Ton Kiang dim sum report
Five Chowhounds went to Ton Kiang's controversial dim sum today to taste for themselves. This was my second visit to the restaurant--I had a fab feast there about 5 years ago that I have been dreaming about ever since (I lived out of town at the time). I was flabbergasted by never-before-seen-by-me variety and incredible freshness of ingredients. I had a personal interest in seeing if TK's dim sum deserved that special place in my heart.
The short version: Ton Kiang is more than decent, but not worthy of the pedestal I had put it on. No single dish was excellent, though most were good. I also think that it deserves more love from the Bay Area Chowhounds. Though it's not the best, I would recommend it to a friend, especially since it's within the city limits. A fellow diner said he would rank it #4 or #5 in Bay Area dim sum.
Among the diners was North Team dim sum battle member Derek, who is a much tougher and more experienced dim sum critic than I. Look for his post.
At 11:30am on a weekday, there was no wait for a table. We sat in the downstairs dining room, among a mostly gweilo crowd. Here's what we ate:
Roasted duck--Not as succulent as it can be, the texture of the duck was a little grainy, the skin was slightly crispy. Fair
Fried calamari--I *think* this was prepared in the salt-and-pepper style (I am not a Chinese expert yet), though the batter seemed a little thicker than usual. Though very slightly chewy, I still liked this dish and liked it even more when I dipped it in the fiery, garlicky red sauce that TK puts on the table. Very good
Xiao long bao--A fine version of this sought-after dish. Though a burst of juice did not come with the first bite, overall, each dumpling was very juicy throughout. It was more as if the soup had permeated through the minced meat, instead of staying between the meat and the wrapper. Still earns a Very Good from me.
Salt and pepper shrimp--Very large shrimp, with heads and beady eyes, were juicy, sweet inside and just barely fried outside. Very good.
Shrimp har gow--Smaller than usual dumplings, stuffed with sweet shrimp. Someone commented that this dish was a little salty. I ate this dumpling as soon as it arrived on the table and found the wrapper to be thin and delicate. Others commented that it became a little gummy when cooled. Good.
Braised tofu skin rolls--Nothing memorable here. The North Team found that these lacked depth of flavor, and I have to say I agree. Still I ate it! Fair.
Sauteed long beans--Inch-long, beautifully green long beans were unfortunately overcooked, resulting in limp stalks. In my eyes, the delicious, delicately tangy sauce it was sauteed in nearly redeemed the lack of crispness, raising my overall rating from Fair to Good.
Shrimp balls-Two-inch-diameter globes that were beautifully presented, with fried fringes sticking out around the the globe. The minced shrimp inside was flavorful. Very good.
Shrimp noodle--A thick, floury-tasting noodle stuffed with tiny sweet shrimp. I found the noodle was a little doughy. Fair.
Taro cakes--Very finely minced inside with a greaseless outside. Good.
Chicken feet--Cut up into small, manageable pieces, and braised in a spicy red sauce till the meat falls off the bone. Very good.
Turnnip cake--Just as greasy as this dish always is, this rendition didn't taste of turnips. Other Chowhounds said the flavor was 'off.' I never order this dish, except when with Chowhounds, so based on their comments, this one earns a Fair.
Zha dan (egg bomb)--My second-ever tasting of this dish was greaseless, globe-shaped beignet-like fritter. Good
Egg custard tarts--small tarts with a nicely flaky crust. These were fairly eggy with a hint of sweetness. Very good
Mango pudding--Silky smooth with small bites of fresh mango. Good.
Overall, some diners said the food was a little salty.
Of course, as soon as we got the check, a bunch of interesting dishes started appearing, such as a fried oyster concoction that looked very intriguing. Next time I am going at 12:30 on a weekday to get the more exciting stuff. We paid $20 per person, including tip.
To my fellow diners: If I forgot something, please post!
Great post! Here's a couple more things we had:
Black sesame mochi balls - wrappers a little thicker than I like them, filling not as flavorful as some but not a bad version.
Sesame balls - smaller than most but overall pretty good; still nice and hot when we got them.
Shu Mai - black mushroom and large pieces of shrimp in filling; pretty good.
Sticky rice with red bean filling in lotus leaves - haven't seen this before. The sticky rice was mochi consistency and the red bean paste had a nice not too sweet flavor.
The red and green dipping sauces were very tasty but I found most of the dishes to be on the salty side - I'm still thirsty but all in all I enjoyed our lunch. The servers were very pleasant and there was no difficulty finding out what they had on their trays. I'd take someone to Ton Kiang who was new to dim sum. It was pleasant when we got there but when we left there was a line out into the street. Remember to bring change for the parking meters and warning that they only give you 1 hour on the meter so don't keep feeding it past the one hour mark; then remember to go out and stuff some more change in when the hour's nearly up!
I feel overall Ton Kiang's dim sum is pretty good. But if I were to scrutinize items one by one as if it's the dim sum battle again, I would rank it below the North team's choices Harbor Village and HKFL, as well as Yank Sing which I had gone to previously.
They seemed to have a huge selection of XXX with Shrimp dumplings other than the standard Har Gao. I remember hearing spinach with shrimp, mushroom with shrimp, and lots of others. Though the fillings were fine, the wrapper was sort of mushy tasting, even after it cooled. Though to their credit, the wrapper held up and didn't fall apart.
I was disappointede with the deep fried items. Fried Calamari, though a little chewy - which I think is ok since some people prefer that - was pretty greasy, where you can not only see the oil, but taste it distinctly. The Fried Shrimp was similar. It seems that the oil was not hot enough when they fried the things.
Also MIA was the black bean spareribs. The chicken feet was very good, though I didn't see any of the feet (the steam plate was in front of Derek first, before it got to me), I had to settle for the knuckles. The sauce was slightly spicy and had good flavor.
As for the sticky rice with lotus leaves - I still believe the filling was lotus paste, and not red bean paste. It is the same lotus filling most often found in Moon Cakes. It looks and tastes like red bean, but is not. Though I'm not sure what part of "lotus" it is made from or how it became a paste. Maybe someone else knows for sure?
Good to hear from one of the South Team members!
How did you feel the value for your lunch compared to what you received and paid at Millbrae's Hong Kong Flower Lounge? Based on the North Team's visit to Ton Kiang and a follow-up by one member of the team, they ranked it below HKFL, Harbor Village, Yank Sing, Koi Palace, Seafood Harbor, and Fook Yuen. Pricewise, it was too expensive to be in the running with the low-end choice, Imperial Garden Seafood, although I felt the food quality was comparable with better service at TK at about twice the price. I also felt that Joy Luck Place in Cupertino is superior to TK.
In general, I'm not a big fan of some of the small plate offerings some tea houses are serving in addition to the traditional dumplings and barbecue items. It seems that in order to increase the variety of things offered, the kitchens are plating up some Hong Kong style dishes that would be much better tasting if ordered from the menu and served fresh. Those fried seafood dishes need to served right away, and once they've been walked around the dining room once, I don't want them. Ditto for some of hte Peking duck assembled in buns/wrappers that get soggy and tend to have more condiments on them than I prefer. But some people are impressed by seeing more variety circulate on the trays/carts, so it's effective marketing.
Lotus paste comes from the lotus seed. It is smoother than red bean paste and has a yellowish tan, sometimes nearly white color.
re: Melanie Wong
I went to Ton Kiang many years ago for dim sum. Almost every customer in there was Caucasian (and about a year ago I went with my family to Yak Sing and experienced the same thing). It almost didn't feel like a Chinese restaurant at the time. Anyways the food was mediocre, and the dim sum variety was lacking. Maybe it was an off-day that time when we went for lunch, and we swore never to go back again. However every time we passed by right when doors open, there's a long line waiting outside. What seems to be a big hit with the westerners isn't apparently so with some of us old schoolers.
Another thing that threw me off at TK was their big variety of fried items, and much less on the steamed stuff. As nice as some of them might be, I do try to eat healthier and avoid these "quick and easy" things. My criteria of a good dim sum place is not just variety and quality, but creativity and taste, as well as what I call "dim sum gung fu", meaning the time and detail it took to prepare/cook, (price of course also helps). Unfortunately TK was missing the creativity bit then, relying too much on the fried stuff.
Apparently there's a really good dim sum place diagonally across the street from there. Forget the name, but it's always crowded during the weekends, and word is that is one of the better places.
Melanie has mentioned some great restaurants in the peninsula. When I used to live in SF, Yuet Wah on Clement and errr 23rd (very close to the movie theater that shows artsy Asian and western films) was a favorite amongst the Cantonese speaking locals. They had a high consistency rate and was always top notch amongst my family who used to go there at least once a month for dim sum. Not sure how that place is now as it has been a long time.
Seafood Harbor in Millbrae is definitely amongst the top on my list, simply because they make the best shark's fin dumpling in soup, period. Once in a while they would have these killer steamed fish head in black bean sauce dim sum which are amazing. They do not always have it, but make sure you try it next time for those who are adventurous. Fook Yuen...well that's another popular place but for some reason doesn't move me. Guess I got too used to seafood harbor and used that as a standard. I've avoided Flower Lounges for a while as the experiences weren't that great, and the bigger one was overrated for a while.
Two overlooked places (although I'm sure it has been discussed many times) in Foster City; Mr. Fong's which I have yet to go for lunch (hmmm maybe tomorrow) and the shagaliciously superb ABC (which I've heard used to be terrible, but who knows maybe they changed chefs). ABC has this killer daikon radish cake, which is dry steamed and served in a small bowl (like pudding) but it's served almost like hakka style, not the cantonese typical style steamed moist kind. I'd mention more, but my mouth is watering ;)
It's probably not really fair to judge Ton Kiang by your experience "many years ago". But given the inconsistencies reported on this board, I haven't seen any compelling reason to return.
Rather than diagonally across the street, the place you have heard of might be right next to Ton Kiang. It's called Golden River (aka Golden Island) and it is good and not expensive. The dim sum team looked at it, plus Yet Wah, Fook Yuen, and many more. If you'd like to get caught up on that history, you can follow the link below and the embedded links in each post to the various reports.
We're in agreement that the sharks fin dumpling in double boiled soup at Seafood Harbor is one of our area's most delectable of delicacies. It is still the best version I've found, and I keep trying them whenever available. I also think the taro root dumpling is exceptional here. Hope you caught the report on our recent chow banquet there.
The team didn't like ABC in Foster City as much. While it had some special dishes that were good, it fell down on some of the standards that were the core of the judging criteria. One of the guest eaters on that day has dim sum there regularly and he said our experience was typical. I had not been there in several years, since leaving the job I had in San Mateo. I can vouch that it had improved considerably from where it was 10 years ago.
Would love to hear what you think of the dim sum at Mr. Fong's. The initial reports have been good.
Another place on the Peninsula that no one has talked about is Empress Court in Burlingame. I've mentioned it from time to time, and no responses. It's in the same location as the former KeeJoon's and has bay views. This was the first place to introduce the smoked black cod dish in the Bay Area that is now ubiquitous, likewise, the seafood and honeydew melon roll that's so popular now (ABC makes a good version).
re: Melanie Wong
I thought the price was acceptable, mainly due to the pleasant service. I tend to care about service a lot and am willing to pay more for it. The servers always stopped by our desk and told us what they had and asked if we wanted it. (The opposite extreme of servers who would push the carts by you and still avoid eye contact with you)
I would probably agree with North team's rankings. But I have not been to Seafood Harbor or Fook Yuen so can't comment. But definitely both Joy Luck Place and ABC Milpitas are better than Ton Kiang.
The paste was darker than white for sure, maybe dark tan... I guess it'll remain a mystery. :)
re: Melanie Wong
Strange how the perception of dim sum quality varies from person to person, and even from day to day for the same person. During the civil war battle at HKFL in Milbrae, I thought the overall meal was average to good, but nothing special, and that it was the least exciting of my 4 visits there--other than the exceptional quality of the lunchtime conversation. I'd put the food that day far behind Fook Yuen and Joy Luck (at its best), and even quite a bit behind Ton Kiang on that quiet Thursday last month when I barely saw any fried food being offered.
I still need to try ABC, Harbor Village (for dim sum--I went to an amazing wedding banquet there in March), and especially Koi Palace.
re: ed k
Interesting you mentioned that because like I said more than a dozen times, the overall dim sum experience at the top notch places are deteriorating. Before, places such as HKFL, Fook Yuen, Kois, would make up for what I call the ring leaders of dim sum. But now, even the top has fallen a notch down with the prices remaing constant. So as great as HKFL and Fook Yuen might be now, it is not comparable to a couple of years ago when they really showed everyone their worths. And for the people that really think Ton Kiang is good because it is in the city should just walk down a couple of blocks to Mayflower. I'd personally say Mayflower has more of a bang for the buck.
I was disapointed.!!!.we were there at a non busy time and the dim dum was not even up to the quality of the Norths' "Low end choice" On San Bruno Ave..the name escapes me.. So many things made with shrimp...that had no texture and no taste. horrible mushy wrappers. The only good items were the "egg bombs" (sort of a cruller) and the chicken feet,which could have had at least a few black beans, to kick it up a bit. The other things as previously mentioned were only average.or worse!..At $20. a head I expect more than average..
It is a pleasant place with a very nice staff. Parking can be difficult...If I want an upscale place in the city, I would choose Harbor Village with free parking in the Embarcadero Center Garage...or the more unique dim sum from Yank Sing with free parking in the Rincon center.
Anyone want to try Koi Palace on a weekday for lunch?!!..
Derek, you mean to say you've forgotten the name of your own discovery: Imperial Garden?
IIRC, the "egg bombs" were terrible -- almost raw in the middle -- on our North Team scouting visit to Ton Kiang, so even those can't be counted on.
I think one look at the clientele says it all: even in the heart of a heavily Chinese neighborhood the clientele is mostly non-Asian.
Let's put it another way: is it terrible? Maybe not. But is it worth the long waits, high prices and tiny portions? No.
If I couldn't get out to Millbrae to Hong Kong Flower Lounge (which I think will be declared the winner of the Dim Sum Civil War) or Fook Yuen (my personal favorite), I'd rather go to Harbor Village, Louie's, or Imperial Garden, or give another look to South Sea Seafood Village, City View and Kan's. In that immediate neighborhood I'd just as soon go to Yet Wah or Tong Palace, or even Golden ... River? Island? ... the "place next to Ton Kiang."
re: Ruth Lafler
I've been looking for a post on South Sea Seafood Village - at least I think that's the right name, I always get a little tongue-tied saying it. It is on Irving Street, a few blocks west of Andronico's, right?
My husband and I have had dinner there a few times, and thought it might be worth checking out for dim sum. We have a very hard time narrowing choices down on the menu to a suitable amount of food for two.
We had a dim sum chowdown there not long after it opened and thought it was pretty good, but there were some reports that suggested it may have gone downhill after that.
There were also a lot of reports around that time, but nothing much recently.
This looks like it might be the most recent discussion: