December 15, 2009
Dean Sin World - Monterey Park, CA - The Foodie's Joint
If you look at Dean Sin World from the outside, there's no sign that would indicate that you're at the correct establishment. It's a generic stripmall joint that exudes absolutely nothing of the drab interior or the delicious cuisine to be revealed inside. Since being discovered not more than a few years ago, Dean Sin World, a supplier of many xiao long bao to nearby restaurants, has been become a casual meeting spot. And it once inside, you might as well be on a street corner in Shanghai, the city whose cuisine inspires the food here.
It's here where you'll run into old friends or perhaps frenemies, people you're not quite friendly with anymore because of some petty disagreement or drama. The tiny dining area seats maybe 20 at most, more comfortably around 12. Half the area is dedicated to a a table where fresh dough is kneaded and rolled for dumplings and bao. In the kitchen, you'll hear the chattering of middle-aged Chinese ladies wearing colorful aprons and bandanas, most likely spreading rumors about the latest TV drama or gossiping about some good-looking gentleman sitting at a table.
Whenever I step into Dean Sin World, I'm greeted by one of the cooks, who take orders and bring out food instead of staying confined in the kitchen. Since I'm not very well versed in Mandarin, I'll clumsily give her my order of "liang ge xiao long bao" (two orders of soup dumplings), "niu rou mian" (beef noodle soup), "yi ge sheng jin bao" (one order of pan friend pork baos), and "liang ge bing shui" (two cold waters). Or perhaps, "yao mei you cha?" (do you have tea?). Based on this crappy Chinese, they start to think I'm just a third-generation Chinese boy when in reality I'm using the little Mandarin I picked up in a semester at university.
Word to the wise, trying to get your order in at Dean Sin World without a rudimentary understanding of Chinese, you will probably not get your order correct. I recommend dining here with someone who's fluent.
On most occasions I get by with my basic Mandarin, but on other occasions I can use fellow blogger Danny of Kung Food Panda to help get the right order in. On weekend mornings, we might get lucky enough to score a free sample of flaky sesame or red bean cakes, which are on display in a large plastic box near the register. When these pastries are fresh out of the oven, they can be heavenly. The ones full of turnip, shredded and moist, still warm from the heat of the oven, they're a paradox of savory with a hint of sweetness.
The hearty bowl of niu rou mian, or beef noodle soup, is in some ways a microcosm of this restaurant. I remember getting a beta test of this dish in my early days of patronage, the small bowl almost too sweet to bear with unremarkable noodles and beef. Later on the bowl became one of the San Gabriel Valley's best, a dark, complex concoction of savory soup, stringy noodles, and tender beef. I haven't had it recently but I hear that the broth has become too sweet again. To see this dish wax and wane in quality tells me that the kitchen isn't a refined restaurant, but really a means for middle-aged ladies just having a good time cooking. They're not as concerned about perfect consistency for the noodles.
On the other hand, the dumplings and bao are pretty consistent. The pan-fried dumplings (potstickers), made with thick skins and meaty pork fillings, sport a light golden sear and a signature "broth" much like xiao long bao (soup dumplings). This broth distills the umami goodness of these dumplings and when combined with the tableside vinegar, soy sauce, and dollop of red chili sauce, a staggeringly delicious bite.
The xiao long bao demand consistency, as these are supplied to various other restaurants. While Arcadia's (and ultimately Taipei's) Din Tai Fung has a celebrated XLB operation on display, I prefer the ones at Dean Sin World if only for their modest price (about half of Din Tai Fung's version), and their sturdier skins. Beware the extremely hot broth that squirts out on the first bite. Let the dumplings cool a bit before dipping into the vinegar-diced ginger sauce. Using a spoon to eat them is de rigeur.
The shi zhi tou (lion's head soup) is a popular option for those in the know, a murky broth punctuated by meatball domes and shredded cabbage. Underneath, you can see wavy vermicelli noodles swimming in the dense broth. I can't quite pen the flavors of this thing except to call it hearty, meaty, and almost ramen-like. I'm not quite sure of the name in Chinese so you'll either have to resort call making like a lion (gesturing) or pointing to the right item on the inexact menu. Good luck. Or just point to the picture posted on the glass wall that best describes this dish.
The sheng jin bao or pan-fried bao, made in the style of Shanghai, probably isn't the best version in San Gabriel Valley, but I still find it able to satisfy my craving for these scrumptious bread dumplings.
In the end what makes Dean Sin World such a great isn't just the food, it's the whole feel of the place. At least to us foodies who want a good meal on a dime, it's the perfect remedy. You don't feel guilty about ordering another set of dumplings or another bowl of soup because it'll cost you a mere $5 or $6 bucks. In the Westside, you'll barely get a plate of warm olives for that much. You're bound to run into somebody you know if you dine here at dinnertime, but if you want the best experience, I'd recommend coming in the mornings, when the long SoCal sun dips into the room and bathes it with soft light (perfect for food photography!). You'll smell the wafts of those flaky, buttery pastries, or see a ladie diligently rolling out dough on the counter.
The tables are so close that you're bound to hear some juicy gossip or the murmer of some trifle on the next table. The ladies who cook and serve won't know your name, but they'll recognize you and greet you with a smile. When you put it all together, who wouldn't love this place?
Dean Sin World
306 N Garfield Ave
Monterey Park, CA 91754
Posted by mattatouille at 2:06 AM