San Diegans searching for dim sum tend to flock to the Convoy Street palaces of Jasmine and Emerald Seafood Restaurants. Both of these elegant establishments offer authentic, refined versions of classic Cantonese tea pastries that appeal to less-worldly western palettes, as well as to those with an Air China flight in their past. Lost in the shuffle between these two dim sum bastions has been the more modest Imperial Mandarin Restaurant (3904 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa).
Dim sum—which translates from Cantonese as "dot the heart," or perhaps a bit more poetically as "point to your heart's desire"—has its roots in the simple reality that travelers on the ancient Silk Road needed places to rest. While the Chinese initially considered it inappropriate to combine tea with food, believing it would lead to excessive weight gain, their subsequent recognition that tea aids in digestion led teahouse owners to offer snacks. The resulting teahouses became part of the Cantonese social fabric.
What emerged was a culinary tradition called yum cha, which translates as "drinking tea" but refers to the overall dim sum experience. Yum cha is typified by a series of small bite-sized portions of food served in steamer baskets or plates. Traditionally, the dishes are served from rolling steamer carts from which customers select tableside. Dim sum dishes range from steamed or fried dumplings and buns stuffed with a variety of savories and sweets to noodle dishes, vegetables and desserts.
The main difference between the experience at Jasmine or Emerald, on the one hand, and Imperial Mandarin, on the other, is that the physical spaces of the former are grand and the dumplings a bit more refined. You might find 12 pleats to the har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) at Jasmine as opposed to the 11 at Imperial Mandarin. But the flavors at Imperial Mandarin are, if anything, bigger.
The stuffed-bean-curd rolls are one example, offering a deep, savory meatiness and excellent textural contrast between the filling and wrapper with a meaty broth at the bottom of the dish. Also excellent are the xiaolongbao soup dumplings filled with pork and aspic, which melts in the steaming process, creating the magical effect of soup inside the buns.
Perhaps Imperial Mandarin shines brightest with the offal dishes. The tripe and tendons dish is particularly good with pleasantly toothsome tripe, tendon that's tender and an overall brothy richness. The standout, though, is the chicken feet in black been sauce. This dish—which is, indeed, the feet of chicken steamed, marinated and then stewed in a brew of fermented black beans, oyster and soy sauces, chiles and rice wine—is a study in textures as you suck meat and bits of connective tissue from the bones. It sounds daunting but is delicious and fun. The depth of flavors coaxed from this inglorious cut is nothing short of spectacular.
It's easy to lose Imperial Mandarin amongst all the other Convoy Asian offerings between Jasmine and Emerald. The thrifty price tag is reason enough to find the place, but the big flavors are the ultimate reason to seek it out.