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Monday, August 1, 2011

House of Banquet Proves the Cabbage God Knows Dim Sum

Posted By on Mon, Aug 1, 2011 at 9:45 AM

click to enlarge Green tea balls - PHOTOS BY W. BLAKE GRAY
  • Photos by W. Blake Gray
  • Green tea balls

The cabbage god is the first thing you see when you step inside House of Banquet in the Inner Richmond. We eat a lot of dim sum, but we haven't gone anywhere else where cabbage is worshipped.

All hail the cabbage god
  • All hail the cabbage god

It's possible that House of Banquet's owners venerate cabbage in the Hindu sense, as a deity too important to eat. We didn't get any cabbage in any of the eight items we had, but maybe we just weren't paying attention when the cabbage god's cart rolled by.

We wonder how many casual visitors walk into House of Banquet and walk right out again, thinking that it's empty and weird besides. While there's an entire dining room downstairs, we've never seen anybody eating there. The action is upstairs, in a huge room that gets crowded by 11 a.m. on weekends and is not the most English-speaker-friendly place in town.

Fortunately, language skills are not so important here. Unusually for its stretch of Clement Street, House of Banquet is a rolling-cart dim sum house, not a menu-order place. Thus we don't know exactly how much anything we asked for cost. We do know that our total bill for four people, eight items, was $28.48, and we left full, so we didn't feel the need to call over one of the English-speaking hosts to itemize. Besides, at least 20 diners were hanging out on the stairs, waiting to take our table.

click to enlarge Baked pork buns
  • Baked pork buns

My friend Andy read a Chronicle article from 2009, posted outside, that called the siu mai and green tea balls the best items. "We don't want to just order what the Chronicle ordered," we said, petulantly. But we were outvoted, and guess what? The Chronicle was right.

The siu mai was plump and meaty, topped with shrimp and shredded carrot. We also liked a few other savory items. The baked pork buns were light and airy. The sticky rice in lotus leaf was unusual in that the meat was in a line down the center, allowing you to try it with or without the rice; that added a deconstructed feel to a dish at a very traditional place. But we'll agree with the Chronicle that the siu mai was overall the second best item. We won't go Yelp crazy and say it's a must-have and your LIFE IS NOT COMPLETE without it, but if you like siu mai, you'll like these.

click to enlarge Siu mai
  • Siu mai

The misses that we had included the shrimp dumplings, juicy but too salty; the seafood dumplings, with a too-firm exterior that didn't taste entirely fresh; and chicken chow fun we ordered off the menu ($4.95) -- an option the waiters pushed fairly assertively. We could choose "dry one" or "with gravy." We opted for the former and it might have been a mistake, because the noodles were bland. It was a big enough plate to provide ballast for a large group, but we lost interest in it quickly.

Andy kept scouting the room for the green tea balls, but you know them when you see them: they're golf-course-green, bright enough to spy from across the huge hall. The insides are slightly unusual, sweet and savory black sesame paste instead of bean paste. Texturally they're a delight: crunchy outside, with a chewy middle layer. They're not overly sweet and have the slight bitterness of green tea on the finish; it's as if you get your dessert and the tea to accompany it in the same package. Yes, we'll say it: You really shouldn't eat here without trying them.

hob_exterior_300.jpg

We also had a large puffy serving of castella cake, warm and simple but satisfying.

Overall, it's great value at $7.12 per person. Just to be safe, we acknowledged the cabbage god on the way out. It's never a bad idea to stay on his good side; for all we know, he's best friends with the Great Pumpkin.

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W. Blake Gray

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