Chandler used to strike me as a mild-mannered commuter 'burb that wasn't so different from other booming parts of the Valley a young population like Tempe, a historic downtown area like sprawling Mesa, and the upscale aspirations of a junior Scottsdale. But over the past several years, I've found things in Chandler to make me flat-out jealous.
Hip bistros around San Marcos Place. Great Mexican, French, even Brazilian cuisine. And all kinds of Asian restaurants, obviously anchored by Lee Lee, the international supermarket where you can find the most exotic groceries around. With a young multicultural population to support them, these small businesses are starting to make Chandler more Southern California than suburban Phoenix.
Well, now those lucky Chandlerites have another topnotch Chinese restaurant in their midst: China King.
I heard about it from a friend whose mother-in-law, born and raised in Hong Kong, can't get enough of their authentic dim sum. Someday I'll make it to Hong Kong, too, and maybe even learn some of the language, but for now, my own points of reference are Chinese places in New York and San Francisco. And I have to say, this food is Chinatown-good. Or better, since China King's no grungy hole-in-the-wall, but a sunny, clean, spacious restaurant that stands separate from its strip mall neighbors.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, China King was a madhouse, in a good way. Not that I was so eager to have to take a number and stand around, but it gave me time to soak in the culture. There were lots of couples with toddlers and grandparents in tow, teenagers horsing around, and twentysomethings texting on their cell phones. I zoned out for a while, listening to the melodies of Chinese and Vietnamese spoken all around me, only to snap out of it when a young woman with a clipboard called out my number in English.
The dining room was loud and busy, with families crowded around tables covered in bubblegum pink tablecloths, and waitresses in hot pink Chinese-patterned satin vests, pushing dim sum carts from table to table. There was a length of Christmassy tinsel draped along the ceiling, an oversize golden "double happiness" symbol set against a crimson backdrop at the far end of the room, and even a disco ball. (Too bad it wasn't in use, although no amount of disco would've been audible over the noise anyway.)
I always thought of dim sum as a savory Sunday brunch, Chinese-style. But here, it's available every day, and the service continues until mid-afternoon. There's a traditional menu as well, although I came for the surprise factor of the small dishes. No sooner did I sit down than a waitress pulled up with stacks of metal containers full of steamy mysteries.
"How about this?"
Okay, I didn't really need detailed explanations anyway, and my rule of thumb with dim sum is to just go with what looks good and figure out the ingredients after a few bites. Good thing I like pork. (Unfortunately, I don't have any solid advice for vegetarians in this situation. Better to just order what you want from the regular menu instead of chancing it with dim sum.) Later, I talked to servers with better English skills, but by then it hardly mattered I was anxious to try it all.
Even the chicken feet. I had to get that one out of the way, for the sake of journalism. I'm not big on sucking the soft flesh off tiny bones, but all around me, people were doing it with gusto, kids included. You won't mistake this traditional delicacy for anything else it still looks like chicken feet, albeit bright yellow, cartoonishly plump ones, and that's what freaks people out when they think of dim sum. But it's boiled, marinated, and then steamed, so by the time you eat it, it's soft and sweet. I took a nibble, and then another. Pretty tasty, actually, if you don't mind the texture. I dare you to try it.
Most of China King's 50-plus dim sum choices are much more approachable, though, with all kinds of dumplings, buns, and rolls. I could've filled up on the steamed barbecued pork buns alone they were fluffy and snowy white, filled with sweet chunks of meat. Shrimp har gow were so moist that their translucent rice flour wrappers glowed pink from the contents. And the barbecued pork pastries, sprinkled with sesame seeds, were as flaky and buttery as good French croissants.
Sticky rice, wrapped up in a lotus leaf, was chewy, savory, and studded with bits of pork, shrimp, fish cake, and mushroom. What looked like funny little drumsticks were balls of shrimp paste, fried to a crunch on pieces of fresh sugar cane. Taro turnovers, covered in a crisp, frilly web of fried dough, were quite filling (I wasn't surprised to find pork, scallions and mushrooms inside), and a plate of boiled Chinese broccoli was perfectly cooked bright emerald stalks served with a slick of salty oyster sauce.
Next time I go to China King, I'll pass on the spareribs with black bean sauce a delicacy, perhaps, but an oily one that just didn't appeal to me.
Instead, I'll definitely order more desserts. I tried moist, bready pastries stuffed with shredded coconut, delicate tarts filled with egg custard, and a bowl of cold, sugary almond Jell-O. Lotus seed sesame balls had an addicting texture, with a crisp coating, a chewy rice dough interior, and smooth lotus paste filling. And my favorite dessert was three opaque, pale green cubes of creamy, not-too-sweet green tea Jell-O, nicely complemented by a few final cups of fragrant jasmine tea.
After filling up on a variety of dumplings, satisfying my sweet tooth, and getting completely wired, I giggled at my still-cheap bill and left with only one thought: China King rules.
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