Dumpling lust

Rice Bowl Restaurant

2378 Florin Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95822

(916) 421-8492

Dim sum sluts, by definition, are always hungry for more dumplings. While sluttiness bespeaks a certain lack of discrimination, the lust level soars over the prospect of more, better dumplings.

And that is the promise dangled by Cynthia Bryant, the Schwarzenegger administration’s czarina over California’s spending of federal economic-stimulus dough.

She and her cadre of dim sum devotees take exception to the pronouncement (in these pages) that New Canton on Broadway is the purveyor of the finest dim sum—meaning “touch the heart”—in the City of Trees. New Canton can’t hold the jock of Rice Bowl, she and her posse pronounce. Dim sum sluts don’t have to be asked twice. However, after gobbling a goodly amount of empirical evidence, I must respectfully dissent.

The dim sum selection extends from A to zongzi; steam pours thickly off the contents of many of the baskets. Some dumplings are so fresh they’re too hot to eat—always a plus.

Do not, repeat, do not go to Rice Bowl for dim sum on a weekday. It’s a forlorn and tragic tableau. On this particular Friday, partitions close off most of the Rice Bowl’s voluminous square footage. Even so, there are many empty seats. One lonely cart ladles dim sum standards, which, to Rice Bowl’s credit, include lo mai gai (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves) and fung jeow (chicken feet).

Great taste aside, if chicken feet did not look like chicken feet, perhaps more people would choose them as a dim sum offering. But, of course, if chicken feet didn’t look like chicken feet, they wouldn’t be chicken feet. A conundrum, indeed.

Any items outside the ken of a dim sum dilettante can be ordered through a three-ring binder of photos of various dishes.

Weekends, however, couldn’t be more different. Saturday and Sunday (in particular) are reminiscent of the kinetic ambience of a San Francisco Chinatown Sunday. All of Rice Bowl’s massive space is in use—and in motion. Carts careen between chairs. Frenetic waitresses, waiters and hostesses zigzag between tables and carts, swiftly bringing tea, water, beer, hot mustard and utensils for the faint-hearted. Crowds cluster at the front doors, hungrily hexing diners to speed the availability of an open seat. Well more than half the patrons are Asian—certainly a sign of authenticity.

But the mainstream dumplings, like pork and mushroom and shrimp with chives, are greasier than New Canton. It’s good they come so quickly from the kitchen, because when they cool they congeal unpleasantly. They hit the gullet harder than New Canton’s offerings, as well.

Following a visit to Rice Bowl, Katherine Irene Lucas, the only other dim sum devotee in the Lucas household, is eager to see how it measures up against New Canton. The comparison is effectuated: Lucas, K., concurring. Is the Rice Bowl cheaper than New Canton? A smidge. Is the décor more akin to that of similar establishments in Hong Kong? Totally. But it’s about the dumplings. It seems darn near impossible to botch the recipes for cha su or gai bao and even cheung fun, but all kinds of calamities can occur in a dumpling.

On the ill-fated weekday visit, the MSG gremlins run amok in the kitchen. The saltiness is a sorrow shared with Shelly Sullivan, the PR maven who previously dim-supped at Tea Cup Cafe on 21st Street. So salty are the dumplings that in order to dull the pain, the conversation turns to something even more painful: low-carbon emission fuel standards being promulgated by the California Air Resources Board.

The beef shui mai was an interesting novelty, but inferior to the pork version.

While Rice Bowl doesn’t knock New Canton out of the box, its variety-filled carts, alacrity and Baghdad-by-the-Bay feel vault it into the coveted No. 2 slot of Sacramento dim sum delights—at least on weekends. It’s unclear if, like Avis, Rice Bowl is trying harder but, so far, there’s no breath on the back of New Canton’s neck. So sayeth this dim sum slut, anyway.