So the Year of the Serpent is upon us. As years go, 4699's looking a little shaky, but it has potential. Consider this year's metaphorical astrological icon, the serpent: Its zodiacal protégés are irresistible, undeniably charming, whimsically oversexed creatures possessed of excellent manners, a philosophical, even cerebral bent, and the enviable ability to make the quick decision. Serpents are also lazy; they're prone to exaggeration; they avoid risk, are exponentially jealous of others, and crave love and the spotlight like nobody's business. John F. Kennedy was a serpent; so was Dean Martin; so, to complete the triad, is Ann-Margret. If you were born during the last 10 or 11 months of 1965, 1941, 1977, 1953, 1917, 1989, 1929, or 1905, you are a serpent. Your year began on Jan. 24, and for the next 13 lunar cycles it's all about you.
This is especially true this Saturday evening when Chinatown hosts the biggest New Year's wingding outside the mother continent. The Chinese New Year Parade has been a San Francisco tradition for well over a century, and as it turns out is as much a melting pot of Americana as jazz and chop suey. Local Chinese of the 1860s adopted the Yankee-friendly parade format to showcase their distinct culture, offering up banners, lanterns, firecrackers, and drums in a wending processional along Dupont Street (today's Grant Avenue). This year's parade, telecast globally, will feature over 100 attractions, including lion dancers, marching bands, Miss Chinatown herself, and a 160-foot dragon constructed in the town of Foshan on a bamboo-rattan skeleton decorated with silver rivets, rabbit fur, colored lights, and rainbow-colored pompons. Gung hay fat choy indeed.
This is all very well and good, but here in the SF Weekly Eat cubicle we feel that a celebration ain't nothin' without platters and platters of food. Dim sum, the wide array of tasty tidbits that traditionally accompanies the noontime pot of tea, is a fine and fitting complement to all of the razzmatazz and revelry of the holiday. Dim sum's very nature is celebratory. An outgrowth of the Silk Road teahouses of a couple millennia ago, this specialized cuisine is ideally enjoyed in the company of friends and relatives in a gregarious atmosphere of good tastes, irresistible smells, and shared dishes of bite-sized delicacies. Like the tapas of Spain and the zakuski of Russia, dim sum is fun: Point to whatever looks especially scrumptious on one of the passing steam carts and it's yours to gobble.
The Embarcadero's Yank Sing and the Richmond's Ton Kiang are the two most honored dim sum venues in San Francisco, but this being New Year's, and given that the parade confines two-thirds of its length to Kearny between Bush and Columbus, we've restricted our dim sum roundup to the often ponderous but always aesthetically venerable teahouses of Chinatown. The first stop, historically speaking, is the Hang Ah Tea Room, which has been serving up pot stickers and other snacks since 1920 and is the oldest existing dim sum venue in San Francisco. It's located up Pagoda Place, an alleyway near the Stockton Tunnel, and it's got an intimate, sublevel, Hammett-era charm that's missing from the newer lunching spots. Welcoming little touches abound, including brass coat hooks, ornamental cornices, red-trimmed chintz, and a framed photo of Herb Caen circa the Truman administration. Unfortunately the food is of another era as well: Oil, salt, and textural density predominate. The shrimp toast — breaded, deep-fried, puréed shrimp meat — is thick, heavy, and strangely sweet. The fried taro ball is crisp and flaky outside and creamy within, but the overall effect is even heavier and starchier than its primary ingredient. The curry beef roll has a nice crunchy wrapping and a hint of spicy heat, but altogether it's as bland as the other offerings. The foil-wrapped chicken, on the other hand, is a steamy, fragrant packet of juicy, boneless, dark-meat flavor. But although the custard tart's crust is crumbly and rich, its filling tastes like sweetened, overcooked scrambled eggs.
At the other end of the spectrum from Hang Ah is Oriental Pearl, located two blocks northeast at Clay and Grant. The Pearl's setting gleams with light, elegance, and burnished gold; its china and wicker are delicate and intricately rendered; service is attentive and (perhaps a bit too) effusive; and the flavors of its food are among the lightest and freshest in Chinatown. Here you choose the snacks you want from a menu instead of from a passing trolley, which isn't as much fun, but the result is a tableful of delicacies that taste like they've been cooked to order rather than sitting in a steam table. I especially enjoyed the shrimp and chive dumpling, in which plump, sweet prawns are captured within a delicate casing, the only accent a few bits of chive. Equally good are a lotus leaf that you unwrap like a tamale to reveal a package of moist, steamy rice with a round of pungent Chinese sausage inside, a meltingly tender rice-flour crepe filled with shrimp and earthy shards of cabbage, and a frittatalike mashed-taro cake jazzed up with bits of shrimp meat and Chinese bacon. Other dishes aren't as successful — the glutinous rice ball is unpleasantly spongy and filled with a blandly sweet pork-shrimp mishmash, and the taro puff is pasty and leaden — but the egg custard tart is marvelous: a light, barely sweet flan set into a delicate crust.
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.
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.