A jolt of excitement shoots up my spine at the sound of our number being called. At last, it is our turn!
The hostess guides us through the labyrinth of round banquet tables, dodging first the shrieking child and then the server balancing a platter full of fried crab puffs. We arrive at our table ecstatic to discover after our interminable wait that we are being seated at the most strategically positioned table in the dining room, right next to the swinging doors where the servers exit the kitchen.
In most restaurants such a table is known as Siberia. This day, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, however, our table position is more like Nirvana. We are at the dim sum palace Fook Yuen in Millbrae, the place many connoisseurs of the savory Cantonese tea snacks consider the best and most authentic in the Bay Area.
Like Xi'an warriors perched atop our horses, we survey the lay of the land and size up our competition. Our two-top is like Lichtenstein surrounded by far more populous and powerful neighbors. Beneath chandeliers the size of small cars, most of the round tables are filled with families of 6, 8, even 10, all speaking Cantonese, a definite advantage. They dismiss the newly arrived squatters in their territory as simple neophytes.
Their underestimation is our advantage.
They don't know I cut my teeth on dim sum at restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei, where I studied Mandarin for a year. Or that N and I have been eating dim sum monthly since we arrived in San Francisco nearly 15 years ago. Although we are not natives, we are no amateurs.
We are completely comfortable in the cacophony of the dim sum house: the clickety clack of chopsticks dancing, the boisterous laughter of men toasting beer, the musical sound of waitresses hawking dumplings. To us, it's all just a pleasant background hum (N, you'll recall, is used to the controlled chaos of her second graders rehearsing for their holiday show, while I am most content in the swirling energy of a restaurant kitchen). We are focused on our mission with a Zen-like clarity.
We know to send back the jasmine tea the server automatically plunks down on the tables of non-Chinese. We request a pot of black bo lay tea (also spelled bo lei or po lay, which is pu-erh in Mandarin), the traditional accompaniment to dim sum because it is supposed to aid the digestion of rich foods. We are at Fook Yuen, after all, to yum cha, to drink tea and share conversation.
I like to think of the small dishes and snacks as decorations on a Christmas tree, highlighting the convivial conversation and tea like the shiny baubles and lights illuminate the tree. The little morsels are meant to "delight or touch the heart," the literal meaning of the poetic phrase "dim sum."
Our years of experience eating at Fook Yuen, and other favorite dim sum restaurants like Yank Sing, reminds us to practice patient restraint. We are only two today, so we have to choose our plates wisely to avoid regrets. Too many times have we succumbed to the temptress that plagues the inexperienced dim sum diner: Instant Gratification. We shamefully recall many times that, within 5 minutes of being sat, our table groaned with plates that quickly grew cold.
Here's my advice. Picture yourself as Jennifer Lopez in a fancy boutique on Rodeo Drive, perched on your shapely buttocks while salesclerks stumble over one another to open box after box of the latest footwear from Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik. You are royalty.
Open your eyes. You're still you, and the boxes are bamboo steamers which contain not stilettos, but translucent steamed dumplings (like the fun gor pictured right, stuffed with pork and bamboo shoots). A far more valuable treasure, if you ask me. The servers await your decision. This should be the model of every restaurant dining experience.
"Char siu bao (barbecued pork buns)?" No.
"Siu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings)?" No.
We know to save this everyday fare for the take-out shops of Chinatown or Clement Street. When we're at Fook Yuen, we wait for the plates of the restaurant's specialties, like suckling pig, crispy duck, and clams steamed with black bean sauce. We also look for cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) and N's favorite, the classic turnip cakes called lo bak goh. We might also consider ordering crab off the menu, but it is not available on this day.
This is where our vantage point next to the kitchen door helps tremendously. We keep one eye glued on every movement in that direction, so we can wave the server down to snatch up the steaming hot morsels before other diners do.
Make sure to save room for tofu fa, a bowlful of clouds of sweet soy custard that is the Chinese answer to pot de crème. Neither can you forget to indulge in a dan ta, the ethereally flaky egg custard tart. No version of these two desserts is better in the Bay Area.
At night, Fook Yuen also serves stellar seafood and hosts banquets. I particularly liked the title of this special menu.
Fook Yuen Sea Food Restaurant
195 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030