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REVIEW: Yum Cha Cafe, San Gabriel

Das Ubergeek Jul 20, 2007 09:53 PM

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. ipsedixit Jul 20, 2007 10:20 PM

    The brown rice cakes are the best.

    1. eatdrinknbmerry Jul 21, 2007 10:03 AM

      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. t
        tonicart Jul 21, 2007 12:00 PM

        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. monku Jul 21, 2007 04:44 PM

          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.

          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/393537

          8 Replies
          1. re: monku
            smak34 Aug 1, 2007 01:27 AM

            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. Wow....talk 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
              Das Ubergeek Aug 1, 2007 07:39 AM

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

              1. re: smak34
                monku Aug 1, 2007 09:21 PM

                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
                  Dommy Aug 1, 2007 10:27 PM

                  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...

                  --Dommy!

                  1. re: Dommy
                    Das Ubergeek Aug 2, 2007 08:20 AM

                    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
                      raytamsgv Aug 2, 2007 12:39 PM

                      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
                  monku Aug 2, 2007 12:15 PM

                  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
                  s
                  snooze button Aug 1, 2007 11:35 AM

                  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. t
                  tonicart Jul 22, 2007 11:53 AM

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

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: tonicart
                    ipsedixit Jul 22, 2007 02:17 PM

                    Inside.

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

                  2. s
                    snooze button Jul 22, 2007 02:36 PM

                    I ordered what I thought was the brown sugar rice cakes but it didn't taste like anything... so I'm wondering if I got the right item. This place is a gem.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: snooze button
                      ipsedixit Jul 22, 2007 08:17 PM

                      The brown sugar rice cakes (or even regular "white" rice cakes) will NOT have a strong sweet taste to them.

                      The sweet flavor is very, very subtle.

                      For me, the appeal of rice cakes is more their texture than their flavor. The slight tackiness and soft rubbery mouth-feel is rather addictive and the brown sugar just adds that distinctive undertone of sweet earthiness.

                      You probably got the right thing.

                      1. re: ipsedixit
                        s
                        snooze button Jul 23, 2007 07:17 PM

                        OK.... I'm gonna try it once more. I did like the texture.... wanting to accompany it with something crunchy and/or spicy, but couldn't figure out what. Although, I was thinking that mole would go nicely over it. I'm strange.

                        1. re: snooze button
                          monku Jul 23, 2007 07:58 PM

                          White or brown, either one will cleanse your palate. Usually located on the top inside shelf just to the right of the dim sum cashier.

                          1. re: snooze button
                            ipsedixit Jul 23, 2007 08:31 PM

                            snooze,

                            That's not a bad idea (and not strange at all) ... cinnamon mole with brown rice cakes! That'd be pretty cool.

                            1. re: ipsedixit
                              s
                              snooze button Aug 1, 2007 11:36 AM

                              It's in my to-try list now. =)

                      2. t
                        tonicart Jul 22, 2007 04:43 PM

                        Any tips for ordering for those who are not Mandarin/Cantonese speakers? :-D

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: tonicart
                          Das Ubergeek Jul 22, 2007 10:22 PM

                          They all speak English, at least to some extent -- and if all else fails, hold up fingers and point. One of THESE, and two of THESE.

                          1. re: tonicart
                            monku Jul 23, 2007 06:45 PM

                            They got a paper menu you can fill in (bring your own writing implement) and/or point and pick. Most people point and pick. Most of the items are 99 cents/order (not piece). $5-$6 two people can have a feast.

                            1. re: tonicart
                              b
                              Beignets Jul 28, 2007 05:47 PM

                              totally agree with the replies, just point and smile/nod - it's not like you'll get mistreated doing this, at least not in this place anyways. Some of the english speaking ladies can be chatty if lines aren't too long, she'll take the time to explain but don't expect that if there are a few ppl behind you.

                            2. smak34 Jul 25, 2007 10:31 AM

                              Great review Das.... This place is still very much an unknown "gem"....And I think people who scoff at a "take-out/cafe", doesnt know that this place doesnt cheat you.... The food is fresh, very affordable, "eclectic", and they make sure you are satisfied. I dont get out there too much, but I always go visit anytime im in the area.

                              Thanks for the tip Monku on their upcomming new location.....Looks like they are branching out a bit....

                              1. Dommy Jul 25, 2007 10:43 AM

                                Ackk!! I must get overthere!! :D Thanks for the great report! :)

                                --Dommy!

                                1. wilafur Jul 25, 2007 10:58 AM

                                  great review! i always drop by yum cha cafe after going to my optometrist on valley blvd. for the $7-8 i spend at yum cha cafe, the amount of food can tide me over 3-4 meals. =)

                                  1. k
                                    kcchan Jul 27, 2007 11:34 PM

                                    Does anyone know what their hours are? Are they open in the evenings?

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: kcchan
                                      monku Jul 28, 2007 05:28 AM

                                      8am-8pm Dim sum till closing. 8am is when the Superstore opens.

                                      1. re: monku
                                        k
                                        kcchan Jul 28, 2007 09:27 AM

                                        thanks! i'll have to go over there when i'm in LA in a couple weeks.

                                        1. re: kcchan
                                          ipsedixit Jul 28, 2007 02:38 PM

                                          Don't push the 8pm closing time; oftentimes, if they run out say around 7:30, up they close ...

                                    2. b
                                      Beignets Jul 28, 2007 05:37 PM

                                      There are actually 3 kinds of sugar rice cakes - white, brown and black. The one I think is often discussed here is the brown which has the color of a light brown sugar, the one referred by the ladies of YCC is more of the color of a dark brown sugar. I like both the brown and the black, the brown rice cake does have a little tiny tang of sour (not at all bad despite of how it sounds) whilst the black rice cake is sweeter without the tang.

                                      The HK silk sock milk tea isn't made available alongside the other teas, I guess I'll try asking next time. Was it good?

                                      I agree that the juk (congee) is good, it may be too plain for some. I've gotten the pork and the fish filet - they were very generous with the fish filet at one order and not so much on another, so I guess it's random scooping.

                                      I'm a big fan of turnip rice cake and theirs is only so so - I think they need to brown it a bit more.

                                      I've only been there twice. During our 2nd visit, we decided to order everything priced at 99 cent just to check them out alongside with all of the savory dishes priced at 1.39 (1.29?). It ended up to be somewhat of a waste because not everything was good, however, it was fun trying all kinds. You can have the luxury of doing so at the price.

                                      The only thing missing is the sweet soft tofu soup - to me, dim sum isn't complete without it. Still, a wonderful place to eat a casual brunch.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: Beignets
                                        Das Ubergeek Aug 9, 2007 08:21 AM

                                        The laai chaa (silk-sock milk tea) was available when I went last time, but the lady told me only in the mornings... it wouldn't shock me to find out they're inconsistent about its availability.

                                        As for the dou fu faa (the sweet tofu soup) -- while it's not available at the Yum Cha counter, it's definitely available for purchase in the market itself, near the soy milk or else on its own stand across from the seafood counter. It's a quart of soft tofu and a small Styrofoam™ cup of the ginger syrup... just microwave the tofu and then put it in a bowl, pour the syrup over... mmmmmmm.

                                        Anybody know what time Yum Cha opens? I've never tried it early in the morning. 7 AM? 8?

                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek
                                          ipsedixit Aug 9, 2007 09:10 AM

                                          8

                                          1. re: ipsedixit
                                            Das Ubergeek Aug 9, 2007 10:34 AM

                                            phooey. i was hoping for 7 AM.

                                            1. re: Das Ubergeek
                                              monku Aug 9, 2007 07:27 PM

                                              Yum Cha Cafe 8am-8pm.
                                              You'd better stick with your NHK, one of the only dim sum places besides Family Pastry in Chinatown that opens at 7am (7 days a week).

                                      2. la vida dulce Aug 12, 2007 12:43 PM

                                        In what was many, many years ago the Lucille Brown's Bakery at the Alpha Beta Market, now resides the YC Cafe at the southside entrance to Shun Fat supermarket. For less than $5 bucks, I enjoyed such a delicious feast last night. The line wasn't very long, but it was after 7pm. Don't get there too late, many items are already sold out. All the staff are friendly and helpful, as I ordered steamed pork buns, braised chicken feet, and shrimp balls. Ooh! Next time I will try the porridge, as I noticed customers enjoying it as I left with my to-go dinner. Thanks for the info, I will make this a regular stop while I get my car washed next door.

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