Like tapas, dim sum is meant to be shared. The traditional Cantonese fare began in rural roadside tea houses, where workers and travelers would gather for tea and snacks, and the meal retained that community spirit as it moved to urban centers like Hong Kong. Most dim sum palaces are lively, bustling places that can often seat 800 people at a time, and are filled with the chatter of groups at large tables and the clatter of dishes as waitresses push carts through the aisles laden with a seemingly endless variety of steamed, fried, and baked hors d'oeuvres. The dishes are little more than a bite, but by the end of the meal the table is littered with empty plates, and you leave satiated and basking in the afterglow of an hour or two well-spent with friends and family.
The 8-month-old Hong Kong Lounge II is a smaller, more reserved offshoot of the Outer Richmond's Hong Kong Lounge, considered by many to serve some of the best dim sum in the city. Instead of ordering from carts, you mark your choices on a paper menu with more than 80 dishes organized by type (steamed, fried and baked, noodles and porridge, dessert), which makes for a calmer, more thoughtful experience than frantically pointing at whatever looks good rolling by. The food arrives hot and steaming from the kitchen, fresher than anything you find getting stale on a steamer cart. It may not be the raucous party of the larger establishments, but the all-important communal element is still intact.
We decided on a dozen dishes as a group, and talked over tea as we waited for the food to come. It wasn't long — the first dishes arrived within 10 minutes of ordering, and the rest came out in leisurely waves that simulate the pace of the usual carts. We had just finished exclaiming over the perfectly steamed eggplant, stuffed with shrimp and dressed in a sweet, viscous sauce, when we were delivered deep-fried salt-and-pepper calamari. It erred too far on the salty side, but a savory, pork-laced meat porridge arrived that coated our puckered tongues.
Dumplings are a dim sum staple, and the versions here are heaped with fillings and yet well-constructed enough to stay together when lifted with chopsticks. Siu mai, the popular open-face pork and shrimp balls, are larger, meatier, and more luscious than most, with an almost equal pork-to-shrimp ratio. In steamed shrimp dumplings, another dim sum favorite, the rice flour wrapper is doughier than translucent, but stops just short of gummy, and the generous amount of shrimp inside makes up for it.
Even without the point-and-eat potential for discovery that comes with carts, the menu has plenty of surprises. Steamed barbecue pork buns had a sugary crust on top, usually only seen on sweet buns, which contrasted well with the rich, savory, deep red pork mixture within. Coffee pork ribs, a signature dish of the original Hong Kong Lounge, were crispy-fried on the outside and almost impossibly meaty, in a viscous coffee sauce reminiscent of coffee candy. They were served with a dollop of thick whipped cream on the side, which only played up the rich coffee flavor of the sauce. And for the adventurous, there are traditional dishes like steamed beef tripe, marinated chicken feet, and durian pastries.
With all that fat and protein, you want something green to balance it. We were leaning toward the Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, but our server suggested the off-the-menu garlic pea shoots. They were divine, with a spring-like freshness and just enough minced garlic to add flavor without overpowering the delicate flavor of the greens, and well worth the few extra dollars. The pan-fried chive-and-shrimp dumplings were bursting with bits of minced chive that offered a verdant counterpoint to the sweet shrimp.
By the time you've eaten your way through your order it's hard to imagine something sweet, but do not leave Hong Kong Lounge II without trying one of the egg custard desserts. The steamed egg yolk buns looked like regular pork buns on the outside, but the pale, round exterior concealed a sweet, molten rush of egg custard inside, like a Cadbury creme egg. Even better were the almond egg yolk balls, which were round and studded with crunchy slices of toasted almond outside that contrasted well with the gooey interior. And purists will appreciate the simple egg tarts, which came to the table warm and quivering in the middle, with a perfect, flaky pastry crust surrounding a simple egg yolk custard.
Part of the dim sum experience is the bustle of it all, and the narrow room lacked that energy — service was calm, almost stately, and I missed the clatter of the carts and the chaos of big groups. But what you give up on experience you make up with convenience and access. The restaurant is closer to the center of the city than the original's location at 17th Avenue and Geary, and the wait is significantly shorter. With food this fresh, good company, and a pot of tea, you're not giving up much.