Becoming an adult is one part taking on responsibilities, one part shedding foolish romantic notions. When it comes to dim sum restaurants, one of those "foolish notions" is the romance of rolling carts. Losing them may be a blow, but it's not just a nod to commercial reality. It also enhances quality. Emerald Chinese Cuisine (3709 Convoy St.) in the Convoy District proves that.
I've sung the praises of those rolling carts—and of Emerald—in these pages before. But from Hong Kong to Vancouver to the San Gabriel Valley cart-less dim sum has become a trend. Those rolling dim sum carts and the English-challenged ladies who pushed them are, increasingly, little more than a cherished memory. Rather than picking those "little pieces of the heart" off the rolling carts, diners chose from a menu by checking off boxes on a Scantron-style card featuring numbers that correspond to dishes (with pictures) from the menu. It's a bad SAT memory turned delicious.
From the restaurant's perspective it's a good thing: fewer employees means lower costs. That much is easy to see. Somewhat less readily apparent is that by going away from the carts the food reaches the diner in a fresher state. Instead of spending time rolling around the restaurant, food can go straight from the kitchen to your table.
Perhaps the single dish that best shows off the culinary advantages of Emerald's new approach is the xiolongbao: Shanghai-style soup dumplings, featuring a pork and aspic filling inside a sturdy wrapper slightly thicker than that used for steamed dumplings. The best part of xiolongbao is that as the buns cook the aspic melts, leaving "soup" alongside the meat inside the bun. In the past, Emerald's xiolongbao was disappointing, the soup leaking from breaks in the wrapper, a problem at least partly attributable to rolling cart wait times. On three recent trips the soup dumplings were perfect every time.
Dumplings fresh out of the steamer are plumper, juicier than ones that did the full dining room tour. This was clear with the siu mai, steamed dumplings of pork and shrimp. Even with the carts Emerald usually had the best har gow (shrimp dumplings) in town, but every once in a while one would come out cracked or gummy. Now each is perfect. Similarly, Emerald's yuba rolls filled with pork and bamboo shoots were always good. But every once in a while when they'd been on the carts for too long the yuba wrapper would dry out. Not so since the changeover.
In truth, not all dishes were improved by the cartless system. But none suffered from the change. One downside evident shortly after the switch was all ordered dishes coming out simultaneously. Now, the kitchen courses them out (much like at a non-Asian restaurant with "share plate" menu).
About the only remaining downside is the appearance of diminished options. The endless parade of carts held the promise of the perfect dish coming on the cart just around the corner. With the cart-less system you know just what you're going to get. That may be less romantic, true, but the food itself is better.