Hidden within the downtown atmosphere of Lake St. in Pasadena, just a 15-minute walk from campus, lies the upscale, vine-covered, British-themed atmosphere of the Commons Courtyard. Amidst the Philz Coffee and Williams Sonoma, facing the classic red English telephone booth, sits the simple, home-cooked Chinese fare of Dan Modern Chinese.
The latest restaurant from local restaurateur James Kim, which opened in November of last year, delivered in aesthetic modernity. The décor is, well, barely there. The ambience is a sterile scene of white walls, scant plants, and 3 large, bizarre pom-pom-esque light fixtures. But the food doesn’t call for a fussy atmosphere.
“What made me join the company was wanting to make everything fresh,” said Floor Manager Shannon Crammers, adding that everything served is handmade in-house, using organic vegetables. “You’re not getting any preservatives or anything that’s going to make you sick.”
Ask a waiter and they’ll probably recommend the xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. If you’re like me and unaccustomed to the artful process of eating these immaculate broth-filled treats, like sea jellies in formation, this experience alone is worth a visit.
The process of eating xiaolongbao begins by delicately lifting the dumpling by its tip and transferring it into a wide spoon, so that the soup remains encased. Once on a utensil, the twisted tip is bitten off to expose its steaming innards, maintaining the dumplings form. At this point, customers are encouraged to adjust the flavor by adding vinegar, soy sauce, and shredded ginger in preferred amounts.
The broth inside these dumplings floods the mouth with rich, umami warmth. The pork and scallion filling that I opted for was a simple combination of ingredients, encased in simple dough, but in its entirety offers a comforting heartiness. The whole experience is amplified by a choose-your-own-ending toppings adventure, whose flavors collectively form a foolproof cocktail.
Personally, I’m a hound for complex tastes, and those were not on my plate. Still, the classic pan-fried dumplings and crunchy seaweed salad delivered a freshness that made their parsed-down ingredients obvious to the palate. The dish I left dreaming of, though, was the string bean plate. Crunchy and dripping in a salty, vaguely sweet garlic oil, the delicate balance of this green dish packed the most powerful flavor without burdening the mouth with greasiness. Somehow these seemingly basic dishes had a rich liveliness that surprised me.
“Everybody seems to be loving it,” said Crammer, who noted many returning customers in the few months since the restaurant opened. “To have that kind of repeat business in such a short time frame is pretty positive.”
One look at the menu is enough to see that Kim aims to do a few things and do them well. Dan Modern Chinese borrows its menu from the other three restaurants Kim has opened around LA over the last several years, featuring tried and true home-cooked classics, influenced perhaps by Kim’s Chinese wife.
Dan’s kitchen manager, Florencio Lopez, who was trained in making classic Chinese dumplings and has worked with Kim throughout the development of his restaurants, adds a tight-knit element to food prep: he recruited his son, Daniel Lopez, as his assistant.
“I’ve been working for them for about 6 years now,” said Lopez (son), agreeing that the kitchen is like a family. “Everybody is pretty cool, everybody knows what they’re doing.”
Perhaps it’s the reliability of quality that has pulled so many customers back. Brian Lutz, who works in the building, comes weekly. He’s only one dish short of having tried the whole menu, but his favorite dish is the cucumber salad, brined with accents of coriander, chili, and ginger. He frequents the joint for its delicious food and “all in” customer service.
“To me it starts with the culture,” said Lutz. “I think they care about what they do. It’s traditional, simple Chinese, but it’s done really well.”
Employees recommend late afternoon arrivals for guaranteed seats, especially on weekends. Dan also offers the option of checking into waitlist on yelp, which gives accurate update on wait time.
Dan. 146 S. Lake Ave. Pasadena, CA 91101
Open Monday to Friday 12 to 9 p.m., weekends 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.