Dim Sum Dynasty

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, September 11, 2009

It’s a typical Sunday around noon at New Canton. Light streams in from glass-block windows facing Broadway. The tablecloths are pink. The chopsticks are green. 250 people are already seated in the second-floor dining hall. More wait in line, hoping someone leaves – and soon.

“Our mission is really introducing the culture of dim sum to the mainstream in Sacramento and surrounding area,” says Alan Chan. He’s a co-owner of the only restaurant on Broadway where it’s all dim sum all the time. He was born in Hong Kong and grew up eating dim sum. He thinks dim sum shouldn’t be enjoyed just by Asians.

“When we first started, probably 95% of our patrons were Asian. Now mainstream Americans, so to speak, are 40 to 45% of our business,” Chan says

The rule used to be that too many white people in a Chinese restaurant meant the food was suitable only for unadventurous American palates, but Chan disagrees.

“Not this day and age. I want everybody to try everything. I want to expand my market.”

Chan’s magic bullet? Dim sum. It's a category of food apart from the rest of Cantonese cooking.
            Dim means “point” or “touch.” Sum means “heart.” You point to what you want – your heart’s desire -- from your seat at the table.
An endless conga line of carts roams the room and will pass by sooner or later. Young women -- never men – pushing the carts call out what’s on them. 

            One girl sings out: "Chicken feet! Spare ribs!"

If you don’t want spare ribs, wait a few minutes. Maybe the cart with roast duck, or those soft rice noodles with a name you can’t pronounce is on the way from the kitchen.

Egg rolls may be loved by all, but Chan’s customers are also game for the I’ll-have-what-they’re-having kinds of food -- frogs legs and chicken feet. Pork cheeks and duck tongue. Jellyfish. Snails.

For Chan, there’s no shying away from presenting Asian exotica to everyone. “We are definitely new wave Chinese,” he says.

Dim sum’s got a 5,000-year-old tradition of small bites, but Chan considers dim sum the future of Cantonese food. When many restaurants can barely hold their own in a down economy, New Canton runs more than 1,000 people through the Sunday rush. By the time it’s over, the usual take is $12,000. Chan claims Mother’s Day can bring in $20,000.

The partnership that owns New Canton is called Culinary Wonderland, Inc. Chan joined after a finance career in New York. Except for his drive to eat well and often, Chan was no food expert -- yet. But he was ingrained with Hong Kong’s spirit for business.

“Business to me means money-making activities,” Chan says. “When I started this restaurant business I was really an amateur because I’d never done restaurant before. But, restaurant is still a business. And, if you’re a business man, I think you can manage any kind of business. When people see our Sunday chaos, I have customer come up to me say this is amazing. How do you guys do that?

Chaos? It only looks like that to diners. Behind the bustle, Chan and his team have elevated the business of dim sum to something resembling a corporate organization chart.

            “To serve good dim sum,” Chan says, “you’ve got to have that dim sum department.”

            The dim sum department has a crew of nine to wrap, fold, pleat and pat more than 100 dim sum varieties into shape, from pork buns to potstickers.

            Chan says to get it done, it takes a team. “No one person makes an entire potsticker,” Chan says. “It’s an assembly line. They have to produce 10 finished potstickers in a minute.”

            The most popular dim sum would  be the hardest to make. That’s har gow, a shrimp dumpling. It’s got a see-through wrapper pleated into the shape of a bonnet, and it’s the benchmark of skill. Really, they look impossible.

Head dim sum chef Gee (jee) Lau says har gow has a sticky dough that’s difficult to stuff and shape.

“Each wrapper is hand made,” Lau says. “It’s wheat starch. It’s really hard to make because of the texture, and then you have to wrap it immediately.

Lee says it’s not easy to stay focused on hundreds of the same thing. “Not everybody can handle that,” he said. “If you don’t have the passions, you would think that this is boring work. You also have to be mentally and physically prepared.”

Chan and Culinary Wonderland Inc., have opened two more dim sum palaces in the Sacramento area under their Bay Area flag Asian Pearl. To keep up with what’s new, Chan and his team take frequent trips to China -- and eat.

“It’s not our style to sit still. We don’t want to follow,” Chan says, “we want to lead. The view only change for the top dog.”

For Chan, Hong Kong isn’t really that different from Sacramento when it comes to dim sum. Small bites can mean big profits.

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