Have you been yet to Philly's most popular new restaurant?
Unless you speak Cantonese and know your har gow from your cha siu, I'm betting the answer is no. But there's really no contest in terms of the numbers I've witnessed recently at the three-month-old China Gourmet. Co-owner Salina Ko — who not long ago was still operating a nondescript 80-seater by the same name off Bustleton Avenue with Ming Fung, her talented chef and husband — says that nearly 2,000 customers a day now pass through the 400-seat supersize edition of her dim-sum palace in Northeast Philadelphia.
"I don't know; I really didn't count it," concedes the native of Hong Kong. "I'm just working like a machine, you know? It's crazy! We did five rounds of dim-sum customers today!"
Believe it, and join the line. Because a seemingly impossible river of customers has been perpetually flowing beneath the "Grand Opening" streamers into this vast dining room beside the First Oriental Market on St. Vincent Street in Mayfair, where a half-hour wait to be seated is the weekend norm. The crowds of Chinese families gather patiently near the entrance and gaze hungrily toward the warehouse-size expanse of pink-linen tables and bubbling seafood tanks, where women pushing shiny steel carts glide between the aisles and pause to drop off their steamy cargo of dumplings, chicken feet, and fragrant bowls of congee.
The treasures inside those carts are many. The translucent white skins of hand-pleated har gao dumplings nestle inside snug round metal trays around pristine stuffings of sweet minced shrimp. Bowls mounded with tiny clams tumble into the funky dark gloss of fermented black-bean sauce. Deep-fried shrimp balls are wrapped in crispy noodles that trail like the golden ribbons of a dumpling comet. And then there are my new favorites: the "Snow Mountain buns" (xue shan bao), warm white rounds filled with barbecued cha siu pork, whose domed crusts are laced with the crunch of baked sweet cream. They're more delicate than the common steamed bao, though these puffy buns are also exceptional at China Gourmet, their split-top clouds more airy than usual, their barbecued pork stuffings balancing a measured red sweetness with a savory shadow of star anise spice.
As busy as it is, China Gourmet is still no easy find, tucked as it is into an obscure strip mall beside the Roosevelt Boulevard, a block south and out of view from busy Cottman Avenue. But you could say that Jonathan Gold sent me.
This review was well in the works before the death July 21 of America's greatest restaurant critic. But it's no exaggeration to say that Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winner who wrote for the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and many others, has been an inspiration my entire career. This was especially true of his approach to immigrant restaurants. It avoided touristic ogling and "bizarre food" trophy hunting in favor of a genuine love for traditional cooking informed by empathy, deep knowledge, and an appreciation for these cuisines in the context of their communities, which are, in turn, woven into the multiculti patchwork of a larger American metropolis. His reviews simultaneously celebrated those worlds and invited outsiders in: "He gave us the keys to a hidden city," Ruth Reichl, his friend and former editor, wrote in her moving tribute to Gold.
Gold was keenly aware of how Los Angeles' sprawling landscape allowed its communities to thrive in an insular way that is unlike most East Coast cities, where the compressed real estate fosters inevitable cross-cultural pollination. It was his Gourmet magazine review many years ago of the now-closed K.B. Garden in Flushing, however, that made me first aware of how New York's Chinese community had found in Queens a more spacious crossroads to grow such critical mass.
The new version of China Gourmet represents a "Flushing moment" for Northeast Philly, which, despite being home to the city's largest population of native-born Chinese, had previously only hosted a modest strip of small Cantonese eateries on Bustleton Avenue, where Fung first wowed me just more than a year ago with a plate of wok-crisped lobster and crab layered high into a crustacean tower scattered with savory Hong Kong crumbles of gingery pork. According to U.S. Census data, 7,800 Chinese immigrants now live in Northeast Philly, compared with the nearly 1,200 in Center City's landlocked Chinatown. There are nearly 2,800 in the growing Chinatown West I wrote about earlier this year in University City, but that community of largely well-to-do boba-slurping international students is distinct from the working-class families that have gravitated to the affordable real estate of Northeast Philly.
This is the vibrant community hub they've been waiting for, where multigenerational families of baby-toting grandmas, parents and teens (some munching silently with their earbuds in, streaming Fortnite) can linger and chat over pots of dark tea, sautéed pea leaves, jellied pig's blood, and silken rice crepes stuffed with tender whole shrimp, then walk next door to shop for groceries, and finally find their car in the convenient parking lot that, as massive as it is, still doesn't have enough space.
A visit to China Gourmet offers a window into a vital, evolving corner of our city that should be compelling, even if you're not a big fan of live shrimp turned into sashimi or wok-tossed eels in black bean sauce. But China Gourmet delivers outstanding flavors, with dim sum that is more artfully crafted than its large Cantonese counterparts in Center City, save for tiny Nom Wah, which doesn't offer the communal thrill of rolling carts. (Tom's Dim Sum and Dim Sum Garden are also excellent, but they're Shanghainese. I saw no xiao long bao — soup dumplings — here.)
It's not just that China Gourmet is Philly's largest authentic Chinese restaurant; it is excellent in many ways. This is in part due to Ko's hospitable grasp of that epic waiting list and her watchful gaze over the dining room, where several of her friendly managers also happen to speak English. But also because Fung is a rare chef-owner, a veteran of Chinatown's Tai Lake and Ocean Harbor who has assembled a skilled kitchen staff of 20 that excels at the multiple distinct tasks of dim sum (daily from 9:30 to 3 p.m.), a full à la carte kitchen menu dedicated to light sauces and wok-cooking of Cantonese cuisine, and a barbecued meat department that turned out a platter of Peking duck I'm still dreaming about. The sublimely tender, flavorful hunks of boneless meat were wrapped in burnished mahogany crisps of rendered skin that, dabbed with sweet hoisin and scallion threads, crackled inside the puffy softness of a bao bread sandwich.
Novices to true Cantonese food should be forewarned. This is Chinese cooking for Chinese people, who know the restaurant by a different name, "Jinding," which refers to an ancient, golden tripod cooking pot. So there isn't wonton soup on the menu. Try, instead, a wide bowl of silken white seafood broth dotted with the spongy morsels of fish maw, or the subtle dark brew steeped from dried scallops and fresh chives, whose deep marine tones surface with the added tang of red vinegar.
Fung's kitchen will, in fact, make General Tso's chicken, a shruggish nod to their first location at Levick and Oxford, where they cooked primarily Americanized Chinese food for customers at the nearby Navy base. The sauce (the only premade sauce in the entire restaurant) is actually fantastic, a bold sour streak beneath the sticky sweet spice. But the chicken nuggets are thickly breaded and blah, by far the most loveless item on China Gourmet's menu.
Try instead what is likely one of the best lobster deals in town, in which a pair of lobsters, cooked any number of ways, can be had for the current market base price of $28.95. A clear sauce zapped with fresh ginger and scallions is a fantastic minimalist place to start, each morsel expertly cleavered with a glancing blow for easy access to the juicy wok-seared flesh. But $2 is a modest supplement for my favorite method: with Hong Kong-style minced pork. The wok-fried chunks sealed inside a golden crust of salted duck egg yolk (gum sa ha) is a close second worth the $5 extra. Really big spender? Also lurking in these tanks is a live 10-pound king crab, which for $400 Fung will transform into a three-course feast for six that is one of my someday dream meals.
There are myriad other dishes here worth seeking: the sizzling platter of tender short ribs in black pepper sauce, sweetly roasted lamb chops in black bean sauce, a wok-singed beef chow fun, and crispy disks of custardy yellow Japanese tofu enriched with egg that come fried salt-and-pepper style beneath minced jalapeños. The rice noodle crepes are soft and silky; I've never enjoyed them more than when sliced here into little rolls set on edge and topped with tender beef rib tips that are steamed to order right on top.
There is also a long list of Cantonese esoterica I haven't gotten to yet — the salt-and-pepper silkworm chrysalis or cold sea cucumber, for example; the frog and chestnut hot pot, or the live rock cods that get steamed in bony chunks with black bean sauce over lotus leaves. Someday.
In the meantime, I'm still savoring the parade of expert dim sum that arrived in a rolling cart flurry I couldn't refuse: sweet purple eggplants and spicy long-hot chilies stuffed with minced shrimp paste touched with sesame oil (not rubbery, like some I've had); oyster-sauced ground pork wrapped in wrinkled bean curd skins; garlicky green chive dumplings; and lotus leaf zongzi bundles stuffed with steamy sticky rice black mushrooms and the bonus of Chinese sausage.
China Gourmet also boasts one of the largest selections of dim sum desserts I've encountered. The sweet white cubes of coconut gelatin were easy comfort. But the herbal amber rectangles studded with water chestnut were an unexpected delight, as were the chewy fried rice balls our server scissored open to reveal the sweet hearts of red bean and black sesame paste. There were also warm buns filled oozing golden egg yolk custard, including some decorated like little piggies for kiddie appeal.