Sunday, June 29, 2008

Not The King Of Dim Sum - King Hua Restaurant

Over the past few weeks, a startling current ran through the Dim Sum community: Sea Harbour's main Dim Sum cook left and was now working at a new restaurant, King Hua in Alhambra. Surprised as well, I figured "Oh well, guess we'll have to go to King Hua for Dim Sum from now on if this was true." But then the mixed reviews starting coming out, and then Pitchman pointed out the three letters that can ruin any restaurant's cuisine for me: MSG. I had now shelved going to King Hua, but my Dim Sum Hounds insisted on checking out the new place despite it all, and I was curious myself. So off we went yesterday to try it out.

King Hua Restaurant (Jing Hua Jio Loh) is located on Main Street in Alhambra, at the infamous corner location (where it has switched tenants numerous times) across the street from Target and a few doors down from Fosselman's Ice Cream. The first thing we noticed was their logo and sign: A large red letter "K" surrounded by green leaves rising up on both sides: It felt like it was a spin-off of 99 Ranch Market. :)

But once inside, we could see a gorgeous space: A large, spacious location, giving off a good vibe, and with their bottles of Cognac in the reception area proudly displayed. We were one of the first five tables in the restaurant, beating the weekend rush of people one usually expects at Dim Sum restaurants.

And then we opened the menu: Wow... if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery... scratch that, this *was* Sea Harbour's Menu, picture-for-picture, even in the *same* order of items! (O_o) Here's a picture of Sea Harbour's current menu:

Here's King Hua's menu:

Only in the Chinese restaurant community would you be able to find such an uncomfortable example of straight up copying, LOL. Whoever left Sea Harbour literally took their menu, and had the printers just swap out a new background, keeping the same pictures and names. Then again, if it really was Sea Harbour's main Dim Sum cook, and they created these items... regardless of it all, we all found it humorous and ultimately awaited the true measure of a Dim Sum restaurant: Their food.

We started with their Yu Toh Gao (Pan Grilled Taro Cake). One of the classic Dim Sum items, we wanted to test a variety of our favorites to see how it compared to not only Sea Harbour but all the other Dim Sum houses in the San Gabriel Valley. The Taro Cake was nicely seared, and had a nice fragrance from the Taro Root. It was good, about the same as Sea Harbour made it, and my Dim Sum Hounds agreed.

We were too busy laughing at some stupid anecdote and soaking in the atmosphere to notice anything afoot with the first item. By the second item, I started to notice something odd (more on that later). Their Heh Hsiang Nuo Mi Ji (Sticky Rice Wrapped w/ Lotus Leaf) arrived to much excitement (it's one of our favorite items during Dim Sum), and it looked fine (and thankfully didn't have the parchment wrapping around the rice like many restaurants are doing).

Taste-wise, however, and all was not right: The sauce and flavors of the Chicken combined with their Lah Chahng (Sausage) and Egg Yolk were terribly overseasoned. It wasn't salt or soy sauce, and then I realized it: Their recipe had "liberal" use of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), or as most of my food-focused friends like to call it, "Flavor Crystals." Sigh.

Their next item was their Shao Mai (Steamed Pork & Shrimp Dumplings), one of the most popular dishes at Dim Sum in general. They had some nice Fish Roe atop the marinated ground Pork and Shrimp. Taking a bite, and sadly it fell short of goodness, let alone greatness: Very chewy (due to major chunks of fatty Pork, and not enough Shrimp overall). There were hardly any decent-sized chunks of Shrimp in each dumpling, and was more ground up together. And the taste was just off, with the flavor crystals taking full effect at this point for me.

The next item was their XO Jiang Nio Bai Yeh (Omassum in XO Sauce), the classic Beef Tripe dish. Visually it was messy and disheveled (I know Dim Sum isn't fine dining, but this looked like they were playing football with our dish before serving it), and after taking a bite: Completely missing any XO Sauce! It tasted more like Oyster Sauce mixed with some dark Soy Sauce and just the inherent taste of the Tripe and slivered vegetables. Besides that, the taste was "disappointing" (a word that shot out of everyone's mouth almost at the same time). Besides the missing XO Sauce, it was overly salty. We've had better Nio Bai Yeh at all the major Dim Sum restaurants in the SGV (no joke).

The next dish was one creation that existed only at Sea Harbour originally, Liang Gua Ji Hsi Chahng Fen (Steamed Rice Noodle w/ Shredded Chicken & Bitter Melon). This is a personal favorite dish of mine, and I was still excited to see how it tasted here. The first thing was that the execution was far worse than Sea Harbour's: Every piece of the Chahng Fen broke apart for all of us, spilling out the ingredients, and the skin itself tore apart. It made for a messy experience. Other than that, the taste was almost the same as Sea Harbour's version.

Continuing on, their Dai Zi Bai Yu Zhu (Steamed Egg Tofu with Fresh Scallop in Dry Scallop Sauce) continued the trend of sloppily created and plated Dim Sum, which we were all shocked about (you would think they would want to put their best foot forward during their grand opening period). Here, one of the three pieces had 90% of the Fish Roe, one had a small dab, and the last one had a few individual sprinkles. Besides that, they forgot to give us a spoon (more on the service later), and we couldn't get anyone's attention so we had to messily transfer each delicate Egg Tofu custard to our plates. And taste-wise, it was decent, but they messed with the formula from Sea Harbour and doused this version with a mixture of Oyster Sauce and something else, and the "beloved" flavor crystals were here as well.

We finished up with two desserts, starting with their Jing Hua Ji Dahn Tah (King Hua Egg White Custard). They had just finished up making a full batch (according to our server), just out of the oven, so they were piping hot. They were amazing! Probably the best Dahn Tah out of all the Dim Sum restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. Despite the MSG situation earlier, all of my Hounds and I had to look at each other and agree that this was wonderful stuff. But it should be noted that our server told my friend in Chinese that this was just out of the oven and that they just finished their morning batch, so I'd imagine most of the time, it wouldn't be "fresh baked, made to order" just for you. If it was at room temperature, I'm not sure how well this would taste. It still falls short of Macau Street's legendary version :), but this was our favorite Dim Sum dish at King Hua.

Finally, we ended with another classic: Dofu Hua (Freshly Grinded Sweet Tofu Pudding). I found the Tofu a little bit too watery in consistency to enjoy this one (compared to other versions of the Tofu Flower I've had elsewhere).

Chinese Dim Sum restaurants can be hit-or-miss with their Service: If they are near full capacity, usually you'll need to flag down whoever blows by you, to refill tea or ask them to swap out your plates, etc., or sometimes, even in the busiest of times, they can exhibit good service, doing all of those things without you asking once. Despite King Hua being only ~20% full during our visit, service was really lacking. They had people standing around or just congregating in the corners of the restaurant, and we always had to get their attention to get anything done (they never once came by to check on the water for the tea, even with the restaurant being nearly empty). The total came out to be $14 per person (including tax and tip), in the same range as Sea Harbour.

But the biggest telltale came after the meal, while driving away. Some chefs will use certain ingredients as a crutch in their cooking, to try and wow and win over the customers. I liken Chinese restaurants using Monosodium Glutamate to high-end European restaurants using the Truffle, only the MSG is the poor man's version, and nowhere near as glamorous (>_>), trying to use flavor crystals to artificially enhance food to try and make it taste better when their own skills fall short. Within minutes I felt the aftermath of the flavor crystals, as too much of this type of sodium ruins my day. I brought along a Dim Sum Hound with high tolerance for MSG and he also concluded that it was just not as good as Sea Harbour, nor Elite, nor Triumphal Palace, to give some examples.

The new King Hua Restaurant's Dim Sum Menu may look like an exact copy of Sea Harbour's Menu, but in execution, it falls terribly short. While their Dahn Tah (Egg Custard Tart) was exceptional, all their other dishes were average to mediocre in cooking and plating, and limited severely by their liberal reliance on everyone's favorite sodium. King Hua is Dim Sum's version of the Emperor's New Clothes, and one restaurant I won't be revisiting.

Rating: 3.9 (out of 10.0)

King Hua Restaurant, Inc.
2000 W. Main St.
Alhambra, CA 91801
Tel: (626) 282-8833


EILEEN said...

I just read Jonathan Gold's review on King Hua and was planning to visit. But your review saved me a trip. ^^

Keizo said...

Hey ExileKiss, I'm not much of a dim sum aficionado but I like to eat it when I can. Have you ever been to Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights? I've been their a few times and thought it was pretty good, but I'd be curious to see what you thought of it.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Keizo,

I don't make it out to Rowland Heights very much; never tried Happy Harbor (I went to its predecessors before it was taken over). I'll have to try it sometime.

Have you ever been to Sea Harbour on Rosemead? If you haven't it's still my current favorite, but I'll have to visit Happy Harbor soon. Thanks. :)

Pepsi Monster said...

Hey Exile Kiss,

Listen to Keizo, Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights is on one of my top dim sum places to go. Happy Harbor used to be owned by the same corporation that owned Sea Harbour (your fav) before being sold a few years ago. They kept the staff and menu.

If you like Sea Harbour, give Happy Harbor a shot.

Oh, back to King Hua. I have honestly heard the hit and miss stories. I think after Jonathan Gold wrote his column, many people thought the quality went down. I'm not sure if it was because they got busier, but it was not quite the same before the review in LA weekly. Hate to break it to Keizo, but I thought Asa Ramen suffered the same fate. Luckily I heard Asa had rebounded, so I'll give them another go.

I haven't gone to King Hua yet, but I talked to Abby from Pleasure Palette. She liked her visit, but didn't feel the same way the 2nd time around. A hit and miss.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Thanks for the post and additional rec for Happy Harbor. I definitely have to see when my Dim Sum Hounds can be rounded up to make the trip out there. :)

For King Hua, the quality was mediocre and the fact that they use MSG is a huge turn-off for me, so I won't be going back unless they change their cooking methodology.

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