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Dim Sum at Zen Peninsula in Millbrae

Our party of ten met for dim sum Friday at Zen Peninsula and enjoyed some very good food. The early arrivals were shown to a rather dark private area separated from the rest of the main room by high wood dividers but we moved out to the more pleasant main room where we could see the trays going by. Since it was a weekday there were very few items on trays and we ordered all but one of our dishes from the menu--

Golden kabocha fries
Fried shrimp mango crepe
Steam tofu skin with shrimp and pork
Chayote with minced pork
Shrimp dumplings (har gow)
Conpoy (dried scallops) with pea sprouts rice crepes
Turnip and Chinese donut rice crepes
Peanut pancake
Zen’s roast pork (peanut sauce)
Fried egg yolk shrimp balls
Salt and pepper calamari
Green tea sesame mochi
Fried milk
Sweet taro buns

Everyone seemed happy with our menu choices but we made a mistake by handing in a single order form with almost everything we wanted for the meal and assuming the restaurant would space the dishes. After the first couple of dishes most of the rest were served all at once in a big rush. I had anticipated a leisurely meal with ample time between dishes to savor each dish, enjoy the conversation and eagerly anticipate the dishes to come. Instead we had a choice of eating quickly or eating cold food. Not exactly the most civilized yum cha experience but at least the quality of the food was very good.

I’ll save most of my comments on the food until others have had a chance, but here are a few highlights for me--

The kabocha fires were probably my favorite taste of the meal-- great flavor, soft inside, nicely fried with a thin crust and no oiliness. I also really enjoyed the conpoy with pea sprouts crepes- they were generous with the dried scallops and the pea sprouts were delicious. It was not so good after it got cold. The very small fried egg yolk shrimp balls were very good when eaten plain and even better with the sweet mayonnaise sauce that came with them.

Many of the dishes had very generous portion sizes, and it was a lot of food for $18 per person with tip.

Thanks to pilinut for organizing us again! It was nice your Mom could join us.

Next time we’ll know not to order all at once.

Zen Peninsula
1180 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030

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  1. i wasn't there but i tried out a few items on your list today. my thoughts:

    -salt & pepper calamari: nicely done, chewy due to kind of squid used. thinner u.s. squid would have been better
    -sweet taro buns: pretty sweet, not much taro taste. nice bun
    -shrimp dumpling: skin fell apart, small shrimps used, just ok.
    -kabocha fries: lots of it. probably similar to yam fries. no complaints
    -steam tofu skin with shrimp and pork : my fav, nice crunchiness with nice filling
    -chayote with minced pork : fresh veggie dish with chewy pork. a near miss.

    overall impression of dim sum at zen: just average, maybe cuz msg use isn't that heavy but their cooking technique doesn't fill the gap. tried 15 items today. mostly just ok.

    1. The lazy susan made me dizzy with spinning food in the don't-talk-eat-fast milieu. Top of the list: Golden Kabocha Fries with duck egg...Zen's Roast Pork. I am waiting for the photos to post to trigger my diminished memory.
      Thanks to Pia for organizing the continuing yum cha crawl. Cheers to the 'hounds.

      1. Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Charlie, and for the systematic chronicling of our choices. I think most of us placed the kabocha fries with salted egg yolk at or near the top of our picks, and I think Zen's is the best of the ones I've tried lately: crisp, relatively un-greasy, and coated with a good amount of salted egg yolk. We were more fortunate with our calamari than Shanghaikid was--our calamari was thin and tender, definitely one of the better dishes.

        While nothing was execrable, nothing else would be considered one of the best versions around. Honestly, I found the execution of the dishes rather coarse (e.g., sloppy knifework in the mango and shrimp crepe, tough pea sprouts, and overcooked shrimp balls). But I think it would be only fair to give the place another chance--provided we can have the fried kabocha again!

        Zen Peninsula
        1180 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030

        1. The calamari was perfectly cooked-- tender and just chewy enough. The flat body pieces I had were probably a bit thicker than most but I thought that was a good thing because of the way it affected my experience of biting into the calamari. It offered little resistance when I first bit in but the resistance increased until my teeth came to a satisfying stop without any rebound just short of biting through. That texture felt so good I almost laughed out loud. If there isn’t a name for this particular experience there ought to be. Maybe the pieces shanghaikid got were overcooked.

          The har gow had thin wrappers but was too loosely wrapped and fell apart too easily. The Zen’s roast pork had a nice sweet glaze and went well with the finely ground peanuts provided. The fried milk was served with sugar and was not nearly as good as Tai Wu’s version. The black sesame filling in the green tea sesame mochi wasn’t as good as I have had elsewhere. The peanut pancake had some nice chewy + crunchy textures but was very plain in taste. I liked the sweet taro buns but didn't think they were quite as totally awesome as some others have described.

          While I enjoyed many of the dishes, based on two visits to Zen Pen I would rate it below Tai Wu, Koi Palace, or Asian Pearl. The rushed service may have impacted my perception of the quality of the food. I will be back and next time will make sure to order the sweet durian dish I liked so much on my first visit.

          You can find more opinions on Zen Pen’s dim sum in this detailed 2008 thread started by Melanie-- http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/568400. Everyone in that thread absolutely LOVED the sweet taro buns.

          Koi Palace Restaurant
          365 Gellert Blvd, Daly City, CA 94015

          1. Though I raved about Zen Pen's kabocha fries on this and other threads, my latest experience about two months ago was a big disappointment, though everything else we ordered that day was very good. The salty egg coating was too thin and not much egg flavor came through but the biggest problem was the quality of the kabocha itself-- no flavor. I'm not sure why they wouldn't be able to get decent kabocha in October. It may have just been under-fried-- it wasn't very crisp.

            1. After a thwarted attempt to lunch at Asian Pearl in Millbrae today, 4 of us decided on Zen Peninsula as the next nearest option, so off we went...

              Here are the dishes we ordered:
              Fried Tofu Skin with shrimp & pork
              Fried Egg Yolk Balls
              Zen's Stuffed Chicken Wing
              Zen's Roast Pork (peanut sauce)
              Golden Kabocha & Chicken Knees
              Sour Knuckles
              Baked BBQ Pork Buns (off a tray, not the usual)
              Pan Fried Lotus Roots

              There were a couple of hits: (Golden Kabocha & Chicken Knees, Fried Tofu Skin with Shrimp & Pork, Fried Egg Yolk Balls), and for me a couple of not-so-great dishes (Zen's Stuffed Chicken Wing, Sour Knuckles).

              I would return for the Golden Kabocha & Chicken Knees! Didn't know what Chicken Knees were, part of the foot, maybe like a knuckle with cartilage but no bones and kabocha strips fried with a salted egg yolk batter, yum.

              For me several of the dishes were cloyingly sweet, the aforementioned Sour Knuckles was one of them - rather than being sour, they were very sweet pig knuckles, mostly bone in a preserved plum flavored sauce. Not what any of us was expecting. The Zen's Roast Pork (peanut sauce) was a disappointment for me too, Very, very sweet peanut & sugar sprinkled on thin, almost flavorless slices of roast pork.

              IMO not the best dim sum, but I guess not the worst either. Service was fine. The biggest disappointment was not being able to have our dim sum at Asian Pearl...

              Thanks to charliemyboy for remembering that it's best to order just a few dishes at a time so the table isn't blasted with everything at once!

              6 Replies
              1. re: RWCFoodie

                I'm generally in accord with RWCFoodie's opinions on this meal.

                My favorite taste was the Fried Egg Yolk Balls, which were small with a pleasantly thin coating of mochi covered with sesame seeds, toasted just right to a golden brown, full of oozing eggy goodness.

                Next for me was the Golden Kabocha & Chicken Knees—though I've had better kabocha fries at ZP in the past, the crunchiness of the chicken cartilage added great texture.

                The Fried Tofu Skin with Shrimp & Pork was good and I enjoyed the Zen's Roast Pork but perhaps only because there wasn't much else very interesting. I have to concede RWCFoodie's point that the meat wasn't very flavorful.

                The Baked BBQ Pork Buns had a custard coating. I didn't get much pork flavor coming through all that.

                The cloying Sour Knuckles were my least favorite taste, edging out Zen's Stuffed Chicken Wing for the dishonor.

                After the meal we discussed whether our disappointment at not being able to have some of our Asian Pearl favorites like Wasabi Pork Stomach might have negatively affected our opinion, but I think today's dim sum was just clearly not as good as at recent visits to Asian Pearl.

                If this is the best Millbrae can do these days (ZP has been my 2nd fave in Millbrae after AP) maybe its days as a dim sum mecca are past. I fervently pray that Asian Pearl will re-open, and with no loss of quality.

                1. re: charliemyboy

                  My lunch at South Sea Seafood Village was much better than ZP last year. ZP seems to be cutting corners.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    Aha! I had heard SSSV in Millbrae had closed and when we drove by yesterday it looked empty, but I see from Yelp it was the SF location that closed. It has a low rating and lots of very negative reviews on Yelp, but on my one visit there a year ago we all thought it was pretty darn good, in line with your experience in November.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      sad, I used to make special trips to ZP, but after two disappointing visits in a row (where quality was clearly decreased and cooking slipshod, plus the chowdown last year where they kept trying to upsell every 5 minutes to a new person) I've not gone out of my way to go back. guess that was a good decision.

                      1. re: estnet

                        Before Tuesday my last visit to ZP for dim sum was two years ago and the quality was pretty decent, though the often excellent kabocha fries were really sub-par that day. There wasn't much reason to return when Asian Pearl was just down the street, but I didn't realize how far ZP had fallen.

                        The Kitchen has been a disappointment which leaves only SSSV and Hong Kong Flower Lounge to uphold Millbrae's honor if AP doesn't return to its former self. HKFL seems so stodgy I can't get excited about it, but I've heard some reports that it's decent if unexciting. I haven't been there since almost forever so it may be time to give it a try again. Anybody been there recently?

                        1. re: charliemyboy

                          SSSV in Millbrae has been closed for quite a while now.

                          HKFL got bought out by the Mayflower group a number of years ago, so my assumption is that it's only HKFL in name now.