Red Pearl Chinese Restaurant in Columbia offers a healthy dose of the real deal. It eschews Pan-Asian or other such external influences instead, focusing on authentic Szechuan, Mandarin, and Cantonese cuisine.
Indeed, amid the ubiquitous cookie-cutter Chinese-American takeout items (an apparent requisite for any Chinese restaurant) are unexpected finds like sea cucumber soup and tea-smoked duck. The discrete "Authentic Cuisine" section offers yet more elaborate preparations—from a crowd-pleasing crispy whole fish and more exotic frog stir-fried with yellow chives to downright challenging dishes (at least, to Western palates) incorporating all manner of viscera, like Szechuan-style duck tongue and spicy beef tendon.
Red Pearl, located in a space previously occupied by Jesse Wong's Hong Kong, has kept its predecessor's tony, handsome décor and spacious seating arrangements, and, more importantly, the Cantonese weekend tradition of cart-service dim sum. Red Pearl's kitchen churns out cart after cart of well-executed dim-sum favorites—roasted duck that is pillowy soft with unctuous fat and moist meat within a gossamer thin, barely crisp skin; sticky rice wrapped in an aromatic lotus leaf that is loaded with sweet Chinese sausage and fragrant mushrooms; delicate pink shrimp shrouded in translucent rice– noodle sheets; deep-emerald mounds of perfectly cooked Chinese broccoli (we recommend getting it sans the unnecessary brown sauce); squat, fat, browned-to-order dumplings filled with oniony and slightly tangy garlic chives; and a memorable congee, a soupy Chinese rice porridge that exudes a subtle smoky flavor and eclipses its garnish of preserved eggs.
There were a few missteps, though. The Manila clams, while plump and fresh, suffered from an overly generous bath of too-sweet sauce, and the savory pork belly was a bit dry.
The day we visited, the restaurant was crowded, loud, and somewhat hectic, but the dim-sum service was remarkably efficient. The cart-bearers were more than willing to help out the uninitiated with explanations and recommendations. The pace of the cart rotations could have been a bit quicker but was understandable given a room full of eager diners who have merely to point at a dish to claim it as their own.
During cart service (Saturday and Sunday lunch hours), expect to wait for a table. Dim sum can also be ordered off the menu during regular hours (except for Sunday night), but the selection is a mere fraction of what's available during the big show and is heavy on more pedestrian buns and dumplings.
There is even a happy hour during the week when a small roster of dim-sum dishes are discounted, along with beer and wine. Red Pearl is a truly worthy alternative to devotees who think that decent dim sum can only be had via a trip around the Capital Beltway.