Despite our late night out, the four of us gamely decided to meet up for dim sum the next morning. Dim sum is basically a Cantonese tea house brunch; a social gathering of sorts, where you sit, drink tea, eat small plates (the original tapas, perhaps?) (I’m only kidding!), and catch up on “current events” with friends and family.
After circling forEVER for parking, we trooped in to where MM and Spoon were already waiting for us. Unbelievably, they hadn’t started eating (I’ve sadly been 5 minutes late to dim sum before and most people just start ordering and eating without waiting, which makes me really, really sad – because I don’t get to photograph the food or help with the ordering process, which means sometimes I miss out on my favorite dishes (if someone’s already ordered it, they may not want to eat another plate)… and with people you don’t know that well, it totally sucks!) yet, so B and I sat down and we quickly began ordering. YUM.
(I’ve been craving dim sum for a few weeks now, since Danny at Food in Mouth posted about a few dim sum places, and Blondie of Blondie & Brownie talked about dim sum, and I HAD TO HAVE DIM SUM. And I am more than thrilled to say I AM HAVING DIM SUM THIS SUNDAY AS WELL. WOOHOO!!!)
Dim sum, in my mind, should have ladies pushing around carts filled to the brim with various dishes for you to look at and point to for ordering. Nowadays, some places have sadly removed the carts to conserve space and replaced it with an ordering system. You may say it’s fresher that way but somehow, the speed at which those places still produce those dishes, I sincerely doubt they are any less pre-made.
The first dish that passed by – I was HUNGRY – I normally enjoy this turnip cake item. Don’t ask me how it’s made, I don’t know how to make any of these items to be honest – but it’s spiked through with dried shrimp, ham bits, and can be really delicious when well made. When I was growing up, at the best dim sum houses, the cart with these would have the cakes but not yet fried; when you ordered it, the cart would stop by your table while the lady fried some up for you, fresh. The turnip cakes would come to you, piping hot and crispy on the outside, melty, almost creamy inside with a bit of shrimp or ham in each bite; heaven. But this place had them pre-made, just sitting in the cart. Ah well.
Oyster sauce is meant to be served on the side of this; I don’t know if it’s a regional thing or WHAT, but this is the first time the lady handed me the plate without any sauce. I asked her for it and she kind of laughed at me, then offered me Chinese worcestershire sauce. I shrugged and accepted because though turnip cakes can be tasty on their own, I like the salty/sweet counterpoint of oyster sauce with my turnip cakes. As such, these were only alright – not just because of the lack of oyster sauce, but they just simply were not as crispy on the outside as I’d have liked, surely a testament to them not being very freshly prepared and perhaps just sitting on the cart as people passed them up.
Phoenix claws, as their name in Cantonese directly translates to, are actually chicken feet. One of my favorite items growing up, the sauce is slightly sweet with its savory complement (I really like savory items, but when they’re slightly sweet at the same time? Wow). Going with a general stereotype here – forgive me – but I know this might look or sound disgusting to you or anyone who didn’t grow up with this style of cuisine. There isn’t really much meat on the feet; what you do is take each finger in your mouth one at a time, and bite through the knuckle area, then nibble off the skin from the joint you’ve just dislodged. I like the taste, and enjoyed these just fine. I even managed to get picky eater B (who most certainly did NOT grow up eating these!) to try a joint, and he admitted that it was fine, didn’t taste like much. (I did the work for him and removed a joint for him to eat instead of passing him an entire claw.) One note, however: there were only three claws in the dish, so at first, B was like “You guys eat it, I’m fine” but I offered him a little nibble just to try. Unfortunately, I don’t know how much this dish was, but if it was anything above the lowest tier dim sum (every dim sum dish is categorized usually into small, medium, large, and some places now have extra large and extra extra large or special; each tier has its own fixed price), I’d be annoyed.
Our next dish, fatty spare rib bits, was super lish. I REALLY liked this dish, and you can say it’s because I love pork fat, fine. But the meat was succulent, super soft, melt in your mouth lush; I’ve had this before where it was a bit harder, chewier, overcooked even? and tough to eat. This was not one of those cases. I wanted to keep eating it but was afraid to hog it, and was sad when later, after they were cold, it appeared I was the only one who liked them that much…
One of the more famous dim sum dishes, if not the most famous dish, is ha gow or literally, shrimp dumpling – I think these are occasionally called crystal shrimp dumplings. (Many items at dim sum could be called a dumpling, but it doesn’t really mean much except “has some sort of wrapper” really.) At its most basic, ha gow will contain whole shrimp, nothing else. I’ve had it with ginger stuffed inside (nooooo… blasphemy), with scallions, or any number of varieties; I am not sure exactly what goes in them. These were very full, with a delicate skin (which is good), although when I bit into mine, the skin exploded and a ton of shrimp, chopped up into small cubes, blasted out onto my plate. Luckily I wasn’t wearing anything fancy, but I was curious as I looked down at what was on my plate. It clearly had some sort of sauce or coating on the shrimp; I can’t say it wasn’t tasty because it was actually quite yummy, but it wasn’t quite what I’d expect from a ha gow. Yummy though.
*Ok, I’ve seen and heard about other food bloggers rearranging food in restaurants so it’ll look nicer. I’m not that girl though. I not only tell it like it is, I show you how it was, so you don’t go and expect picture perfect dishes (although the one case that comes instantly to mind, she was not writing a restaurant review, just showing her readers what she’d eaten).
Shumai, also arguably one of the most famous if not the most famous dim sum (since you can find a similar item in many Japanese restaurants that offer bento; similar but not the same), is a pork & shrimp dumpling (open on top) in essence. I thought this was alright, fairly standard as in decent, passing, but by no means an excellent quality example of the dish. The overall meatwad (as Robyn would say) was a touch too dense, not juicy enough for my tastes.
Ahhh, ha cheung, or shrimp sausage literally (roll maybe?)… whole shrimp wrapped in a thin rice noodle. Done well, these are heaven, my favorite dim sum dish hands down; I don’t feel like I’ve been to dim sum unless I eat this dish. I can and will eat the entire dish if given the opportunity. Done poorly, well… I’ve had them where the dim sum place tried to fancy it up and slipped ginger in with the shrimp. I was NOT happy; ginger is not a favored aromatic of mine. The best of this dish I’ve ever had is easily somewhere in Toronto; giant, sweet shrimp, cooked to perfection with a gentle bouncy give to their texture, slippery rice noodles with a slip of sweet soy sauce over the top… absolute perfection.
But back to this rendition: I would say these were an above average version, though definitely not the best. The rice noodles, thin enough – even a bit too thin, as I had trouble with one piece keeping the shrimp contained within; the soy sauce, just that touch of sweetness; the shrimp, a fair size, not overcooked nor fancy’d up with some crap. Just right. I was definitely happy and managed to eat an entire noodle (in the above picture is three noodles, each cut in half).
This is basically the same concept as the above shrimp noodle roll, except with beef. I did not try this as there is something about this dish that puts me off and has since I was a child – once, at dim sum, they didn’t have the shrimp ones at the ready so my parents ordered this one and I dug in, and something in the meat just turned my tongue. I’ve tried it a few times since then to see if I’ll like it, but I think there might be ginger in the meat patties (it’s like flat meatballs within, not slices of beef) or something else my tongue does not like. Also, the texture of the meat really does not appeal to me; I can’t even explain it properly, and I know plenty of people who like this dish who aren’t completely crazy. In fact, PICKY B loves this dish. He seemed happy enough with it, eating almost the entire plate.
Char siu bao, one of the few food items my boyfriend can say in Cantonese (maybe the only one?), translates to roast pork bun. There are two kinds; the shiny glossy kind, or the steamed kind that you see here. I’m not that big on char siu bao in general (having OD’d on them as a child, the sweet sticky glossy kind), so I didn’t have any, but I know that B and MM both liked it, and “fought” to have the last one.
“My chopsticks kung fu is stronger than yours! Ha-ha!”
“Fine, I guess we’ll split it…”
Just teasing, those are just pictures of them splitting it. I was amused by their chopstick battle.
I think these are called beefballs or meatballs? I’m not really sure. I don’t eat these either – sorry! – because they taste, to me, exactly like what’s in the beef noodle rolls above. The type of meat mixture just turns me off. My tongue can change and maybe one day these’ll be my favorite dish (well, not more than ha cheung, for sure; I even named my consulting company after ha cheung, a long time ago… hahaha), but for now, I don’t like it so I avoid eating it. I didn’t hear any complaints, although I noticed when we were finished eating, this was the only dish left with something still in it.
Unfortunately, our mostly alright dim sum experience in San Francisco ended with these siu lung bao or xiao lung bao, small dragon bun (literally), a popular Shanghainese item. Also known as soup dumplings, these boast a soup within the dumpling so when you bite into them, you taste this wonderful broth and the whole thing is a very sensual experience; smelling the pork within, feeling the heat, the slightly rough texture of the bun on your mouth, trying to avoid burning your mouth or spilling the soup down your front… just awesome. Oddly, though there were four of us, the restaurant only gave us two soup spoons, and then a dish with three drops – I KID YOU NOT – of the red wine vinegar that is meant to accompany it. As I like these with vinegar, I waited until the pushcart lady had returned a good five minutes later with the vinegar before I dug in.
My method, which is just one of many for the enjoyment of these soup dumplings, was taught to me by my late grandfather: pick up gently (with chopsticks holding firm) by the seam, and lift into soup spoon; bite a hole in the top, the “chimney” he would call it, and let steam come out to cool it a little so you don’t burn your mouth; put in however much vinegar you’d like into the chimney; and ENJOY. That’s how I roll.
So I did that, and thought the whole soup dumpling was… alright. Not even that good, something was off. I quickly found out what.
B, ignoring our warnings to be careful with the dumpling since they contain soup, attempted to pick one up and somehow, it exploded out into the steamer basket. I hadn’t been paying attention after that happened, while I ate mine, but when I looked up, I heard him say, “That was okay,” and noticed his exploded dumpling was still in the steamer basket. I was, admittedly, really horrified; I grew up in a family with very strict table manners, and not of the kind “Elbows off the table” (I mean, we had to do that, too, but the rules went beyond that). Had that been my dumpling that exploded, I’d have been forced to eat it anyway, so I felt embarrassed that he’d given up on the dumpling HE ruined and left it for the rest of us. So I attempted to eat that one… I should have taken a picture of it, but it was just… this mess of sad, deflated dumpling shell, with the insides kind of spread across te bottom of the steamer basket. The inside of a soup dumpling is almost meatball like; like the inside of any regula dumpling. This one was not so. It was completely smushy and the texture of snot. It was impossible for me to salvage much if any at all, so I just hastily scooped up what I could and choked it down with a bit of vinegar. I shouldn’t have bothered to be honest, it as that bad.
So take heed: particularly at this place, don’t order Shanghainese fare at a Cantonese dim sum joint. Duh.
Yvo says: Overall, the place wasn’t bad. It was one of the larger places – most definitely they have banquets there at night or regular dinner service, and it was pretty clean – and there were carts passing by a lot, although none of them stuck to a pattern so it was a bit difficult sometimes to get the things we wanted. I can’t say for prices because MM stole the check and insisted on paying. The ha cheung was a must-get, as are the pork ribs, but out of what we tried, mostly nothing extraordinary. I don’t know if I’d go back, only because the next time I’m in San Francisco (probably next year), I would want to go to a different place just to try, as opposed to going here again.
yummy ha cheung & pork ribs, the other stuff alright, I’m not a fan of inconsistency