Keeping the traditional art of dim sum alive at Lincoln Seafood Restaurant

  • A cart-full of dim sum pastries at Lincoln Seafood Restaurant. Photo by Allison Ko.

  • Lincoln Seafood Restaurant inside Monterey Park's Lincoln Plaza Hotel. Photo by Allison Ko.

  • Dim sum carts are quickly disappearing from restaurants, with owners seeking to maximize profits using menus and order sheets. Photo by Allison Ko.

  • Shrimp dumplings are a staple of traditional Hong Kong-style dim sum. Photo by Allison Ko.

Location

Monterey Park , CA United States

As the heavy glass doors are pushed open, Chinese families’ weekend dim sum rituals begin. Patrons are greeted with noise, crowds and a mix of 50 different smells.

Metal carts loaded with bite-sized pork shumai, steamed chicken feet, coconut buns and congee tottle between cramped isles in the sea of brimming tables and upholstered chairs.

The air is thick with loud conversations, clattering trolleys, shifting chairs and cart ladies calling out their offered dishes as they cruise the big room. Each of the cart pushers, like street hawkers, tries to convince you to order something as she pushes a dish onto your table. Often, if you have not put up definite verbal opposition, you end up with a spread of dishes you did not really want.

The environment is almost aggressive, lasting up to the afternoon, when the dim sum carts retreat until the next day’s rush.

Dim sum gets its name from the Chinese phrase meaning “small dish,” or “snack.” It has now come to encompass the entire meal of dishes and tea drinking as well as the restaurant.

But the revered scenes of Chinese family weekend mornings are no longer so typical. Rapidly changing in both Asia and America, the traditional system of buying dishes from the dim sum carts is already nearly nonexistent in Hong Kong – the dim sum capital of the world.

With rising rents and greater competition, nearly all the dim sum restaurants now opt for menus and order sheets. This system is seen as both more profitable and appealing to consumers. Eliminating the trolleys reduces the amount of space required, and the workers who push the trolleys are no longer needed.

With less activity in the dining area, the new, quieter system with made-to-order dishes provides a more refined, Western feel that appeals to younger customers. Although a win-win for owners and customers, the new system has allowed the traditional dim sum cart to become quickly obsolete in many regions, including Hong Kong.

To get an understanding of what the more traditional dim sum eateries are going through, I visited Monterey Park’s Lincoln Seafood Restaurant on a Tuesday morning. Despite it being a weekday and fairly early the dining room at the Lincoln Plaza Hotel was already bustling with comforting smells and noise.

Restaurant owner Paul Lung is a slim man with kind eyes, a baggy button-up shirt, and a weathered face. Asked what it’s like managing the restaurant, he said simply, “Tiring.”

After the restaurant had been closed for three months in 2017, Lung was asked by the hotel proprietor to help revive it. Since he acquired the Lincoln Seafood Restaurant, Lung has not missed a day, managing the restaurant from 7:30 in the morning until closing at 10 at night, seven days a week. “Tiring” very much sums it up.

What keeps customers coming? Since its reopening, the place has become one of the busiest weekend dim sum restaurants. “We have quality food and cheap prices,” Lung said proudly. “Ninety percent of our dishes are handmade,” he said, adding, “Everything is made fresh in the morning – we don’t resell items from the day before.” On weekdays, dishes start at $2.68 each: a fraction the price of more upscale dim sum eateries. Lung added that many people prefer cart-delivered dishes because the food is already right in front of them: “They like to see what they’re ordering.”

Cecilia Wong, a Lincoln regular, brings her elderly mother often. Friendly and animated, Wong said she likes how the restaurant is “out of the way.” Lincoln is old-school, she said, but it is nice how you can just sit around and sip tea for hours. Because of this, Lincoln has become the perfect community meetup for retired Chinese-Americans.

Despite its successes, Lung said the restaurant is not doing all that well. With more than 30 staff members cooking and working the carts – triple the number required for a menu-ordering restaurant – and with both low prices and high quality, Lung said it is impossible to make large profits. In addition, about  a third of the customers are older, often retired, people who come every day.

“My goal,” Lung said, “is to keep the restaurant alive.”

The Lincoln Seafood Restaurant is located on 123 S Lincoln Ave, Monterey Park, CA 91755. It’s open every day from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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