Dim sum at its best is a total-immersion experience — the quest for a number, the long wait in the restaurant lobby and then the explosion into the dining room itself, likely to be the largest enclosed space you have stepped into that month — an ocean of voices that overwhelms you long before you sit down. You are likely at a table that is too big for you (unless you are 10), or a bit too small (if you happen to be four). Tea is plonked on the table, probably before you think to order your favorite jasmine or pu’er. At least one of your kids has already run off to study the giant crabs in the seafood tank. Unless you are at one of the old-fashioned places with the pushcarts, you are handed a golf pencil and a bilingual checklist. You spend the next five minutes trying to figure out whether a dish of duck jaws in soy sauce is really what it sounds like (it is) and what exactly an oatmeal snow cap bun might be.
Longo Seafood Restaurant, the newest of the San Gabriel Valley’s dim sum palaces, is almost everything you expect a mega-dining room to be, with the kind of modernist chandelier you might expect to find in a Vegas casino, marbled surfaces and the largest video screen you have seen outside a stadium — noiselessly playing Chinese pop shows or weepy Chinese soap operas but not the Lakers.
If you have spent time in local Hong Kong restaurants, you will recognize a lot of the floor staff, several of whom worked at the old Shi Hai up in Alhambra. Flashing signs on the walls advertise specials, and you should probably take them up on the $12.99 soy sauce chicken, which is one of the best dishes in the restaurant. Like any proper Hong Kong-style banquet restaurant, Longo is prepared to serve you ultra-soft whole roasted suckling pig, abalone with sea cucumber and double-braised bird’s nest with minced chicken.
The crabmeat soup with fish maw pulses with marine flavor when you anoint it with a few drops of red vinegar. I’m not sure I have ever managed to get through a dinner there without ordering the luscious slices of braised pork belly draped over pungent Hakka preserved vegetables, or the thick noodles with twinned small lobsters or the crisped oysters buried under a stack of cleanly braised scallions substantial enough to be a course of their own. Try a jelly-soft steamed rock cod. Have an arranged platter of pressed tofu and sliced duck marinated Chiu Chow style in seasoned soy sauce.
But if you are there before 3 p.m., you have come for the dim sum. David Chan, a blogger who once told The Times that he had eaten in 6,297 Chinese restaurants, implied that Longo was the most important dim sum restaurant to open in the increasingly Mandarin-speaking San Gabriel Valley in a decade. And it is certainly one of them.
A few minutes after you hand your checklist to a headwaiter, the plates start coming, not a few at a time as in most dim sum restaurants but in waves: flaky barbecued pork pastries and sticky baked barbecued pork buns; gently seasoned steamed meatballs and gooey, spicy steamed chicken feet cooked with XO sauce; domes of puff pastry atop bowls of thin, hot almond milk spiked with gingko nuts; wrinkly, sauce-soaked tofu skin wrapped around minced seafood — sometimes all at once, until the table is buried underneath tiers of platters, metal steamers and smoking tureens of rice porridge.
Longo’s dim sum kitchen seems to make a specialty of steamed rice noodles — cheong fun — which are not the usual delicate rolls but chewy and twisted like scarves, with fillings of shrimp, pungent dried scallops, sweet pork or shredded roast duck. Some of the noodles are made with red rice — if you’ve forgotten what you’ve ordered, they may appear to be heaps of raw beef liver, although their taste is pretty much the same as the standard rice rolls. The BBQ Supreme rice noodle roll, stuffed with crunchy bits of Longo’s roast pig, resembles nothing so much as a cross between dim sum and first-rate carnitas, and I cannot recommend the dish enough.
Baked buns are especially good here, crackly crisp things filled with coconut, creamy custard or the coconut-scented egg goo called kaya. I’m not sure I’ve seen snowcap oatmeal buns anywhere else, and the crisp, barely sweet sugar crunch on top of the baked bao brought out a complex, almost meaty flavor in the lump of oats inside the crust.
The steamed dumplings can occasionally be thick-skinned and stodgy — the shrimp dumplings called har gow were almost bulletproof, and the wrappers of the expensive lobster dumplings have been almost impenetrable. The truffled shiu mai, on the other hand, were improbably good, open-topped pork dumplings glazed with slices of black truffle that had the raw, earthy bite you might find in a pasta in a rural trattoria in the Marches.
You can get those lobster noodles at dim sum, and you might as well. The salt and pepper fried calamari and the fried chicken cartilage are pretty close to the definitive versions on the other side of Rosemead at Sea Harbour. You’ll also probably want a crack at the smooth, soothing congee, maybe the one with minced fish and boiled peanuts, without which no dim sum meal is really complete.
The checklist menu has done its job. You have ordered twice what you had anticipated. And somehow you are not upset by this — the leftovers will feed your family for the next three days.
Longo Seafood Restaurant
There’s a new dim sum palace in Rosemead.
7540 Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (626) 280-8188.
Cold dishes $5.99-$6.99; barbecue platters $6.99-$39.99; meat, seafood and vegetables $10.99-$19.99 (more for live seafood); congee and noodles $5.99-$16.99. Dim sum $2.69-$5.89, more for “signature” dim sum.
Open daily, 10 a.m. to midnight. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking.
Recommended dinner dishes: roast pork belly; baked oyster; soy sauce chicken; pork belly with preserved vegetables; ong choy with bean curd paste. Recommended dim sum: BBQ supreme rice rolls; oatmeal snow cap bun; salt and pepper squid; preserved meat turnip cake.