Restaurant review: J.S. Chen's Dimsum and BBQ (Rating )
By LESLIE BRENNER / Restaurant Critic
PLANO – If you think good dim sum means long waits, a cavernous room with all the charm of a banquet hall and brusque service, you haven't been to J.S. Chen's Dimsum and BBQ. The modest-size dining room, in a spiffy newish Asian shopping mall on Legacy Drive, has a touch of style, with sconce lighting, a warm beige and brown color scheme and a contemporary feel. At lunchtime on a Saturday, the 10-month-old restaurant is filled with multigenerational Chinese families, ordering har gow (shrimp dumplings) and char siu bao (steamed pork buns) from a cart, spinning the Lazy Susan to get another helping of gai lan (Chinese broccoli).
And the dim sum at J.S. Chen's isn't just good, it's excellent.
Take the dumplings. Steamed ones filled with garlic chives and shrimp have delicate translucent skin that let the bright green chives show through. The plump shrimp are top-quality, and the filling holds just the right balance of delicately garlicky greens to seafood. They're so good, no one in my party even thinks of dipping them in sauce. In fact, that can be said for all of the dumplings I sampled in two visits: They're all so flavorful and juicy, no sauce is necessary. Big pleated Shanghai-style dumplings filled with pork and vegetables are so juicy that they squirt when you bite into them, like soup dumplings.
Paper-thin tofu skins, filled with saucy chopped shiitake, wood ear and other mushrooms; carrots; water chestnuts; baby corn; and bamboo shoots, have super earthy appeal; the pan-fried skins have wonderful texture.
There's fun to be had, too – especially barbecue beef fun roll, voluptuous white crêpelike noodles rolled around terrific barbecue beef with mushrooms. (A barbecue pork fun roll wasn't quite as much fun.)
We all should get used to eating jellyfish: Oceanographers say they might be among the few plentiful creatures left in the ocean if global warming continues unabated. At J.S. Chen, they're deliciously refreshing; the chewy, fettucinelike strips are given a light, sweet pickle treatment, with shredded carrots, daikon and a garnish of cilantro. A dish of pickled vegetables – cucumbers, carrots and daikon – is good too, but redundant with the jellyfish.
For the less intrepid, there's pillowy char siu bao, practically bursting with its saucy barbecue pork filling, or fried shrimp balls the size of golf balls, served with a sweet duck sauce.
Lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice may be the best rendition of this dish I've tasted. Many restaurants leave you on your own to wrestle with unwrapping it, but here a server neatly snips it open with scissors. Inside, the moist, well-seasoned rice is rich with chicken, Chinese pork sausage, ground pork and shiitakes.
Bright green gai lan (Chinese broccoli) comes in a pretty stack, cut in small enough pieces to manage easily with chopsticks, and a sumptuous deep-brown oyster sauce for dipping. Oh, and don't overlook the chunky squares of creamy, pan-fried turnip cake. It's hard not to overeat here.
But wait: We almost forgot barbecue! The superb duck, with its glistening skin, had me literally licking my fingers. I'll be back for barbecue pork.
The service at J.S. Chen's is very open and friendly, whether it's the women wheeling the carts around on weekends, or servers shuttling plates from the kitchen on weekdays, when you order from a menu rather than the carts.
Both have their advantages. With the carts, you can simply get what looks great and appeals in the moment; with the menu, you can plan out your meal and be sure not fill up before your favorite dishes make an appearance.
Either way, servers were happy to explain a dish or make suggestions. If they sometimes struggled with English, they were always cheerful about it, doing their best and making Westerners feel as comfortable as a Chinese grandmother.
This came in handy at dinner, when everything sounded so good I was about to over-order again. The Chef's Specials section of the menu is where the action is; there you'll find Peking duck, which I can never resist.
It was only after we ordered that we realized there's no beer or wine served.
So I dashed into the giant Asia World Market next door (worth a trip in itself: fresh lychees, $1.99 per pound!) and picked up a six-pack of Tsing Tao beer; there's a good selection of sakes as well, some of them chilled. The servers at J.S. Chen's happily brought us glasses and opened bottles.
The duck landed on the table, a thing of beauty: the beautifully carved meat splayed over a platter, with a separate tray of steamed buns (that's the Cantonese way; pancakes are available on request). Open one, smear on some hoisin sauce, layer in a piece of duck and maybe an extra piece of fantastically crisp skin, insert a frilly scallion for coolness and crunch, and taste. It's one of the world's great dishes, and this is an admirable rendition.
There are lots of other intriguing selections. Sliced conch with baby bok choy in abalone sauce? Definitely next time. Beef with bitter melon in black bean sauce? Sign me up. Lamb with dry tofu hot pot? I can't wait. Barbecue duck thick vermicelli soup? Put me on the next train to Plano!
But this time, we settled on one of the live Dungeness crab dishes – with black bean sauce, or ginger and onion, or ... cheese? Our server steered us toward one stuffed with special fried rice and bathed in spicy garlic sauce, and we weren't sorry. Especially when a heaping plate of sautéed snow pea shoots landed next it, delicate, perfectly cooked, fabulous.
And if you think you can't get a great dessert at a dim sum place, think again. The fried sesame balls, a dim sum favorite, are excellent, filled with sweet bean paste and fried to order, so they might take a bit, but they're hot and perfect when they come to the table. At dim sum on weekends, you can snag them from the cart; they're great with hot tea. Ask the server to snip them in half.
But whatever you do, do not miss the mango pudding. The golden quivering sweet has a texture like a stiff panna cotta, and the most amazing, intense mango flavor. It's a lovely way to end a memorable feast.