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By Anna Roth
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Three other venues belong to the classic Chinatown dim sum model: They're spacious, they're rollicking, and they're lots of fun. The first, Meriwa, resides on the second floor of a big Pacific Avenue shopping complex, sporting a grand entranceway, lots of pink-tableclothed élan, and a troupe of helpful cart-wielders. Its mirrors, brocades, chandeliers, and parquet floors help make up for the barnlike dimensions of the place, but there's a draftiness that carries over to the food, most of which moved from cart to table in, at best, a lukewarm state. The shiu mi is nevertheless delicious: Its pork and shrimp filling is subtly sweet, succulent, and minimally spiced, and its wrapping is tender and delicate. Another dumpling wraps crisp wonton pastry around a spicy interior of minced chard, cabbage, carrots, radishes, and fresh ginger: yummy. The rudimentary steamed barbecued pork bun reminded me why I usually avoid this questionable old favorite, but the eggplant fillet, wrapped around a huge prawn and fried until crisp, offers a marvelous array of flavors and textures (and the kitchen even heated it up for me).
Gold Mountain is another big barn of a place, a three-story Gargantua of noisy conversation and tantalizing aromas situated at the busy crossroad of Broadway and Columbus. Owned and operated by the folks behind the peerless R&G Lounge, Gold Mountain offers dim sum that's easy to enjoy. Offerings include a silky, pungent turnip cake, a creamy evocation of the quintessential root vegetable; a bean curd skin roll, in which the firm, translucent wrapping encloses a piping-hot mixture of cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, and a dreamy curry sauce; and a rice-noodle crepe stuffed with spicy-hot barbecued pork, garlic chives, and sesame seeds. Gold Mountain also has carts brimming with different kinds of jook (rice gruel); the salted-fish variety features chives and peanuts -- an inspired combination of flavors -- and deep-fried bread strips for dunking. For dessert there's the chewy, dense rice-flour ball filled with puréed sesame seeds.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Hang Ah Tea Room, 1 Pagoda Place (at Sacramento), 982-5686. Open for dim sum daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Monday until 3 p.m.). No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Muni: 1, 30, 45. Noise level: pleasant.
Lichee Garden, 1416 Powell (at Broadway), 397-2290. Open for dim sum daily 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Muni: 12, 83. Noise level: raucous.
Meriwa, 728 Pacific (at Stockton), 989-8868. Open for dim sum daily 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Muni: 12, 30, 45, 83. Noise level: humming.
Oriental Pearl, 760 Clay (at Grant), 433-1817. Open for dim sum daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Muni: 1, 15. Noise level: calm.
Chinatown parking recommendation: the Portsmouth Square garage, or park at the Sutter-Stockton garage and ride the 30 Stockton or the 45 Union (or, better yet, stroll the two or three blocks) into Chinatown.
Dim sum per plate
Gold Mountain $1.80-2.60
Hang Ah Tea Room $1.75
Lichee Garden $2-3
Oriental Pearl $2-3.75
Lichee Garden isn't as big and brassy as Meriwa and Gold Mountain, but its dim sum tidbits are just as memorable. Lichee Garden's attractive, more intimate setting features deep-green carpeting, potted plants, intricately carved wall hangings, and buffed white walls, but despite its classy setting the ambience is just as animated. The top dim sum choice here is the fried shrimp puff, a big ball of succulent prawn meat enclosed in a crisp wonton wrapping with a dollop of cream sauce on top. Also terrific are the steamed spareribs: smoky, tender chunks of fatty pork in a spicy chili-black bean sauce. Translucent dumplings stuffed with three plump shrimp are simple and absolutely satisfying, and so is a grander rendition involving strands of subtly flavored Chinese greens. The dessert of tough, bland tofu in sweetened syrup is well worth avoiding, but the rice-flour balls oozing sugary black sesame seed sauce are a fine way to end your meal. In short: Let's party like it's 4699.
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