Modest and sweet

From the looks of it, 2003 was a banner year for the downtown-Sacramento restaurant scene. Pyramid Alehouse, Chops Steaks Seafood and Bar, Lucca, The Melting Pot, Brew It Up!, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, and Mikuni Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar all opened up within a half-mile radius of each other in the span of a year.

In the midst of all this glitz and glamour, on the other side of downtown, a small Chinese restaurant made its debut without much fanfare in the heat of late summer. Gam Lei Sig is a small, 24-seat mom and pop establishment on a stretch of S Street so dark that you’d hardly know a restaurant was there. Its operation is far more modest and far less swanky than any of its compatriots on the other side of the grid. But while these others may have the sheen of sophistication, they don’t have Su Ye, the matronly half of the restaurant’s mom and pop. (Chong Huang is the pop.) Su Ye is sort of like a friend’s mother, who cares whether you’re happy and well-fed. Her way is less glamorous than it is sweet. This, we found, also is Gam Lei Sig’s way.

On a Saturday night, we began with an order of pot stickers. An ample portion of eight plump and shiny half-moons appeared—each filled with pork, cabbage and green onions. These pot stickers were memorable for their large size and piping heat, not to mention their simple flavors and the sweet soy sauce that accompanied them.

Next came a ginger-and-green-onion chicken clay pot filled with baby corn, celery, carrots, mushrooms, zucchini and baby-fist-sized chunks of bone-in, skin-on chicken parts—mostly dark meat. Though the vegetables were a few shades overcooked, the broth had a welcoming gingery aroma that was distinct but curious. Alone, the broth was flavorful, with a touch of sweetness. Over rice, it seemed to lose some of its character. Like the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry’s girlfriend appears both attractive and unsightly in different lights, the appeal of the dish danced in and out of the pot.

The clay pot equivocated, but the seafood chow fun certainly didn’t. It was a massive entanglement of broad rice noodles, soft and tender to the bite. A mouthful of these noodles provided a distinctly more pleasurable experience than eating regular thin noodles. Crunchy bean sprouts and pieces of tender scallop and calamari rounded out this pleasing dish.

Our final dish of the night, black-bean prawns, proved to be less of a hit. The problem was the lackluster sauce. Some black-bean sauces are strong, and others are mild. In either case, the sauce should have character, regardless of the quantity of black beans used. Though the shrimps in the dish were perfectly tender, the sauce seemed half-hearted. The surrounding vegetables—an overused trio of carrots, bell peppers and onions—further stripped the dish of excitement.

I was sated but not satisfied. I didn’t quite have my finger on the pulse of Gam Lei Sig. So, we went back the next day with a fresh round of orders. This time, each dish proved to be a good one, and the common pulse was definitely sweetness.

The crispy egg rolls, loaded with veggies and ground pork, were flavorful enough to be eaten without any dipping sauce. They weren’t sweet, per se, but they had an ever-so-slight tinge of sweetness. The steamed barbecued pork bun, on the other hand, was practically sugary on the inside. It tasted like a dessert rather than a snack. Even the hot and sour soup, deliciously packed with tofu, pork, bamboo shoots and the like, was sweeter than any I’ve tasted. Sweet competed with hot and sour as the soup’s dominant flavor.

With the main dishes, the sweetness was toned down. The mu shu pork—a dish full of shredded cabbage, green onions, egg and (of course) pork, to be wrapped in a paper-thin pancake and dressed with sauce—had a great grilled flavor, as if the contents had been charred over a Mongolian barbecue drum. The plum sauce was characteristically sweet but complemented the grilled flavor well.

Szechuan tofu with chicken was the last of our dishes. The tofu came in generous quantities, which was a good thing, because we couldn’t find any chicken. Perhaps this was a misunderstanding, but we didn’t feel like we were missing anything. The large squares of shimmering, quivering tofu bathed in a glistening sauce were so pleasing. The Szechuan sauce was mildly spicy with, again, an underlying sweetness. The medley of onions, carrots and bell peppers was enriched this time by bamboo shoots and little flecks of ginger.

Though Gam Lei Sig has many items on the menu, it also has off-menu items up its sleeve. You can see other diners eating them. All it takes is a little curiosity and a little conversation with Su Ye to get some special dish you’ve never tried before. That’s reason enough to explore this modest eatery, which seems to shine just fine all by itself.