Edit 10/16/2007: Russell's Seafood Palace has closed.)
Dim sum restaurants are a hotly contested topic amongst Orange County foodies. Every person has their favorite, and defends it with an almost rabid intensity on the message boards. Read any thread and you'll find that Seafood World, Seafood Paradise, and Dragon Phoenix Palace in Little Saigon will have invariably emerged as top contenders. It's a certainty that someone will mention China Garden in Irvine as an acceptable alternative, and bash other restaurants like Furiwa. If it's a slow day on the Net, you might even see armed encampments form, arguing vociferously as to whether or not Dragon Phoenix has fallen from grace and been surpassed by Seafood World, or if new dim sum restaurant X holds a candle to any of the perennial favorites. The answer is invariably "no".
The most passionate flamers are locals who grew up eating at a particular restaurant, delivering their judgments about all of the others as if their opinions carry the weight of the ages, and launching verbal tirades against those of different dim sum faiths. It's difficult, then, for a dim sum newcomer in Orange County to gauge the veracity of any of the statements and decide which dim sum restaurant to visit. This is why I chose to start my Dim Sum Series. As a relatively recent arrival to Orange County, I'm impartial when it comes to local dim sum restaurants. I don't have any favorites. I just want to give my readers enough information to make an informed decision when choosing a dim sum dining location. Take everything I say with a dab of chili oil. I'm just a guy who likes food. Ultimately, the best way to decide if a restaurant is worth eating at is to try it yourself.
(View from the street.)
Russell's Seafood Palace can be a little difficult to find. Located in Irvine, right next door to the legendary Agora Churrascaria at the intersection of MacArthur and Main, it's clearly visible from both streets. However, actually getting to the restaurant requires you to drive a good block past it on Main, make a left turn into an office complex, and thread your way through several parking lots. Think of it as a driving adventure, which is what Cat always says when I get lost.
(Owner Russell Tsai making sure his customers are happy.)
The decor at Russell's Seafood Palace is both charming and amusing. The restaurant inhabits a building previously occupied by a Western seafood establishment and a pub. It still retains the deep booths and polished wood trimming of its predecessors. Mixed in are a number of tasteful Chinese decorations, as well as the requisite shimmering disco ball used for getting jiggy at Asian wedding parties. There's also a definite Roaring Twenties feel that gives the finished product a sort of Joy Luck Club meets the Great Gatsby flair.
(Straight from the old country.)
On the other hand, the service and presentation are refreshingly authentic. The chairs and table settings are exactly as they would be at an upscale restaurant in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Hangzhou. The servers, in their starched dress shirts and neatly pressed slacks, are courteous and deferential. For those of you used to earthier dim sum establishments in the San Gabriel Valley, the service here is stellar. Simply raise a hand and one of the floor managers will send a waiter or busboy scurrying serve your table. It's a refreshing change from the standard "eat and get out" feel of most dim sum restaurants.
(Dollar a person, but all you can drink and you get to pick the tea.)
The dim sum service does have its dark side, though. If you choose sit by the bar, you'll get a menu on which to mark down selections that a waiter will then bring to you. However, all of your selections come in a big wave, and negotiating a second order can sometimes be hindered by the language barrier.
Shui Jing Xia Jiao Huang (Crystal Shrimp Dumpling)
If you choose to sit in the dining area, you'll quickly realize that while attractive, the converted space isn't large enough to permit more than two dim sum carts from circulating at a time. Their pace through the small aisles is practically glacial. This means your initial dim sum selections will be limited, and you'll most likely still have to place any additional orders with your server.
Yu Zi Shao Mai Huang (Fish Egg Sil Myi) - Meatball dumplings topped with fish roe
The dim sum quality at Russell's Seafood Palace is also a hit or miss proposition. For this review, I visited a total of three times, always on Sunday and always between the hours of 11am and 12noon. The first two times, the dim sum ranged from passable to excellent, cooked to perfection with bright flavors and balanced seasonings.
Xian Xia Jiu Cai Jiao (Steam Shrimp and Goy Choy Dumpling) - Goy Choy are Chinese chives.
The steamed dumplings had resilient, chewy skins and moist, flavorful centers. The fried items were light and crispy without being oily. I was particularly taken by the Feng Chao Yu Jue (Fried Taro Cake) and the Xin Gang Can Bao Huang. The fried taro cake was flakey, filled with a savory mixture of taro paste, ground pork, and dried and fresh shrimp. Unlike most fried taro cakes, I didn't feel saturated with grease after eating one. The BBQ pork bun was so airy, I thought it might blow away if I breathed too deeply. Each bite melted in my mouth, caressing my tongue with sweetly seasoned pork.
Steamed spareribs in chili black bean sauce.
On my third visit, however, the dim sum started at mediocre and degenerated into some truly awful selections. The steamed items were overcooked, with mushy wrappers that disintegrated. I also thought I tasted hints that some of the dumplings were past their prime. The fried items were soggy and dripping with oil, a disappointment given the stellar food served during my first two visits.
Feng Chao Yu Jue (Fried Taro Cake) - This one had fresh shrimp embedded in it, in addition to the usual mushroom, dried shrimp and pork filling.
The real advantage to having dim sum at Russell's Seafood Palace is the complete lack of a waiting period. Since the restaurant is still relatively unknown, it's usually only two-thirds full during the weekends. Seating is instantaneous, which immediately makes Russell's a contender. Most other dim sum restaurants in the area have weekend waits of at least twenty minutes. The very popular ones have been known to have waits of up to an hour. I don't know about you, but I have better things to do during my weekends off.
Dai Zi Bai Yu Zhu (Steamed Scallops with Tofu)
However, fewer customers does mean slower turnover of dim sum items. Since most dim sum is prepared in advance and cooked to order, certain dishes might not be as fresh as desired, depending on their popularity. Out of my three visits, I only noticed one or two selections which tasted as it they might be heading south. These tended to be more adventurous, and thus, less ordered.
Xin Gang Can Bao Huang (Russell's BBQ Pork Bun)
As a general rule of thumb, I'd stick with classic dim sum at Russell's, such as shrimp dumplings, shumai, and BBQ pork buns. There seems to be greater consistency with the quality of these items, and they almost always taste fresh.
(Deep fried silken tofu with shrimp paste and fish roe.)
Occasionally, the kitchen will send out an item not included on the regular menu. These specials should be snapped up whenever possible. They're usually freshly made, and there's no guarantee as to when, or if, you might see them again.
(Shrimp and Green Onion Dumplings)
Elonweis, who's Cantonese and from a large family of Cantonese foodies, loves this place. When I mentioned my last experience at Russell's to her, she recommended showing up after 1pm. Since they serve dim sum from 11am to 3pm daily, Elonweis claims that arriving later means you get fresher dim sum that are better prepared. I think I'll try that next time.
Russell's Seafood Palace - Fairly solid when it comes to generic, classic dim sum. Some of their new inventions show real potential. However, they've had issues keeping their dim sum quality consistent. A real contender if you're looking for good service and reasonably priced dim sum without a wait, and are willing to take the chance that you might be there during an off day.
Bill (just dim sum ranges)
A Items (small) - 2.28
B Items (medium) - 3.29
C Items (large) - 4.18
D Items (luxury) - 5.18
E Items (veggies) - 7.95
F Items (noodles) - 7.75
Flavor: B- (averaged over all three visits)
Russell's Seafood Palace
1818 Main St.
Irvine, CA 92614