On its surface, Hong Ah Tea Room evokes the same feelings as many other dim sum joints: It’s underground, it’s loud, and there are accents of red and gold everywhere. While everything from chicken feet to cold Chinese broccoli is wonderful, Hang Ah is renowned for its dumplings — which they’ve been serving for 98 years, making it the oldest dim sum restaurant in America. So here’s a list of some of the most valuable players.
The har gow are No. 1, among the best I’ve ever had. These traditional Cantonese shrimp dumplings are perfect little teardrop shapes, with about 10 tiny pleats imprinted around the tip. Their thin pale wrapper is sturdy and gelatinous, with a glorious pillowy texture, while the insides are full of nothing but plump, sweet-and-savory shrimp. These little beauts don’t need scallions, celery, or any other veggies; they’re truly simplicity at its finest.
Next on our boulette voyage are the won tons in a special chili sauce. These aren’t usually seen on a starting dim sum line-up, but they are delightful little devils, consisting of pork meatballs draped in a square, doughy wrapper and steeped in chili oil, garlic, and scallion. Their clean, tight texture lets the chili and meaty filling shine through, and they burst in your mouth with a strong, cutting tinge from the onions.
Xiao long bao — also known as XLB — are the Shanghainese soup dumplings that are just too delicious to leave off this list. They’re flat and full of soup, giving them a jiggly texture. The top of the dumpling has been pinched prior to steaming, which can then be used as a spout to sip out the hot broth. At Hang Ah they come in little ceramic soup spoons so there is no risk of breaking their thin skin while transporting them to your plate. Bite, slurp, eat, repeat.
Finally, the fun gor or purse dumplings are a perfect way to conclude the tasting. They’re big, delicious pouches, steamed and packed with shrimp, pork, peanuts, chives, and cilantro. Made with a thicker, starchier wrapper than their peers, these translucent dumplings have a glorious chew. The crunch from the peanuts adds to the texture, and the surf-and-turf meatball filling is packed with an explosion of umami. This dumpling is the most filling on this list, so save some room.
While there are plenty of great Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, Hang Ah takes the (scallion pan)cake. It’s a little off the beaten path, yet it feels like a well kept secret, and nothing on the menu will let you down. I hope they’re open for another 100 years and don’t change a damn thing.
Hang Ah Team Room, 1 Pagoda Place, 415-982-5686 or hangah1920.com