A visit to Sacramento's Ming Dynasty restaurant
New Canton long has been the dim sum heavyweight on Broadway, but a new contender has emerged at other end of Sacramento’s most diverse dining stretch: Ming Dynasty, which offers steamed and fried snacks, all the tea you can drink, and a robust dinner menu.
Broadway’s restaurant corridor has been expanding westward for some time now, with both Thai Farm House and the Land Park branch of Selland’s setting up shops just off Riverside Boulevard. In addition, a new food hall called Market Club at the Mill is scheduled to open near Fifth Street in 2019.
Taking over a beige building formerly occupied by Fortune House, Ming Dynasty is easy to overlook in its location across street from Target. But for dim sum lovers who have found New Canton’s quality to have slipped in recent years, this new spot is worth a visit.
Dumpling seekers, however, may want to bring a little patience. We were seated quickly on most of our visits, but on one occasion, it took more than 20 minutes before a cart came by our table. While we waited, a manager brought tea and asked our party if we were familiar with how dim sum works. I said yes, but wanted to point out that it only works if the carts actually come by with food.
On that visit, we were seated in the middle of the large U-shaped dining room, not far from where the carts emerged from the kitchen. But somehow they all immediately fanned out to the wings, missing us and causing a severe case of dumpling FOMO.
Eventually, we attracted a cart serving savory, soothing congee, which blunted our hunger and had a pleasantly calming effect, with its thick porridge-like rice broth, threads of meat and the sharp bite of green onions.
The next cart to come around bore har gow, or steamed dumplings filled with shrimp. We grabbed a basket. Although the filling — as with all the seafood I sampled at Ming Dynasty— had a clean, true flavor, the exterior wrapping proved problematic.
On all of my visits, the har gow either were over steamed or had sat for so long that the translucent wrappers had turned gooey. They stuck to the paper base in the steamer and tore, allowing the plump shrimp filling to escape. On my first visit, I thought that might be a function of how long the carts trundled through the capacious dining room, but the same flaw was apparent on a second dim sum meal, when the carts were much snappier and there was no waiting.
Chive and shrimp dumplings, too, threatened to fall apart. However, open sea-bass dumplings, with their sailor-hat shape and and rice-wrapper exteriors, had stronger constitutions and featured a complex filling that was delicate and winey.
The shrimp-stuffed sticky rice balls, with a piece of bacon-like pork belly on top, were satisfying, as were richly porky siu mai and even richer garlic spare ribs, bursting with a meaty flavor that leaves diners gnawing on the tiny chopped bones. Another good gnawing opportunity came from soft-steamed chicken feet, topped with jalapeno, and lacquered duck, though it was lukewarm.
Glowing blue seafood tanks hold pride of place in Ming Dynasty’s big, somewhat stark dining room, and the focus on sea creatures shows at dim sum. Both the tiny fried lobster turnovers and the crispy-edge scallop dumplings, round like little pies, were delectable. Deep-fried shrimp balls, with a golden halo from ribbons of its fried wrapper, were a tad oily but the filling was toothsome.
Fluffy bao, which I often find too sweet, were a strength here, with tender but subtle dough encasing fillings that complemented rather than cloyed. The toddler guest at our table and I were both fans of a griddled bun with a flat toasty edge and a savory pork-leek filling. I also liked the chicken buns, with a nice ginger bite, and the deliberately sweet walnut buns with a caramel-like filling. Look out, also, for adorable pig-shaped bao filled not with pork but with sweet bean paste.
The same toddler, a friend’s son, and I were equally wild for the beef-filled rice noodle rolls, which also had sharp crunches of ginger offsetting the slippery noodles. A different textural contrast, of lacy-crisp and pillowy, was the highlight of taro puffs, which featured fried tofu-skin rolls stuffed with pork and anointed with a soy-rich sauce.
An unexpected favorite was the spicy, chunky cucumber salad, which cut through the rich flavors of the rest of the meal, as did perfectly bitter Chinese broccoli. The basic chow mein with skinny noodles and bits of green onion also was on point.
Overall, the dim sum carts displayed a strong variety of dishes, with new surprises on each visit, including such sweets as puffy doughnuts, egg tarts and oblong items that looked like Rice Krispie treats and tasted like caramelized milk.
Ming Dynasty offers banquet service and set menus, but regular dinner service is on the quiet side — though the menu is overwhelmingly huge. There was no way to sample more than a tiny fraction of the offerings, but what I did taste was fresh and well cooked. The broth in the wonton soup, for example, was simple and chicken-forward, and the wontons featured with the same sweet, firm shrimp that stars in many of the dim sum dishes. Fresh quarters of baby bok choy also elevated this soup to well above average.
Crunchy dry-fried green beans with minced pork had a strong but not unpleasant funk, but could have used more spicy heat to offset the forthright flavors. Minced-chicken lettuce cups were more balanced, savory and great for a warm evening thanks to the leaves’ cool and refreshing crunch.
At dinner, don’t miss the whole seafood fresh from those tanks, which include lobsters, crab, several kinds of fish, and (on my visits) one tank labeled Coral Shrimp with just one lonely, tiny crustacean. After much hesitating over the dozens of options, we tried garlic-steamed Dungeness crab with slender noodles, and it was a messy, oceanic, aromatic hit.
Service at dinner was less harried and friendlier than at dim-sum hours, and our server offered us a special dessert, a warm taro and tapioca soup, milky and not overly sweet.
Ming Dynasty isn’t perfect. But any solid addition to Sacramento’s rather sparse dim sum landscape is a welcome one, and I would happily take guests here on the strength of its seafood alone. I would just try to avoid sitting in the middle of the room.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
1211 Broadway, Sacramento. 916-491-2233.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Beverage options: Tea and water show up at tables automatically. Also on offer are a few basic beer and wine choices.
Vegetarian friendly: Vegetarians should tread carefully; although there are some vegetable-based dishes, many may have oyster sauce, fish, or other non-vegetarian elements, and waitstaff wasn't always reliable in determining what was vegetarian.
Gluten-free options: Yes, though they aren’t called out as such.
Noise levels: Moderate, though there’s a pleasant background hum and clatter of carts at peak dim sum hours.
Ambiance: Crystal light fixtures and peach walls gesture toward the upscale, but utilitarian tables, big TVs (usually playing baseball) and the sprawling dining room feel more basic.
A worthy addition to the rather scant offerings of dim sum in Sacramento and a good place for a big group. Ming Dynasty’s seafood offerings tend to shine the brightest, though congee and bao were pleasing as well.
Dumplings and other snacks had integrity, with some standouts, like open sea-bass dumplings, that aren’t seen often. The only caveat is that some items (especially those with rice-dough wrappers) suffered by sitting too long in the steamer baskets. The voluminous dinner menu attracts fewer guests with its bewildering number of choices, but what we tried was fresh and well prepared.
Brusque and sometimes uneven, with carts often circulating to some tables and not others (avoid sitting smack in the middle of the room). There were some language difficulties when asking about dishes, and we experienced delays in getting the bill as well.
Dim sum items are well priced ($2.95 for a small item and just $4.95 for a large), meaning a big group can eat heartily enough to warrant an afternoon nap for under $15 per person. Dinner items are a tad pricier, especially ultra-fresh seafood items at market prices, but high quality for the money.