Is Lai Hong Lounge Now The Clear Choice For Dim Sum in SF Chinatown?
- Chandavkl Sep 2, 2012 04:44 PM
I don't know since I haven't eaten there and have no trips scheduled to the Bay Area the rest of this year, so I'm tossing out the question. However, I did send my daughter, who is a bigger foodie than I am, over there this morning and the reports are very positive. (we nickednamed here "the little gourmet" when she turned seven and has more than lived up to that name). First of all it was a half hour wait to get in, and when's the last time you had to wait that long to eat dim sum in Chinatown? Then she live blogged me with updates that were nothing but glowing. She described the sticky rice lotus leaf as the best that she's had, and also had praise for the rice noodle rolls with XO sauce and dried scallops; shrimp cheung fun (thin delicate skin), the ha gow and siu mai (also with delicate wrappers), and summarizing that everything is good. This is from somebody who eats better than I do, since she only eats at the best places in L.A. (e.g., Sea Harbour, Elite, King Hua), while I'm out chasing the latest noodle shop or tea house that has just opened. Address is 1416 Powell St.
Thanks for the report. Lai Hong is a branch of Hong Kong Lounge on Geary, which many people have considered the best in the city for a while now, so it's pleasing but not surprising to hear glowing reports on Lai Hong Lounge. Did she mention if they have carts or trays, or is it menu only?
Is your daughter based in San Francisco? Does she blog or post on Yelp, and if not why not? Regarding long waits, I pine for the days when one went to Miriwa to avoid the line at Gold Mountain, then went to Hong Kong Teahouse on Stockton to avoid the line at Miriwa, then spent half an hour in line there!
Supertina is based in Los Angeles and does not blog or post on Yelp. She only eats and takes pictures (posts only on Facebook--I'm not her FB friend so I don't even see her food pictures). Yes, San Francisco Chinatown was once the place to go for dim sum. It was sad that when out of towners asked where to go for dim sum in San Francisco we had to tell them anywhere but Chinatown. Hopefully this has changed.
Dim sum places tend to start off with a bang and then deteriorate -- some more rapidly than others. When we checked out Meriwa during our survey for the dim sum civil war our experience was much like yours, but many years earlier it had been the dim sum hot spot.
I stopped by Lai Hong Lounge this morning, and left echoing "The Little Gourmet's" praise of the delicate wrappers here.This isn't a heavily trafficked stretch (Powell x Vallejo), sort of between North Beach and Chinatown crowds, yet as soon as I turned the corner I could see the Lai Hong line on an otherwise quiet block.
Got a ticket and a printed menu from the hostess, waited about half an hour to enter. The crowd was a diverse group: 99% Chinese, but young and old, big families and intimate groups, 20-somethings wearing sparkly clubwear who seemed to be on dates, grandpas with canes, toddlers and middle-aged gossips. My tablemates were a Taiwanese tourist and a nonagenarian Chinatown resident who visits every week and recommended some dishes.
I have a cold and was mostly interested in textures plus a hearty dose of chili sauce. I ordered shrimp wonton soup (recommended by the regular at my table), pork rice noodle rolls, shrimp-chive dumplings, and a sticky rice lotus leaf. The sticky rice lotus leaf, filled with mushroom, shrimp and a few pieces of pork was especially good. Another winner was the homestyle dumplings, with wide, soft pleats. I don't like when the chives overwhelm the interior and impart a grassiness to the bite; this was a nice blend of ingredients that let each component have its space. While the BBQ pork inside the rice noodle rolls had a pleasant and consistent texture, the rolls were slightly gluey or tacky in sections. The soup was delicate, with sliced chives floating like buoys across a clear, light broth. Below was an impossible number of wontons: every time I plucked a few out I couldn't believe so many remained (probably 12 total, in a soup that was $5).
Pleasant dining room, carefully kept. Big chandeliers, a few wallhangings, not a speck of dust anywhere. Ordering is via the checklist menu received outside plus a short menu of specials on the table. Excellent value: total bill was $21.
Strongly concur. Just got back from lunch and every table in the large dining room was packed on a Monday morning. Sticky rice lotus leaf was perfectly seasoned and very savory without being overblown. Had most of the dishes mentioned above and echo the findings. I'd also recommend the delicately steamed young pork liver slices as a starter, and of all things the BBQ pork buns - these can be a huge disappointment if the buns are even slightly overcooked or the ratio of bun to filling is off, so I usually avoid them. But these were very delicately steamed with ample porky goodness inside. And if you don't like pork buns for the cloying or too-plummy sauce in the middle, try these - deep pork flavor, not just loads of sweet and salt. I also really liked the fried chive dumplings, a bit hard to manage but the chive explosion inside is rich and textured, not green, grassy or limp.
The chicken feet were a bit overcooked and soggy (but well seasoned) and the spareribs were just too sweet to my taste, though improved with a little salt; but considering how fresh and well balanced the ingredients in every dish were, that was easily overlooked. I'm normally a load-up-the-chili-sauce kind of guy but found that overall the seasonings were so well done that I really felt guilty adding even a drop of soy or chili sauce to anything - that's possibly the strongest praise I can give.
In addition the waitstaff was very friendly and helpful in balancing portion sizes on the checklist for our group, even though I was clearly the only guy out of a few hundred who couldn't speak Chinese, and had no idea how to go about ordering. Really pleasant experience.
Guess I’ll be the dissenter on this thread after two trials. Maybe Lai Hong Lounge is the current choice for dim sum in SF Chinatown, but still not good enough to make me a raving fan. Of 12 different items ordered on two visits, only four are things I’d want to eat again. Not everything is good.
Both times I ate here with my mom. First visit on October 29, we arrived before 11am and tried:
Egg tofu with shrimp – Too greasy, the coating fell off the tofu disks, and the shrimp on top of each were overcooked resulting in rubber pencil eraser-like texture.
Rice noodle roll – Can’t recall the exact filling now, probably fish. Filling was fresh-tasting but after reading early praise for the cheung fun, these were a big disappointment. Seasoned soy sauce was particularly sweet and the wrapper was too thick and gummy in texture. Sloppy second compared to the one I'd just tried at Cooking Papa.
Duck jaws – Inedible. Literally could not pull the flesh or skin from the bones or bite through the toughness to chew on anything. Sucking on a portion just to get some flavor, the seasoning was exceptionally salty even for Maggi cooked product. I’d just had duck jaws at Foster City’s Cooking Papa and that version was 1000X better.
Beef tendon and rice noodle rolls – Surprised me when a claypot with stewy beef tendons and braised rice noodle rolls came out. Guess I didn’t read the menu carefully enough. Big portion, lots of tendon and tasty, rustic flavors. Overly soft rice noodles were glued together in clumps.
Steamed surf clam – Worst version I’ve ever had, and I’ve ordered this dish at more than a dozen local restaurants. The clam was sliced haphazardly and overcooked to tough leatheriness.
Fried white bait – Dripping with oil, hard outer batter (not in a good way), and entirely stuck together in a Medusa’s head of serpents tangle. I had to pry the tiny fish apart using chopsticks as levers and applying some force in doing so. Can’t believe that the kitchen put this on a plate and served it.
Har gow – Excellent with thin, see-through, tensile wrappers. Great texture to the whole shrimp encased in shrimp forcemeat flecked with bamboo shoots, hitting the near crisp firmness. Naturally sweet flavor and not overboard with MSG.
Chiu Chow dumpling – The best I’ve had in ages. Very chewy tapioca flour wrapper filled with still crunchy roasted peanuts, ja choy, red chile, mushroom, and diced pork moistened with gravy. Nice kick of spicy heat in the finish.
This lunch #1 was $53 with tax and tip, and we left a lot of food uneaten.
Then on Thursday (December 27), I decided to order simpler dishes and repeat the two stars. Fewer things this time, including:
Chicken feet – Too soft, but I prefer that to undercooked. Very savory though too salty.
Sauteed rice noodle rolls with XO sauce – Not pan-fried the way Hong Kong Flower Lounge serves them. These were closer to braised with no singed spots. Again, too soft, won't be ordering any rice noodle rolls here again. The XO sauce lacked the finesse of Great Eastern or Yank Sing’s versions, using too much MSG to fill in for dried scallop, shrimp or ham.
Sauteed daikon cakes – Quite good with cubes of juicy, tender white radish. Could use more meaty bits but well-seared and tasty nonetheless.
Shrimp and chive boiled dumplings – Good filling as “pane” describes with clean and bright tasting Chinese chives but low on shrimp. The wrappers were too thin for this style of dumpling (shui jiao) and verged on brittle, rather than being satisfyingly chewy. My mother wanted to send them back.
Har gow – Not nearly as good as the first time but still acceptable. These seemed to be reheated even though we were there during peak lunch hour. The wrappers had an oily coating and turned stiff and hard when they cooled. Saltier and too much MSG in the seasoning, obscuring the natural flavor of the shrimp that should be front and center.
Chiu Chow dumpling – Oversteamed and too soft wrappers that disintegrated to the touch, maybe reheated as well. Still wonderfully tasty with the fermented flavors and porky notes, but lacking the chile spice of the first round.
Our second lunch cost $31 with tax and tip.
Would I go back? Yes, as I did like the two examples of steamed dumplings. It’s a shame that Lai Hong Lounge doesn’t offer much more selection in that category other than siu mai, as it is the one clear area where it excels. The ramp up of salt, grease and MSG in this two months’ time makes the food taste more like the rustic, old school style found in Chinatown rather than competing with the Millbrae dim sum palaces. With bad experiences with the special items and fried dishes, I’d probably avoid those categories and avoid eating dinner here. I would like to try something from the jook or noodle menus in the future.
Tea charge is $1 per person. Servers are attentive and helpful, managing to stay sane in the chaos.
Yes, the first time I tried Hong Kong Lounge was when it was still fairly new. Pretty bad then,
I've been back once when we happened to be driving by, found a parking space right in front, and the pre-opening line was just starting to form. It was better the second time, but it's still not my style. I want more finesse and less MSG. HKL's style is pretty rustic though I'm sure there are superior dishes to be sussed out.
I've not been to Hong Kong Lounge II yet.
Can't call a trend line from just two visits, but I couldn't help but wonder if consistency is falling off or corners are being cut. There was a definite decline in the two items I repeated though perhaps this is just a random batch difference. Early press reports were so favorable.
re: Melanie Wong
Dunno if this is at all relevant but Hounds in my hometown of Vancouver have identified a falling off of dimsum quality in pretty much every good newcomer. It happens around the six month mark (could be a bit longer) and there are various theories as to why but my favourite is si fu turnover (the originally hired dim sum chefs leaving). The restos here play this very close to the chest so it's hard to track the good chefs' movements.
This falling off phenomenon is why I value consistency above innovation when dining out for dim sum, and am so impressed by places like Kirin here that can deliver quality, execution and flavour week in and week out.
I'm a believer in si fu turnover. We see that in non-Chinese restos as well --- bring in the name chef until the critics review and buzz is created, then gone.
Here's Tasting Tables description of the same cheung fun that I had, "The texture of the gossamer rice noodles is pure satin, the fish’s delicate flavor brightened by the allium bite of scallions and yellow chives."
"The little gourmet" description is "shrimp cheung fun (thin delicate skin)".
Neither "pane" nor I experienced anything like that in our orders.
Lai Hong Lounge is better than the now closed Gold Mountain less than two blocks away that was very busy at lunch time too, so the crowds are easy to explain. I'd been hopeful hearing the rumors that the Koi Palace folks were looking at that large space on Broadway, as Chinatown deserves a better dim sum place and wedding venue. But with their involvement in MY China, another venture is probably a ways off. With any luck they'll learn something about reaching out to a mainstream audience while still retaining authentic taste and bring it to Chinatown.
re: Melanie Wong
Gold Mountain was bad, dim sum or dinner. I was there many times. The location was great, prices were great, but the food quality was...well. I haven't been to Lai Hong, but your best bet for dim sum in Chinatown is probably Great Eastern, which got a boost from Obama's visit, and City View, which is boring but slightly more upscale than most Chinatown places. Just don't expect Yang Sing or Koi Palace.
Thanks for letting me know though I'm sorry to hear the jook's a no-go. Was hoping for a replacement for Hing Lung for the morning meal.
The reason we wound up here for lunch those two times is that this block and immediate area is home to about five beauty salons that offer $5 haircuts. Mecca for a thrifty senior. I'm sure I'll be back when Mom needs another trim.
A lovely dim sum meal today.
Planned to meet friends @ 11, but got there 20 minutes early, which I explained to the woman at the front of the house, saying I'd be happy to wait in the foyer; but she graciously seated me right away and brought me tea (which they "hotted up" throughout the meal) and asked for my friends' names, so they could send them my way. An attractive space, nicely decorated, a calmness about it, even though bustling.
Everything was served piping hot, the advantage of ordering off a menu.
We forgot that prior posters had commented about the size of individual items and portions, so over-ordered:
Coffee ribs: a bit sweet to my taste (and came with sweetened whipped cream to boot), but a nice crunch
Duck jaws: our least favorite dish, greasy/chewy, texture not to our liking, not great duck flavor
Turnip cakes: delicious, fresh-tasting, not greasy
Chive dumplings: well wrapped, cooked, perfect balance
Shrimp dumplings: ditto
Fried tofu skin: delicious filling, skin nicely cooked
Custard tarts: beautifully baked custard, good crust--in league with Golden Gate (even though not hot)
Durian pastries: a well made durian custard filling, flaky crust
Overall, we really enjoyed, agree with the positive chowhound buzz, will definitely be back!
Well, I finally got to answer my own question, and the answer is a resounding "Yes." This is far and away the best dim sum in Chinatown, at least twice as good as any other venue in the area. (That's just a sarcastic jab at some of these "Top Ten" lists we see in the media.) Had seven items and most of them were great. Turnip cake was probably the best we've ever eaten, with noticeable pieces of turnip in it. Crispy bean curd skin with shrimp, fish cheung fun, chicken samosas, lotus leaf rice, beef cheung fun and shrimp dumplings were all winners. Only problems are you have to wait and you have to pay $$.
Count me in as another "absolutely yes." My one small quibble with Lai Hong Lounge (and the other Hong Kong Lounge branches) is their penchant for bringing any dish that's ready, without any sense of order. So your desserts might come before anything else, or all your deep fried foods might get served together. And then when you're done eating those, all the deep fried foods come out. It doesn't always work out so poorly, but it's a gamble.
That said, the food is so delicious (and so reasonably priced), it's a small sacrifice.
At 11am, they were able to immediately seat our party of 5. At least a third of the crowd, maybe up to 1/2, was definitely not Chinese.
Overall, this was an excellent dim sum experience, better than any in recent memory. My only complaint would be that many of the dumplings were so large and unwieldy that the filling and wrapper needed to be eaten separately. Those still tasted good though. None of the wrappers seemed oversteamed to the point of sogginess, but some were a bit soft.
"Shrimp dumpling" ( "jingying xian xiajiao" AKA ha gow ): excellent, lots of whole shrimp chunks, but perhaps too big
"Pork siu mai" : Shrimp dominate this dish to the point that I forgot they were labeled as pork sui mai. Juicy, coarsely chopped ingredients, and large.
"Baked pork buns" : Maybe I'm not getting out enough, but I don't think I've ever had baked bun dough quite like this. The bottom was brown and a bit oily and the top was white with no glaze. In a good way, the exterior was dry and a little brittle, but there was no additional thick coating like in a pineapple bun. Maybe it had been dusted with rice flour. In any case, the whole thing was delicious. Good meat filling and the inner lining soaked up the juices and had a chewiness instead of gumminess. A+
"BBQ pork puffed" : I tend to dislike pastry dough dim sum, but this one was pretty good. The dough had enough hydration and wasn't oily but was still flaky.
"Sticky rice in lotus leaf" : generally good flavor and prepared such that it didn't come out a pasty mess. One piece of shrimp had an off flavor.
"Chui Zhou dumpling" : the star of the show, and typically one of my least favorite dim sum items because of peanut domination. Their filling was crunchy and really nicely balanced with daikon. These are giant and the translucent dough was unwieldy enough that I snacked on the bulk of filling before attempting to eat any part of the wrapper. Still, delicious.
"Broccoli with oyster sauce": well prepared
"Chinese donut noodle roll" ( zhaliang ) : terrible. Doughnut had an unpleasant toughness, but I've not found a good one at any other Cantonese places.
"Pork liver noodle roll" : good texture, didn't excite me. Probably needed soy sauce in retrospect.
We went yesterday at about 9:45. It filled up fast after about 10.
The baked pork buns were great. They seemed to me to be steamed and then maybe panfried. Lots of cha siu filling, not too sweet.
Shrimp chive dumplings were good and large and there were 8 in the order.
We had an order of steamed chicken feet. They were good with bits of pepper and maybe mushroom? Lots in order.
Pork siu mai were loaded with shrimp.
Curry chicken samosa seemed unusual. Curry was pretty mild. Well fried, looked like filo sheets, not greasy.
Eveything was served hot.
Finally got a chance to try it. Pretty hit or miss.
Better bets in Chinatown for Dim Sum are Great Eastern and Cityview.
Coffee Pork Ribs,Shrimp Dumpling, Steamed Pork Buns, BBQ Pork Puffs,Fried Sesame Balls
Steamed Sesame Balls
Steamed Pork Dumpling, Chiu Zhou Dumpling
Like Melanie I wonder if there's a downhill trend here a bit - just got back from lunch and while there are still some very good dishes, overall flavors just weren't as bright and striking as our first visit a year and a half ago.
Sautéed rice noodles with XO sauce were simply tired, with soft-verging-on-plain-mushy noodles in a sauce that seemed to have no character at all.
Chiu Zhou was "solid" but not exceptional this time. Not oversteamed, and the texture balance was very good (though at this size you need a big mouth to get enough to realize that...) But just didn't seem to me to have the flavor depth from before - it wasn't peanut-dominated, and peanut flavoring was pleasingly subtle, but they were much more bland than I recall, with absolutely no heat kick left.
In the still-quite-good-but... category, sticky rice in lotus was perfectly steamed and this time quite delicate - but without the pure unctuousness of our last trip, when I think I ate three myself because I just couldn't stop. And the fried chive dumplings had the same bright and clean chive and juiciness- but were a notch down on the rest of the flavor. Almost as if they were cutting back a little extra filler on each recently.
On the other hand pork siu mai were bursting with flavor and as good as I recalled, with as much fresh shrimp as others have mentioned. And the BBQ pork puffs, while not necessarily my thing taste-wise, were very well crafted with flaky pastry. Plus the nine-year-old girls we brought along loved the custard desserts!
Overall it's still much better than your average dumbed-down cart dim sum joint, and since it's walking distance I'll go back for a few of the starring items. But I sure hope with all the recent Michael Bauer attention to Hong Kong Lounge, they haven't lost focus over here...