Feb. 20 2012 05:51 PM

Rancho Bernardo's Pearl is one of San Diego's better spots for the Chinese tradition

Dim sum delicacies
Photo by Marie Tran McCaslin

Dim sum was a family tradition when I was growing up in Los Angeles. At least once a month, we'd head out for little steamer trays of delicate dumplings, fluffy buns and rice-noodle rolls filled with shrimp, beef or pork. When I moved to San Diego a decade ago, I took my folks out for weekend dim sum and ended up having an appalling meal at one of San Diego's popular restaurants. It was, and still is, a highly recommended place. And it was time to look elsewhere.

Over the years, I've found that San Diego's dim sum options aren't plentiful, but there are some lesser-known gems. Pearl Chinese Cuisine in Rancho Bernardo serves good dim sum from traditional push carts that circle the expansive dining room. The restaurant is located off Bernardo Center Drive on a nondescript side street surrounded by office buildings and strip malls. The interior is simple and clean with a lovely view of a pond and garden.

For the uninitiated, dim sum is a meal of small bites served as brunch or lunch. Hot tea is a big part of the meal; it helps cleanse the palate between sweet and savory dishes. Menus aren't readily available, so don't hesitate to ask the server what the cart contains.

Pearl's not as busy as its Convoy Street counterparts, but its dim sum offerings are generally quite tasty. On a recent visit, we started with the barbecued-pork buns, egg-custard buns and fried balls of taro filled with pork. The pork buns are white and fluffy, wrapped around a heaping tablespoon of meat. The same buns also come with a custard filling that's sweet and not too heavy. The fried taro balls were good, but the turnip cake was disappointing. Pearl's turnip cakes were bland and pre-seared, the crispy crust lost to steam and too much idle time. Searing them to order would have solved the problem.

I gravitated to a longtime favorite that's not often found among dim sum offerings: balls of ground shrimp rolled in sticky rice. Egg tarts, a sweet item, weren't the best in town, but they were decent. The rice-noodle rolls—big sheets of noodles wrapped around shrimp, beef or pork and served with soy sauce—were outstanding. Meatballs, dim sum-style, are steamed, resulting in a fantastic texture, and served with Worcestershire sauce. Like many Hong Kong-style interpretations of western dishes, the meatballs are an interesting blend of Chinese techniques on a non-Chinese classic.

The dumplings finally rolled out, and we dunked Pearl's well-executed har gow into chili oil. The starchy wrapper is translucent and the shrimp tender. Other varieties with the same wrapper are available, like shrimp and scallops. The siu mai—pork dumplings with a thin egg-based wrapper and open top—were also very good and available with pork or shrimp. While dumplings are dim sum staple, they're not the same as northern Chinese dumplings, which use a flour-based dough as wrapper.

Every item is assigned a category—small, medium or large—and each category's dishes are the same price. When you order, your bill's stamped in the corresponding section. Service is brisk, and don't hesitate to speak up with requests. All in all, Pearl does a great dim sum with classic dishes, a fine alternative to the bustle of Convoy Street. 

Write to marietm@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Marie blogs at meanderingeats.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @MeanderingEats.


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