I wouldn’t have guessed that Wheaton’s new Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard would prove to be such a confounding puzzle, a mystery demanding to be unraveled plate by plate, visit by visit. The first time I went, back in March, I took a friend from out of town, selling him on the 300-plus-item menu and the chance to order dim sum at dinner. I was certain I could pick any dish from any category, as I always had at the nearby Hollywood East, and turn up something wonderful.
Well, no. Razor clams sprinkled with chopped garlic and bread crumbs sounded tasty, but we found ourselves confronted by a blizzard of oily crumbs, which nearly disguised the fact that the kitchen was inexplicably fobbing off cherrystones as razors. A roast pork managed to be both too crispy and too unctuous; fried shrimp dumplings were too heavy and thick. Chewy, rosy-edged cuttlefish, lightly pickled, came as a clean and light relief. The dim sum? Not tonight, our waitress told us, before dashing off without explanation.
A couple of weeks later, I tried again. A promising pot of cracked, steamed lobster was overperfumed with ginger, its intended pillow of vermicelli noodles a bitter, thready nest. I couldn’t have the Sweet and Sour Rib Hong Kong Style I wanted; the waiter said they were out. You like beef? he asked. How about duck? I responded. He pointed me toward Eight Treasure Braised Duck. “Very good.” It was bountiful, anyway: a medley of scallop, shrimp, roast pork, clams, and duck bathed in a clear Cantonese-style sauce—which went beyond velvety and edged toward gelatinous. I wondered if I’d been steered to a dish designated for white Westerners. But the fault, I thought, was surely mine; I hadn’t deciphered the way to order.
On the third visit, more than six weeks later, I corralled the manager, who turned out to be Alan Yu, husband of owner Janet Yu. “What’s good?” I asked.
“Everything,” he replied, giving me the cheery blowoff of restaurateurs everywhere. “What do you like? Fish? Chicken? Pork?”
Good, I wanted to say. I like good; I’m a
fan of good. I asked if there was a separate
“All the dishes that we make—they’re all here on the regular menu.”
The challenge, of course, was in locating them. “I want to eat what you eat,” I said. “What you and your family eat.”
He considered. “You like oysters?”
I looked him in the eye, hoping to make the point perfectly clear: I like good; I’m a fan of good.
He directed my wife and me to a pair of casseroles. They came to the table, steaming away in ceramic crocks. The first was a deliciously funky stew of red-tinged roast pork, caramelized oysters, and shiitake mushroom caps, topped with whole sprigs of Chinese parsley. The range of flavors, now briny, now smoky, now earthy, was startling. The casserole hardly resembled the genericized fare I’d been treated to before; this was a dish of care, full of contrasting intensities.
Next was stewed lamb. A few of the chunks still bore thick caps of fat, but most did not, the layer having melted off during the long, slow cooking, further enriching an already savory broth. Strips of dried bean curd added a chewy element, and an accompanying paste of bean curd added a finishing bit of brightness.
We’d ordered a plate of watercress. Instead, Yu brought us a mound of pea-shoot leaves. “This is what we eat,” he said. The greens, though a trace too limp from their sesame-sugar sauce, were terrific, with some of the pleasing residual bitterness of watercress.
The waiter had told us the restaurant did not serve dim sum at night, but here was Yu, slipping us the little white checklist as if he were passing notes in math class. Only those items that required a quick steaming were available. The dumplings may not have been fresh, but they tasted it. And they whet our appetites for more. “You’ll have to come back when we have the carts,” he told us. “But not tomorrow; you’ll get tired. Tired of dim sum.”
I’m never tired of dim sum. But we skipped a day, returning on a Sunday afternoon. Janet Yu told me later that she opened this second restaurant specifically to serve the small plates; she even brought in a separate chef to prepare them. And dim sum doesn’t get much better. Minced shrimp, so common in other kitchens, is seldom to be found here; the dumplings and noodle crepes are filled with whole shrimp, which produce a pronounced pop when you bite into them. Frozen vegetables are also scarce. I was startled by the crunch in the fun gor, unprepared for the filling of firm, chopped fresh carrots, ginger, and scallions. The steamed buns are uncommonly light. And the rotation of dim-sum standbys is enlivened by a crop of unfamiliar dishes: firm, diced scallops in a corn sauce, visually recalling crab imperial; shrimp balls studded with so much chopped mushroom that they resemble meatballs; a fetching little rice-noodle crepe filled with fried dough.
I walked out into the sunlight, full but not overburdened, despite the nine plates we’d sampled, and content. How satisfying to discover a place that takes such pride in its dim sum. Almost as satisfying as cracking a long-unresolved riddle.
Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard, 2621 University Blvd. West, Wheaton, (240) 290-9988.
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.