SGV Dim Sum for Novices
A very small group of us, two to four people, want to venture to the SGV for dim sum. Unfortunately, none of us speaks any Chinese. We've had dim sum a few times (primarily west side or Empress Pavilion) but want to try out the stuff folks on this board rave about. For our first journeys, we'd prefer to have cart service rather than menu-ordering only, though menus to help describe and select dishes wouldn't hurt. One of our party eats seafood but not meat. Reviews on another review site tell tales of non-Asians sometimes being ignored, so we hope to avoid that. With all of this in mind, I am tempted by Dommy's review of Ocean Star a week or so back, and I've also seen good feedback about New Capital Seafood. Looking for places with lots of shrimp and scallop options, and I love crispy -- potstickers and spring rolls. Any specific suggestions? Thanks.
New Capital Seafood on Garvey has by far the best variety of any dim sum place I have seen. However, I'm not sure how friendly they are to non-Chinese speaking crowd. It's not really about the service there. Also, it's really cheap at under $2 for every item, and there are a ton of carts. But, go early or prepare to wait.
Ocean Star may have better service.
NBC also is good for non-Chinese speaking crowd, but from my recollection, quality has gone down, and it's not the same as it was years ago.
I'd recommend 888 or NBC seafood for the beginners.
It may be difficult to avoid meat -- other than the obvious ones (like gai lan, har gau, desserts) the noble pig works his way into most things. If you're doing cart service you are a bit at the mercy of their descriptions unless you know the names in Cantonese.
I don't know that I would say they ignore non-Asians; Chinese restaurants have a different rhythm of service. If you want something it is up to you to call over a server -- you will find that people wave and gesture in what seems like a rude or imperious manner in Chinese restaurants... it's totally normal. Likewise, when you want to pay, just hold up your card with the chops on it and one of the men will come over to you.
In the last five years or so, I've found "cart crews", at NBC and Ocean Star at least, to be more willing to answer, with greater accuracy, inquiries about presence of pork. You do have to ask, though.
In terms of adventure, I've only been to dim sum once in the last twenty years with someone who spoke serious Cantonese; I've always found the Chow-hound tactic of wandering around, seeing stuff that looked interesting, and asking for some, or asking to have it identified.
Also, whenever I'm doing dim sum, and I'm at the "table captain/cart wrangler" seat (the seat closest to the stream of cart traffic; I'm also 6'4" and so when I gesture at someone, it tends to be a LOT more visible..)I'll ask the cart crew-person to identify EVERYTHING she's got on her cart, which often uncovers the non-obvious dumpling variations (shrimp/scallop, shrimp/scallion, shrimp/cilantro, shrimp-stuffed-tofu (bearing in mind the admonition (from someone on CH, I don't remember who) that if I gesture with my knuckle towards it, I'm simply asking, if I point my index finger at it, I'm buying it).
I've rarely been anything other than delighted with NBC.
Don't be afraid to raise your hand to get the attention of the ladies moving around in the carts. Using hand gestures to point to items or to reject items is quite acceptable. Don't be afraid to get out of your seat to get a better view of the items in the carts either.
Shrimp dishes will be plentiful at all dim sum places. Scallop dishes are a bit rarer, so not all places have these.
Fried stuff like potstickers are rare at dim sum places, especially the places with carts. You may not find this among the carts.
Here's a link to how many of the items are pronounced in English, and what some of the ingredients are, but they don't have pics on this site:
As for places to go, I thought 888 Seafood was very good. NBC Seafood was next best, while Capital Seafood was just OK. Haven't been to Ocean Star in years, but am eager to go back to try it again.
Wonginator-love the link to the glossary of dim sum items--good brush up for us ABC's.
NBC Seafood is good, wide variety of dim sum and good turnover so it should be hot and fresh.
Some dim sum tips:
First thing they'll ask when you're seated is what kind of tea you want. For some reason I prefer jasmine with dim sum.
If you're going on the weekend get there before 10am otherwise expect a wait at any of them.
Don't be afraid to point and ask what anything is. Everybody does it-even the Chinese patrons. Anything that looks like chicken feet, duck feet or tripe...is.
You'll find potstickers, turnip and taro cake, gai lan(Chinese broccoli), shrimp stuffed bell pepper on a cart that has a grill.
Look at the dim sum menu and order something from the waiter you didn't see on the cart-they'll get it for you. Also on the menu are entrees that you might want to try and eat with your dim sum.
Stay away from anything that looks deep fried-stuff like spring rolls. Most of it has been fried way before its being served to you, its luke warm and isn't hot and will be kind of greasy.
Don't get there before they're about to close(1 hour before), otherwise you'll have a very limited selection.
When you're finished and want your check flag down anyone that looks like a maitre de-they won't automatically put a check down for you.
I went to 888 today with two Caucasian friends. The staff seemed to go out of their way to explain the dishes in English to them (they spoke with me in Cantonese). Anyhow, they were pretty helpful and didn't mind the questions.
As other people have mentioned, don't be afraid to raise your hand to get a cart pusher's attention. It's actually rather normal. I'd recommend a "flagging down" motion instead of holding your hand high like in elementary school. The second motion would probably be interpreted as "Check please."
Don't worry about pointing with your fingers. Chinese folks don't expected non-Chinese folks to behave the same way, so they won't be offended. And if they start to put a dish on the table that you really didn't want, just wave them off. They won't take it personally.
We discovered that flagging down a cart, at least at 888, marks you as a serious patron. The last few times we've been there I've practically thrown myself across the path of the woman with the tripe cart (red-cooked, red chili sauce, omigawd to die for), and she loves it...and then the chicken-feet cart and the other "you no like" carts start coming by. Yes, it helps to have an Asian person with you, better yet a Canto-speaking one, but simple enthusiasm frankly expressed works pretty well too.
re: Will Owen
Frankly, the most useful two words I learned in Cantonese were "yau mo" -- Do you have? -- so, for example, "yau mo nai wong bao?" "yau mo fung jau?" "yau mo dou fu fa?". An affirmative answer is "yau" (have) and a negative answer is "mo" (don't have).
Just flinging that little phrase around can also mark you as someone who wants to see the contents of absolutely every dish on the cart.