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Koi Palace

Dynastic Dim Sum

Just off the 280 Freeway, in a section of Daly City that seems to have been zoned for big box stores the way neighboring Colma was zoned for graveyards, lies one of the most lauded dim sum palaces in America. Does it deserve its reputation?

Walking in, you're greeted by tanks of spidery-legged crabs and brown fish that seem to be gasping their last breath. Unfortunately, you're also likely to be greeted by a crushing crowd. Despite the enormous proportions of the dining room, the wait can be stiflingly long. Spend some time watching an employee create dragon-beard candy from spun sugar. Spend some more time wandering through the neighboring strip mall. Spend some more time wondering whether itís worth the wait. Finally, your number is called.

The ingredients are high quality; diners should feel confident ordering seafood and offal alike. Those who seek authenticity of Hong Kongís legendary dim sum palaces seem particularly impressed, and they make a sport of discussing where Koi Palace misses and where it hits the mark. Those who seek professional, communicative service, short waits, or a laid-back atmosphere are less impressed.

Xiao long ba -- often referred to simply as xlb or soup dumplings ($4.50 for four pieces) -- are excellent here. The flavor-laden broth bursting in your mouth through the doughy wrapper is a distinct pleasure.

Most dumplings are similarly excellent, although the persnickety will note that wrappers can be slightly too thick and become chewy when allowed to cool during the long journey to your table. If youíre concerned about straight-from-the-steamer freshness, order from the check-off menu instead of the passing carts.

Aside from several luxury items like poached goose intestine ($15), the dim sum offerings are inexpensive. Itís a rare pleasure to experience such precisely calibrated flavors and carefully crafted items at such low prices.

Koi Palaceís most-cited rival for Bay Area dim sum dominance is Yank Sing in San Francisco, which has Koi Palace beat for service, elegance, and fresh, bright flavors. But Yank Sing is considerably more expensive, and it seems to be less respectful of the traditions of the homeland.

Koi Palace can be wonderful. Just remember either to call ahead to put your name on the list, or arrive just as the palace doors swing open.

Daly City