Despite how popular "Dim Sum Culture" is in the San Francisco East Bay, I'm always surprised how few dim sum restaurants there are in Chinatown Oakland. In fact, I believe there is only one real legitimate sit-down restaurant, Restaurant Peony. But, if you cross the Posey Street Tube into Alameda, then one has their choice of three of the best dim sum restaurants in the San Francisco East Bay.
While there are actually five dim sum restaurants, that I know of, on the Island of Alameda, I'm going to focus on the "Big Three." East Ocean Seafood Restaurant, Chef's Wok, and Pacific Lighthouse. For the most part, there is no clear cut winner, though Anne and I do frequent one more than the other, but I believe the "right choice" has a lot to do with circumstance.
Quick note, Dim Sum is primarily served during lunch hours. Some restaurants may have some dim sum items you can order off the menu at dinner, but the largest selection of items is during lunch.
East Ocean Seafood Restaurant
East Ocean Seafood Restaurant is easily the most recognizable of the three with a 4-star rating after 1,415 reviews. When we first moved to the island in 2014, we were amazed at the crowd waiting in front and were "forced" to head down the street to one of the smaller dim sum restaurants, which wasn't that great. When we finally tried it for the first time, we could tell why. The dim sum was absolutely delicious.
Before moving to Alameda, the only places we regularly had dim sum was around the Contra Costa County area. To be honest, for years, it started to feel like all dim sum restaurants were all the same. It was good and satisfying, but never truly outstanding. Fortunately, I was able to go to the original Tim Ho Wan during that golden period when they first got their Michelin Star, as well as other great dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong, and learn that dim sum can be outstanding. East Ocean Seafood Restaurant reminded me of that. It felt a little on the expensive side, but at the time it felt well worth it.
Over the next four years, this was our "go-to" dim sum spot. After all, we didn't feel like we needed to try anywhere else because it seemed perfect and the other main competing restaurant at the time, Chef's Wok, had pretty terrible reviews on Yelp. But, the mystique of the "perfect dim sum restaurant" started to slowly crumble around 2018 and 2019.
It seemed like every time I went, I knew I was going to get a stomach ache afterwards. For a while, the food was still good that I learned to accept my fate of an oily sour stomach. In the end, it wasn't worth it, the quality of the dim sum just wasn't holding up anymore.
At the time I didn't know it, but the long-time owners were in the process of selling the restaurant. Not surprisingly, this really was the same time period when I feel the quality of the dim sum declined. So far, I haven't been back, but I haven't given up completely. The last time I was there, the new owner had been there for maybe a little over a month. I left a review on Yelp, which he responded, and so I believe there is a possibility that there will be improvements, especially after the new owner has settled into the role.
Despite what I just wrote, East Ocean Seafood Restaurant is regularly the place that I recommend to non-Chinese speaking customers. Compared to Chef's Wok and Pacific Lighthouse, I believe their staff, especially with the original owners, were the best managed and most adept at serving non-Chinese clients. So, for those who want better service and willing to pay for it, East Ocean Seafood Restaurant should be your choice.
Pacific Lighthouse is the newest dim sum restaurant in town and it chose one of the nicest spots in Alameda for its location. It overlooks the Oakland Estuary, which of course isn't as nice as the open San Francisco Bay, but is a good runner-up. My mom was actually a notary for the owner and so she knows how long it took for them to build out and remodel the space before they finally opened.
I hesitated coming to Pacific Lighthouse for a long-time because of the initial Yelp reviews. Unfortunately, their overall reviews have only gotten worse, now at a dismal 2.5 stars with 312 reviews. But, after finding that East Ocean Seafood Restaurant wasn't meeting my expectation, I was open to trying it, especially since my mom had already given it her thumbs up.
I was really pleasantly surprised. The dim sum item that really got my attention was the lava bun. It oozed to perfect, wasn't too sweet, and in a perfectly steamed bun. Maybe it's the natural lighting coming from the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the estuary, but all the dim sum dishes look beautiful when you're in the "main" seating section. Sometimes, it's really hard to believe that we can come to this restaurant just about every week if we wanted because it's definitely the type of dim sum restaurant that San Francisco Bay Area residents would choose for a special occasion like Mother's Day "brunch."
But that's the caveat, I've actually been to Pacific Lighthouse on a holiday weekend and the dinning experience, including food quality, goes downhill when they're at maximum capacity. I believe that a lot of the complaints on Yelp are when Pacific Lighthouse are at maximum capacity on a busy weekend or hosting a banquet. While my mom has gone on the weekends and said it's fine, I actually don't take the chance and usually go on a weekday, but there's also an added benefit to that.
For a long time, Pacific Lighthouse basically had a secret weekday dim sum lunch special. For $50, excluding tax and tip, you basically could get a feast, which includes lobster noodles, 2 small dim sum, 2 medium dim sum, 1 large dim sum, 1 kitchen item, and a roasted pork dish. It's by far the best deal on Alameda if you're looking to spend that amount.
After I posted this special on Yelp, Pacific Lighthouse actually printed it in english, so it's no longer a secret menu item.
For me, Pacific Lighthouse is a notch above East Ocean, but only if it's not terribly busy and not hosting a banquet. Otherwise, East Ocean might actually be the more consistent.
Chef's Wok, the silent underdog. East Ocean and Pacific Lighthouse will always get the press, but Chef's Wok is where the local Chinese community go to eat most of the time and for good reason. Similar to Pacific Lighthouse, Chef's Wok has a fairly bad 3 star Yelp rating after 370 reviews. Of course, don't tell the massive crowd of Chinese people that.
The biggest different between Chef's Wok and the other two restaurants is the size of the dim sum pieces. For example, the chive dumplings are huge. A lot of times, that's actually a bad trait because most take-out dim sum shops, such as the hot food section at Ranch 99, are gigantic but essentially all tapioca dough and absolutely terrible. That's not the case at Chef's Wok. Their Chive Dumplings are stuffed to the max with shrimp, chives, and flavor.
Chef's Wok is extremely consistent on food quality because no matter if it's a Monday or a Sunday, this place is weirdly always crowded for Dim Sum and they're just pros at this point. Just like East Ocean, Chef's Wok has apparently also changed owners, but unlike East Ocean, everything is just as good as it was before.
The downfall of Chef's Wok comes to dealing with non-Chinese speaking customers. Most of the dim sum waitresses do not speak English and so it's pretty difficult for non-Chinese speakers to navigate service sometimes. On the other hand, I once say a single white male getting the white glove treatment compared to all the Chinese guests. It's a bit of reverse racism to be honest, but like I said Chef's Wok has a hard time understanding how it should treat non-Chinese speakings guests. If they want to give preferential treatment to someone, then look at the people with the camera (aka me). LOL.
A non-dim sum tip, the take out roasted duck, chicken and roasted pork is actually cheaper at Chef's Wok than even Oakland Chinatown. My mom always use to think she had to cross the Webster Street tunnel to pick-up a braised chicken, but now she can skip the tunnel.
Ultimately, these days when my mom says, "let's go eat dim sum," I assume she is referring to Chef's Wok or Pacific Lighthouse. When we know we want to spend $50+, we're off the enjoy Pacific Lighthouse's weekday dim sum special. If we're looking to only spend around $35-45, then we're at Chef's Wok.
I'll definitely give East Ocean another shot and I am hoping for the best, but right now the "big dog" is officially at the bottom of the list for me.
Anne Wesley makes handmade leather gifts right from our workshop in Alameda, California. Everything is made-to-order, just for you.