Whenever we hear of a dim sum restaurant -- heck, any restaurant -- that has people milling around outside waiting to get in, we're intrigued.
Such is the case on Sundays at River Side Seafood Restaurant. If you don't get there well before noon, you're going to wait, unless you're a party of two.
It's not a huge room: there are 14 round tables, three booths, and exactly one table for two. Not many couples go to dim sum, apparently, at least on the southern edge of the Sunset. So we waltzed right in, past at least half a dozen large groups.
The decor is simple but clean, with delicate Chinese artwork of koi and flowers hung on recently wallpapered walls. Orchids along one window are a nice touch.
The name says "seafood restaurant," but there isn't much on the menu, and the ill-kept fish tank is not reassuring. Sluggish lobsters loll on the bottom, while exactly two fish were hiding in the murk. We were not given a regular dinner menu, as many places do, and there were only two fish dishes among the 84 items on the dim sum menu. Both are "salt & pepper," which means fried, which probably means frozen. We ordered neither.
Diners on a budget will enjoy the generous list of 25 items at $1.95. We ordered two, smoked pork shank and ice taste chicken feet, which turned out to be our two favorite dishes.
The smoke taste in the pork shank was understated; a cured-meat fan would find it too mild. Without its casing of white fat, it reminded me more of luncheon ham.
The ice taste chicken feet I ordered out of curiosity: ice taste? It had an appealing purity of chicken flavor, more so than at places that douse the feet in black bean sauce. It was served cold with sweet vinegar, which fortunately gave more flavor than ice generally has.
It's saying a lot that these were our favorite dishes and we finished neither.
Pea sprout and white nuts in broth ($5.30) ended up on my side of the table after my wife found a worm in it. That didn't turn me off, as both worms and I prefer organically grown vegetables sans pesticides. But the gingko nuts and pea sprouts had the flavor boiled out of them, so maybe the worm was seasoning because the broth was reasonably good, mild, and tasting more of gingko than sprout. This ended up being the only dish
we I finished, as much for its health benefits as flavor. Gingko nuts are supposed to make you smarter and I've done some questionable things lately.
Steamed Shanghai dumpling ($2.90) was not soupy and was more like a closed-top siu mai, but not a bad one: plump and meaty, with a little black pepper and a solid porky flavor. Steamed shrimp dumpling ($2.90) had too much soggy dumpling, though we liked the garlic and ginger with the shrimp.
Baked b.b.q. pork bun ($2.40), so sticky on the outside that we ate them with chopsticks, were a little bready, but the caramelized onion-laden filling was good.
Feeling the need to try something seafoody, we ordered stuffed squid with sticky rice ($4.30), but it was a complete waste of squid, rice, and calories. It's deep-fried, but the breading drops off when you pick it up, leaving bland, chewy squid stuffed with rice that tastes of cheap frying oil.
River Side would not draw me here from afar, or even from Judah Street. The crowds outside reflect the fact that, in food-crazy San Francisco, this is not a neighborhood endowed with many restaurants. Its fans would probably do well to keep going here regularly and not cross Golden Gate Park to see what else is out there.
River Side Seafood Restaurant
1201 Vicente (at 23rd Ave.), 759-8828