Regaining Lost Luster

The best dim sum dishes at Emerald aren’t the dumplings. The chicken bean curd roll tasted like chicken, not MSG.

You can still get a good dumpling at Emerald Chinese Seafood Restaurant (3709 Convoy Street, Suite 101), but your chances aren’t as good as they once were. One remodel and one ownership change down the line, gone is the romance of the rolling carts and some of the precision of what for a very long time made Emerald a local legend. But for those willing to dine beyond the dumpling, there’s still some good food at the restaurant.

For a generation, Emerald and Jasmine Seafood Restaurant (a mile up Convoy Street) were more than just the pinnacle of San Diego dim sum. They helped teach many San Diegans that Chinese food went far beyond mu shu, moo goo gai pan and the other familiar offerings of Americanized Chinese fare (I’m looking at you, General Tso). Diners learned by picking “little bites from the heart” (one of several translations of “dim sum”) off of rolling carts tantalized by the promise that the perfect dish was coming on the cart just around the corner. Then, in 2015 Emerald remodeled and the carts were gone. The remodeled version never quite got its footings and new owners took over within two and a half years.

One of the most basic dim sum offerings is siu mai, pork and shrimp dumplings garnished with orange fish roe. They came out of the kitchen looking absolutely gorgeous: plump and glistening. But the promise of the look did not carry through in the eating. Instead of being light and airy and tasting intensely of pork and shrimp the texture was heavy and the flavors dull. There was, frankly, a sameness to many of the dumplings that spoke of one thing:  MSG (and I’m not an MSG-phobe).

The story was much the same with the chive dumplings (called “leek” dumplings on the menu). They came out looking gorgeous, with an intriguing yellow color (albeit perhaps under caramelized). But the base of the filling could have been chicken, pork or even shrimp because all I could taste was MSG and chives. The har gow, ordinarily one of the most elegant of dim sum steamed dumplings, came out heavy and inconsistently wrapped.

Emerald’s nondumpling offerings were better. The chicken bean curd roll tasted, first and foremost, of chicken (not MSG). The light, filament yuba skin offered textural interest and the meaty, stew-like sauce brought it all together.

But perhaps the best dish at Emerald was the stewed beef tripe. It is everything one might not expect in a tripe dish and not a lot of what one might expect. There’s not a bit of minerally flavor but, instead, a deep savory quality studded by a few slices of green onion. It’s the variety of textures from the different pieces of tripe that really make the dish.

The food at Emerald is not what it once was. The romance of dim sum at Emerald is not what it once was. But the simple fact is that we don’t have great dim sum in San Diego. Emerald, in truth, has struggled to regain its former status. But order well and you can still enjoy some good dim sum.