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Jul 20, 2007 09:53 PM

REVIEW: Yum Cha Cafe, San Gabriel

The San Gabriel Superstore, on the corner of San Gabriel and Valley boulevards in San Gabriel, just north of the 10 freeway, is an amalgam of schlock shops (those of you who have been shopping in Hong Kong will understand when I say it's like Fa Yuen Street writ small), ginseng sellers, dried fruit purveyors and a large Chinese market. In the front (San Gabriel Blvd. side) is a boba place, a tea shop, and, tucked in the corner, Yum Cha Cafe.

It specialises in dim sum, as you might expect, but without the iconic yum cha experience of the carts or the menus.

Most takeaway dimsum comes in two varieties: takeaway from established Cantonese seafood houses like Ocean Star, NBC, 888, etc., in which case you have a wide variety of food but it can be quite expensive (moreso than ordering it at a table), or little huts or storefronts or tea shops that carry five or six of the most popular items (XLB, shu mai, har gau, cha shu bao, etc.).

Yum Cha Cafe, then, was quite a shock -- the decor looked like a "cha chaan teng" (HK tea shop) fallen on hard times -- melamine tables like you had in elementary school, stacks of the usual metal trays behind glass, harsh bright lighting, but the food was surprisingly good, EXTREMELY eclectic, and the prices very, very good.

The other problem with the small storefronts (MHK, for example) is that the service is perfunctory -- generally people shout their order, the women behind the counter call it back, and hardly a word is spoken. Not the kind of place that induces one to explore hitherto untasted foods. If you order in these places in Cantonese, they assume you know how "Chinese service" works, and if you order in English, you get borderline-rude replies like, "Is pork, you like pork" or "you no want, only Chinese people like". (To those who think I'm being stereotypical and racist, I can only say that after many years of wandering the SGV, it happens more often than not.)

Yum Cha Cafe, though, has women at the counter who actually want you to enjoy what you're having. They'll make suggestions (like the brown sugar rice cakes -- HOLY GOD were they good) and joke around a little bit. I speak a little bit of Cantonese, which usually shocks people, and this time was no different. "Kuei sik guang dung waa, waa!"

I was with some folks from Iowa who love dim sum but don't get it often enough to be "tired" of the usual suspects, so we had har gau (shrimp in rice paper), siu mai (beggars' purses of pork and vegetable), cha shu baau (barbecued pork buns), brown sugar rice cakes, lai wong baau (buns with sweet custard filling), cheung fun (rice "omelets"), pie gwaat (spareribs in black bean sauce) and pay daan sau yuk juk (rice porridge with lean pork and preserved eggs). The siu mai were juicy, the har gau weren't rubbery, the cha shu was obviously fresh. The lai wong bao could have had a creamier centre but was tasty and not oversweet as they so often are. Cheung fun were quite obviously just-made since they weren't tough, the pie gwaat were tender, and the juk was actually one of the better renditions of the dish I've had in LA, though the pork was VERY salty.

The total price for everything was $12. I couldn't believe it. I asked if maybe they left one out, but no -- and the juk was $3 of that $12.

There's a tea charge of $0.25 per person if you want tea, and they have gigantic metal vats of jasmine tea, green tea, black tea and (in the mornings only) HK silk-sock milk tea. Unlimited refills. No water available, but if you want cold water they'll give you ice and you can use the hot water tap at the tea station.

For that price, now and then I'll forsake the fake-luxury decor and the "cart experience" and head on over to the Superstore for good dim sum in bad surroundings... and it will be a regular stop when I go (and when I take visitors) to the Superstore.

Yum Cha Cafe
1635 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776

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  1. The brown rice cakes are the best.

    1. i shop at the shun fat market all the time b/c it has everything i need. once in a while i'll stop by YC Cafe and watch the lady make the steamed rice noodles (cheung fun). i never order though, lines are too long.

      1. Wow, interesting review. I've been over to the SuperStore a few times (mainly to get boba at TeaSpirit -- best boba I've ever had, blows lollicup and tea station out of the water -- make sure you try the mini-boba) but I've never tried this restaurant. I'm definitely trying it next time! Thanks!

        1. They have the meatiest black bean spare ribs anywhere--puts the expensive places to shame in that category.

          I notice the regulars by-passing the tea charge by asking for a side bowl for their soup and filling it up with tea.

          They have a new location which is opening soon or might be open now on Atlantic Blvd. in Monterey Park. The address is listed on their menu--I'm thinking 425 Atlantic Blvd. or something like that.

          8 Replies
          1. re: monku

            I was in the neighborhood on Atlantic Blvd, and decided to see if that new YCC was open yet. Talked to one of the owners, and he said they open today, Aug. 1st. at 7:00AM. about gettin your early dim sum fix! Place looks pretty good....I wonder if it will have the same quality as the san gabriel location..... Lookin forward to the black bean spare ribs and the brown sugar rice cakes.... :D

            1. re: smak34

              HOORAY! It can stand in with MHK for my early dim-sum needs!

              1. re: smak34

                Thanks for the news....I'll check it out tomorrow.

                Word of advice...if it's busy, always take a number. Sunday I was at the SG Superstore location before they opened at 8am and when the door opened (the counter help went in at the same time to open) I was first in and looked at the number dispenser and it looked empty so I went right to the front of the register. Had my $20 order filled out and offered the cashier $2 to fill it. Next thing you know the owner says for everyone to take a number and by the time I get my number I'm 12th in line.

                1. re: monku

                  I dunno about that number system. We were there Saturday morning too and it was an absolute mad house. I heard NO numbers, at least in English... just a lot of orders being shouted out by the crowd in Chinese. We just grabbed a Menu and waved it above the heads of the feverish crowd and one of the servers grabbed it. She seemed somewhat relieved to take our order and fill it in peace instead of the constant pointing and yelling from the crowd...


                  1. re: Dommy

                    Ah, you've learned the secret of queuing in Asian crowds. I'm usually fortunate, because I'm tall, so I tend to stand out -- a big white guy in a crowd of little Chinese grandmothers. Also, in some places (Banh Mi Che Cali on Magnolia and Bolsa springs to mind) you can get your way faster by acting imperious. It doesn't feel good, karmically-speaking, but now and then I resort to it.

                    1. re: Das Ubergeek

                      Just remember: as long as there's no blood, it's probably acceptable. While Hong Kong and parts of mainland China have recently started to embrace the concept of orderly lines, many Chinese folks don't embrace such a concept. It depends on the crowd you are with. If they don't form lines, don't assume there will be one. If there is one, stay in line. Best of all, avoid the tendency to feel badly about it: it will not affect you, karmically-speaking. :-)

                2. re: smak34

                  New Yum Cha Cafe location is 421 N. Atlantic Blvd. MP inside the Shun Fat Market (North of Garvey and South of the 10 Freeway).

                  I was there just before 8am this morning and the market wasn't open yet and didn't look like it was opening at 8am. I didn't peek inside, but I have a feeling maybe they took over the dim sum counter near the entrance of the store?

                  So I headed over the the San Gabriel location and had my dim sum for the morning.

                3. re: monku

                  I just mapquested 425 Atlantic Blvd but it asks for a N or S.... is it closer to Garvey or closer to Harding? I'm psyched.

                4. Wait a sec... is this in the same plaza as the Superstore or is it INSIDE the superstore?

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: tonicart


                    If you enter from the East facing entrance, it's on your left side as you walk in.