Onward, Tin Soldier

The Wan family brings its Tea House, and true Cantonese cuisine, to the 'burbs.

Comrades! The glorious revolution — the Chinese culinary one, that is — continues its long march eastward!

Over the past few years, upscale Sichuan and Shanghainese restaurants have snuck into Walnut Creek, offering merely decent Chinese American dishes to the general public and delicious regional Chinese food to those who can read hanzi. Around the Western new year, the owners of Tin’s Tea House in Oakland’s Chinatown followed, bringing true Cantonese flavor to CoCo County — except at Tin’s East, everyone gets a chance to try it.

After eight years of owning the original Tin’s, Hong Kong-born restaurateur Alice Wan recognized the absence of a dim sum restaurant in Walnut Creek, and opened one in the barn-size space last occupied by Left at Albuquerque. A little of the exposed-beam Southwestern decor remains, but the cacti and turquoise-salmon color combos have been covered up by a bit of Chinese bling-bling: aubergine carpets, window-lined walls, white tablecloths, and glittery chandeliers. And while the menu contains an exciting selection of authentic Cantonese dishes, Tin’s is swarming with WASPs.

Yes, they can still order the glistening, syrup-coated fried meats that make up the majority of the American Chinese repertoire. But Tin’s dinner menu — there’s only one, and it’s in English — also lists steamed geoduck, soy-braised squab, bitter melon, and sautéed frog, all of which Chinatown diners delight in. The waiters do a great job of trying to steer patrons to dishes that cater to non-Chinese tastes without compromising their chefs’ principles.

Such as the sizzling platters, which double as a performance: The waiters wait until the food stops hissing and sputtering, and then remove the lid to release a cloud of steam and fragrance. Although the presentation was novel, the ingredients on our slab of cast iron were quite familiar — a very good rendition of basic chicken in black bean sauce, the strips of tender meat tangled up with big chunks of onions and green peppers.

It took a good five minutes of wrangling with our waitress to get through Tin’s long list of dishes. But ordering a meal in a Chinese restaurant is supposed to be a lengthy, lively process. When you, as a gwailo, find a waiter who gets that you know the process and aren’t afraid of real Cantonese food, it’s one of the most fun aspects of the meal, and you’ll be rewarded with better, more interesting food.

And it’s here to be had. The Southeast is China’s Mediterranean region, warm and lush, and its food is marked by simple, clean sauces and ultrafresh vegetables and seafood. Meals typically start with cold appetizers and soup, followed by a good mix of fried, sautéed, and steamed meats, complemented by a vegetable dish and steamed rice.

Following tradition, our dinner opened with a platter of cold cuts: Green seaweed salad tossed with sesame oil. Julienned jellyfish, at once crunchy and gelatinous, dressed with sesame seeds, rice-wine vinegar, and sweet soybeans. Thin slices of pressed, steamed beef shank and pig’s foot scented with five-spice powder. Tiny barbecued octopuses lacquered with a sweet, cherry-red sauce. Echoes of Southeast Asia sounded through the fish, tofu, and cilantro soup, a clear fish broth containing moist chunks of whitefish, silken tofu, and blue-gray, funky thousand-year-old eggs, and shot through with the bright, floral accents of cilantro and ginger.

Another Cantonese hallmark is homestyle claypots, and Tin’s menu lists about twenty. A special of eggplant with minced pork and XO sauce proved the disappointment of the night. Long shards of Japanese eggplant still contained so much water from being steamed soft that the sauce got watered down. XO sauce is meant to be both potent and luxurious — a mixture of dried scallops and shrimp, garlic, and chiles — but it took large squirts of soy sauce to bring out their flavors.

To counter the heartiness of the hotpot, we ordered steamed black cod bathed in a light, sweetened soy-wine broth and showered with scallions and cilantro. We easily picked the fresh, sweet flesh off the whole fish with our chopsticks. However, one of my friends downed a piece of skin and came up spitting out scales — unforgivably sloppy. She recovered in time to remind us to pluck out the buttery cheeks (oyster-sized nuggets just behind the gills), which we divvied up in half-teaspoon-size bites.

For our vegetable, the waitress went off-menu to suggest pea sprouts quickly sautéed with a little garlic and ginger and covered in an egg-white sauce with fresh crab, the egg thickening the transparent sauce and coagulating into soft, white nimbus clouds.

A second visit for Saturday lunch proved that Walnut Creek is taking to Tin’s dim sum carts like cornflakes to milk. The place was packed. “Do you want to sit outside?” the host asked.

On such a sunny day, I would have assented for any other meal. But with dim sum, you want a spot as close to the traffic as possible. And noon constituted rush hour. While my companions were still settling into their chairs, steamer carts steered by black-and-white suits and trays of fried treats held aloft by yellow blouses had jammed around me. Within five minutes, we had covered the table with plates. You think McDonald’s is fast food? Try dim sum.

So we tried, and tried, and tried: stalwart renditions of pork siu mai, for example, as well as plump har gow and shark’s-fin dumplings stuffed with pork and minced vegetables, which looked like someone had taken a crimping iron to Jaws’ dorsal fin. Welcome newcomers were rice-paper egg rolls stuffed with chopped shrimp and mango; deep-fried eggplant sprinkled with fried garlic, chiles, and scallions; and mushroom-and-garlic-filled vegetarian dumplings.

Vegetarians will need to supplement the veggie dumplings with an order of steamed, emerald-green Chinese broccoli (tossed with garlic or oyster sauce) or the shortlist of fake-meat entrées on the regular menu. And those who like the, um, less-common cuts of meat will be pleased to know that we were offered braised chicken feet, a textural heaven — long-cooked, gelatinous meat that you suck right off the tiny bones.

Despite the lovely presentation, true aficionados may find Tin’s dim sum more homey than refined. The wrapping on many of the dumplings tended toward the extra-chewy, the turnip cake toward the gummy, and the steamed rice crepes weren’t as ephemeral and translucent as I’ve enjoyed elsewhere. Still, to be able to dine out in Walnut Creek on four-dozen dim sum, sipping one of Tin’s premium jasmine, oolong, or chrysanthemum teas? All hail the culinary pioneers! May they press ever farther inland!

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