Within minutes of being seated at a table in the middle of the vast dining room at King's Land Chinese Seafood, the dim sum carts are circling and lids are being lifted to reveal dozens of steaming choices of dumplings, soups, buns and other bite-sized morsels. It's difficult to say no; each cart reveals plate after plate of tempting offerings. In the chaos of multiple servers offering an overwhelming variety, before I know it our table is crowded with steamer baskets and shiny white plates holding everything except the one thing I determined ahead of time to order: turnip cakes.
With Chinese New Year just a couple of weeks away, the goal for February is to highlight some dishes traditionally associated with the celebration, turnip cakes among them. As if on cue, a final cart arrives with the pop and crackle of fresh dumplings hitting hot oil. This is the cart that gives certain items a crisp finish tableside, the one with the fat, golden-brown rectangles -- almost like Chinese hash browns -- that I've been waiting for.
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The cakes are still sizzling with hot oil as the server hands over the plate, giving us a few extra minutes to sample the other dim sum we've accumulated before each piece is cool enough to eat. In the initial rush, our choices skewed toward shrimp, but no matter -- each item we choose is distinct and delicious. Ha gao, shrimp dumplings with impossibly thin skins -- so thin that the pink contents seem to glow from within -- are the perfect start, with light and subtle flavor to go with the first sips of tea. Dark green spinach dumplings are fattened with more minced shrimp. And slippery rice noodle rolls, like glossy white crepes, come anointed in a sweet soy sauce and stuffed with even more whole shrimp.
In the initial flurry of ordering, I was quick enough to also request some sticky, glazed barbecue ribs and a couple of pastries before those carts rolled away. A meal of dim sum allows you to throw away the standard rules of Western dining; sweet egg custards in flaky pastry shells and chewy sesame balls filled with sweet bean paste don't need to be set aside until the end of the meal. They can instead act as a dessert interlude between more savory options.
By the time the soup cart rolls around and I grab some fish balls in a light broth, we're finally getting to the turnip cakes. They're not actually made with turnip, but rather daikon radish or other similar Chinese vegetables, bound into cakes with rice flour. I've had turnip cakes before that contain so much rice flour their texture is springy and rubbery, with almost no vegetable texture. But these are creamy like soft cooked potatoes, with just a hint of radish bitterness. The crisp outer crust gives added texture and the hoisin sauce provides rich and sweet contrast.
Around us, the place is starting to fill up, but more than half of the tables are still empty, attesting to the cavernous size of the dining room. Families and groups of friends, mostly Chinese, chat and pass plates around; ancient grandfathers rub elbows with their grandkids, who grab glazed buns from the table top while their parents deal with the carts. One table is filled with first-timers, there with an expert who guides them through choices and requests "forks for everyone" from the waiter.
Dim sum can be intimidating if only for the sheer volume of choices that come all at once, but the cart pushers seem to sense the comfort level of the guests -- or maybe they just make assumptions based on ethnicity -- and quickly slam lids on soup pots bobbing with cubes of pig blood and steamers full of chicken feet. It seems a shame: I'd rather be presented with the full range of the menu even if the staff thinks I might not like what I see.
Still, by the end of the meal, I'm stuffed and satisfied; I can put off further exploration until next time -- and perhaps I can learn the names of the less familiar dishes so I'll be able to request them confidently.
Chinese New Year dishes are based on notions of good fortune, prosperity and longevity, but food is only a part of the typical celebrations. King's Land isn't just serving traditional dishes this month; there will also be Lion and Dragon dances for entertainment at 1 p.m. on February 21, 22, 28 and March 1.
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