Dan Modern Chinese focuses on dumplings, noodles in Pasadena
Dan Modern Chinese in Pasadena is a long, narrow, modernist dim sum house that serves its small menu of dumplings, buns, soups, fried rice and a tiny handful of entrees all day. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)
To find the diminutive Dan Modern Chinese, you have to meander into the plaza of The Commons on Lake Avenue, back where you’ll find branches of Philz Coffee, SugarFish and Lemonade. There, semi-hidden at first glance, is Dan — a clean, modern, glass-fronted dumpling house, offering a minimalist selection of dim sum at all hours. And the better we are for it.
As you know, the nearby Chinese enclaves of Monterey Park, Alhambra, Rosemead and San Gabriel teem with dim sum houses, some of them massive Hong Kong-style food halls, where the dumplings are served for a late breakfast and lunch only. Show up in the evening with a craving for shui mai or har gow, and you’re out of luck. But as we leave Valley Boulevard and environs, the rules get a lot looser.
Lunasia Dim Sum House has been offering dumplings since 2015 on Colorado Boulevard just east of Old Pasadena. Over in the Westfield Santa Anita mall, a branch of the increasingly ubiquitous Din Tai Fung offers the noodles and soup dumplings with a full bar — and a guaranteed wait most of the time.
Dan certainly fits into that move to dim sum all the time. But it’s also unique in the sheer…coziness of its setting. Modernist, yes. But still, a very comfy place in which to contemplate the joys of xiao long bao — soup dumplings, of which Dan offers seven variations. Which is also unique; even the best known of the soup dumpling shops offer…one soup dumpling. But at Dan, there’s pork, pork and crab, pork and shrimp, chicken, chicken and crab, chicken and shrimp, and vegetable.
The funny thing about all those variations is that for most of us, the wonder of the soup dumpling is the small miracle of hot soup…wrapped in a dumpling, a culinary parlor trick that’s taught the wise among us to gobble with caution. Pop a steaming hot soup dumpling in your mouth, and expect a palate burn that will stay with you for awhile.
The trick is to bite with a certain delicacy — not easy when there’s a tempting basket of dumplings before you.(And for the record, though locally soup dumplings tend to come in one flavor, multi-flavored can be found out there. Paradise Dynasty in the Philippines even serves eight different dumplings in eight brightly color pastry wrappers. A very festive bamboo basket of food.)
The menu at Dan is, at present, both brief, and sufficient. (There’s a suggestion on the menu that it will grow as the restaurant finds its legs.) But I certainly had no problem putting together a proper dim sum feast, adding numerous of the five non-soup dumplings to my table (pork, pork and crab, pork and shrimp, chicken and vegetable), each available steamed, pan-fried or crispy.
Mixing and matching them is fun, and tasty. Though the menu does note that crispy “will take 30 minutes.” And most of us will have finished inhaling the meal by then.
There are puffy buns as well, both steamed and pan-fried; I prefer steamed, which is the traditional prep, and somehow even sweeter and more appealing — a savory dish that feels like a dessert, especially with its filing of pork in a sweetish sauce.
And there’s more, but not much. There’s a trio of noodle soups, and very good they are too, especially if the chilly weather ever returns. There are five flavors of fried rice, which isn’t really a dim sum dish, but then this is a new school dumping house, and pretty much anything goes — including a singular “large plate” of the Taiwanese favorite Three Cup Chicken, so named because of the three cups of sauce used to cook it — soy, rice wine and sesame oil.
Though dumpling hoses aren’t known for their greens, there is, once again, enough here to satisfy. There’s a fine seaweed salad, and a requisite bowl of pickled cucumbers — you’ve got to have your pickled cucumbers to straighten out your palate after too many flavors. There are string beans, spinach, broccoli and pea sprouts, all cooked with garlic, not too much, but it’s there.
The kitchen is open, visible, efficient enough to get the dishes to you with enough haste that, with a happy tummy, you can meander into Williams Sonoma next door, perhaps inspired to pick up a wok.
Though as I’ve found over the years, while there’s pleasure to making dim sum at home, there’s even more pleasure to eating it at an affable café like Dan. The servers smile warmly, the locals — both Chinese and Anglos — seem thrilled not to have to go any further than Lake Avenue for Din Tai Fung quality food.
The place feels like the first of many Dan Modern Chinese restaurants. If dim sum when you want it is the Next Big Thing, I’ve got my chopsticks ready — there’s always room for one more soup dumpling.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Modern Chinese
Rating: 3 stars
Address: 146 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena
When: Lunch and dinner, every day
Details: Tea; no reservations
Atmosphere: Hidden in the back of The Commons, this long, narrow, modernist dim sum house serves its small menu of dumplings, buns, soups, fried rice and a tiny handful of entrees all day, allowing those hungry for soup dumplings in the evening. It’s a place to go that’s as good as anything in Monterey Park and environs.
Prices: About $18 per person
Suggested dishes: 7 Types of Soup Dumplings ($10-$12), 5 Types of Dumplings ($9-$12), 3 Types of Buns ($3-$5.25), 3 Types of Soup ($9-$10), 4 Types of Fried Rice ($12-$14), Seaweed Salad ($5.50), Pickled Cucumber ($5), Three Cup Chicken ($12.75), String Beans with Garlic ($9), Spinach with Garlic ($8.50), Broccoli with Garlic ($8.50), Pea Sprouts with Garlic ($9)
Cards: MC, V
What the stars mean: Ratings range from 4 stars to zero. 4 stars is world-class (worth a trip from anywhere). 3 stars is most excellent, even exceptional (worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California). 2 stars is a good place to go for a meal (visit if you’re in the neighborhood). 1 star is a place to go if you’re hungry and it’s nearby. Zero stars is not worth writing about.