One of my earliest memories is being in the kitchen of dim sum restaurants. My dad would give us rice dough, and my brother and I would try to make har gow dumplings. That process was how I learned to properly use chopsticks. I was two years old.
My dad is a managing partner at Ocean Star Restaurant in the LA's San Gabriel Valley. At a maximum capacity of 900 guests, it's one of the largest dim sum restaurants in Southern California. It is also one of the most traditional dim sum restaurants in the area, because it's still 100-percent cart-driven. On any given weekend day, it's not uncommon for the restaurant to sell upwards of 6,000 pieces of dim sum. I grew up in and around this place—as well as other dim sum restaurants—for my entire life, so I know a few things to look for when it comes to having dim sum at a restaurant.
Dim sum is both a very personal and communal experience at the same time. You know how people tend to pour each other tea as opposed to serving themselves? That's a ritual that goes back to the old dynasty days, when a king was undercover during a time of war. The story goes that the king was having dim sum and he poured tea to the people around him, and since they couldn't verbally say "thank you" because it would blow their cover, they would tap the glass to show their gratitude. If you look around the next time you eat dim sum, some people still honor this tradition to this day.
As far as things to look for when trying out a new dim sum restaurant, I always judge by the classics. I always get the har gow, a.k.a. shrimp dumplings. It's all about the skin; it shouldn't be too thick, and it shouldn't be too thin. The skin should be translucent to the point where you can see the color of the shrimp inside. Most importantly, it should also have at least a bit of the shrimp's juices intact, so when you bite it, you get a little mouthful of shrimp broth.
Chive dumplings are also a good way to make a judgment call. If they're dry and opaque, then you can tell they were steamed a long time ago. The skin on both of these types of dumplings is made out of rice flour, so if you overmix it, it will be unpleasantly chewy like a mochi skin.
Fresh rice noodles are also a good choice to order, because they're all about technique. It takes a particularly special person to cook them because they involve flipping a very fragile, steaming-hot rice sheet with your hands. If you put in too much filling, the noodle will explode when it cooks. If it doesn't have enough, the noodle will be too thick and the delicate balance will be thrown off. Every bite that you take should have some filling. The ends of the noodle should be trimmed so it doesn't look messy, either.
Back to tea: It is totally OK to order more than one variety. Don't be afraid to ask for a pot of jasmine tea and a pot of pu-erh, for instance. And yes, it's true that leaving the cover off your teapot is a sign to show you need it refilled with more hot water.
The dim sum scene in the San Gabriel Valley has been changing. The clientele is shifting to a younger and more diverse crowd. It's getting more modern, with less cart service and more checklist-style places. I like both, but I'm more used to carts. I like that carts are instant. You see it, you grab it, and you eat it, as opposed to waiting for your food when you order it. There aren't many restaurants where you can do this. Nonetheless, there are a few pro tips when dining out at a cart service place, too. For example, I like my turnip cakes to be extra crispy, so when the turnip cake woman comes, I ask her to keep them on the grill a little longer. They're amazing that way.
And when it comes to the buns, a lot of them are room temperature by the time they get to you. However, if you prefer your buns hot, you can kindly ask them to warm them up for you. Lastly, you can ask that any dumpling be made fresh just for you. Vegetables dishes can always be made fresh, too.
San Gabriel Valley's dim sum restaurants will always be my home, and you will always be welcome there, too.
As told to Javier Cabral
Samantha Wan's dad is a managing partner behind Ocean Star, a very underrated and delicious traditional dim sum restaurant in LA's San Gabriel Valley. For more information on the restaurant, visit the restaurant's Instagram page.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.