South Sea Seafood Village: Special Tea, Good Siu Mai
Most dim sum houses have a selection of tea, but don't usually advertise it. Somebody says, "Tea?" You say yes, and you get a pot of watery oolong made from the cheapest tea bags available.
Photos by W. Blake Gray
South Sea Seafood Village has a small sideline in selling imported teas, including one of only dried rosebuds, and discs of expensive aged pu-erh. So it's no wonder South Sea Seafood (say it 10 times fast) has a special tea menu stapled to the regular dim sum menu.
In a very good dim sum restaurant, the special tea is the best deal.
For $3 a person, you can choose a variety of teas: We like the pu-erh (a house specialty) and the potent dragon well green tea, as well as the special oolong.
Sliced cold pork shank with jellyfish
As an incentive, everyone at the table gets one special dim sum of their choice, included in the $3. We like the abalone siu mai, with a sliver of abalone atop a plump pork siu mai.
Abalone siu mai
But we're skipping the best part: the entertainment. For $3 a person, you get an elaborate serving ceremony that quiets the table. A young woman in a fluffy pink top brings over a wooden box with slats, a kettle of hot water, and various other implements. She washes everything with the hot water -- the cup you'll eventually pour from, and the individual drinking cups as well. Then she makes a pot of tea and repeats the whole process, washing the glasses with tea and discarding the tea. The few minutes of watching this devotion to getting the flavor of tea right sets an appreciative tone for the whole dim sum experience.
The second-best part of SSSV is, unsurprisingly, the seafood. The fish tanks in the back are clean, well-kept, and stocked with interesting undersea creatures, many of which are pretty expensive by the pound. We like to order a fish, and we always do so as soon as we can after the tea ceremony because it takes a little while to prepare. We're honest with the staff, who generally speak good English: We want a cheap fish.
Waiting to be brunch
Don't do this if you're sitting at a table with squeamish people -- yeah, we know, squeamish people shouldn't eat dim sum, but hear us out -- because a couple of minutes later a staffer will bring you the live fish thrashing in a bucket for your approval. You nod, and the fish disappears into the kitchen. It will reappear about 20 minutes later, simply steamed with a little soy sauce, green onions, and ginger. Usually this costs a little under $20 for the whole fish, and it's often the highlight of the meal: You simply can't get fish fresher than this unless you're dining at sea.
South Sea Seafood Village is surprisingly reasonably priced during brunch dim sum hours for a restaurant that has such pricey fish in the tanks to serve at night; it's more expensive than grottier places across the park on Clement, but cheaper than more American-friendly places like Ton Kiang or Yank Sing (isn't everywhere?). It's a menu-ordering place, with 94 items -- 29 under $3 -- although servers also occasionally stroll around with trays.
But it's in the special orders -- most of which are $5 -- that South Sea Seafood Village stands above most of the San Francisco crowd. There are many unusual items here, many of them from the ocean.
Sliced cold pork shank with jellyfish ($5) is the very last dish on the menu, and one of the best. We usually eat the two items separately, but both are stellar: thin slices of well-cooked pork with ropy strands of jellyfish.