This is the future
Sacramento, CA 95823
Those wily New Cantonians. Ferret out a dim-sum joint that almost rivals them—the New Happy Garden on Stockton Boulevard—and the folks from New Canton on Broadway go out and build their own megalith a few blocks down, near 65th Street. Arena football could be played within the vastness of Asian Pearl 2009, with room left for a few tennis courts and a couple Rose Parade floats.
First opened in August, Asian Pearl feels new because it is new. Light wood trim and molding, decorative and decorous wall hangings, high ceilings, tall glass windows along one side and tons of parking make it, physically, pretty much everything New Canton on Broadway isn’t. The gregarious host says succinctly: “New Canton is a traditional dim-sum house. This,” he gestures at the endless expanse of tables behind him, “is the future.”
Does this mean that, with space rivaling the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark, there will be no more two-hour waits on weekends like those that occur with callous regularity at New Canton?
Not exactly, the host says. On weekends, he continues, the spacious space around his rostrum is more crowded than a New York subway at rush hour. Crowds cluster outside the doors. There’s even a wait on Veteran’s Day, for heaven’s sake. They’re seating No. 14 and I’m No. 18. Apparently, if you build it, we can’t help but come and consume.
Like other all-day, everyday dim-sum spots such as Happy Garden, the weekday carts of Asian Pearl tend to feature the stalwarts: char sui bao, siu mai, har gow, cheung fun, a bowl o’ bones with one lonely jalapeño wheel at its center. The fun gor is generously sized, with an abundance of hefty peanut pieces within. A nice touch: Slivers of water chestnuts in the beef cheung fun. Still, even on a weekday, the diligent diner can, with patience and close scrutiny of each steaming basket, find more exotic selections.
An oval dish bears thin-sliced, salty, vaguely sweet pork fanned over a bed of a gelatinous chopped something resembling white onions. At first, the something tastes cabbagesque. But it’s chewy. Some kind of noodle? Not quite. Finally, the suspense is so insufferable, the next cart pusher to pass the table gets begged to reveal the true nature of the good-tasting kinda-cabbage-could-be-noodles.
“Jellyfish,” she says. “Of course,” I respond. “Knew it all the time. Just testing.”
This particular cart pusher has opinions and, in her sparse English, is eager to share them. The three tennis-ball-sized beef meatballs, with their molasseslike dipping sauce, earn a wrinkled nose.
“I don’t like the meat,” she says.
“Me either. They’re just there for aesthetics,” I assure her.
The shrimp balls coated in wall-to-wall sticky rice are a hit. The shark-fin gow has a woodsy taste. Prices are in the dim-sum ballpark: $2.25 for a small plate, $3 for medium, $3.80 for large and $6 for something dreamy, like marinated duck tongue. Goose intestine goes for $8. Too rich for my blood!
One strike against Asian Pearl is their choice of hot sauce. While these giant McRestaurants might be the future of dim sum, that future is far bleaker without the traditional chili oil employed at New Canton, Happy Garden and other established dim-sum establishments. A mix of chili oil, yellow mustard and soy is the superior dipping sauce for any dumpling. Asian Pearl’s red, tomato-based hot sauce adds some heat but mucks up the whole self-made dipping sauce oeuvre. Leave the red in the Lazy Susan but add chili oil, please. Thanks in advance for prompt attention to this matter.
It would be churlish—although tempting—to knock off half a star over the chili oil debacle. But that’s an error that can be easily rectified. What’s more important are the contents of the steaming baskets getting wheeled around the tables. And, like its progenitor on Broadway, Asian Pearl provides authoritative dim sum.