Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
For the past few decades, dim sum in Chinatown has been an iffy proposition -- all the restaurants making the most refined tea snacks and small plates are located in other neighborhoods or down on the Peninsula. But if you're willing to concede you don't need dumplings with the thinnest, most satiny skins or braised chicken feet with the most delicate succulence, it's always been possible to eat decently at places like Y. Ben, Gold Mountain, City View, and Dol Ho.
Well, Y. Ben and Gold Mountain closed this fall, and my last trip to Dol Ho was such a rout that I couldn't bring myself to chronicle it on Rice Plate Journal. Even Dol Ho's famous black-bean spareribs were gristly and badly seasoned. That left only one out of four of my most reliable dim sum spots.
Time to reconsider Great Eastern, I guess, as well as its new next-door neighbor, Peninsula Seafood (or P&R, if you're going by the awning), a subsidiary branch of a San Bruno restaurant by the same name. Both boast chandeliers, enough rooms to host simultaneous wedding parties, and middling fare.
Great Eastern -- the green and white one with the carved gates in the entrance -- seems to have absorbed much of the clientele abandoned by Y. Ben and Gold Mountain. The wait in the lobby on the day I visited was 15 minutes, the tables inside occupied by a mix of families, white-collar gangs, and European tourists. While a stray tray of snacks would float around the room, almost all of the dim sum is ordered by checking off a menu, and the waiters drop off a pictorial guide to consult when checking off items to order.
The menu contains all the requisites, from spare ribs to shrimp-stuffed eggplant, with a third of the menu reserved for less common dishes such as a fat block of taro cake covered in fresh and dried shrimp, ground pork, and scallions, a slug of umami to punch up the creamy, goey cake. Was the quality of dumplings like the shrimp and pea shoots up to the same level of finesse as the ones at Ton Kiang or Koi Palace? Not particularly, but they were pleasant enough -- and certainly more pleasant than pan-fried leek dumplings and stir-fried rice noodles with XO sauce that reeked of old oil. If there was a dish I would return for, it'd be warm, plush mochi-like rice balls covered in bean powder, which disgorged streams of warm, nutty black-sesame purée when I bit in.
Peninsula Seafood's takeover of the old Pearl City space has basically been a turnkey change, and both the front dining room and the ware-house-like back have the same faded pink-and-coral hues they have for the past few decades. The crowd is older here than at Great Eastern, sparser, the circulating waiters coming round at a slower pace.
It's telling that Peninsula Seafood's gai lan with oyster sauce was the best thing I ate, and that the most attractive plates passing by our table contained stir-fried noodles. There were cheung fan (steamed rice noodles with shrimp) with an unpleasant gummy-graininess to them, and soup dumplings that tore and leaked when we tried picking them up. Pork, dried shrimp, and peanut dumplings whose thick tapioca-starch wrappers collapsed with the touch of a chopstick. Pumpkin-rice cakes that had sat out long enough to form a skin on them. A few more interesting plates seemed to be available on special request -- sticky rice with pork and egg, steamed molasses cake -- though we couldn't find a menu to see what they could be.
Despite the food, it was a funny place to eat. My camera caught the attention of the two old women sitting next to our table, who began watching our meal with the same amused curiosity most adults reserve for teenage mating rituals at the mall. As my friend and I talked over the check with the waiter, one began parroting my English -- "Tankyou!" "Fifteen!" -- growing louder with each attempt. I looked over at her, and she gave me the kind of grin my niece reserves for those moments when she's pestered her mother past the use of words. I suspect the smile lasted as long as mine did, which is to say, all the way out the door.
Peninsula Seafood Restaurant / P&R: 641 Jackson (at Grant/Cooper Alley), 398-8383.
Great Eastern: 649 Jackson (at Grant/Cooper Alley), 986-2500.