The weekend’s wedding celebration wrapped up with a dim sum breakfast at Zen Peninsula in Millbrae. Starting at 9:30am on Sunday, the group filled 10 round tables lined up along the far wall or about one-third of the restaurant. At that hour the rest of the place was nearly desserted and we had the staff’s full attention for the first hour. By our designated ending time of 11am, there was a line waiting for tables.
I thought that dim sum in Millbrae was a brilliant pick for the farewell event. It was easy for out-of-town guests to check-in at SFO beforehand, join us at the restaurant, and then catch their flights afterwards. We had plenty of space to circulate and table-hop, and the kids could run around.
The hosts had ordered an initial selection of standards for each table, then the guests were free to select from the carts and the checklist for more. Service started before I arrived and I caught the end of my table’s first order. I chose more items that I wanted to try, and then ordered a third round when new arrivals joined us. Filling the table and ordering in three waves, I had a chance to try more items than I’ve ever ordered in one meal. And still there was so much more on the extensive menu that I wanted to taste.
The staff did a great job, serving and removing plates, and keeping the tea pot full. The cart ladies were smiling and attentive too. Our group overstayed the ending time, but the staff took it in stride, clearing off and reseating the tables as vacated. Until they actually needed the last two occupied tables for the growing crowd in line, there was no pressure to leave, which we finally did around 11:30am.
Overall, the quality of the food was quite high. Nothing was bad or even below average, and several items were so good and unique, I’d recommend making a special trip here to try them. Now, to answer the inevitable question of how Zen Pen compares with gold standard Koi Palace. Having been to Koi recently for dim sum, I’d have to say that Koi Palace is still king with more consistency and high quality across the range. However, if one orders well at Zen Pen and picks the best dishes, you can be equally satisfied here, plus enjoy greater comfort with far less hassle. Below I’ve listed everything our table ordered starting with the top picks.
OUTSTANDING AND WORTH A SPECIAL TRIP:
Foie gras and shark fin pork siu-mai, $4.50 – As one tablemate described, “over-the-top”! Much better than my first trial a few years ago. Buttery soft and fatty disk of foie for an unctuous texture and mouthfilling flavor, plus chewy sharks fin adding texture to the meaty dumplings.
Conpoy (dried scallop) and pea sprouts rice crepes, $5.50 – Umami to the max, the briny sweet flavor of conpoy blended with the delicate crunch of the greens wrapped in a chewy rice crepe and doused with a delectable sweetened soy based saucing.
Sweet taro buns, $3.20 – These are the same soft-as-baby-butts sweet dough used for baked egg custard buns, but somehow even lighter and more tender here. Filled with sweetened taro puree, topped with bubbly sugar, and then served hot, I thought these were absolutely heavenly.
Egg custard tarts – My nomination for tops in the Bay Area. Scorched surface in the Macau style but going Portugal one better with the multi-layered flaky crust. These are deeper which makes for a lovely palate-coating mouthful of extra creamy, full-flavored custard lusciousness backed up by the crackly crust.
Glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves, $3.80 – Perfectly toothsome pearly grains of sticky rice, succulent chicken, and a bonus salted egg yolk.
Zen's roast pork with peanut sauce, $5.50. Made with the pig jowl, the sweetest piece of the pig, this is honey-glazed, roasted, sliced thinly, and accompanied by powdered peanuts. Better than Koi Palace, but can’t beat S & T Seafood’s version.
Fried shrimp taro dumplings, $3.20 – Very frilly and tasty, but too oil-logged on the bottom.
Soft wonton in chili sauce, $4.50 – Wrapped sui gow style, very tasty saucing and thin fluttery wrappers, but the meat filling was too hard and thick.
Suckling pig rice powl (sic), $7.00 – Tasty with dark brown crackly skin, but the meat was not juicy and seemed reheated. About four strips arranged on a bowl of rice, nice to be able to order a smaller serving and not have to invest $17 for a taste of suckling pig.
Shrimp dumplings (har gaw), $3.80 – Whole shrimp inside were overcooked. Nice thin wrappers, not overseasoned.
Siu mai, $3.80 – Too much shrimp in the pork filling for my taste, but that’s just my personal preference.
Baked roast pork puffs, $3.20 – Delicate pastry but too damp on the bottom, good meaty flavor.
Fried milk, $5.50 – The milk custard center was stringy and grainy. Nice light batter though.
Sesame balls, $2.60 – Crust is way too thick.
Special crispy squab, $12.00 – Good flavor, but a little dry. Can’t compare to S & T Seafood in SF for this one.
Shrimp rice crepes, $3.80 – Again, the shrimp were somewhat cottony and overcooked. Somewhat meager filling compared to the competition, but not out of line once I saw the lower price for this dish. Nice seasoned soy sauce.
XO Sauce rice crepes, $5.50 – No searing on the rice noodle rolls, not thermally hot when I tried these, might fare better when warm.
Green tea sesame mochi, $3.20. Served hot with flowing black sesame centers, but the green tea mochi wrap was too thick and dense.
Missed Trying These:
Steamed barbeque pork buns, $2.60
Baked roast pork buns, $2.60
Chinese donut rice crepes, $3.80
Soy sauce noodles, $5.50
Poached Chinese broccoli, $5.50
Chiu chow steam dumplings, $3.20
Thanks for a terrific Sunday brunch and congratulations to the newlyweds!
1180 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030
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