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Apr 11, 2011 12:38 PM

Zen Peninsula dim sum - purty darn good

Haven't been back to Zen Peninsula in a few years, but had the chance to visit twice this calendar year and so far, it's pretty darn good and somewhat consistent (despite a few minor quips and dishes that were less than spectacular). Family still have issues with management and staff (the dinner rotation), in the way of service attitudes and accounting, but I won't dive into that. The dim sum lunch experience here has been quite solid to say the least.

Zen Pen's Chinese name 采蝶軒 is identical to Zen restaurant in Admiralty, Hong Kong but as far as I understand it, I do not think there is any relation between the two.

The dim sum check sheet is silly crazy, with 130 items to choose from. Note that over half of them are side dish/small dish types, and are not normally associated with dim sum, but are there to either impress, seem gimmicky, and/or add to the variety.

One interesting trend is that this restaurant (as well as Asian Pearl nearby to an extent) is following in the footsteps of Hong Kong of old school revival (or preservation), in that they want to do and offer stuff that Lin Heung (and its competitor started by a family member) and/or Luk Yu in HK do well (old school stuff), in offering what was popular back in the 50s/60s/70s but phased out for a time. That, in addition to innovating new dishes (e.g. salty/savory kabocha chicken knees), as well as adding items in the lineup that claim to be Shunde village style (an area in Guangzhou very famous for...many things let's just say), yields some mixed results with some cases being quite delicious.

Went recently on a Saturday, and it was almost packed. Ample dim sum cart ladies pushing out freshly steamed and piping hot goods, virtually to the point of no checksheeting ordering needed. On an earlier weekend in January, we ordered some items off the checksheets, and the cart ladies promptly delivered them over.

A quick summary:

順德燒賣 - Village siu mai (or Shunde style siu mai). Three giant almost golfball sized mix of pork, fish paste, and shrimp with some shrimp roe garnish on top. I liked the texture mix, but this might not be for everyone. Never had this before and only those who have eaten in Shunde Guangzhou can say how authentic this is (or is not).

Mini custard tarts 蛋撻仔 - yes the reports are true. The multi layered puff pastry exterior is excellent. The center is good too, but of course nothing beats Golden Gate Bakery's center which is my standard. Piping hot as if they came out of the oven even after a few mins of floor time by the tray lady.

Ha gow 蝦餃 - didn't count the pleats but there was a small amount of juice. Not the best structural integrity, but better than the visit in January. Seems inconsistent, but overall very decent for this standard dim sum item

鳳爪 (phoenix talons/chicken feet) - what an interesting receipe....I could actually taste the dried orange peel flavor in this prep. Very well done.

豉汁排骨 (black bean spareribs) - Meaty, chewy, not as much fat as other places. Not bad

山竹牛肉 beef meatballs - good and dense, a tad bit dry but also tasted dried orange peel presence (that helps minimize the gamey flavor of the beef)

蠔皇叉燒飽 (BBQ pork steam buns) - The buns were not terribly fluffy, have had better elsewhere

叉燒酥 (BBQ pork puffs) - very good, almost as good as when ABC Foster City 7 years ago when that was one of the must-get items.

煎臘味蘿蔔糕 (pan fried daikon cake)/ lo bak go - tad bit disappointing, not enough daikon flavor and on the dry side.

鮮蝦韭菜餃 (shrimp and chive steamed dumpling) - very good and well constructed

糯米雞 (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf) - the preserved sausage slice in the sticky rice wrap was phenomenal. Didn't care for the salted egg yolk inside, but this was a stellar prep that felt very old school.

牛肉腸粉 beef cheung fun - could have been a notch better, but not bad. OK.

流沙飽 - flowing sand salted egg yolk baked bun - didn't try but this time witnessed a lack of "flowing sand" yolk in one of three buns. Tasty enough that a kid enjoyed it.

Didn't order it but the lady with the tray containing 楊枝甘露糕 (mango and pomelo pudding cake) kept trying to upsell it, along with crispy skin suckling pig (no doubt $$$$), but did not look good.

煎釀雙寶 - this is a shrimp/fish paste stuffed eggplant paired with the same stuffed inside whole mushrooms. Absolutely fantastic, and I can't say whether the eggplant is better than the mushroom as they taste great in their own way.

Did not order but also got upsold 大良炸脆奶 which looks like fried tofu, except the inside is milk. This is another Shunde style dish, where over in that part of the globe, they use buffalo milk.

鮑魚芋絲卷 (Fried abalone taro rolls) - was expecting abalone puff pastry dim sum, but this was a huge disappointment...which goes to show that fusion or copying trends from HK does not always work.

Prompt refill of our teapot with hot water, twice without even us asking (the waiter just went up and poured hot water in, a first!!!).

Paying the bill took a long time for some reason, which at first had us worry whether we gave the credit card to an employee imposter who was trying to run up the card while we waited...fortunately it was just stuck in bureaucratic matters (or stuck in line).

As we were leaving the fish tank was for the first time that I've seen, extremely crowded and overpacked with what appeared to be Alaskan king crabs. The other fresh seafood in the tanks otherwise did not seem as plentiful.

Overall a very solid dim sum experience. MSG content did not seem overbearing as other places (cough cough Koi Palace) as we drank sufficient tea, but did feel very sleepy in the afternoon. This is where Asian Pearl's minimal MSG aftereffects (to almost none) is more than appreciated, but Zen Pen surely has the variety and general upper hand in quality.

Zen Peninsula
1180 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030

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  1. Kabocha chicken knees? And flowing sand salted egg yolks....Will have to put this in the Millbrae rotation again.

    I love fried milk. Not sure if I've had a good version in this area; we had it at a banquet in Flushing.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Windy

      Just a FYI that the checksheet menu on the restaurant's website is likely out of date (the kabocha chicken knees was taken from that, I don't remember if it was listed on the checksheet from the weekend visit), fanciful sounding and named dishes and dim sum items could be subject to availability, season, and what the chefs/management deem fit to offer.

      1. I agree. Zen is pretty good overall...although I find some of their things just a bit greasy.
        Their dinner is decent as well. That two mile stretch of El Camino is loaded with Cantonese restaurants, it has to be pretty good to stay alive.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Cary

          This actually puzzles me as I went about a month ago and thought it was terrible. The food was all served cold even though we ordered it off the checklist, and the dining room was empty on a weekend morning. I've written Zen Peninsula off entirely based on that one visit.

          Zen Peninsula
          1180 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030

          1. re: Pandora

            We went on Saturday closer to noon, perhaps when more stuff just started coming out of the kitchen into the carts. Perhaps I got lucky.

        2. Finally tried Zen Peninsula for dim sum in Millbrae. It's on El Camino Real & Center St on the Right side if coming from SF & Hwy 101. Parking on the street or in the back their own parking lot.

          We got there about 10:45am and no wait on Sat 4/16/11. The room is pretty big & service is pretty fast - they have ladies carrying trays, pushing carts, & special made to order items you can check off.

          Alaskan crab $19/lb. They had a "No AB376" - the ban of shark fin in Calif sign on the host stand.

          Stuff we got:

          black bean spareribs - ok, needed to be more tender & have more flavor.

          bbq pork flaky pastry (cha shiu sow) - fine

          chicken feet - fine

          tofu skin rolls - fine

          shrimp & veggie steam dumpling - fine, 3 pcs.

          pork porridge w/ tiny bit of friend donut - I tasted it, was ok

          seaweed salad & mini octopus - fine

          shrimp rice crepe - can get made to order. ok.

          foie gras shiu miu $4.5 for 3 pcs - just ok, but very rare to get this item. Only at this restaurant I think.

          Green tea sesame mochi $3.2 for 3pcs - made to order. Black sesame lava is really hot, be careful!

          Tea - I asked for jasmine. $1 per person.

          Subtotal $38.20 + $3.63 tax = $41.83 before tip. Credit cards allowed.

          Separate bathrooms in the front, left side. Women's 3 stalls, 2 sinks.

          Zen Peninsula
          1180 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030