Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
The waiter at Hang Ah Dim Sum in Santa Rosa had just set down a bamboo basket brimming with chicken feet, and my mom, who had insisted she wanted to try them, was having second thoughts.
Though they looked terrible—like old, gnarled hands coated with slimy, brown gelatin that was black bean sauce—I assured her that they didn't taste too terrible, sort of like really overcooked poultry skin and cartilage tinged with chile. She shrugged and plucked one up. If this was payback for all the odd things she'd insisted I sample when I was a pre-teen living in Japan, she was getting off easy.
The feet (or "claws," as they're called on the menu; $2.50) are the most exotic items at this simple shop, opened in May as an extension of the restaurant by the same name in San Francisco. There are no real bees in the bee's nest taro puffs ($3.50); they're so named for their tangled hairlike, crispy exterior. And despite their compelling name, the crispy glutinous puffs ($2.50) are mere dough rolls.
There's been a lot of buzz about Hang Ah, probably because it's the first time in forever that Santa Rosa has had dim sum. Also, I think, because it's set in a former A&W on a side street to the freeway that's pretty tough to get to if you don't know exactly where you're going, and that makes it kind of cool. Certainly the prices are murmur-worthy, with a whole passel of plates for $2.50 (small), $3.50 (medium) and $4.50 (large). A selection of "chef's specials," like shark fin dumplings in broth, max out at $6.50.
But I don't think many folks are cheering about the dim sum itself. While it's not bad, it's not particularly good, in that cheap Chinese buffet kind of way. You know what I mean: barbecue pork ribs are four to an order ($6.50) and decently meaty, but are glazed in sweet, sticky syrup. Fat eggplant slices stuffed with shrimp cake ($4.50) might be nice, but they're so oil-drenched I couldn't taste anything else. And while I really want to love the deep-fried curry roll ($2.50)—what's not to like about spicy beef paste tucked in flaky egg roll wrapper?—it's dripping with so much grease that my chin shines after the first bite.
Hang Ah makes its dim sum to order, my flustered server tells me, as he races by trying to take care of a packed room (87 capacity) that's been beautifully exorcised of any A&W-ness with cherry-wood walls, green-tea-hued window blinds and an elaborate Chinese altar next to the pass-through kitchen. A few well-laden carts wobble by, but it's more efficient to circle our choices on a paper menu and get them delivered.
Mom and I down a trio of thick-skinned pork and cabbage pot stickers ($3.50) quite happily. A small mountain of Chinese broccoli ($2.50) is pleasingly crunchy even doused in oyster sauce. And the immensely fatty duck ($6.50) disappears without complaint.
Santa Rosa has been craving dim sum, I understand. But for the really good stuff, rather than Hang Ah, I think I'll hang on a little longer.
Hang Ah Dim Sum, 2130 Armory Drive, Santa Rosa. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.576.7873.
Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.