The first two introductory paragraphs are the same in all articles in my Dim Sum Series. Feel free to skip down to the first picture if you've already read them.
Edit 08/24/2013: This restaurant 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.
Once the reigning king of Orange County dim sum restaurants, Dragon Phoenix Palace in Little Saigon has suffered from online detractors in recent years. Comments about it on restaurant review forums are far from glowing, with particularly venomous jabs being delivered by longtime regulars. The food, like so many other things, just isn't as good as they remember from their childhood. Determined to get to the truth of the matter, Alphanarf (my Cantonese dim sum buddy), Cat, and I made several review visits to Dragon Phoenix Palace over the course of a year.
Our first visit was part of an OC Food Blogs meet up organized by Wandering Chopsticks. The sparsely populated dining area during what should have been the weekend dim sum rush showed a restaurant in decline. However, the food seemed decent and the selection was more varied than what was offered by its competitors.
(Shrimp & Green Onion Dumplings)
The second time Alphanarf, Cat, and I visited Dragon Phoenix Palace, several months later, the food quality was shockingly bad. The wrappers for our steamed items were swollen and pasty, yet the inner fillings were undercooked. It was obvious that many of the dishes had spent too much time in the steam carts before being served to us. In one notable instance, the dumplings were so waterlogged that my chopsticks passed right through them when I tried to pick them up.
(Shrimp & Chive Dumplings)
The final visit occurred at the beginning of this year. I wanted to give Dragon Phoenix Palace the opportunity to redeem itself. However, our prior experience had been so disappointing that it took me months to talk Alphanarf and Cat into giving it one more go. While the food wasn't as bad as it had been the last time, the pasty wrapper problem persisted. We departed the restaurant without any intention of returning.
It seems its detractors were correct. Whatever its former glories, the dim sum at Dragon Phoenix Palace is now mediocre at best. The food is passable, but it's certainly not worth braving the weekend traffic in Little Saigon and the horrific parking situation.
If you do find yourself at Dragon Phoenix Palace, there are a number of reasonably bulletproof dishes that you can order. The Shao Mai (Meatball Dumplings) are usually pretty good. Since they don't rely on their wrappers for structural integrity, they're much better at withstanding over-steaming.
The thickness of the Cha Shao Bao (BBQ Pork Buns) make them harder to over-steam. While the bread portions end up a bit gluey, the pork ratio is good and flavoring is strong. This is usually a favorite with kids.
Similarly, the steamed glutinous rice dishes also come off pretty well. Their size and the fact they tend to be encased by leaves or plastic wrap lend them extra protection. This one was filled with minced BBQ pork, and was quite good.
The He Fen (Filled Rice Noodle Sheets) are always winners. They're not kept warm in steam carts after being prepared in the kitchen, which means they're usually not over-steamed. The rice noodle sheets are gently resilient, and the shrimp or beef fillings add a nice accent.
However, and it's rare that I make this sort of recommendation about a dim sum place, I'd advise most diners to stick with the fried items and avoid the steamed ones. Fried items in dim sum are often day old leftovers crisped in a pan before serving. Although, this treatment can actually make over-steamed wrappers more palatable, it does little to improve the uninspired seasoning.
A fried item that tends to be OK is the Luo Buo Gao (Turnip Cake), fried in an egg coating. I found this to be sort of blah. The egg coating didn't develop the same sort of crispy texture you get from just frying the turnip cake plain. It was also pretty bland. But, with a little soy sauce and chili oil, it was passable.
The Special Tofu, on the other hand, is awesome. Tofu cubes are battered in rice flour paste, deep fried, and them stir fried with green onions and some sort of sweet, garlicky sauce. They're addicting.
The Hao You Jie Lan (Steamed Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce) is also quite tasty. The Chinese broccoli is fresh and crunchy, and most vegetables are great with a little oyster sauce drizzled over the top. It's a good way to cut the grease from the fried items.
Occasionally, waiters will circulate through the dining area with trays of piping hot "specials". It's sometimes worth taking a chance on these offers. I really enjoyed these Deep Fried Gravid Prawns, which I ate whole. The shells had been fried so that they broke apart in my mouth like chitonous potato chips. While each prawn was packed full of delicious eggs, it was the MSG and salt mix that they'd been coated in that made the prawns extra good.
(Baked BBQ Pork Buns0
Dragon Phoenix Palace - When you go to a dim sum restaurant, you don't want to have to guess at which items will taste all right. You want mediocrity to be the exception, not the rule. You want a pleasant, fun, and delicious meal with family and friends. Sadly, Dragon Phoenix Palace no longer seems able to deliver that experience. I hope it manages to rise again someday.
Bill (just dim sum ranges)
A Items - 1.95
B Items - 3.15
C Items - 3.80
D Items - 4.60
F Items - 6.50
Flavor: C (averaged over three visits)
Dragon Phoenix Palace
9211 Bolsa Ave., #106
Westminster, CA 92683
Read a different review of Dragon Phoenix Palace with this article by friend and fellow OC Food Blogs contributor, Wandering Chopsticks.