OCEAN STAR SEAFOOD
145 N. Atlantic Blvd. (near Garvey I/S), Monterey Park
Most Elegant Dim Sum Palace
Ocean Star is everything you expect in a dim sum place — huge, clean, elegant, crowded as all get out. That's why for the past decade or so it has been the gold standard in Southern California dim sum palaces. It serves up all the usual rolls, buns and desserts plus an unpredictable assortment of fresh goodies like seafood wrapped and fried in nori seaweed. What makes the place attractive for the large number of non-seafood fans are the many items based on tofu and taro. If you're going on a weekend, get there before the noon rush or you'll be waiting at least 20 minutes for a table.
261 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel
Most Memorable Ambience
Imagine a Cantonese dim sum palace filling out an immense mission-styled structure that was once the city hall of San Gabriel. Mission 261 does it so strikingly that it may well be the most graciously serene place in Southern California in which to enjoy Chinese food. Several dining areas open out to an atmospheric patio shaded by an ancient grapevine. Evenings Mission 261 moonlights as a luxe dinner restaurant ($50-100 per person), so it's not surprising that its dim sum menu (not carts) features some ultra-fancy items. Minced mushrooms and greens are stuffed into exquisite butterflies complete with eyes. Chopped seafood is deep fried and shaped around salted egg yolks, striped with nori, then adorned with fried garlic wings to form bees. The ambience and serving style encourage patrons to indulge in contemplative grazing over pots of tea rather than hurried feeding.
9306 Reseda Blvd., Northridge
Best All-Around Small Dim Sum Palace
The fact that A&W Seafood is located in San Fernando Valley shouldn't dissuade dim sum lovers. The place offers the best combination of taste, convenience and price bar none. Not only does it serve a complete selection of all popular dim sum dishes from sumptuous vegetarian tofu rolls to crisp taro dumplings to succulent rice noodle rolls to perfect barbeque pork buns, it's open every day, seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.! It's about half the size of the really gargantuan dim sum places but the ambience is pleasant and it generally doesn't get crazy crowded except between 12:15 and 1:40. Thanks to its human scale and intelligent table arrangement, it's fairly easy to get served by the right cart when you're still hungry. You can also order off their usual lunch menu as well. Best of all, the service is quick, the prices are reasonable and parking is free and convenient.
SEA HARBOUR SEAFOOD
1015 S. Nogales St. (Next to Ranch 99 Supermarket), Rowland Heights
Best Traditional Seafood Dishes
If you value the gourmet seafood aspect of dim sum more than ambience or fashion, this is the place for you. It seems like everything you order is embelished with seafood delicacies, especially abalone. The place is known to be owned by a disciple of Hong Kong's “Abalone King”, so dried abalone flakes will appear on just about everything that isn't dessert. You'll find bits of shark fin in your dumpling soup. They have very fresh sea cucumber and seafood rice porridge made from live clams. There are items that appeal to non-hardcore seafood lovers. For example, the steamed salmon rolls wrapped in asparagus. That's rounded off by some good non-seafood dishes like bamboo-wrapped sticky rice with chicken and salted egg yolk, as well as the usual items like cha shiu bao (barbecue pork buns) and a delectable snowflake dessert bun made with egg whites. Sea Harbour is also a favorite of diners who prefer the control of ordering from a menu rather than from the usual cavalcade of carts.
VIP HARBOUR SEAFOOD
11701 Wilshire Boulevard (at Barrington), Brentwood
Best Westside Dim Sum Palace
Considering that it's smack dab on one of the busiest, most upscale corners of Brentwood, we are always surprisied to find VIP's clientele to be 75% Asian. The ambience is first-rate but not pretentious. More surprisingly, the dim sum menu includes all the staples, well cooked and presented very very hot and fresh! Their tofu vegetable rolls and barbeque pork turnovers are among the best we've tasted anywhere. Their shrimp har gow is pretty good but their rice noodle rolls are a bit dry and thick/pasty. The only complaint is the prices. Ten dishes for which we might pay around $27 elsewhere costs about $36 at VIP Harbour, before tip. Also, even though the downstairs mandatory valet parking is nominally free, you do have to wait for the valets and you do have to shell out a two- or three-buck tip.
DIN TAI FUNG
1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia
Best Steamed Vegetable Dumplings
Din Tai Fung is appreciated best by those who dislike filling up on oily fried foods and not knowing what's inside all those rolls, dumplings and buns they feel compelled to order as the carts whiz by. While 90% of dim sum places are Cantonese, DTF is a branch of a Taiwanese chain that specializes in Shanghainese dumplings. That means the dumplings and buns are steamed not fried, and you can check off on the menu whether you want them stuffed with beef, chicken, pork or vegetables. Unlike most dim sum places, you can also order very good fried rice and various soups, with or without noodles. The prices are surprisingly high for such a casual place, but the perpetual long lines attest to the superb quality of the food.
700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park
Best New Dim Sum Place
When a large Beijing dim sum chain bothers to open a branch all the way in California, you expect something special. New Concept is — mainly because it doesn't try to do too much. Despite its tastefully modern decor, somewhat intimate feel and creative menu — all heartily endorsed by the perpetually out-the-door lines — the prices have stayed surprisingly reasonable, possibly to keep the market receptive to more branches. Novel northern-flavored dishes like turnip cake in deep-friend mushu skin, shark fin dumpling in soup and deep-fried shrimp sandwiched in lotus root slices give the place its gastronomic bona fides and trendy status. What brings home the crowds day in and day out is the discipline with which the basics are executed — the rolls, buns and tarts. A nice feature are the patio tables affording a refreshingly open vista of lower San Gabriel Valley.
747 N Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90012-2819
Most Nostalgic Dim Sum Experience
In truth the L.A.-area's dim sum action has moved out of downtown to the booming Asian areas in the eastern suburbs, leaving mostly tourist traps in their wake. But part of the dim sum experience is the nostalgia component. What Angelino doesn't have fond memories of waiting in the mirrored stairway, then progressing up alongside the tanks of live seafood, finally to enter the promised land of the big second-floor dining hall with windows overlooking Chinatown? Ocean Seafood feels like the grandmother of all SoCal dim sum palaces. And the food remains as reliably fresh and tasty as ever. And of course for those of us who don't speak Cantonese, it's nice to be served by a staff accustomed to folks who need every dish translated into pidgin English.