(Pictures taken with my Canon PowerShot SD100.
As promised, here's the next review in my Dim Sum Series. Given the length of this puppy, you can see why writing it was such a difficult birth.
The first two introductory paragraphs are the same in all articles in this series. Feel free to skip down to the first picture if you've already read them.)
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.
(Really really white.)
Located in a sterile shopping center at the corner of Brookhurst and McFadden, Seafood World is a Little Saigon institution, and consistently touted as one of the top three dim sum restaurants in Orange County. Discussion boards are abuzz with comments about this restaurant, and about how the dim sum has gotten even better in recent years. In order to properly assail this purported palace of gastronomic delight, I assembled a party of doughty dim sum devotees.
- elonweis - Cantonese cuisine aficionado, dear friend, and my girl Friday, her dim sum expertise is invaluable. If I was an effete hobbit with an evil ring and a death wish, she'd be my faithful gardener.
- Alphanarf - Elonweis's younger brother, who happens to be cursed with a deathly shellfish allergies. If it's good enough for him to risk anaphylactic shock, it's got to be pretty damn good. Wants the dim sum, he does. Wants it, precious.
- Prinny - Elonweis's pet elf and significant other. His eating philosophy focuses on quantity over quality and value for money. Prinny is very handy when calculating ROI.
- Jpathomas (a.k.a. Stitch) - Our grumpy Gandalf with a heart of gold, Stitch is the biggest fan of small plates I know. His gastric bypass several years back means his ideal meal is one with tiny portions and endless variety. Dim sum is practically tailor-made for him.
- Angel - Stitch's heavenly wife has the patience of a saint. She also has the convenient habit of rolling her eyes and making rapturous noises when she eats something particularly good. I never have to ask her if she likes a dish.
(Seen better days.)
Angel and Stitch have been regulars at Seafood World for years. Since we'd chosen to go on a Sunday, they recommended showing up right when the restaurant opened to beat the after church rush. It was a good thought. We were able to get in without any wait whatsoever, a fact I became thankful for as the restaurant filled up around us.
(Not fooling around.)
The dim sum selection was disappointing. After all the posts I'd read online about Seafood World's recent renaissance, I was expecting to be wowed by a glittering array of innovative eats. Instead, I found a small set of classic steamed and fried dim sum dishes; familiar and definitely not exciting.
Shao Mai (Pork Meatball Dumplings)
On the up side, most of the items that I sampled at Seafood World were well made, demonstrating a consistent level of quality. I was particularly fond of the steamed items, all of which arrived perfectly cooked. The resilient, yet delicate, texture of the dumpling wrappers was quite impressive.
Xia Jiao (Shrimp Dumplings)
On the down side, nothing stood out for me flavor-wise. While I didn't taste anything that was obviously past its expiration date, I also didn't get a sense of freshness in any of the items. Everything was just slightly shy of being bland. What I really detected was an overwhelming greasiness in all of the dishes, even the steamed items.
Yu Jue (Fried Taro Cake)
The fried items were particularly bad. I had a very hard time finishing them. Everything I tried seemed soaked in cooking oil, which is how I felt after I'd eaten them; soaked in oil. I’m surprised I didn't break out with the world's worst acne attack afterwards or need a triple bypass.
Both Elonweis and Alphanarf advanced the theory that the frying oil Seafood World was using wasn't hot enough. Those two would know. The dim sum their mother makes are so perfect that I'd apprentice myself to her if I could. I've never been able to find a taste in any restaurant comparable to what she produces in her kitchen.
Hun Dun (Steamed Wontons)
Seafood World's service was pretty good. Flagging down passing carts wasn't an issue, and getting drink refills was surprisingly easy for a dim sum restaurant, although anyone used to the more solicitous, Western style of service might not be as satisfied. One touch that gained Seafood World high marks was the regular changing of dirty dishes. Periodically, a server would come by and replace our plates with fresh ones. It was a nice touch.
We were eating family style, so everyone got a little bit of everything on the table. Here's a breakdown of what crossed my plate. Since I wasn't able to score a menu, I can't give you the fancy name Seafood World uses for each item. Instead, I'm using the common name for each dim sum. For example, many dim sum restaurants call their shrimp dumplings Shui Jing Xia Jiao Huang (Crystal Shrimp Treasures). I, and most normal people, just ask for Xia Jiao (Shrimp Dumplings). You're getting the un-glossy version of the names today.
Cha Shao Bao (Steamed BBQ Pork Bun)
There was a nice balance between savory and sweet in the BBQ pork. The bun was a bit drier than I was expecting, but the ratio between meat and starch was spot on. However, I know of several mass market brands available in the frozen food aisles of most large Asian groceries that offer a comparable product when microwaved, so I probably wouldn't order this again.
Sin Jok Guen (Bean Curd Skin Roll)
That's the Cantonese name for this dish since I actually don't know the Mandarin. But, the English name for it should probably be "Horrible". Traditionally, Sin Jok Guen are made by wrapping a mixture of seasoned ground pork, shrimp, and mushrooms in a resilient bean curd skins, deep frying them, then braising or steaming them in Chinese brown sauce. The resulting dish is a magnificent symphony of contrasting textures and flavors. It's one of my favorite dishes.
Seafood World's Sin Jok Guen stood out as the most poorly made dish on the entire table. A properly made Sin Jok Guen should not fall apart when picked up. It should neither be practically tasteless, nor should it leave a visible laver of oil in its serving dish. It was very disappointing.
Feng Jua (lit. Phoenix Claw but really Chicken Foot)
On the other hand, the Feng Jua, which undergoes roughly the same cooking process as the Sin Jok Guen, was excellent. The skin and tendons had been carefully rendered to a jelly-like consistency, allowing them to be sucked right off of the bone. It was like drinking a rich, unctuous gravy. They're not for the faint of heart. Stitch tried one like a trooper, but ended up passing it on to me after his first bite.
Shao Mai (Pork Meatball Dumpling)
The Shao Mai were thick and meaty with a pleasant mouth-feel. I found them a little bland. However, they seemed to go over well with everyone else.
Guo Tie (Potsticker)
The Guo Tie were juicy, but also bland. I enjoyed the thick, chewy skin and crunchy, pan-fried bits. But, I was a little turned off by the mild sourness I detected in the ground pork filling. Normally, that sourness is provided by Chinese black vinegar, which is used to counteract the richness of the seasoned pork and fried wrapper. However, when the sourness is practically the only flavor I can taste other than the pork, it becomes a distraction.
Hun Dun (Steamed Wonton)
I've always been a big fan of Cantonese-style wontons in wonton soup, where ground pork and green onions are used to accent the flavors of a large, juicy shrimp encased in a tender wrapper. The Chinese cook who came up with the idea of using meat to season meat was a genius. My problem has always been not enough wontons and too much cabbage in the soup. So, a basket of Seafood World's steamed wontons is exactly what I've been looking for. I have no complaints with their rendition.
Zha Hun Dun (Deep Fried Wontons)
However, the deep fried version of the same wonton is a culinary abomination that qualifies as a crime against humanity. One bite and my mouth was practically filled with cooking oil. The sugary mayonnaise sauce made the dish even heavier and added a cloying sweetness that nauseated me.
Pi Dan Shou Rou Zhou (Rice Porridge with Preserved Egg and Pork)
To clear my palate after those ghastly, fried wontons, I got a single serving of Pi Dan Shou Rou Zhou for myself. A light, creamy porridge made from rice and chicken broth flavored with salt, bits of preserved duck egg, pork shreds, and green onions, it was just what I needed to wash away the grease coating my tongue. I acquired a taste for this dish from my mother, and I daresay she would have approved of Seafood World's version. She would not have approved of the fried wontons.
Xia Jiao (Shrimp Dumpling)
The Xia Jiao were the real stars of the table. The skins had just the right amount of chew, and the shrimp were large, plump, and flavorful. After Angel did her eye-rolling moan thing, which I've frankly always found a little naughty, we ordered several baskets. They had to be good, right? Right.
Jiu Cai Xia Jiao (Shrimp and Chinese Chive Dumpling)
The regular shrimp dumplings were so good that we also snagged a few baskets of Jiu Cai Xia Jiao. The mild bitterness of the Chinese chives really brought out the natural sweetness of the shrimp. While both the Xia Jiao and Jiu Cai Xia Jiao were similar in construction, they each had a very distinctive taste.
Jiu Huang Xia Jiao (Shrimp and Chinese Leek Dumpling)
We also scored a few baskets of Jiu Huang Xia Jiao. Here, the Chinese leeks added to the richness of the shrimp the salty seasoning. This was probably my favorite out of the three shrimp dumpling variations we tried. They all elicited moans from of pleasure from Angel, who was in dim sum heaven.
Zhu Rou Yuan (Pork Meatball)
For fun, and because we thought they're be easier for Stitch to digest, we ordered two different kinds of steamed Chinese meatballs. The pork meatball was made with roughly chopped pork and seasoned with soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, ginger, and sesame oil. It was pretty dense, with a fair number of gristly bits. I thought it tasted a lot like Shao Mai filling.
Xia Yuan (Shrimp Meatball)
The second meatball was made from shrimp pounded into a fine paste and seasoned. It had a soft, spongy texture and a mild flavor. I grew up eating these types of meatballs. I liked sticking a chopstick into them and eating them like meat lollipops. Stitch wasn't impressed with either.
Yu Jue (Fried Taro Cake)
I wanted to give the fried items at Seafood World one more chance. This time, I selected the Yu Jue, another of my favorite dishes, and was pleasantly surprised. The surface was light and crispy, containing a strongly seasoned paste of taro root, dried shrimp, and ground pork surrounding a large shrimp. However, the greasiness of the dish was enough to make what would have been a good item mediocre. After this experience, I washed my hands of anything fried at Seafood World.
Pai Gu (Pork Chops in Black Bean Sauce)
We weren't quite done yet, though. Someone else had snagged a plate of Pai Gu, deep fried pork chops steamed in a sauce made from chilies and fermented soy beans. I'm not fond of this dish, but I did my part. The pork was tender and the seasoning was spicy and complex. I'm just not a fan of all the little bone bits.
Dan Ta (Egg Tart)
For my grand finale, I got a pair of Dan Ta, one of my childhood favorites. Small pie shells are filled with an egg custard and baked. I really love the contrast between the buttery, flaky pie crust and smooth, sweet filling. It reminds me of weekend dim sum meals with my family after Chinese school.
(Yay! Lion statues!)
Seafood World - A solid contender. Reliable, but not inspired, and a little too greasy. Get there when they open on the weekends to avoid the after church or Chinese school crowds. Avoid all of the deep fried items. Stick to the steamed items, particularly those involving shrimp, and you won't be disappointed.
Bill (split amongst six people)
Per person with tax and tip ~ $24.00
15351 Brookhurst St, Suite 101-106
Westminster, CA 92683
(I miss my mom in NorCal.)
When I was a child in Taiwan, my mother would let me climb all over the large lion statues in front of the construction company my grandfather owned. She used to tell me that the stone balls in their mouths were their tongues. Later on, I learned that the balls were supposed to represent pearls. But, whenever I see one of these statues, I still put my hand into its mouth to play with the "tongues", just as I did when I was little.