Takeout Time: Palette Tea Garden
If you are seriously into quantity versus quality, then Palette Tea Garden in San Mateo’s Hillsdale Shopping Center might not be the place for you.
But if you’re craving top-notch dim sum made with premium ingredients — and don’t mind splurging a bit — then head here pronto.
That’s exactly what I did recently, intent on getting some superlative takeout dim sum in honor of the Lunar New Year.
Palette Tea Garden is owned by the same folks behind Koi Palace, which started in Daly City, and is the sister restaurant to Palette Tea House in San Francisco.
While I’ve enjoyed Palette’s xiao long baos before, I opted not to get them to-go, fearing they would not travel well. Instead, I opted for ha gow (four for $8) that were plump with shrimp, and siu mai (four for $7) that had a juicy filling of ground pork, shiitakes, and shrimp.
Sticker-shock may come into play when you first lay eyes on the Iberico cha siu pork. Admittedly, I was taken aback at seeing all of about seven small slices in the $27 order. No doubt, my frugal late-father would have been aghast. But there’s no denying this was one of the most delectable pieces of cha siu I’ve ever eaten. Made from Iberico pigs, who gorge on acorns, this pork gushed with fatty juices from the first bite. With so much marbling, it’s a very rich tasting pork. In fact, even one small slice is enough to satisfy. Paper-thin slices of Asian pear garnish the pork, providing a sweet and bright palate cleanser.
Wagyu beef chow fun ($24) is another stepped-up version of a classic. My husband took a bite, and exclaimed, “Wow, this beef actually has flavor!” It’s funny how we’ve grown so accustomed to lackluster beef in run-of-the-mill versions of chow fun. That’s why this one stands out immediately. The beef does indeed have robust flavor and a great melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Moreover, there’s plenty of it, too. The rice noodles are slightly narrower than most, but plenty soft and bouncy in texture.
You can also enjoy Wagyu in a less expensive option — in black pepper seared baos (three for $7.50). These pillowy, toasty baos hide a filling of minced Wagyu flavored with plenty of black pepper.
Don’t pass up the restaurant’s rice noodle rolls because they are simply impeccable. Palette offers several versions of these steamed sheets of rice flour noodles that get folded around fillings then doused with warm, sweetened soy sauce. It’s one of my favorite dim sum items, and the Palette ones are the freshest, most custardy ones I’ve had in ages. Even the next day, should you have leftovers, they remain incredibly supple.
The rainbow prawn one ($10) is adorned with stripes of color and filled with large whole shrimp and garlic chives for a winning combination. The unagi ($12) one is a version I haven’t seen elsewhere. The sweetly sauced eel familiar in sushi gets covered in a lacy crepe that stays crisp inside the rice noodle, creating an unexpected textural contrast.
A must-order is the “Impossible” mapo tofu ($18), of which I simply can’t get enough. Instead of cubes of tofu with beef or pork in a spicy, saucy mix, this is a novel rendition that features a whole block of tofu instead. It’s like Japanese agedashi tofu meets Chinese mapo tofu. The block of tofu has a lightly battered coating, then gets piled with Impossible Meat crumbles in a fairly fiery sauce full of chilies and tingling Sichuan peppercorns. I admire how this riff lets each ingredient get its due instead of becoming a jumbled mass.
The egg custard tarts (two for $8) were still a little warm when I got them home. So, bonus points for that. The flaky crust holds a filling that’s creamy, fluffy and eggy, making them a perfect just-sweet-enough ending to your takeout bonanza.
Pro Tip: If you’d rather eat your dim sum right away at the restaurant, but are still primarily eating outdoors, just be aware that Palette Tea Garden doesn’t always have its outside tables available. A workaround for that, though, is to order the dim sum to-go, then head to the upstairs food court, where you’ll find plenty of outdoor tables to use. It can get windy there, so be sure to have a sweater or jacket at the ready.