As indicated by our choice of image when we announced our (then) upcoming trip to San Francisco back in late July, we arrived in the Port of Saint Francis hell-bent on having Chinese food as much as possible while we were there, and some good dim sum at least once. Even though Montreal's Chinatown has a long history, it's pretty hard to find truly exceptional Chinese food these days in Montreal, and truly exceptional dim sum is even harder to come by. When we go to places like Toronto and New York, we try to make up for all the Chinese cuisine we've been missing. You can imagine just how excited we were as we looked forward to visiting some of San Francisco's excellent Chinese restaurants. We had Chinese food a few times that trip (mostly in the form of snacks and light meals), and we were fortunate enough to have dim sum twice.
We knew our stay in the San Francisco Bay Area was going to be fairly short, so we didn't waste any time. We suggested to Karina that we should go out for dim sum on our first Sunday in town and asked if she had any recommendations. Karina mentioned that her best dim sum experiences over the last few years had been in the Richmond district not in Chinatown, we we decided we'd head to that area. She'd been wanting to try Mayflower because she'd heard it was one of the standouts in that neighborhood, but she hadn't gone there yet, so that was where we went.
Mayflower doesn't have those dim sum carts I grew up loving, they bring their various dishes around on large trays, but they've got quite a large staff for a medium-sized restaurant, and the dishes come out at a furious pace. We got seated at a corner table and this ended up being a lucky break, because we were the closest table to the kitchen and each dish arrived to us freshly prepared and piping hot. In the tradition of the massive, 2-3 hour feasts I remember having at our favorite dim sum palaces when I was a kid (Asia Garden was the one I remember most fondly), we settled in and started to order plates of whatever caught our fancy. Everything we had was really tasty, but the biggest crowd-pleasers were the seafood and pork dumplings, the shrimp rolls, the pan-fried whole prawns, and the crowning touch--the plate we waited all morning for--the steamed BBQ pork buns, with actual hunks of shredded pork stuffed inside. I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of greens dishes pass by our table, and two of my favorite dishes were the pea shoots and the seaweed salad. We ate like kings and queens that Sunday at Mayflower, and the bill still managed to be ridiculously affordable ($12 each). I was reminded of a story my dad used to tell about a business trip he made to Vancouver where he and about a dozen of his colleagues ate dim sum for hours and the grand total came to a whopping $25. Of course, that was 1972.
Exactly one week later, we wound up back in Chinatown and it was a particularly chilly and blustery afternoon. The fog had rolled in early that day and the winds were whipping up off the bay. We were looking to warm ourselves up again and we thought, "What better way than with a little dim sum?" We sniffed around Chinatown for a while, but Karina hadn't had dim sum in Chinatown proper for quite some time and she wasn't sure where to go. When we didn't find anything that looked too appealing, we decided to head back to the Richmond. I'd read some rave reviews of a place called Ton Kiang, and Karina had only the highest praise for their dim sum. Enough said. Half an hour later, we were seated and staring at Ton Kiang's impressive menu.
Ton Kiang specializes in two things: dim sum and Hakka cuisine, with seafood being the focus in both cases. Dim sum we all know about, but Ton Kiang was said to have some of the freshest available in San Francisco. Hakka cuisine I knew very little about. The Hakka are a nomadic tribe that live in China. They have a cuisine that is unique to their culture, but brings together elements of several different Chinese regional cuisines. I'd read that Ton Kiang's Hakka-style steamed salt chicken was to die for. We ordered the chicken and when it arrived it turned out that we'd had the exact same dish a week earlier at Mayflower (or so we thought). The steamed salt chicken is a half a chicken that comes chopped into strips, bones and all. The Cantonese version we had at Mayflower was served cold, with a pungent garlic sauce, and although I quite liked it, it was definitely the only dish we had that day that got mixed reviews. The version we had at Ton Kiang was superior in every way. It was hot, it tasted fresher, the chicken meat was more flavorful, and the garlic-ginger sauce that came with it was a subtler accompaniment. Fantastic. But it was Ton Kiang's dim sum that stole the show. I've had excellent dim sum over the years, but I think this was the best. Ton Kiang had a stunning array of dumplings, and these were the loveliest, most delicate, most delicious ones I've had the pleasure of having. Their shrimp dumplings alone came in at least half a dozen different variations (the ones we had came complete with juicy and tender whole shrimp, not shrimp paste). My favorites were the ones pictured above, the shrimp dumplings with pea tips.
Karina says that she was at Ton Kiang once for a wedding reception and that it was completely outrageous. They had the whole second floor to themselves, the kitchen kept sending out round after round of perfectly prepared dishes, and everything she tried was superb. She was particularly fond of some of their whole fish dishes. Next time I'm in San Francisco, I'm rustling together the biggest group I can find and I'm heading directly to Ton Kiang.
Mayflower, 6255 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA, (415) 387-8338
Ton Kiang, 5821 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA, (415) 752-4440