The San Gabriel Superstore, on the corner of San Gabriel and Valley boulevards in San Gabriel, just north of the 10 freeway, is an amalgam of schlock shops (those of you who have been shopping in Hong Kong will understand when I say it's like Fa Yuen Street writ small), ginseng sellers, dried fruit purveyors and a large Chinese market. In the front (San Gabriel Blvd. side) is a boba place, a tea shop, and, tucked in the corner, Yum Cha Cafe.
It specialises in dim sum, as you might expect, but without the iconic yum cha experience of the carts or the menus.
Most takeaway dimsum comes in two varieties: takeaway from established Cantonese seafood houses like Ocean Star, NBC, 888, etc., in which case you have a wide variety of food but it can be quite expensive (moreso than ordering it at a table), or little huts or storefronts or tea shops that carry five or six of the most popular items (XLB, shu mai, har gau, cha shu bao, etc.).
Yum Cha Cafe, then, was quite a shock -- the decor looked like a "cha chaan teng" (HK tea shop) fallen on hard times -- melamine tables like you had in elementary school, stacks of the usual metal trays behind glass, harsh bright lighting, but the food was surprisingly good, EXTREMELY eclectic, and the prices very, very good.
The other problem with the small storefronts (MHK, for example) is that the service is perfunctory -- generally people shout their order, the women behind the counter call it back, and hardly a word is spoken. Not the kind of place that induces one to explore hitherto untasted foods. If you order in these places in Cantonese, they assume you know how "Chinese service" works, and if you order in English, you get borderline-rude replies like, "Is pork, you like pork" or "you no want, only Chinese people like". (To those who think I'm being stereotypical and racist, I can only say that after many years of wandering the SGV, it happens more often than not.)
Yum Cha Cafe, though, has women at the counter who actually want you to enjoy what you're having. They'll make suggestions (like the brown sugar rice cakes -- HOLY GOD were they good) and joke around a little bit. I speak a little bit of Cantonese, which usually shocks people, and this time was no different. "Kuei sik guang dung waa, waa!"
I was with some folks from Iowa who love dim sum but don't get it often enough to be "tired" of the usual suspects, so we had har gau (shrimp in rice paper), siu mai (beggars' purses of pork and vegetable), cha shu baau (barbecued pork buns), brown sugar rice cakes, lai wong baau (buns with sweet custard filling), cheung fun (rice "omelets"), pie gwaat (spareribs in black bean sauce) and pay daan sau yuk juk (rice porridge with lean pork and preserved eggs). The siu mai were juicy, the har gau weren't rubbery, the cha shu was obviously fresh. The lai wong bao could have had a creamier centre but was tasty and not oversweet as they so often are. Cheung fun were quite obviously just-made since they weren't tough, the pie gwaat were tender, and the juk was actually one of the better renditions of the dish I've had in LA, though the pork was VERY salty.
The total price for everything was $12. I couldn't believe it. I asked if maybe they left one out, but no -- and the juk was $3 of that $12.
There's a tea charge of $0.25 per person if you want tea, and they have gigantic metal vats of jasmine tea, green tea, black tea and (in the mornings only) HK silk-sock milk tea. Unlimited refills. No water available, but if you want cold water they'll give you ice and you can use the hot water tap at the tea station.
For that price, now and then I'll forsake the fake-luxury decor and the "cart experience" and head on over to the Superstore for good dim sum in bad surroundings... and it will be a regular stop when I go (and when I take visitors) to the Superstore.
Yum Cha Cafe
1635 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776
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