor. The bell peppers were properly cooked, neither crispy raw nor overcooked and mushy.
The chicken feet were steamed in a mildly hot sauce with black beans it. I found the chicken feet to be better than your average claw, the meat cooked to the point that it slipped off the bone without a lot of gnawing.
We found the egg custards (dan tat) to be odd. The shell was nothing to write about (we went to the Golden Gate Bakery for better shells afterwards) and filling was oddly flavored. It was almost salty and certainly not particularly sweet. It tasted of "scrambled eggs" and "potatoes". If I didn't know I was in Chinatown, I might have thought I was eating a mainland China rendition of egg custard (pastries in the PRC tend to be much less sweet than those found here). The fried sesame balls were also different than most were accustomed to. The outside was nicely coated in sesame seeds and fried to a nice crisp exterior. The dough was thicker than some of the best that I've had and the interior was just unusual. We couldn't figure out what it was -- very light both in texture and color. The flavor wasn't distinctly anything any of us recognized -- it wasn't a traditional lotus or bean paste.
Finally the chive dumplings (which arrived at the same time as the sweet items) had a nice "chivy" flavor to them, but the wrapper was thick and gummy.
The real kicker of the whole meal was the price. Each 'hound at the table kicked in $6.50 which included tea and tax. Can you beat a deal like that? We also raised (at our table) a donation of $76 for Chowhound. I don't have the figure for the second table, but perhaps someone (Pssst? Derek?) can chime in?
All in all, a good time and very pleasant lunch. Worth it after my personal travails in getting there.
At table 1 were David Kaplan, Celery, Melanie Wong, Cynthia Sasaki, Gordon Wing, Steve Posin, and myself. Table 2 include Pssst and Derek and other hounds with whom I did not have the opportunity to become acquainted.
(Typographic errors and misrepresentations are all mine!)
Peter, thanks for your thorough report and enthusiasm! You were so cute on the phone when you said, "Running late, but I'll be there. I'm bringing a notepad, I know who's the last one". (g) You didn't comment on the "ambience". I'm delighted that the 'hounds liked Dol Ho so much. I was more nervous about this rec than any of the places in the Civil War because of the setting.
As you pointed out, the kitchen has a light touch here. The food is really a step above the other small, take-out places in Chinatown, not as greasy or salty. Dol Ho ain't Harbor Village, but it offers great value in the price-quality continuum. There's no charge for tea (usually 75¢ or $1 per person at tea houses), and when you eat here as a single, you're served a whole pot and not just a glass of tea. While the staff did refill our pot once, usually the customers get their own refills from the hot water stand just inside the door of the kitchen. We sent Steve Posin in there once, maybe he can comment on what he saw in the kitchen. Also, there's no time pressure. You can keep your table for as long as you want, and the many seniors who hang out here linger over the paper and a pot of tea.
On the food, this was the first time I'd tried the stuffed tofu here. The frying was very light in clean-tasting oil and really showed off the skill of the kitchen in the delicacy of the forcemeat and cooking technique.
I agree that the har gow wrappers are a bit thick, but when hot and fresh, they're quite palatable. The steamed rice dish also comes in a chicken version, but I almost always get the pork ribs with black bean sauce (and the secret dried tangerine peel). I loved Steve Posin's comment that the stainless steel serving dishes reminded him of hospital ware. Personally, I like the thicker and so tender it's nearly jelly texture of the rice noodle crepe wrapped around the shrimp (your intestine noodle). But I'd have to agree with Rochelle that this time the shrimp had a bit of iodine and earthiness to them that detracted. I do think the soy sauce-based topping is very good here.
The chicken, mushroom and tofu wrapped in rice noodle vermicelli and steamed with some gingery broth was a surprising hit. I thought it might be too subtle in flavor and texture for some to "get it". Sorry for doubting the hounds! The version here is better than Hong Kong Flower Lounge's.
When Gordon first eyed the chicken feet, he said, "look how puffed up they are, they're going to be good". The flavor was delectable, but they could have been just a little softer. I took leftover phoenix talons home and with one piece of the very good stuffed bell pepper, had just the right size evening snack after our big lunch.
The two desserts were odd - avoid the custard tarts and the fried sesame balls. Another dessert I've ordered from the front counter - sweetened glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaf was also not great. But a sweet that is nice here was the steamed chestnut sponge cake. I had ordered this for the early arrivals to share.
From 10 contributors at both tables, we raised $76 for Chowhound. A big thanks to you all for your generousity and support of our community!
That's too funny! Did you try anything different? The selection isn't that big here, but I still haven't sampled everything yet.
Most of our food was ordered directly from the kitchen, rather than off the cart (there's only one cart). Did you pick from the cart and how was that?
Thanks for a very informative report.
We've actually gotten as far as the front door of Dol Ho on a couple of occasions when the wait at Y. Ben House seemed overly long. But there'd been a wait at Dol Ho too, and the cramped and chaotic scene sent us back across the street to the relative serenity of the Y. Ben House vestibule.
Sounds like a good place to try on a weekday. Do you happen to recall the S/M/L unit price breakout?
re: Gary Soup
I had to leave before the final tab was tallied but we all ate until we couldn't eat anymore and the result was a little over $6 - including tax and tip. Which explains how Dick Lee can offer that $5 per person - eat all you want dim sum (for parties of 4 or more) - their pork dumplings are 4-$1 - it would be hard to eat more than 20 dumplings and keep going. Dol Ho is small and not much on decor but not quite as "scary" as Melanie described. One plus for the size is that food doesn't take long to get to you as they wheel it out/around.
re: gordon wing
I was sorry to have missed this outing, but I've been there twice with Melanie -- the spareribs are the best!
The pricing structure is unclear to me (I don't think I've seen it written down anywhere), but I think it's $1.50 for the less expensive plates and $2.00 for the more expensive items.
Anyway, it's dirt cheap for the quality, and as Gordon noted, always hot and fresh. Plus if you don't see what you want, you can always go back to the kitchen and ask/point (the first time I sat looking into the kitchen and it wasn't scary at all -- Melanie exaggerates on that score -- plus everything comes out so hot and doesn't sit around, it's all got to be sterile).
Melanie had suggested it for the North Team's "low end" choice, but I convinced her that would be a bad idea on the grounds that people hearing a place being "highly recommended" but not knowing much else about it might be put off by its funkiness (which I think is part of its charm) and also on the grounds that an influx of people from outside the neighborhood might "ruin" it. I doubt they ever had that many round-eyes in the place at one time. On two previous visits, once I was the only one -- a nice old man was tickled by the sight of a round-eye eating chicken feet -- and the other Rochelle and I were the only ones.
But I'm glad you all had a good time there (I thought of you wistfully while I was enduring an hour of physical therapy on my knee instead).
re: Ruth Lafler
We missed you too, Ruth! I did tell people about the supply of ribs you'd amassed as leftovers during the dim sum trials and the taste test that Dol Ho's won. (g)
You've eaten in Dol Ho twice with me, but you've also had the food a third time. On our first dim sum elimination round, we started at Grand Palace, knocked that one out quickly as a loser, and headed over to New Asia. Maybe you'll recall that I left Rochelle, Derek, and you in line for a table while I headed up to Dol Ho to get har gow, siu mai, and taro dumplings as take out. Once we were seated at New Asia, I was sneaking the dim sum out of the cartons onto the plates so we could have a side by side comparison. Dol Ho won, and New Asia was out of contention.
re: gordon wing
Gordon, it was great to share your early Chinatown memories. As we discussed, I used to have lunch with my grandfather at this location under the previous owners. I think Dol Ho has had this spot for 10+ years, but I always think of Grandpa Jang when I'm here.
One the decor, David Kaplan said, "this isn't scary. Melanie, you let your drama queen tendencies get the better of you." We also didn't spot any insects, so no repeat of Fu Lam Moon's adventure where David dispatched a cockroach that was headed in my direction. (g)
The housemade chili sauce is a highlight here and deserves special mention. It has black beans in it and also chopped pickle veggies, so it has a delicious flavor I've not found anywhere else. It was good on the not so good daikon cakes and on the fried taro dumplings. I'm not a big chili oil user for dim sum (hate to see folks douse stuff with too much condiments), but when I'm here, I'm tempted to put this sauce on lots of things.
re: jen maiser
re: Peter Yee
I wanted to mention that to secure these two tables, I was at Dol Ho at 10:35am. We had the round table for 8 next to the kitchen, and then a six-seater (two tables pushed together) next to it. Coming from a culture that reveres elders, it was hard to wave off the white-haired gent with a cane who wanted the big table for his family. But once the staff understood what I was trying to do, they helped me stake out the seats. In fact they tried to move the older man sitting at one of the tables. I apologized to him, saying, "Uncle ("sook"), no, you don't need to go, stay and enjoy your tea", knowing that we wouldn't need his seat for nearly an hour. It was a big help to have Cynthia and Thy show up before 11am with coats and bags to reserve seats. Also, I think Dol Ho is closed on Wednesdays.