I'm not sure what about dim sum I fell in love with first—the food or the rolling carts? Sure, I loved the little stewed dishes and fried delicacies and especially the seemingly infinite variety of dumplings. But there was something about the fact that you didn't order them from menus but picked them off an endless stream of rolling carts. It was good clean fun. But now with Emerald Seafood having discontinued cart service, Jasmine Seafood Restaurant (4609 Convoy St.) in Kearny Mesa is the last traditional dim sum palace in town with the carts still rolling.
Carts or no carts, the food at Jasmine is now the best dim sum San Diego has to offer. That fictional trophy passes back and forth between Jasmine and Emerald as chefs are poached, remodels happen and the rumor mill grinds (some, unaccountably in my view, add China Max to that list). But it is currently in Jasmine's hands.
Start with the classic steamed dim sum. Jasmine's har gow (shrimp dumplings) have a classic seashell form and are perfectly pleated. The wrapper is translucent—almost crystalline—with a slight crunch and savory flavor highlighted by the inherent sweetness of shellfish, and none of the gumminess that creeps into poorly made har gow.
The fill and form on the pork and shrimp sui mai was somewhat inconsistent but the flavor was not. Rich and meaty, the pork comes to the front, shrimp providing a subtle backdrop. Yuba skin rolls also tasted better than they looked, stew-like sauce underlining the pork flavor of the filling. Jasmine does a great job with char siu bao— doughy, yeasty buns filled with bits of Chinese "barbecued" pork that manages to be simultaneously savory and sweet. A quick dip in some chili oil-spiked soy sauce and your palate does not know which way to go...in a good way.
My favorite dish at Jasmine, however, is the chicken feet. Big puffy feet of chickens (the claws clipped off) are fried, steamed, then marinated and finally stewed in a sauce of fermented black beans, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chile peppers and rice wine. It is not, perhaps, a dish often chosen by Caucasians, who don't tend to like spitting little bones out of their mouths. They miss the joy of the meat on those feet melting off the bones in their mouths.
San Diego foodies seem to get a kick out of comparing our dim sum scene unfavorably to San Francisco, New York or even that metropolis just north of us. It is not an entirely unfair assessment, particularly when it comes to variety. But while Jasmine may not be at the level of the best of those Chinatowns it is easily far better at the basics than most found there.
Unfamiliar sounds, exotic smells and lazily waiting for just the right dish to come rolling around is not a bad way to do a Sunday brunch. It may be going away from San Diego but at least at Jasmine those carts still roll, and what's on them doesn't disappoint.