7 Reasons Sea Harbour is the Best Dim Sum in L.A. (And Elite’s Best Rebuttal)
I love dim sum more than pretty much any other possible meal. Think of any kind of meal, I would pick dim sum over that meal. Last meal before getting the electric chair? Dim sum. I love it as a noun, adjective or a verb. It’s the best. It took me a long time, and many weekend visits to the San Gabriel Valley to reconcile the fact that none of the best dim sum places in Los Angeles use carts anymore, but I’ve finally come around and accepted the ordering off of a menu.
Shockingly it took me even longer to realize that here in L.A. dim sum is a viable weekday lunch if you live or work on the east side of Los Angeles (I credit Adam Roberts with this discovery.) Menus are the same, waits to get a table are shorter, and the food comes out quick enough that it can be done. Especially at a place like Sea Harbour, which is right of the 10 and has waits of over an hour on the weekends. Two weeks ago, on a we walked right in for lunch.
Jonathan Gold called Sea Harbour’s dim sum “the best in California” in his most recent 101 Best Restaurants in L.A., and after a number of trips to other places it’s hard to disagree. Here’s 7 reasons why:
1. Salt and pepper fried smelts. One of my favorite dim sum items of all time are the head on salt and pepper fried shrimp covered in garlic and scallions I used to get at a place called China Pearl in Boston. Sea Harbour doesn’t do shrimp, but they do 3 (that’s right, 3!) other similar dishes. There’s salt and pepper calamari and even deep fried chicken knees, which are rich in cartilage-y goodness. But the best by far are the whole fried smelts, which hit every major pleasure spot those shrimp used to. Salty and with heads and tails still intact.
2. Their turnip cakes come in a crispy shell! Is their turnip cake the best I’ve ever had? Maybe not. But it comes in an edible shell. And it tastes far better than a Taco Bell salad. How can you beat that?
3. They have a really interesting selection of veggies beyond the standard chinese broccoli- including a cold string bean and ground pork dish and this steamed lettuce, which I really liked.
4. Their baked pork buns with “French style” topping. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a dim sum place that gives you as many ways to enjoy sweet BBQ pork as Sea Harbour does. There are the standard steamed and baked pork buns, the pork pies with the yellow flaky exterior, rice noodle rolls w/ bbq pork (which could be a reason unto themselves) and even a bright green spinach steamed pork bun. But the best by far is the bun that combines a standard baked pork bun with the sweet and crunchy topping normally reserved for pineapple buns. It’s something I had never seen before Sea Harbour, and it’s pretty magical.
5. They will occasionally walk around with trays of random stuff for you to order. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s no replacement for carts but when it does happen it’s pretty awesome.
6. Steamed Buns with Preserved Salty Egg. If you’ve been going to dim sum long enough you’ve probably had the steamed round bun whose little red dot signals a yellow egg custard filling. But these are like no other custard buns I’ve ever had. Sweet and sublimely eggy, with a hint of salt, the freshly molten filling comes pouring out in a way that makes you wonder if it’s not custard at all, but just hot egg yolk mixed with sugar.
7. Durian pastries. There’s nothing more satisfying as a white dim sum goer than ordering something that the staff thinks there’s no way you’ll like. That look of respect you get from the lady pushing the cart is priceless- she doesn’t speak English, but the big smile that crosses her face as she punches your ticket says it all. “You know what you’re doing.” For a long time my gauntlet of choice was chicken feet, but now I think it might be durian pastries. The durian flavored custard you’ll find encased in pastry at a lot of dim sum places is a great gateway to learning to love the stinky fruit that tastes more like onions and garlic than anything that belongs in a dessert. But not at Sea Harbour. Their version is as stinky as it gets, with a filling that tastes more like straight up durian than any sort of custard I’ve ever had. It’s funky, not as sweet as it could be, and completely challenging. It’s also super fun to watch people eat it for the first time.
Honorable Mention: Pan Grilled Horny. 7 seemed like a good round number, but anybody who’s looked at Sea Harbour photos on Yelp or Instagram knows I couldn’t leave this one out! My curiosity was immediately aroused, though I’m sorry to say that ordering it provided no satisfaction (beyond eating something delicious.) I still have no idea what this is, but if you like green onions and fish and crunchiness you will definitely like these.
For those of you who prefer Elite over Sea Harbour, I will give you this…
If you find it hard to choose between shrimp and cruellers as the stuffing in your rice rolls, Elite makes it easy! Their cruellers are stuffed with shrimp before being wrapped in rice noodle rolls, creating the single best dim sum item I’ve ever eaten in my life. So there is that.
Sea Harbour, 3939 Rosemead Blvd. Rosemead. 626-288-3939
Elite Restaurant, 700 S Atlantic Blvd. Monterey Park. 626-282-9998