Friday, July 24, 2009

Dish on Dining: Asian Pearl Seafood Restaurant

Dim Sum that Offers Few Jewels
3288 Pierce St., Richmond
Inside Pacific East Mall
PH: 510.526.6800
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Major credit cards accepted, reservations for large parties

My friend Vera has been wanting to try the dim sum at Asian Pearl Seafood Restaurant for awhile. Inside the popular Asian mall known as Pacific East Mall off I-80 (where there’s a Ranch 99 market), this dim sum place attracts regular crowds and on weekends get so packed they literally set up tables outside the restaurant in the hallway of the mall. (They do put up wall dividers for some privacy.)

So when she asked if I wanted to tag along with her husband, Ray, I said sure and off we went to Richmond.

We arrived fairly early on a Saturday, so our wait was a matter of minutes. The restaurant actually didn’t seem that big. It was nearly full, but not overflowing, so no tables were set up outside yet.

Like several dim sum restaurants, Asian Pearl specializes in seafood at night. So when you walk in, you almost feel like you’re at an aquarium or fish store with all the tanks of seafood. Want a crab for a pet?

The dim sum comes out via carts. Asian Pearl’s dim sum may be popular because it’s among the cheapest in the Bay Area, with prices ranging from $2.60 for a small plate to $3.80 for large plates. (There are also special plates for about $5.50 or $6.50 but we didn’t order any of the specials.)

The first cart that arrived had the cheong fun, or flat rice noodles rolls usually stuffed with chicken beef, shrimp or BBQ pork. Vera ordered one of the shrimp and pork. The noodles seemed fresh and the filling was just the right amount, but the tastes of the filling didn’t stand out.

Then we got a bunch of steamed items, including a tofu skin roll and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. The tofu skin roll is filled with vegetarian ingredients like bamboo shoots and mushroom. My mom loves to order this because she thinks she’s off-setting all the other fat she eats in other dishes, but I’ve generally avoided this. But I have to say Asian Pearl’s version was quite delicious because the tofu skin was tasty and the ingredients inside were finely chopped.

The sticky rice in lotus leaves, however, wasn’t as successful. This is one of my favorite dim sum dish, with sticky rice filled with an assortment of meats, usually Chinese sausage and chicken. But Asian Pearl’s version seemed lackluster, with minimal ingredients. It also seemed like the tastes didn’t blend well together, and the shape of the sticky ball could be called rustic when it plunked out of the lotus wraps in a deformed ball.

We also tried some of the often-ordered dim sum dishes to see how Asian Pearl lived up to the standards that we have for dim sum. So classics likes siu mai (the ground pork dumplings with shrimp), wu gok (deep-fried stuffed taro) and low bok gou (pan-fried turnip cake).

The siu mai was crudely made, almost too much of the ground pork and packed so dense that it didn’t feel like a dumpling and more like a hockey puck. The wu gok had just come out of the kitchen so it was hot and had a beautiful flakey skin from the deep-frying (yes, this is one of the few deep-fried things I eat, but I rarely go for dim sum so don’t call me out). But it had very little taste and I suspect the taro batter was more potato than taro.

The low bok gou had nice crispy edges from the pan-frying, but it was just average. The ingredients didn’t taste necessarily fresh.

We also tried the Shanghai dumplings, which is the popular soup dumplings where a tiny bit of broth is inside the dumpling and bursts into your mouth as you bite in. At Asian Pearl, they decorated it with some kind of orange thing, my guess is shrimp roe. It tasted fine but it didn’t have any soup inside, so it didn’t seem authentic.

Much of the dim sum coming out in the carts seemed pretty average, and there weren’t anything surprising or different that caught my eye. The only thing that was unusual was Asian Pearl’s steamed custard buns. This comes either steamed or baked (I liked the baked better) and the filling is a sweet custard, which makes this so heavenly. (Koi Palace in Daly City makes the best I’ve had.)

The server at Asian Pearl says their version is slightly different. Vera asked how but we couldn’t really understand what she was saying. When we tried it, we all recognized immediately that there was a salty-sweet thing happening in the custard. My guess is they mixed in bits of salty duck eggs, which is a popular but expensive filling for Chinese desserts just because of the labor of preserving the duck eggs.

Ray liked the salty-sweet combo, but I wasn’t blown away. Plus, I felt the texture of the custard has some crystallization of the sugar, so it wasn’t as creamy as I would have liked.

Asian Pearl doesn’t really have a whole lot of dessert-type dim sum either, so we ended up just getting the classic custard tarts, or dahn tats. These were also piping hot from the kitchen, but the crust wasn’t flakey enough and was a bit too thick to really enjoy the custard filling. And one of the last dishes we grabbed was another one of my favorites, the char siu (BBQ pork) baked rolls. These were fresh and good, but we were stuffed by now.

Even before we finished everything on our table, Vera was already planning our next dim sum adventure, going over other possibilities in the Bay Area. So that wasn’t a good sign for Asian Pearl because if it were really amazing, she would have been talking about our next trip back.

Overall, Asian Pearl offers up decent dim sum but doesn’t really stray far from the classic offerings like siu mai and har gow. I can see why it’s popular because there’s no other decent dim sum tea house in the near vicinity (the closest would be the pricey East Ocean Hong Kong in Emeryville) but I don’t know if I’d be all too happy to wait for an average 40 minutes on a busy weekend. Go early or don’t go at all.

Single guy rating: 2.25 stars (Reliable but Basic)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Asian Pearl on Urbanspoon

Other dim sum jaunts:
Koi Palace: “Dim Sum Gem Still Going Strong”
King of King: “The Working Man (or Woman’s) Dim Sum Joint
Dim Sum Primer


Unknown said...

hey, been reading you for a while and enjoying your blog very much. the east ocean place in emeryville, is actually good and relatively cheap for dim sum. for dinner though, forget it.

one little thing, i think you meant "hockey puck".

Single Guy Ben said...

Locicero, welcome to my blog! I fixed the "hockey putt" reference. I guess I was combining two sports metaphors! Thanks for reading!

Patrick said...

Yeah, I was never a fan of that place either. Pretty expensive as well. Legendary Palace in Oakland is usually pretty solid.

Carolyn Jung said...

Hockey puck siu mai? Oh my, oh my!! That ain't good. ;)

foodhoe said...

Richmond is pretty far from my neck of the woods, it's much quicker for me to go to milpitas or some of the other contra costa county outposts. Good to know it's not worth the trip! But now I'm craving dimsum...