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Jun 29, 2008 10:04 AM

Not The King Of Dim Sum - King Hua Restaurant [Review] w/ Pics!

(Formatted with All Pictures here:


Over the past few weeks, a startling current ran through the Dim Sum community: Sea Harbour's main Dim Sum cook left and was now working at a new restaurant, King Hua in Alhambra. Surprised as well, I figured "Oh well, guess we'll have to go to King Hua for Dim Sum from now on if this was true." But then the mixed reviews starting coming out, and then Pitchman pointed out the three letters that can ruin any restaurant's cuisine for me: MSG. I had now shelved going to King Hua, but my Dim Sum Hounds insisted on checking out the new place despite it all, and I was curious myself. So off we went yesterday to try it out.

King Hua Restaurant (Jing Hua Jio Loh) is located on Main Street in Alhambra, at the infamous corner location (where it has switched tenants numerous times) across the street from Target and a few doors down from Fosselman's Ice Cream. The first thing we noticed was their logo and sign: A large red letter "K" surrounded by green leaves rising up on both sides: It felt like it was a spin-off of 99 Ranch Market. :)

But once inside, we could see a gorgeous space: A large, spacious location, giving off a good vibe, and with their bottles of Cognac in the reception area proudly displayed. We were one of the first five tables in the restaurant, beating the weekend rush of people one usually expects at Dim Sum restaurants.

And then we opened the menu: Wow... if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery... scratch that, this *was* Sea Harbour's Menu, picture-for-picture, even in the *same* order of items! (O_o) Here's a picture of Sea Harbour's current menu:

Here's King Hua's menu:

Only in the Chinese restaurant community would you be able to find such an uncomfortable example of straight up copying, LOL. Whoever left Sea Harbour literally took their menu, and had the printers just swap out a new background, keeping the same pictures and names. Then again, if it really was Sea Harbour's main Dim Sum cook, and they created these items... regardless of it all, we all found it humorous and ultimately awaited the true measure of a Dim Sum restaurant: Their food.

We started with their Yu Toh Gao (Pan Grilled Taro Cake). One of the classic Dim Sum items, we wanted to test a variety of our favorites to see how it compared to not only Sea Harbour but all the other Dim Sum houses in the San Gabriel Valley. The Taro Cake was nicely seared, and had a nice fragrance from the Taro Root. It was good, about the same as Sea Harbour made it, and my Dim Sum Hounds agreed.

We were too busy laughing at some stupid anecdote and soaking in the atmosphere to notice anything afoot with the first item. By the second item, I started to notice something odd (more on that later). Their Heh Hsiang Nuo Mi Ji (Sticky Rice Wrapped w/ Lotus Leaf) arrived to much excitement (it's one of our favorite items during Dim Sum), and it looked fine (and thankfully didn't have the parchment wrapping around the rice like many restaurants are doing).

Taste-wise, however, and all was not right: The sauce and flavors of the Chicken combined with their Lah Chahng (Sausage) and Egg Yolk were terribly overseasoned. It wasn't salt or soy sauce, and then I realized it: Their recipe had "liberal" use of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), or as most of my food-focused friends like to call it, "Flavor Crystals." Sigh.

Their next item was their Shao Mai (Steamed Pork & Shrimp Dumplings), one of the most popular dishes at Dim Sum in general. They had some nice Fish Roe atop the marinated ground Pork and Shrimp. Taking a bite, and sadly it fell short of goodness, let alone greatness: Very chewy (due to major chunks of fatty Pork, and not enough Shrimp overall). There were hardly any decent-sized chunks of Shrimp in each dumpling, and was more ground up together. And the taste was just off, with the flavor crystals taking full effect at this point for me.

The next item was their XO Jiang Nio Bai Yeh (Omassum in XO Sauce), the classic Beef Tripe dish. Visually it was messy and disheveled (I know Dim Sum isn't fine dining, but this looked like they were playing football with our dish before serving it), and after taking a bite: Completely missing any XO Sauce! It tasted more like Oyster Sauce mixed with some dark Soy Sauce and just the inherent taste of the Tripe and slivered vegetables. Besides that, the taste was "disappointing" (a word that shot out of everyone's mouth almost at the same time). Besides the missing XO Sauce, it was overly salty. We've had better Nio Bai Yeh at all the major Dim Sum restaurants in the SGV (no joke).

The next dish was one creation that existed only at Sea Harbour originally, Liang Gua Ji Hsi Chahng Fen (Steamed Rice Noodle w/ Shredded Chicken & Bitter Melon). This is a personal favorite dish of mine, and I was still excited to see how it tasted here. The first thing was that the execution was far worse than Sea Harbour's: Every piece of the Chahng Fen broke apart for all of us, spilling out the ingredients, and the skin itself tore apart. It made for a messy experience. Other than that, the taste was almost the same as Sea Harbour's version.

Continuing on, their Dai Zi Bai Yu Zhu (Steamed Egg Tofu with Fresh Scallop in Dry Scallop Sauce) continued the trend of sloppily created and plated Dim Sum, which we were all shocked about (you would think they would want to put their best foot forward during their grand opening period). Here, one of the three pieces had 90% of the Fish Roe, one had a small dab, and the last one had a few individual sprinkles. Besides that, they forgot to give us a spoon (more on the service later), and we couldn't get anyone's attention so we had to messily transfer each delicate Egg Tofu custard to our plates. And taste-wise, it was decent, but they messed with the formula from Sea Harbour and doused this version with a mixture of Oyster Sauce and something else, and the "beloved" flavor crystals were here as well.

We finished up with two desserts, starting with their Jing Hua Ji Dahn Tah (King Hua Egg White Custard). They had just finished up making a full batch (according to our server), just out of the oven, so they were piping hot. They were amazing! Probably the best Dahn Tah out of all the Dim Sum restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. Despite the MSG situation earlier, all of my Hounds and I had to look at each other and agree that this was wonderful stuff. But it should be noted that our server told my friend in Chinese that this was just out of the oven and that they just finished their morning batch, so I'd imagine most of the time, it wouldn't be "fresh baked, made to order" just for you. If it was at room temperature, I'm not sure how well this would taste. It still falls short of Macau Street's legendary version :), but this was our favorite Dim Sum dish at King Hua.

Finally, we ended with another classic: Dofu Hua (Freshly Grinded Sweet Tofu Pudding). I found the Tofu a little bit too watery in consistency to enjoy this one (compared to other versions of the Tofu Flower I've had elsewhere).

Chinese Dim Sum restaurants can be hit-or-miss with their Service: If they are near full capacity, usually you'll need to flag down whoever blows by you, to refill tea or ask them to swap out your plates, etc., or sometimes, even in the busiest of times, they can exhibit good service, doing all of those things without you asking once. Despite King Hua being only ~20% full during our visit, service was really lacking. They had people standing around or just congregating in the corners of the restaurant, and we always had to get their attention to get anything done (they never once came by to check on the water for the tea, even with the restaurant being nearly empty). The total came out to be $14 per person (including tax and tip), in the same range as Sea Harbour.

But the biggest telltale came after the meal, while driving away. Some chefs will use certain ingredients as a crutch in their cooking, to try and wow and win over the customers. I liken Chinese restaurants using monosodium glutamate to high-end European restaurants using the Truffle, only the MSG is the poor man's version, and nowhere near as glamorous (>_>), trying to use flavor crystals to artificially enhance food to try and make it taste better when their own skills fall short. Within minutes I felt the aftermath of the flavor crystals, as too much of this type of sodium ruins my day. I brought along a Dim Sum Hound with high tolerance for MSG and he also concluded that it was just not as good as Sea Harbour, nor Elite, nor Triumphal Palace, to give some examples.

The new King Hua Restaurant's Dim Sum Menu may look like an exact copy of Sea Harbour's Menu, but in execution, it falls terribly short. While their Dahn Tah (Egg Custard Tart) was exceptional, all their other dishes were average to mediocre in cooking and plating, and limited severely by their liberal reliance on everyone's favorite sodium. King Hua is Dim Sum's version of the Emperor's New Clothes, and one restaurant I won't be revisiting.

*** Rating: 3.9 (out of 10.0) ***

King Hua Restaurant, Inc.
2000 W. Main St.
Alhambra, CA 91801
Tel: (626) 282-8833

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  1. Great review as always, and I appreciate you being the vanguard. That menu SURE DOES LOOK FAMILIAR... LOL! That pic of the yu toh gao looks delish - one of my favorites as well - my MIL makes some incredible renditions of this humble dish but I am only privy to this when we're in Malaysia or Singapore. :(

    Thanks for being the first to openly laugh at the Emperor's new clothes...

    15 Replies
    1. re: bulavinaka

      So who has been to Sea Harbor recently and has the quality gone down? I really wanted to try this place, but I can not tolerate the MSG hangover. I live in the South Bay and go to Regal Palace. They changed owners awile back and it was still good (to me). I hope they have kept up with what I thought was decent Dim Sum. Anyone been there lately?

      1. re: JEN10

        Our last visit to Sea Harbour was around Spring break. I didn't notice any changes back then. Posters jotfoodie and exilekiss noted that their visits were more recent and felt it was still as good as in the past. I think a response by someone who has been to Sea Harbour in the past couple of weeks would really help...

        1. re: bulavinaka

          It would be a major road trip for me, so I want to make sure it is worth the time to go. I live in Palos Verdes, it is a good 20 minutes just to the freeway. Thanks for the info , I hope someone that has been recently will chime in like you said.

        2. re: JEN10

          Hi Jen,

          After this visit, I'll see if I can round up my Dim Sum Hounds and retry Sea Harbour in the next few weeks. We just went at the end of May and it was still very good.

          I'll report back on our experience the next time we go. :)

          1. re: exilekiss

            Hey, can I tag along when you go?

            1. re: JEN10

              Hi Jen,

              My Dim Sum Hounds are a rather spontaneous bunch (as in I get a surprise wake up call and a "Let's go grab some Dim Sum now!" (>_>)), LOL.

              Contact/post on my blog and we can try arranging something.

              1. re: JEN10

                Hi Jen,

                We might be going in the next few weeks (gasp, there is some semblance of a planned outing vs. random spontaneity that usually plagues my Dim Sum friends :).

                Post/mail me via my site (I fixed the broken link, BTW) and we can see if the schedule works out. Otherwise, please report back if you go soon; I'll do the same to see how Sea Harbour still holds up. :)

                1. re: exilekiss

                  Do I need an account to post on your site? Would love to try and make it when you go!

                  1. re: JEN10

                    Hey Jen,

                    Just click on my profile on the right-side nav bar and my e-mail link should be there. :)

                    1. re: exilekiss

                      I'm not Jen but I did take the liberty of looking at your blog - nice job! I just added it to my bookmark list!

            2. re: JEN10

              I was at Sea Harbour yesterday(6/29) and the only thing different was the lack of a line! Now I might know why. The service and food were consistent with what I've had in the past. As usual, everything was very freshly prepared-har gow, siu mai, meatball congee, shark fin dumplings, bean curd rolls, shrimp w/chives. The only order that wasn't particularly great were the xlbs.

              I still may want to try King Hua but I'm certainly not looking forward to an MSG hangover.

              1. re: bitesandbolts

                Thanks for the report back, bitesandbolts! Good to hear things are still well over at Sea Harbour. :)

                The lack of line was probably due more to the Euro Cup finals. Soccer is big in many Asian communities.

                1. re: bitesandbolts

                  I was there at Sea Harbour this weekend and thought everything was great. Cost much less than I expected. Was there at 9:50 and was seated after doors opened. Probably 30-40 people in line.

                  1. re: ns1

                    Hey ns1,

                    Awesome! Thanks for the report back. Definitely good to hear.

              2. thanks. you pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for me.

                1. When it was mentioned that the "former chef" of Sea Harbour started this place, I tried to temper the enthusiasm because I have it on good authority that the chef at Sea Harbour is, well, still the chef at Sea Harbour.

                  As to JEN10's question, Sea Harbour is still my personal top choice for dim sum in SGV. As to whether it is still as good as before, or whether the quality has "gone down", I can only say from personal experience and first-hand reports is that it is still very good. But as with ANY restaurant, catch them on an off-day, or even an off-hour, and your results may vary -- drastically.

                  Oh, and thanks for the great report exilekiss, and great photos as always.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    OK, I will go to Sea Harbour and give it a try. I definetly can't do the "other" place. Ipsed what are some of your favorites there?

                    1. re: JEN10

                      What in do you like JEN10? It's very difficult to make relevant recs without some point of reference.

                      Whenever I go, I always ask the manager if they have fresh abalone in the back, and if they do, always ask the kitchen to prepare an abalone dish or two (or three, or four ...)

                      I like the foie gras and roe dumplings, abalone and fish paste mouse entwined with Taiwanese vermicelli, deep-fried puff pastry with tarot and lotus root, shrimp mousse with radish cakes, and I also think the restaurant does a fine rendition of the very pedestrian char sui bao.

                      Enjoy whever you end up.

                      But don't just take my word. I would try all the better dim sum houses in SGV, maybe even King Hua (in another month or so after they've gotten their sea legs underneath them), because each place really has a rythm and style all their own.

                    2. re: ipsedixit

                      Thanks ipsedixit. :) And thank you for always bringing up the latest scoop on things in the SGV!

                    3. As always, thank you for a superb review. I like your Emperor's New Clothes comment, it was precise, and says it all. I called King Hua - "The Pretenders, Mediocre At Best". I am so glad you confirmed me and my family's recent experience with KH. We all agree that Sea Harbour is still the place to go.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: jotfoodie

                        Thanks jotfoodie. Yah, I was hoping that it might've been a new, good quality Dim Sum restaurant (to spread the crowds and make it more convenient for some people), but sadly it was very disappointing.

                        1. re: exilekiss

                          I shared your sentiments 100%. I was really hoping KH would be another destination for Dim Sum, considering that the dining hall is a lot bigger than Sea Harbour. But I also agree with ipsedixit, that they might get their act together in the future. Looking forward to your next review. Keep up the excellent work.

                      2. Wow, this was very different from the meal I had here recently. Hmm. the steamed egg tofu sounds terrible but when we ordered it, I thought it was the best dish we had! We went in late afternoon. I'll have to swing by again and see if it was just a fluke. thx for the report.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: choctastic

                          Hi choctastic,

                          Again, your mileage may vary. (^_^; Some people are susceptible to Cilantro or Fennel/Anise and their strong flavors. Others, Natto and Durian. For me, I am most susceptible to MSG, but I have quite a few friends who brush it off (or it doesn't bother them).

                          I'm just disappointed that this cook that left Sea Harbour had to resort to MSG (or his line cooks / recipe) to try and make it "taste better," instead of just sticking with the winning formulas, unless this cook that left wasn't the main Dim Sum cook? But regardless, if you enjoy King Hua, that's great; your taste buds are ultimately what counts the most for you, personally. :)