A trio of pastries is hiding in a corner of a dim sum cart at Hong Kong Pearl Seafood Restaurant. They look like three curled-up caterpillars just beginning to cocoon themselves in a flaky, translucent, lime-green dough. Fascinated, I ask the cart pusher what they are. She repeatedly points to the wrong plate, as if she were trying to grab my dish in zero gravity.
Finally, another employee approaches and informs me, in a kind but emphatic voice, that I don’t want those pastries. Which is the wrong thing to tell me. Now I want them more than eternal life and a good bagel. But one bite into the caterpillar and I understand why the crew had warned me: The pastries are packed with a thick yellow custard that smells like used sweat socks left in a laundry hamper for days with overripe pineapples.
It’s durian, my first taste of the fruit so stinky it’s banned from Singapore’s mass transit system. Its aroma, mercifully, is worse than its flavor. The filling smacks of tropical fruit, somewhere between a pineapple and jack fruit, which helps to silence my inner Beavis and Butt-head, who wonders if this is what fermented gym shorts taste like. Heehee, hee. He said fermented gym shorts.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be gross. I don’t even mean to subvert Rule No. 17-B/203.5 of the Food Critic’s Handbook, which demands all reviews end with a discussion of desserts, not lead with them. What I mean to do is point out something important about this Falls Church operation: It caters to hardcore fans of Hong Kong-style dim sum, the cuisine created in Guangzhou, China, but quickly embraced by Hong Kong chefs with a wider culinary focus.
Hong Kong Pearl is owner Wayne Lam’s palatial, pink-tablecloth space where he can show off the sweet, pristine seafood he has been importing for more than a decade via his Wing Fat wholesale company. (Trivia time: The Chinese logograms under the restaurant’s English signage translate into “Wing Fat seafood restaurant,” according to Lam’s daughter, Priscilla Lam, who serves as general manager. “Wing fat” means “forever fortune” in Chinese, she notes.)
When he started his restaurant, Wayne Lam scanned the country for cooks who could best re-create the flavors of his native Hong Kong. His search led to New York, where his two main chefs live when not commuting and working at Hong Kong Pearl: Can Zhu oversees the entire restaurant while Man Tsang handles the dim sum menu, which is offered seven days a week.
Much of the seafood available here busts my budget, particularly those live lobsters awaiting their fate in tanks at the back of the dining room. I sampled a few plates, such as the sizzling scallop and squid in black pepper sauce, a bubbling fajitas-style cast-iron platter piled high with seafood, all ivory and glistening and just begging to be devoured. The dish’s freshness was not an issue; the cooking and cleaning were, as my teeth occasionally rattled against scallop grit or worked overtime on a chewy length of squid. I found the crispy flounder appetizer, tender fillets stir-fried with garlic and chili peppers, a more rewarding bite, at once delicate and assertive.
But the majority of my visits were dedicated to the daily dim sum menu, which exhibits all the highs and lows of a Stravinsky orchestral movement. On a weeknight, you might have to play a game of 20 questions to learn what dishes are actually available, and even when available, some resemble sickly tubercular patients compared to the robust athletes that strut around Hong Kong Pearl on weekends. One Tuesday evening, I slogged through a steam bun that tasted as if it had been stuffed with cheap, utility-grade pork. The spare ribs in black bean sauce came with exactly six fermented soybeans, not nearly enough to give up the funk (We want the funk!).
No, the time to dine on dim sum is the weekend, when Hong Kong Pearl sometimes opens at 9 a.m. to accommodate the expat community accustomed to breaking the fast with small plates. The cavernous dining room fills fast with diners waiting on the rolling carts, which practically overflow with dishes catering to the Chinese palate: chicken feet (gelatinous, bony, fragrant with five spice), beef tendon (rich, with a tingling heat), chive dumplings (forcefully pungent, melt-in-your-mouth wrappers), shrimp crepe (nutty, delicate, accented with sweetened soy), fried dough wrapped in rice crepes (slippery and sweet, with a contrasting fried chewiness), shumai dumpling (gossamer wrappers, firm pork-and-shrimp filling), salt-and-pepper squid (lightly coated, with just enough texture to remind you that you’re supping on cephalopods).
And on and on, more than 60 dishes for the taking every weekend.
One of Hong Kong Pearl’s weekend carts is even outfitted with a deep well for house-made congee, a relative rarity on local dim sum menus. Pieces of preserved egg and pork are suspended among the slow-cooked rice grains that break down into this thick, velvety porridge. Except my porridge was not so thick and velvety; it was thin and soupy, perhaps a concession to the high volume of Hong Kong Pearl’s weekend dim sum. The kitchen just may not have had enough time to coax those grains into proper congee.
Just as I’m ready to dock the place points for its willingness to cut corners on the congee, along come the durian pastries, which jolt me back to reality: Hong Kong Pearl really does strive to channel the flavors of home, no matter how foreign to Western tastes.
So did I like the treats? I liked them enough to share with the table next to me. Heehee, hee.
6286 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 703-237-1388.
Hours: Monday-Friday 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Nearest Metro: East Falls Church, with a 1.3-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: Dim sum, $2.75-$8.95.