Looking for a surprise? Try Emerald's dim sum
If there's one thing you learn growing up 15 minutes from Oakland's Chinatown, it's that appearances can be deceiving-especially when it comes to the ongoing search for good, authentic dim sum.
So it was with little trepidation that, in search of some perfectly greasy shrimp dumplings one recent groggy Saturday, I approached Kearny Mesa's Emerald Seafood Restaurant. Indeed, the exterior is not the most inviting: The restaurant is tucked away in a business park off of Convoy Street, with a slightly run-down, mirrored front wall. From the outside, the place looks like either a sketchy office building or a sketchy office building that's a front for something sketchier.
Inside, though, the restaurant is huge, really more of a banquet hall. Along one wall is a fish tank, for that "look at the live version of what you're eating" effect. After being ushered to a table, we found ourselves with a pot of jasmine tea and four women with carts rushing to our table.
A problem with dim sum is that it can be a fairly high-stress experience; Emerald Seafood is no exception. The cart comes, the waitress lifts the top off each serving dish and points to various, vaguely similar-looking dumplings and barks the name of each. Sometimes all you catch is "pork" or "shrimp." And then, even if you swallow your pride and ask what something is, they usually can't tell you. But for me, at least, a communication barrier has always been a sign of authentic ethnic dining. With dim sum, you just have to be in the mood to have no idea what you're eating until you bite into it.
You also have to be prepared to give a fast and firm no to the dishes you don't want-the cart-women practically have the serving dish on your table if your hesitate. Dim sum is not for the indecisive, nor is it for control freaks.
At Emerald Seafood, dim sum plates are priced by size. Small plates are $2.60, medium ones are $3.90, large dishes are $4.80 and certain "deluxe" plates are $7.85.
We started with the steamed barbecue pork buns (bao), my personal favorite, and shiu mai that (I think) contained both pork and shrimp. The bao were good, with just the right fluffy white dough-to-meat ratio. While the shiu mai more than fulfilled my need for hearty, greasy dumplings, the wrapper was almost cool and a little on the gummy side. I got the feeling they had been cooked at 9 a.m. and would have been excellent a few hours earlier. As for the requisite pot stickers, I was pleased to find them lighter than most and nicely spiced.
Since the place has "seafood" in the name, we decided to focus on the shrimp offerings. The deep-fried shrimp rolls were unimpressive-chopped shrimp in a miniature, deep-fried skin-but the shrimp Har Gow (dumplings with a thinner, gelatinous rice wrapping instead of dough) were delicate and the shrimp fresh. Each set of dumplings comes with its own sauce and it's just as gratifying to lose track of what you're supposed to be dipping in what and reach your chopsticks across the table to mix new combinations.
We finished with the sesame-seed-coated red-bean and sweet-rice balls, which the server cut into halves tableside with a pair of scissors. Hard to go wrong here-among the desserts, the red-bean balls and the honey egg twists (fried sweet dough) will probably appeal more to your average Chinese-food fan than the gelatinous "Tri-Color Cake" or fruit tofu.
Emerald Seafood has an extensive dinner menu as well as daily lunch specials. But the awesome thing about dim sum (a brunch tradition) is that if you do it right, it's cheap. Six dishes (that's two smalls, four mediums) plus tea came out to around $25. And you certainly won't want to move, let alone eat, for another seven hours.
If you're looking for a peaceful, service-oriented dining experience, go elsewhere. But if you're up to the challenge, dim sum-which, in Cantonese, means "touch the heart"-will surprise you every time. And Emerald Seafood is one of the area's best for dim sum. The only thing I'd change on my next visit? For optimal ordering, I'm bringing some bilingual friends.
Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to midnight.
Emerald Seafood Restaurant
3709 Convoy St., Suite 101