Almost a decade ago, I was in Boston's Chinatown eating dim sum with a friend who is half-Japanese.The restaurant was packed so the waiter asked us to share our table with a couple.
The couple was an older man and woman from Oklahoma who were in town for a medical convention. He was a doctor. I mention this because I didn't expect them to be the stereotypical hicks, ya know?
"Excuse me, but do you speak English?" he cautiously asked me and my white-skinned, light brown-haired friend.
We said we did. Looking relieved, he introduced himself and his wife, said they had never eaten dim sum before, but that someone suggested they try it.
"Don't you have Chinese restaurants in Oklahoma?" I asked.
"Yes, but in Oklahoma the Chinese restaurants bring the food to your table in plates," he whispered as if revealing trade secrets. "Don't they have chow mein or chop suey here?"
So we explained that dim sum was slightly different. That it was basically lots of dumplings and other small dishes, and that they could simply ask the dim sum cart ladies (Do you ever notice that it's never men who push dim sum carts?) to lift the lids off the containers, and they can point to what they'd like to eat.
They looked over to our side of the table and liked the cute little quail egg in our lotus sticky rice so they ordered that. And the fried shrimp dumplings didn't look too intimidating so they ordered two of those.
And that was it.
They picked at their food. His wife bit into the quail egg and decided it didn't taste as good as it looked. So they settled their less than $10 bill and left.
Anyway, I was reminded of this incident because I suggested Dragon Phoenix Palace Chinese Seafood Restaurant (Long Phung Lau) in Westminster for my second meet up with other Orange County food bloggers. The occasion was to meet up with Kirk of Mmm-yoso who drove up from San Diego just for us. Aww. Also at the table were Chubbypanda The Epicurious Wanderer, Elmo of Monster Munching, Christian Z of Orange County Mexican Restaurants, Deb of Dinner at Six, and Elonweis of OC Food Blogs and her brother.
Back to my point of Chinese restaurants being intimidating. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times highlighted the evolution of Chinese restaurants. The article mainly built upon the Museum of Chinese in the Americas' exhibit "Have You Eaten Yet? The Chinese Restaurant in America." The gist of which is that Americanized Chinese food had to be just exotic enough to draw the average white American to want to try the food, but not too exotic so that they would actually want to eat it. One of those inventions was chop suey.
Food itself has never intimidated me. But I can understand how language can be a barrier for some people. Countless times, I've been the one to introduce my friends to new places to eat. (Hmm. Maybe I need to make new friends.) But the bottom line is that few people I know will go into a new restaurant with unfamiliar cuisine just because. And if they don't speak the language, forget about it.
I said before that if I want good Chinese food, I head to San Gabriel Valley. And if I want good Vietnamese food, I head to Little Saigon. But since I was meeting up with everyone in Orange County and several people wanted dim sum, Dragon Phoenix Palace was one of the best in Little Saigon. Not the best in Southern California, mind you, and admittedly there aren't that many dim sum houses in Little Saigon. But it's not as if it's inauthentic dim sum, after all, there's quite a substantial population of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam.
The main draw with dim sum in Little Saigon for me is that the waiters and dim sum cart ladies speak Vietnamese.
I remember once at NBC Seafood Restaurant in Monterey Park, I said, "Char siu bao," and pointed at the cart. And was greeted with a blank stare. More pointing. Until finally, "Ah! Char siu bao!" the cart lady would say. Yeah, I know. I thought I said it properly, but evidently not comprehensibly.
At Dragon Phoenix, however, I can say, "Xa xiu bao," Vietnamese-style and get my order on the first try.
I can also get some Vietnamese goodies on top of the usual dim sum mix such as these shrimp paste-wrapped sugarcane. The Chinese-only dim sum houses would be more likely to wrap the shrimp around crab claws. But crab shells just aren't as tasty to munch on afterward as sweet sugarcane. :)
The shrimp rice noodle sheets weren't quite so fresh. The shrimp was a little dry and didn't have that fresh pinkness I was expecting.
Clockwise from the top: jellyfish, very fresh with a nice crunch; gai lan (Chinese broccoli), very tender shoots with no bitter aftertaste; and the aforementioned disappointing shrimp rice noodle.
The fried tofu was nicely seasoned, with the inside still soft.
Chicken feet were just OK. Does my chicken foot and Chubbypanda's look like Adam trying to touch the hand of God? Or perhaps E.T. trying to phone home?
The blood cubes were very flavorful but a little too dense, not too springy.
I love tripe, but I didn't get a chance to try this bowl.
We ordered several platefuls of the egg rolls but by the time I remembered to snap a photo, they were half gone. And by the time I remembered to try one myself, they were all gone. So I guess they were good. :P
Ah, my beloved char siu bao/xa xiu bao! Stuffed with barbequed pork, the bun was soft and sweet like Hawaiian sweet rolls. Just the way I like 'em.
I've never encountered an egg custard tart I didn't like.
And as a special treat whenever I eat dim sum, I always ask for chrysanthemum tea, petals only. It's a pale yellow in color, slightly sweet, and much lighter tasting than regular tea leaves.
Also, I've only encountered it at this restaurant, but there's a drink cart lady offering Thai iced tea with boba, rau ma (, and strawberry icy. I ordered the very grassy-looking rau ma and the table got curious. After explaining that it was an aquatic plant that was reminscent of wheatgrass, only slightly sweetened, and pouring out a sample, several others ordered it too. Sorry, forgot to take a photo. But rest assured, it's a common drink you can order at any Vietnamese restaurant.
Anyway, we ordered multiple plates of everything pictured and were stuffed to the gills. After asking for the bill, Chubbypanda got eater's envy when he noticed the neighboring table had a steaming plate of young pea shoots. Ah well, next time.
Chubbypanda also always manages to discreetly take restaurant decor shots backwards over his shoulder. I tried and got this result.
He instructed me to position my camera next to my cheek to steady it. And I got my hair.
Here's Chubbypanda's shot facing forward.
And his camera on the cheek method.
A word of caution about parking. Since Dragon Phoenix is located in the Asian Village Center, across the street from the Asian Garden Mall, and smack dab in the heart of Little Saigon, get there early and head straight to the back to find a parking spot.
We met up at 10:30 a.m. and the lot was already full. One of the diner's husband couldn't find parking after more than half an hour of circling around. So she ended up packing up a to-go box and leaving. Regretfully so, since she was simultaneously munching on dumplings while her hands were filling up the container.
Who else ate at Dragon Phoenix Palace?
Kirk of Mmm-yoso recounted the meet-up too.
Chubbypanda made two return trips and said the dim sum quality has gone way down.
March 2009 Update: Dragon Phoenix Palace is now closed. Under renovations to replace it is Seafood Cove Chinese Restaurant #2.
Other dim sum posts:
Bon Marche Bistro/B Village Cuisine (Dim Sum) - Monterey Park
CBS Seafood Restaurant (Dim Sum) - Los Angeles (Chinatown)
Dim Sum Express - Monterey Park
Elite Restaurant (Dim Sum) - Monterey Park
Full House Seafood Restaurant (Dim Sum) - Arcadia
Lunasia Chinese Cuisine (Dim Sum) - Alhambra
Ocean Star Seafood Restaurant (Dim Sum) - Monterey ParkYum Cha Cafe - San Gabriel
Dragon Phoenix Palace Chinese Seafood Restaurant (Long Phung Lau)
Asian Village Center
9211 Bolsa Ave., #106
Westminster, CA 92683
714-893-3682 or 714-893-1976