Vegetarian Dim Sum in L.A.'s San Gabriel Valley

 A typical dim sum table - via Mack Male/Flickr 

 A typical dim sum table - via Mack Male/Flickr 

Dim sum is a style of Chinese cuisine (particularly Cantonese but also other varieties) prepared as small bite-sized portions of food served in small steamer baskets or on small plates. Dim sum dishes are usually served with tea, and together form a full tea brunch. Dim sum traditionally are served as fully cooked, ready-to-serve dishes. In Cantonese teahouses, carts with dim sum will be served around the restaurant for diners to order from without leaving their seats. The Cantonese tradition of having endless cups of tea and dim sum is also called Yum Cha (饮茶).
— https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dim_sum

Dim Sum is plentiful in Los Angeles. Vegetarian dim sum, on the other hand, is a bit of an Easter egg hunt. We've tried the veggie options at many Chinese restaurants throughout San Gabriel Valley but we keep coming back to Capital Seafood in Arcadia. It's a bit pricier than other dim sum in SGV but the food is delicious, there are many veggie options, the restaurant is clean, and the service is attentive.

A couple weekends ago (Easter Sunday) we were the first customers in the door. When it comes to weekend dim sum—no matter which restaurant you choose—you better be there when the doors open or be prepared for a long wait. The same is true for good authentic dim sum in any big city.

The next hurdle is deciding what to order. If you're vegetarian, you face the usual challenge: is it REALLY vegetarian? Seasoned vegetarians know that every restaurant and every server has their own definition of vegetarian. If you're strictly vegetarian or vegan you have to be specific when asking about dim sum menu items. Steamed gai lan (aka Chinese broccoli) is often drizzled with oyster sauce. Dumplings and congee often contain minced pork. Juicy/brothy dishes often contain chicken stock. Sometimes even a basic dish like rice noodle rolls can be flavored with dried shrimp bits.

Here are some of our favorite veggie dishes at Capital Seafood. Of course, it's still a good idea to verify with your server that everything you order is vegetarian. 

(By the way, San Gabriel Valley is a very interesting place. At the end of this post I've included some trivia and statistics.)

Fried Tofu w/ Spicy Salt (aka Salt & Pepper Tofu) - tofu cubes fried with jalapeño and garlic. You'll be surprised at how flavor packed this dish is, despite not having any kind of sauce. Mildly spicy, perfectly salty, and nice texture. Always one of my favorites at Cantonese restaurants. 

Fried Tofu w/ Spicy Salt (aka Salt & Pepper Tofu) - tofu cubes fried with jalapeño and garlic. You'll be surprised at how flavor packed this dish is, despite not having any kind of sauce. Mildly spicy, perfectly salty, and nice texture. Always one of my favorites at Cantonese restaurants. 

Deep Fried Mushroom Egg Roll - This dish is deep fried so that makes it automatically delicious. It's served with a side of mayo for dipping, so that also makes it automatically delicious. Mayo may seem like an unlikely pairing but it works.

Deep Fried Mushroom Egg Roll - This dish is deep fried so that makes it automatically delicious. It's served with a side of mayo for dipping, so that also makes it automatically delicious. Mayo may seem like an unlikely pairing but it works.

Spinach Mix Veggie Dumpling - When it comes to steamed dumplings, there aren't usually many vegetarian options and sometimes they can be kind of bland. These have a juicy filling and a great color (they don't taste as "green" as they look).

Spinach Mix Veggie Dumpling - When it comes to steamed dumplings, there aren't usually many vegetarian options and sometimes they can be kind of bland. These have a juicy filling and a great color (they don't taste as "green" as they look).

Assorted Mushroom Rice Noodle - Like a giant noodle that's been stuffed with goodies and sliced into bite size pieces. Great mushroom flavor with a "slippery" texture. Comes with a lightly sweetened soy sauce dressing to pour over. See next photo.

Assorted Mushroom Rice Noodle - Like a giant noodle that's been stuffed with goodies and sliced into bite size pieces. Great mushroom flavor with a "slippery" texture. Comes with a lightly sweetened soy sauce dressing to pour over. See next photo.

Soy Sauce Noodle w/ Bean Sprout & Green Onion - The name says it all. This is a standard dish we always get, but we request thick noodles instead of the skinny chow mein noodles listed on the menu. Simple, oily, and tastes like the wok it was fried in. But be warned, that wok may have been used to fry meat moments before it fried your noodles. If you're concerned about the potential for meat residue, pass on wok-fried dishes like this. This is true for any Chinese restaurant.

Soy Sauce Noodle w/ Bean Sprout & Green Onion - The name says it all. This is a standard dish we always get, but we request thick noodles instead of the skinny chow mein noodles listed on the menu. Simple, oily, and tastes like the wok it was fried in. But be warned, that wok may have been used to fry meat moments before it fried your noodles. If you're concerned about the potential for meat residue, pass on wok-fried dishes like this. This is true for any Chinese restaurant.

Standard dim sum dessert includes puddings, breads, and tarts. This Egg Custard Bun w/ Pineapple Crust is standard fare in Chinese restaurants and bakeries. Don't be fooled by the name. It contains no pineapple and is so-named because the flaky top looks like the skin of a pineapple. Inside is a rich, yellow, warm, gooey, sweet egg custard.

Standard dim sum dessert includes puddings, breads, and tarts. This Egg Custard Bun w/ Pineapple Crust is standard fare in Chinese restaurants and bakeries. Don't be fooled by the name. It contains no pineapple and is so-named because the flaky top looks like the skin of a pineapple. Inside is a rich, yellow, warm, gooey, sweet egg custard.

Less common at dim sum is this Baked Crispy Bread w/ Almond Cream (aka Almond Milk Puff Pastry). This is a special dessert that's worth trying, if only for the experience. The flaky pastry top opens to reveal warm, sweet, almond flavored milk below. Don't miss the chewy ginkgo nuts at the bottom of the dish. Note: this dish is not typically made with almond milk. It's made with almond flavored dairy milk. Here's a quick video taken at our visit to Capital Seafood:

Less common at dim sum is this Baked Crispy Bread w/ Almond Cream (aka Almond Milk Puff Pastry). This is a special dessert that's worth trying, if only for the experience. The flaky pastry top opens to reveal warm, sweet, almond flavored milk below. Don't miss the chewy ginkgo nuts at the bottom of the dish. Note: this dish is not typically made with almond milk. It's made with almond flavored dairy milk. Here's a quick video taken at our visit to Capital Seafood:

Okay, this is probably enough for a major dim sum blowout at Capital Seafood. If not, you'll find more vegetarian options on their dim sum menu...

Click to expand

Click to expand


The 411 on The SGV

San Gabriel Valley is a region of 47 communities within Los Angeles County. It has a wonderfully diverse population of over 2 million people. It contains one of the largest concentrations of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans in the U.S. It's also THE place to visit in Los Angeles if you're looking for authentic Chinese food. Here are some more interesting facts about SGV...

sriracha
  • Arcadia, home of aforementioned Capital Seafood Restaurant, is where Hunter S. Thompson wrote the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
  • Huy Fong's Sriracha sauce, with its instantly recognizable rooster logo, is produced in Irwindale.
  • Grocery store chain Trader Joe's and restaurant chain Panda Express started in SGV.
  • Arcadia has a very visible and audible population of wild peacocks that freely roam the neighborhoods.
Chinese-American population in San Gabriel Valley according to the 2010-2014 American Community Survey These numbers have increased since the survey was conducted.

Chinese-American population in San Gabriel Valley according to the 2010-2014 American Community Survey These numbers have increased since the survey was conducted.

San Gabriel Valley - Click for interactive map via LA Times

San Gabriel Valley - Click for interactive map via LA Times


Ready to try more authentic Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles? Check out our suggestions for The Elusive Vegetarian Sichuan Food of Los Angeles. I list two places where you can find my favorite Chinese dish of all time: Sichuan Mapo Tofu.