L & L Chinese Seafood Serves Dim Sum Without the Fuss

Its workmanlike versions of dim sum classics are made to order.

Dim sum restaurants aren’t exactly expected to reinvent the wheel. Sure, there are higher-end places out on the Peninsula that keep up with Hong Kong’s latest innovations in dumpling construction — places that, back in the day, would slip foie gras into their siu mai. But experienced dim sum eaters tend to value consistency, and even predictability, above all else: They want well-executed versions of familiar favorites.

For this workmanlike approach, there’s Oakland Chinatown, of course, but then you have to deal with the crowds and the elusive street parking. So a couple years ago I started heading out to El Cerrito’s L & L Chinese Seafood Restaurant. The restaurant’s hallmarks were its low-key atmosphere; its low prices; and the freshness of its standard array of dim sum specialties, which are served until 3 p.m. every day. You never had to wait for a table. There was even a small parking lot.

Then, last February, the restaurant shut down due to a kitchen fire — a nasty case in which a cook accidentally locked himself inside the walk-in freezer after putting a pot of oil on the stove (fortunately, no one was hurt). More than a year later, L & L has finally reopened, and I paid a visit to see if the food was as good as I remembered. I was told the chef is the same as before, and that many of the staff returned as well — there was no delicate way to ask if that unfortunate gentleman was still manning the woks. The prices are still a relative bargain: $2.40 for a “small” dim sum item, $3 for medium, and $3.60 for large. Special items sell for $5.50 apiece.

Dim sum novices gravitate toward restaurants that offer cart service — the controlled chaos of the dim sum carts is fun, and being able to actually see what you order helps prevent unpleasant surprises. But at L & L, you order off a checklist — an approach whose big advantage is that all of the food is cooked to order and comes out piping hot. (When you order off a cart, a dish might already have orbited the dining room half a dozen times.) There’s also a full-color picture menu — a handy thing to cross-reference, especially since the English listings are sometimes enigmatic: “deep fried savory triangles” and such.

As noted, the dim sum at L & L isn’t especially inventive, but the kitchen puts out honest, straightforward versions of the classics — nothing was over-sauced, and most items weren’t overly greasy. The shrimp rice noodle roll was especially tasty — the noodle roll was soft and impeccably fresh; the enclosed shrimp were plump. A light drizzle of sweet soy sauce, the traditional accompaniment, was applied tableside. Meanwhile, the chef’s siu mai, those yellow-skinned pork-and-mushroom dumplings you’ll see every table ordering, were above average, if a bit more gristly than I would have liked.

The kitchen has a light touch with deep-fried items. Two highlights were the taro dumplings and the aforementioned “savory triangles” (haam sui gok, or salt-water dumplings). The former consists of mashed taro that’s fried until the outside forms a crispy, netted exterior. The latter has a layer of sticky sweet glutinous rice cake (think mochi) on the outside, also fried to a crisp. Both had a delicious ground-pork filling flecked with bits of shiitake mushroom and potent cilantro stems. Both were surprisingly lacking in grease.

The item that had left the strongest impression from my pre-fire visits was the turnip cakes, a savory treat made with finely shredded daikon radish that’s molded into a cake with bits of dried shrimp and smoky Chinese ham. L & L’s version was among the best I’d had in the Bay Area — packed full of daikon, whereas other restaurants loaded theirs up with rice-flour filler. The batch I got on this occasion was flavorful and nicely pan-fried, but mildly disappointing: The chef seemed to have skimped on the daikon as compared to before.

Surprisingly, the worst item we tried at L & L is probably the most iconic dim sum dish of all: those translucent purse-shaped shrimp dumplings known as har gow. The shrimp in the filling just weren’t good: they were small and overcooked and old-tasting.

Another night we returned to check out L & L’s dinner menu, where the most interesting items were listed in a section labeled “chef’s specials.” But I ordered impulsively, and not asking our server for a more detailed description of dishes turned out to be an act of hubris.

The fish maw and bean curd clay pot wasn’t what I’d expected — I’d forgotten what fish maw (a crunchy internal organ) was; there wasn’t any bean curd; and the whole thing came in a sterno-burner-equipped hot pot instead of a clay pot.

The lobster lo mein also disappointed: The lobster (chopped up and fried in shell) was fine, but the noodles were pale and limp — not lo mein at all, really — and what little sauce there was was relatively bland.

That’s not to say there weren’t gems to be found: The roast duck was fantastic — juicy and just fatty enough. And a plate of wonderfully sweet cherry stone clams with spicy XO sauce was another winner.

But on the whole, dinner at L & L was decidedly more hit-or-miss than dim sum. Still, the prices were so reasonable and the staff was so sweet, especially to the eleven-month-old in our party (her favorite dish: the duck) that I vowed to come back and give it another shot.

After all, there are plenty of intriguing items to try: Dungeness crab in pumpkin sauce, stir-fried shrimp with salted egg yolk, and a sizzling fish head clay pot.

Next time, I’ll just ask a few more questions before I make up my mind.

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