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I was recently asked one of those standard-issue questions food writers often get bothered with: “If you had to choose a last meal, what would it be?” Most inquisitors expect it to involve caviar, truffles and champagne, which means they don’t know me at all. The answer always has been…dim sum.
I love dim sum not wisely, and far too well. I discovered this breakfast/lunch dumpling when it was just a curiosity found in mini-mall storefront with cracked Formica tabletops. Then, it turned into a group event at massive Cantonese seafood palaces, where aggressive servers pushed steaming carts around the room, tossing you plates of chicken feet that you were glad to get.
And then, thanks to the new generation of Din Tai Fung and Lunasia, my beloved dim sum turned into a dish ordered from massive menus, sometimes in rooms with full bars, served not just for breakfast and lunch, but all day long.
Steamed pork buns fill a pan at Lunasia Dim Sum House in Torrance. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)
Lunasia Dim Sum House in Torrance features an outdoor patio, which is unavailable at other Lunasia locations. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)
Chefs are busy creating more than two dozen steamed dishes, another dozen baked and deep-fried dishes and lots of other specialties at Lunasia Dim Sum House. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)
Now, with the opening of the latest Lunasia Dim Sum House in the sprawling Rolling Hills Plaza, dim sum enters its next phase — outdoor patio dining dim sum. At Lunasia, you can eat inside, watching the chefs steam and fry, or outside watching the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods shoppers looking for their cars. Good times!
There’s one more notable point of difference. At the Torrance Lunasia, there’s no menu. There’s no handy-dandy checklist. There’s a QR code allowing you to scan the VERY LARGE menu on your VERY SMALL smartphone.
If you need to see a larger menu, there’s a computerized screen near the entrance used for placing takeout orders. It takes a while to go through the whole thing, which has to be done standing there. I guess you’ve got to take notes. Probably on your phone. This makes me so proud to be retro. Luddites live!
When it first opened in 2009, what’s now Lunasia Dim Sum House in Alhambra was Lunasia Chinese Cuisine — a notably upscale Hong Kong style seafood house, with a big wine list, and lots of folks drinking bottles from that big list. And then, the folks from Lunasia opened a sibling restaurant, just east of Old Pasadena, that served nothing but dim sum — morning, noon and night. And it did well. It did really well. It did so well that Lunasia Chinese Cuisine flipped its concept, and became an all dim sum/all the time restaurant as well.
You might think that that would run into problems from the traditionalists. Oh well, if they opt not to show up, there are plenty of us hungry for dim sum for dinner — which is a serious pleasure. For the quality of the dumplings at Lunasia is pretty amazing.
That said, the first task here, once you’ve gotten seated, is to figure out which tea you want. In most dim sum houses, tea is tea is tea. Here, it’s a choice between premium teas, with exotic names like Anxi Tie Guan Yin, Fujian Shoumei (white tea) and Yunnan Pu’er (dark tea). There’s chrysanthemum and green tea too. They’re all served very hot.
The dim sum here is exceptional, which is pretty much obvious from the first bite. Especially, if what you bite into are any of the several shrimp-filled dumplings. That’s because rather than being packed with some manner of generic shrimp-like substance, these dumplings — plump critters one and all — are filled with whole, tender, amazingly flavorful shrimp. You bite into the jumbo shrimp har gow, the emerald green spinach and shrimp dumplings, the Shanghai shrimp wontons, the crispy shrimp rice noodle roll … and you get shrimp — lots of it.
But then, much the same can be said of any of the 26 steamed dishes, most of them dumplings, and the 12 baked and fried dishes. And certainly, a fine meal can be cobbled together from nothing more than things steamed, baked and fried. But there’s a lot more to choose from here — wonderful pan-fried string beans, extraordinary sautéed eggplant, lots of noodle dishes and fried rice dishes, even Hong Kong-style roast duck, and Macao-style roasted pork belly.
And there are plenty of desserts — eight in all. Almost every table seemed to get the hot almond milk topped with a puff pastry. I lean toward the mango pudding, but then, I always lean toward pudding.
My complaints about the non-printed menu notwithstanding, this is a wonderful dim sum experience. I guess it gives a nod toward the breakfast-and-lunch roots of dim sum, by closing at 8 p.m., an early hour for such a lively Chinese restaurant.
I guess that gives you the time to ramble around the shopping center, doing a little browsing. Like I said, there’s a Trader Joe’s nearby. Their nonfat Greek yogurt is one of my favorites. And after indulging in every dumpling and noodle in sight, it was well appreciated. It’s the yin and yang of dining out — overeating followed by monkish self-denial. Though I’m sure the teas help as well; their healing properties are legendary.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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