Sunday, May 20

Top Island Seafood

I recently had the opportunity to eat two meals at Top Island: dinner and dim sum. For those familiar to the area, Top Island inhabits the space that used to be the Wherehouse music store for many years (where I cultivated my own particular collection of rap, pop, and rock). In between, it was a buffet and another seafood restaurant whose name I can't recall. I had been looking forward to eating there, after hearing tales of $50 fish alongside $2.99/pound of peel and eat shrimp from my family, and seeing pictures of the food on Biggest Menu.

We went early for dinner, and it was pleasantly uncrowded. Most Chinese seafood restaurants are so noisy you can't hear yourself think. I think that the only downside of this place is that you pretty much have to speak Cantonese to really get good service here. However, they aren't totally exclusionary of non-Chinese speakers... you just don't get to read the good specials they have advertised in Chinese.

We ended up ordering the watercress with dried duck kidneys soup, deep fried crispy chicken, clams with black bean sauce, BBQ squab, three pounds of the peel and eat shrimp, and the sliced beef with vegetable. The soup started out with a pleasant taste, but ended with a slightly bitter aftertaste because of the watercress. My mom says that watercress is bitter when it's harvested while the weather is hot, and I suppose this is what must have happened with the watercress in the soup. The chicken was good, but since I didn't dip it in the salt and pepper lemon juice sauce, it didn't have enough flavor for me. I didn't try the clams or the squab, but my family thought that they were both delicious. The shrimp were huge, and came with the heads on (how it should be, in my opinion). They were good with the soy dipping sauce, but most didn't have the right, fresh texture I was looking for.

The best part of the meal was the sliced beef with vegetables. The beef was flavorful and tender and coated with this delicious sauce. The beef was sitting on a plateful of perfectly cooked broccoli. The thing that struck me as weird was that it was literally broccoli, and not the Chinese broccoli (gai lan) that it usually is. It's pretty clear that this was one of the best dishes there if my family didn't really care that it wasn't the right broccoli. Dessert was the hot red bean soup, and that wasn't bad, but it wasn't a standout.

The next morning, we went back for dim sum at around 11, and man, was this place packed. We waited for about 30 minutes to be seated. I was surprised, but it was definitely worth the wait. Almost immediately after we sat down, we had our tea and about 5 dishes in front of us. This included: BBQ pork buns (Cha siu bao), shrimp har gow, pork shiu mai, beef tripe, and steamed rice with chicken wrapped in banana leaves (lo mai gai). Everything was delicious, especially my favorite, the beef tripe. I usually judge my dim sum by the cha siu bao, and here the meat was flavorful and the steamed bun was great, with no soggy bottoms. This is what our table looked like:

The weird thing was that the women pushing the carts did not call out what they were plying. You basically had to keep an eye out and recognize which carts were offering what you wanted, or ask the women what they had in their carts. A part of me liked not being bothered, but the other part didn't like having to put so much effort to find what I liked. We ended up ordering more food which included: Turnip cake (lo bak go), ham siu gok (little football-shaped rice sheets wrapping a meaty filling and then deep fried), and steamed chicken feet (fung jeo). More deliciousness, except for the chicken feet which I did not touch, but which my mom insists were delicious.

Also, when you go for dim sum, you'll be looking around for napkins. Where are they? They are in this cute little pouch that looks like a travel size tissue with the restaurant's logo, address, and telephone number. I kept it for myself at the end of the meal.

I think that I would definitely go there again for dim sum, and I think the flavor was on par with some of the bigger dim sum places like 888 and Ocean Star, minus the 2 hour wait. For dinner, I'd stick with tried and true favorites, and the fresh fish. I was pleasantly surprised by this place, and am thankful for its proximity to my house!

Top Island Seafood Restaurant

740 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 300-9898

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Blogger Lillian said...

I need to add that their "snow mountain buns" are very good. They're fresh, steaming hot, and the outer shell is has a wonderful crunch crisp feeling. Their egg white and milk filling is also pretty good and not overly sweet.

I have to admit one thing though: their service is not exactly good.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Sharona said...

That's true about the service. I guess I don't expect service to be that great at these Chinese seafood restaurants unless we've paid for a private room and then they are trying to impress you. =)

5:11 PM  
Blogger Jae Ly said...

I definitely agree with Lillian on Top Island's "Snow Mountain Buns" (I didn't know they were called that). They were my favorite part of their dim sum. They were crunchy goodness and you described it perfectly, especially with it not being overly sweet. I usually love Pineapple Custard Buns, but they tasted just-OK at Top Island.

The dim sum overall was acceptable, but I wasn't wild about it. The service was fine, but as Sharona said you would have to ask each cart server what they had rather than listen to them calling it out. Another odd thing I noticed was a table pitted in the corner seated with customers located next to a large trash can and tubs of dirty dishes they were clearing out. Top Island also served ice water in red plastic cups, the kind you associate with college drinking parties.

Usually at dim sum, I judge the food by how delicate and flavorful it is. My favorite Dim Sum restaurants in the Los Angeles area are Mission 261 (albeit more pricey, but a wonderful ambiance and food) and NBC Seafood (good prices, gets the job done).

I have not found a Dim Sum restaurant in Los Angeles that has rivaled the impeccable standards of Ton Kiang in San Francisco. I highly recommend anyone visiting to try it at least once, even if the prices are much higher than standard places. It is definitely worth the money you are spending!

The Ha Gow is small, but it is fresh, tightly wrapped and handled with care. The Don Tah (Egg Custard Tarts) are the size of quarter dollars but packs much more flavor than some I've had at NBC Seafood that were the size of moon pies.

Ton Kiang does not have carts, but servers carrying trays of food around the two-story restaurant. They have more selections on weekends, such as Pineapple Buns, Calamari, creatively-sliced fresh fruit, etc. The servers also called out dishes in English, something I have not been accustomed to in Monterey Park.

I have only been to Top Island once, but perhaps on a second visit, I'll reevaluate.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Jae Ly said...

I forgot to mention I was not fond of Top Island's napkins/travel size tissues Sharona pictured in her review. I'm not bothered by the size or tissues but Top Island's tissues had an overpowering rose-perfumed scent. For a napkin, the strong fragrance was irritating and distracting.

I would suggest those with allergies steer clear of these tissues and ask a server for plain, unscented napkins.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Lillian said...

oh, I should also mention.. don't be misled by the $$$ range! In total, the entire meal would be in the $$$ range. This place is actually one of the cheapest places to get dim sum.

and I agree with the napkins. I had a problem with the scent too.

6:08 PM  

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