Any TTF regular or anyone who’s talked to me ever, knows very well that I LOVE brunch. I love going to brunch, I love eating/making/buying brunch food. Anything that’s socially acceptable to be eaten in the in AM is fine by me. But who wants pancakes 24/7? Since I’m Asian, there’s only so many times in a row I can eat pasta or bread before I’m like “when can I bust out a pair of CHOPS? (as in sticks)”
Hence, Dim Sum, the best of both worlds. Growing up, going to dim sum with my family was always a welcome special occasion treat. I could literally sit back and relax while my parents would order a bunch of stuff and within no time all this food would appear before me. Like, they were speaking in code to the ladies pushing the carts. Asking for special treatment on certain things, asking for sauce on other things. They weren’t speaking in Vietnamese or English, so I never knew what was going on. It was like there was a whole other culture happening when it came to eating dim sum.
I didn’t pay much attention at the time because I figured it was best to let the grown-ups figure it out and then let the food just happen. When I was 18, I had a huge craving for dim sum, so I convinced my (white) boyfriend at the time to go with me to a local dim sum place on a Sunday and figured that we’ll have our usual feast, how hard could it be, right? WRONG. FLOP.
First, showing up on a Sunday, that place was PACKED. The sign said “Please wait to be seated” so I figured I’d wait. WRONG. Dim Sum means “little treats” in Cantonese but it might as well mean “WAR.” We stood around for 25 minutes while all these other families got seated before us. Luckily some Americanized hostess took pity on us and gave us a leftover seat next to the restroom.
Secondly, I realized it was a mistake not to know the actual names of any of the dishes. The ladies pushing the carts can smell newbies a mile away. People kept coming at me from every direction and I kept asking for recommendations taking anything coming my way. Suddenly, I ended up with steamed buns, a bunch of cold potstickers and then a noodle salad. I wanted some sauce to dip the cold potstickers in but had no empty bowls like I would have at a Pho restaurant. So I had to dump soy sauce on my plate which created a lake and made my noodles soggy.
I reached for my buns since they at least looked hot, the familiarity of the bbq pork will sustain me until more food arrives. Turns out they’re filled with eggs and peas. Salted hard boiled egg and cold peas. I tried to wash down this egg and pea bun with some water but all I had was tea. I had asked one of the ladies pushing the carts for a glass of water and she seemed to nod her head but then promptly disappeared. There weren’t any carts coming our way. Come to think of it, there haven’t been any carts stopping by in quite a while. I was tired, I was hungry, I was parched, I felt weak. I wanted to get out of there but no one understood that I wanted the bill. They assumed that the 3 tiny dishes meant I was just getting started. What did I get myself into? KILL ME.
We ended up eating a second breakfast at some fast food place later on that day. After that horrible experience I vowed never again to go in blind into an ethnic food situation like that again. Now, I probably eat dim sum at least 3-4 times a month. I want my people in TTF to be set up for success so I’ve created this Ultimate Dim Sum Guide:
First part is the breakdown of the must-have dishes and the second are the additional tips and cultural norms of getting the most out of your meal —
Xiu Mai — The quintessential dim sum dish. A delicious open-faced dumpling that’s stuffed with both shrimp and pork.
Har Gow — A more delicate wrapping vs the Xiu Mai but you have to get this one in order to have the proper textural contrast. Tastes particularly yummy with a generous dipping of sauce
Rice Noodle Rolls — This dish comes in a few options, you can get pork, gluten rolls but the only option worth having is shrimp. They come in a covered silver dish, so ask them to peek under to see which is shrimp and if they don’t have it, feel free to ask for the shrimp when it’s ready. Don’t worry, they’re not running out, it’s just that the smart people got to it first.
Sugar Cane Fried Shrimp & Vegetables Stuffed w Shrimp — Add some variety to the steamed dumplings. These dishes really round out the meal and taste great with the chili sauces.
Stuffed Tofu — Tofu that’s been stuffed with ground shrimp, fried and then doused with a soy-based sauce. I like the soft vs CRUNCH factor in this dish.
Shark Fin Dumplings — These come two different ways, fried and steamed. The wrapper is folded to resemble a shark fin but they’re stuffed with more pork and shrimp. I like getting both because I like the wavy texture.
BBQ Pork Buns — When you see the soft white buns, ask what the filling is, whether or not the lady pushing the cart speaks English, she’ll understand that you mean when you point and say “BBQ?” If not, keep it moving.
Tips & Tri-cks
- When you first arrive, it’s pretty much first come first serve. Just work your way to the front and make eye contact with the hostess and wave her down.
- If the place isn’t insanely packed, try to get a central table. The tables in the corners get completely lost and end up being forgotten about.
- It’s totally fair game to wave down the ladies with the carts. When you get their attention, feel free to make special requests, ask them to lift the lids off of everything, ask for extra sauces, if you see dipping bowls in their carts, try to score some for the table, and don’t forget to ask them to cut stuff in half for you.
- It’s also fair to run over to a cart from across the room, (it happens). But just make sure you’re not taking the last one of anything.
- Only ask the people wearing jackets for water. The ladies with the carts will promptly ignore you. The same goes for the bill.
- If there’s something you’re looking for, ask the ladies with the carts, if not, ask one of the people wearing jackets. They’re often more customer service focused, so they’ll try to take care of you.
- If you want fresh chilis, you have to request them. I usually don’t even bother with the oily stuff that comes on the table.
- The tea that comes on the table is normally oolong, but if you want another kind like jasmine, you need to ask for it.