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May 11, 2009 12:20 PM

Does dim sum just suck in San Fran?

I think I'm giving up on dim sum unless someone here has any bright ideas for me. I've tried dim sum at some of the Chinatown carted places, in board-approved spots like Yank Sing, and I just had a very disappointing trip to Good Luck dim sum on Clement Street yesterday. I should have known the absence of chatter on Good Luck on the Chowhound boards was suspicious, but I went and took the advice of Yelpers and gave it a try. Eeesh. Deep-fried selections tasted stale, steamed chive buns were swampy and foul, har gow was bristly and fishy, even the don tats were substandard (I prefer the ones at Red...Egg is it? nearby on Clement Street). The dough on the baked pork buns was nice, but the mystery meat and mystery goo inside turned me off to the filing.

I just don't understand why every time I taste dim sum it's so nasty. I know it's cheap, and what should I expect, but somehow I expect more. I love the carefully made dumplings, particularly the XLB, at places like Shanghai Dumpling King and Kingdom of Dumplings, but I can't seem to find good dim sum counterparts. Any advice? Am I just ordering wrong? Any such thing as a high-quality pork bun in SF?

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  1. I have now found the most recent dim sum thread

    And it seems I'm not alone in thinking the best dim sum places in San Francisco just aren't very good.

    I like Trader Joe's frozen shiu mai better than the ones I tried yesterday at Good Luck!

    1. Go south young man/woman, go south. Best dim sum is found along the Daly City/Milbrae/San Mateo/Foster City axis.

      1 Reply
      1. re: PeterL

        Thanks, PeterL. Yes, that's what I hear, better stuff to be found on the Peninsula but I lack the time these days to make food pilgrimages. How I miss them. If there's not really great dim sum to be found in SF, I'll probably just stick to the other wonderful dumpling options in the city...I love the momos at Taste of the Himalayas, dumplings at Henry's House of Hunan, so many other dumplings in town. I just find it odd how much bad dim sum there seems to be in San Francisco; I have really tried a lot of places and a lot of items and I get so consistently disappointed. Whereas practically every banh mi I try in town is excellent.

      2. Maybe you just don't like dim sum. What did you have at Yank Sing that you didn't like? Because while I think Yank Sing is expensive, "nasty" and "cheap" doesn't come to mind. And with cheap dim sum, you get what you pay for.

        Within the city, I find South Sea, Mayflower, Hong Kong Lounge (recently) perfectly acceptable, although not as good as the ones outside the city.

        South Sea Seafood Village
        1420 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122

        Mayflower Seafood
        6255 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121

        Hong Kong Lounge
        5322 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94121

        30 Replies
        1. re: sfbing

          Yank Sing wasn't nasty and cheap, just a little boring and expensive for my tastes. I know Yank Sing is controversial on the boards, for a reason, in my opinion. Maybe I don't like dim sum, I just want to! I really want to! It looks so good steaming in those big round vats and I start thinking about the perfect toothsome stretch of a good dumpling skin and salivating. And then I try the actual bun and meh. I want to try excellent dim sum before I rule it out altogether. sfbing, any particular dim sum you recommend from any of the places you mention? I see in the older dim sum thread you have some favorites in Milbrae but I don't get out there that often (we have a small child).

          1. re: pointybird

            Are you getting the hot items while they're still hot? Temperature can make a huge difference (fried foods get greasy; the texture of steamed dumpling skin changes as it cools; some sauces congeal into grossness).

            1. re: Stephanie Wong

              this could definitely be a problem -- do I have to order from the places with the check off menus and table service? Would that help? It seems hard to get the carts the second they leave the kitchen, and the places with steam tables I think I'm totally off unless I get the dumplings the second they hit the table.

              1. re: pointybird

                It's perfectly fine to ask to touch the bottom of the plate or steamer basket to check for temperature. That's what I do.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Wow, you're bold. I want to be like you!

                  1. re: pointybird

                    My preferred method is to hover my palm just above the surface of the food. However, food safety protocols tend to frown on this and the cart ladies often don't allow it. But once you've tried that, getting to touch the bottom of the dish is considered tame.

                2. re: pointybird

                  Don't be afraid to ask if the food is hot. I always do. The temperature of the dim sum could make all the difference in the world.

                  1. re: ShopperGirl

                    i sent back some egg puff donuts (sai yung) last time i was at koi palace a few weeks ago because they weren't hot. i ordered them from the menu instead of pulling them off a cart because i wanted them hot, but i got warm ones.

                    for the first time ever, i gathered up my courage, flagged a vested waiter and after a bit of banter with some language barriers (they are warm and all fine! "no, i want *hot.*" warm, just fine. "no, hot please." it will take a very long time. "that's ok, i'll wait" very slow! "no problem, i can wait."), i got my hot sai yung very quickly.

                    it was a moment of total, hot, eggy, sugary victory.

              2. re: pointybird

                Well Bay Area dim sum is better than anything you''ll find in the U.S. except for the L.A. area. It's probably a couple steps behind Los Angeles, but two laps ahead of New York. Consequently, if you don't like the dim sum in the San Francisco area maybe you just don't like the genre. However since you haven't been down to Koi Palace in Daly City or the places in Millbrae, I suspect you really haven't had a proper experience to judge Bay Area dim sum.

                  1. re: Chandavkl

                    I think OP specifically reference dim sum in the City, not Bay Area.

                  2. re: pointybird

                    I think Mayflower has the best food of the three, but I would totally go to the most convenient one.

                    I usually eat at South Sea because it is five blocks from my house. There is something very nice about rolling out of bed, taking a stroll on a sunny Sunday and reading the newspaper over tea and dim sum. The dim sum is made to order and it isn't hugely loud or crowded, which is nice if you're with a little one.

                    If I'm visiting relatives in the Richmond, then I would go to Mayflower. I find it a little crowded and chaotic, but my sister is obsessed with some sort of taro pancake thing they have there so that's where we go.

                    Hong Kong Lounge is kind of new and has the most variety right now. The food is a little rustic (to me anyway) but it appears to be quite popular with the locals and I think it is a little cheaper than the other two. They have a bunch of unusual items.

                    Make sure to go on a weekend. I find earlier--11ish is usually better as well.

                    Oh, if you like SDK, you should go to Shanghai House down the street. It totally kicks SDK ass.

                    1. re: sfbing

                      Maybe the made to order thing is the magic. The texture of the dumpling "skin" is so off when it sits for a minute in the round vat, it seems, and that's one of the main things that drives me nuts. Thanks for the advice about Shanghai House. Yum. And thank you for the very specific advice on when to go and where, I really appreciate it. I want to be able to appreciate dim sum, it looks so delicious.

                      1. re: pointybird

                        All 3 of these places are made to order.

                        1. re: sfbing

                          I'm so hoping this is the issue, made-to-order vs. steam table/carts. Some food, I know, is heinous if it sits. My very favorite sandwich, cucumber and cream cheese, is so wonderful the second right after you make it. If it sits for even 20 minutes it starts getting gummy. Thanks for your advice, sfbing.

                    2. re: pointybird

                      pointybird, you said "every time I taste dim sum it's so nasty", so sfbing made a reasonable conclusion - you might not like dim sum. It's hard to believe that every day, every place is "nasty" for you.

                      For you, what is good dim sum? Where have you liked?

                      Reading between the lines, you hate grease, and you only like fresh, clean tastes and textures. Your yearning for the clean white dumpling. Everything else is "nasty". While dim sum has some of that (chive dumplings!), I'd say it's not the strength of dim sum, which has all manner of tastes mushed together, and can be interesting and enjoyable (to me at least) even when a bit on the greasy and impure side.

                      I might even go to the blanket statement: whether one likes a genre shouldn't be judged against the perfect sample, but against the representative sample. *of course* the perfect sample is good.

                      1. re: bbulkow

                        I don't mind grease (I do mind stale grease that is old and has been used too much and has an off taste). I don't mind tastes mushed together. The few dim sum items I have enjoyed were at Yank Sing: sesame balls, peking duck rolls, and pea shoot dumplings were wonderful; other things were middling to good (I liked the vegetable curry rolls), but priced more expensively than better tasting (to me) non dim-sum Chinese food. So far, IME in San Francisco, I can have a much better Chinese meal for what it costs to get dim sum.

                        One thing I do mind is very poor-quality meat, and that's an issue for me in a lot of dim sum items. I do appreciate that Yank Sing has a lot of vegetable items, and I liked most of them more than the meat items.

                        I'm very picky about the shell (I know that's not the right word) of the dumpling as well, and I know dumplings suffer from sitting. Perhaps the reason why I tend to like XLB at places like Kingdom of Dumpling is that they're piping hot when I eat them, whereas unless I get really lucky at the dim sum places things have been sitting for a few minutes.

                        1. re: pointybird

                          Aha! That means you need menu driven dim sum rather than carts.

                          1. re: Chandavkl

                            I was excited to try Good Luck because they have such high traffic on the weekends I thought things would be fresh...there were also huge lines which always make me think things are going to be good. Alas, no.

                            1. re: pointybird

                              Long lines at a Chinese eatery usually do mean good food. But there could be a couple of other reasons for long lines. It could mean especially low prices (for which many of us will sacrifice quality). Also in the case of take out dim sum, it could mean one, or a small number of items done well. For whatever reason, take out dim sum places just aren't consistent across the board in the same manner of sit down restaurants.

                          2. re: pointybird

                            I eat regularly at Yank Sing (on Stevenson, I haven't really liked the one in Rincon Center on four visits) and don't find any problem with the meat. I also eat occasionally at Ton Kiang, which I find has quality dim sum. Today, I had dim sum at the Hong Kong Flower Lounge in Millbrae, it was good but greasier than in the city. However, the tripe was just fantastic, very tender, and the durian things (I have no idea what they are, flaky crust) were excellent. The lotus cakes (pan-fried, not steamed) had terrific texture. I still would prefer the less greasy stuff I get in the city.

                            1. re: realspear

                              pan fried lotus cakes. that sounds delicious. The best thing we had from Good Luck was a turnip cake but again, it seemed like it had sat too long. It was cut in big rectangles, it looked baked maybe? Baked and steamed?

                            2. re: pointybird

                              I understand and acknowledge that you have real issues with the places you've tried, but am curious to ask if perhaps you don't like the rice flour dumpling skins that are on many steamed dumpling items, as compared to the wheat flour skin of a XLB? The skin of a perfect (or indeed any) har gow will never be like the skin of a good XLB. The former will always have (compared to the XLB) a distinct gumminess/toothsomeness. Though of course a good example will not actually be gummy.

                              1. re: twocents

                                How fascinating. I did not realize that, maybe that is an issue! I absolutely adore the rice paper wrappers that are around Vietnamese summer rolls and other delicious rolled up Vietnamese things; I like mochi, I like sticky rice of all kinds, including that thing I always see by the counter at Saigon Sandwiches that's a cone of sticky rice with banana inside. I can't imagine I wouldn't like a good rice wrapper that was fresh.

                                1. re: pointybird

                                  Melanie Wong's reply led me to look up recipes for the dough, and I find tha t I was mistaken... most recipes use a combination of wheat STARCH and tapioca starch, not rice flour as I had thought. So, I learned something interesting today.


                                  1. re: twocents

                                    Yeah, I use wheat starch and tapioca. I don't think rice starch would have the tensile strength for this purpose.

                                    --sorry about posting to an old post. didn't see the date until too late.

                              2. re: bbulkow

                                all dim sum places are not heavy on the LA there's a handful of made to order places where the skins/wrappers/buns are very fluffy and light with very fresh fillings...I've been curious if there are any made to order, non cart places in the bay area??...I've only been to cow palace and a couple of other places in the city, but non were comparable to the places in LA

                                1. re: peppermonkey

                                  Enough time to change it to Koi Palace. The Cow Palace is a real place but no dim sum.

                            3. When my family and I were living in SF in the early to mid 90s, Yuet Wah on Clement was our go to place. I don't recall any innovative or unusual items, but they really did the classics great, like cheung fun and fried taro puff. I wonder how it measures up these days.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: K K

                                Yet Wah on Clement makes my favorite version of suen jook guen (braised tofu skin roll) though I should add that I've not been there for almost 2 years.

                              2. I'm going to go out on a limb and generally agree with you. I think it's a full-time job to know where to get good dim sum in this city, and I often find myself going somewhere I used to like only to be disappointed.

                                There are many caveats to keep on top of:
                                1) When is the best team of chefs in the kitchen?
                                2) When is the kitchen making dim sum fresh vs. reheating frozen? (week nights might be frozen if they do offer dim sum on a menu)
                                3) When is the kitchen making the widest variety? (not necessarily when they open for service...and not necessarily after 2 PM)
                                4) Did they just lose their good chef?
                                5) Did they change ownership and the new owners have different priorities vis a vis the bottom line?
                                6) What are their specialties? Is someone really good with deep fried stuff but awful with dumpling wrappers? The opposite?
                                7) Where will the crowds suddenly descend, overwhelm the restaurant, and cause the 1.5 hour wait to raise expectations beyond the point where they could be met?

                                In general, I find the dumpling skins to be inexcusably bad on average in San Francisco, and I'm not just going to random places but trying to go to good places. I know what a pea shoot dumpling skin should feel like in the mouth, and most of the time they're too thick, too gummy from sitting in steamers for too long, and unevenly textured. I'm also annoyed with the proliferation of places serving abominable XLB.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: SteveG

                                  I'm reading through the thread and my anger was just building up inside of me. And you, SteveG, totally posted the same thoughts I was thinking!

                                  My only other thought, kind of like your point #5, is that a lot of Cantonese places don't seem to care about what they put out on a day-to-day basis. If it's good today, and bad tomorrow, it totally doesn't bother them.

                                  Seriously, I don't feel the love when I eat dim sum or Cantonese food in general. I know the ingredients they use are the same ingredients I can buy at an Asian supermarket. Their chefs are just more skillful than I can ever be at wrapping up dim sum. There's no premium in the experience merely the convenience of being able to eat out.

                                  And my dear mom would say the chefs here don't innovate enough on their own. If one place puts out a new dim sum, all the other places will follow within weeks. So in the end, it all taste kind of the same.

                                  If I have to eat dim sum tomorrow, agreed, it would be outside of the city at Asian Pearl in Millbrae.