A lot of restaurants try to be everything to everyone, but I’ve never dined at one that succeeded. Some menus seem like a table of contents to a round-the-world culinary guide and others are so thick they resemble recommended reading in an advanced-level graduate seminar. In my experience, the more scattered the menu, the likelier something will go wrong. Mega-menus signal unfocused cooks and languishing or frozen ingredients.
So when the server at Daimo handed me two–not one but two–menus listing some five hundred items, my heart sank. How could I put together a representative review? How good could everything be? To answer that second question, I’ll have to get back to you after another five visits. Or ten. Give me a longer lunch hour, and I’ll gladly shoot for twenty.
Daimo is located in the parking lot of the Pacific East Mall, on the border of Richmond and Albany. A culinary theme park, the Pacific East Mall is built around a Ranch 99 Market, part of a West Coast chain of Asian super-supermarkets. The mall also houses ten or so Asian restaurants, along with a number of specialty stores and Tunnel of Music, a karaoke bar.
Daimo is the first US outpost of a Hong Kong-based chain of noodle houses; there are six branches in Hong Kong and two in Vancouver. The Richmond Daimo opened just over two years ago. The restaurant specializes in Cantonese cuisine, highlighting noodle dishes, roast meats, and fresh seafood.
Cantonese cuisine is the Italian food of China: the ingredients determine the dish, not the other way around. Guangzhou (Canton) province and Hong Kong abut the Pacific Ocean in the semitropical southeast part of the country. Abundant in produce and seafood, the region has developed a cuisine that layers pure, fresh flavors instead of merging them into a complex whole. Light sauces predominate, and steaming, blanching, and stir-frying are the most common cooking methods.
Unlike most Chinese-American restaurants, Daimo does not divide its menu (posted online at www.222. to/daimo) into categories that reflect the standard European-American menu. Appetizers are tucked somewhere in the back of one of the menus, and sautéed dishes with many different meats, vegetables, and sauces are grouped together. There are four categories for noodles and another two for congee, a thick rice porridge also known as juk.
On my first visit, a couple of friends and I took my normal approach to restaurant reviewing and “experimented” with a few dishes that looked interesting. Most were good, but I left frustrated with the large menu and puzzled as to how to continue. So I browsed through a few Chinese cookbooks to figure out how to order a meal, and on my next visit, we made more of a conscious choice to order the kinds of dishes we saw on other people’s tables. I walked out of the restaurant vibrating with delight.
Feeling I needed expert assistance, I turned to a woman who moved to the US from Guangzhou many years ago and had studied cooking in China. I asked her to look over the paper takeout menu and tell me how she would order from it. Mrs. Chen said that in her part of Guangzhou, congee and noodle soups are eaten during the day or are combined with a vegetable dish and perhaps a poultry dish for a light dinner; congee and steamed rice are never served at the same meal.
According to Mrs. Chen, larger dinners always start with one or more cold dishes–jellyfish salad, roast meats. Next, diners order soup, and then move on to a vegetable dish. (In some American restaurants, the soup bowl becomes the rice bowl, though separate dishes are always used in China.) Afterward comes fish, or shellfish for those who can afford it, followed by a heavier poultry or meat course. Hot pots–typically stewed meats and vegetables–are common in the colder months.
When composing a meal, diners search for a good balance of flavors, textures, colors, food types, and cooking methods. To make sure each dish is tasted at the peak of its flavor, Chinese cooks send it out the moment it leaves the cooking pot.
Daimo takes its name from urban Cantonese restaurants where deliverymen and manual laborers, dai mo, would sit at benches and eat simple food from clay bowls. “But these prices? Not for the dai mo,” said Mrs. Chen, laughing and shaking the menu I showed her. Actually, the prices aren’t bad. It’s possible to fill up on a substantial bowl of noodle soup for $6, including tip. My most expensive meal, which included a whole steamed fish, cost $25 per person.
On my first visit, we ordered the Sliced Pork, Preserved Egg and Mustard Green Soup ($7.50 for a large bowl), but instead received the vegetarian version–which wasn’t even on the menu–with no explanation. But it was good. In a simple ginger-infused chicken stock floated cubes of soft tofu, whole baby mustard greens, slices of ginger, mushrooms, and egg-flower “petals.” Small chunks of salty, preserved egg yolk rested at the bottom. On my second visit, we tried the stunning shrimp wonton soup ($4.25), one of Daimo’s specialties. Translucent wonton wrappers encased plump balls of interlocking whole shrimp held together with ground pork and flavored with sesame oil. They were suspended in a crystal-clear chicken broth flecked with yellow chive.
Though there are more than a hundred noodle dishes on the menu, the majority of them are built on a few essential, almost bland bases: rice noodles or house-made egg noodles in clear chicken broth; tossed noodles with soup on the side; thick rice porridge; stir-fried chow fun (fat rice noodles). Diners then choose from an almost inexhaustible selection of toppings–mostly flavorful roasted, stewed, and preserved meats.
Vegetarian dishes can be had at Daimo, but they’re scattered throughout the menu and there’s no real guarantee that many are strictly vegetarian. On my second visit a vegetarian accompanied me, and he managed to cobble together a decent but uninspired meal. We got excited about the variety of soy “meats” tucked amid the list of barbecued meats–Soy Chicken, Soy Pork, even Soy Duck Tongue and Wings were listed. After some debate, we skipped over the latter and ordered the chicken. A real chicken basted in a soy glaze arrived, much to our consternation. We had to grab the menu again and order a dish that specified “tofu.”
The Braised Tofu with Chinese Mushroom and Greens ($8.50) arrived. Crisp steamed baby bok choy; fried and braised blocks of tofu; and plump, meaty dried shiitake mushrooms were layered on a platter. Their mild flavors rose out of the clear, gloopy sauce that coated them. We preferred the stellar Pea Shoots Sautéed with Garlic ($8.50)–I couldn’t find them on the menu but kept spying them on other tables. Garlic infused the crunchy, emerald pea shoots, metallic and slightly bitter like spinach but bright with snap-pea flavor. On another visit, I tried the Mustard Greens with Bamboo Pith ($12.50), again braised in a transparent sauce. The sharp, bitter taste of the greens overwhelmed the bland, sponge-like texture of the long strips of bamboo.
In the window fronting the open kitchen are strung barbecued chickens, ducks, and suckling pigs, which are chopped up to order. When we inadvertently ordered–and loved–the Supreme Soy Chicken (appetizer plate, $5; whole, $19), it came served over sweet fermented soybeans. The succulent meat was coated with a sweet soy glaze that held a note of star anise. The skin on the BBQ Duck (small plate, $5; whole, $16) wasn’t quite as crisp and lowfat as some I’ve tasted, but the barbecue sauce permeated the rich meat within, which we could lick off the bone.
We also ordered a couple of the more substantial entrées. Lamb in XO Sauce ($10.95) tasted the most like northern Chinese cooking. Tender, mild slices of lamb were stir-fried with snap peas in a rich, slightly spicy sauce. Improbably and imperceptibly, ground dried shrimp and scallop give the XO sauce its kick. The sweet, gingery wine sauce for the Hot Pot with Manila Clams and Frog in Chinese Wine ($13.50) also played a starring role, eclipsing the overcooked clams and the almost meat-free chunks of frog.
Large fish tanks line the back wall of the restaurant, and diners can order seafood by the pound and choose the style of preparation. I saw lobster ($22.99 for two one-pound lobsters) on many tables; Dungeness crab, catfish, geoduck clams, and LA prawns are also available. We chose the daily special, rock cod ($17.99 for a one-pound fish). Our waitress politely insisted that we order it steamed with ginger and green scallion. The whole fish appeared covered in a shower of scallion threads and basted with a ginger-infused soy and rice wine sauce. We scraped the fish off with a spoon and plucked the remnants of flesh from the bones with our chopsticks, dipping each bite in the fragrant sauce.
Most large Cantonese meals end with fresh fruit; desserts are rare. Still, on my first visit we had to try a few of the six offered. The eggy–even sulfurous–steamed Rock Candy Egg Custard ($2.99) ended up almost uneaten. For kicks we ordered the Fungus Braised with Papaya ($3.50). We loved the textural interplay of chunks of papaya, crunchy lotus seeds, and tangles of translucent “white fungus” braised in a supersweet simple syrup flavored with almond. On my second visit, all the diners were served small bowls filled with a grainy, earthy, sweet red bean soup at the end of the meal, and decided that it was a sufficient ending.
Daimo isn’t fancy. The room is sparsely decorated–tile floors, white walls with pink accents–but the room is squeaky clean and well lit. Through a large glass window along the far side of the restaurant one can see most of the kitchen. Crowds of people, most of them Chinese, pack in around the large plastic-topped wood tables that cover the dining room floor. On a Sunday night we had to wait about twenty minutes before being seated.
Despite the prices for more elaborate meals, all diners get bustling noodle-house service: There are not enough waiters and buspeople on staff to attend to diners conscientiously. Most likely you’ll have to look around, and around, to signal your waiter, and you must advocate vociferously on your own behalf when it comes to clearing away tables, getting takeout containers, and paying your bill. The harried pace and occasional language barriers can result in miscommunication. However, all the servers are friendly and happy to answer questions once you snag them.
What makes Daimo great in the end is not just its quality but its variety: hungry shoppers, congee-eating students, and families splurging on lobster are packed next to one another in loud, familial communion. If you’re not familiar with putting together a Cantonese meal, go for a pre-visit: order a big bowl of noodles and shamelessly eavesdrop, look around at other tables, and watch what comes out of the kitchen. You’ll be able to steer your way toward a phenomenal, inexpensive meal with just a little practice.