By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Dim sum: If you don’t know what it is, you have been missing out on some of the finest delights for your palate.
Dim sum means “heart’s delight.” It is a Cantonese-style Chinese lunch with bits of meat, seafood, and vegetables. The dishes are similar in size to appetizers.
When I first visited the United States in the 1970s, I was homesick and yearned for dim sum. There were only two dim sum restaurants in Seattle’s Chinatown. Although they did not serve authentic dim sum, I was still elated when friends offered to treat me at the old Sun Ya Restaurant and King Café, which closed a few years ago.
Since then, dim sum has exploded in Seattle. Before then, you could only eat dim sum before 3 p.m. Now, you can enjoy it all day in many restaurants. From Renton and Mill Creek to Bellevue and Redmond, these eateries are now popular gathering sites for families and friends.
There are many advantages to eating a dim sum lunch. It not only tastes wonderful, but it’s inexpensive. The bill is usually about $10 per person. There is so much variety that you don’t need to worry if someone doesn’t like beef or chicken.
The challenge is picking the right restaurant. The one you go to depends on many factors.
This article only covers restaurants in the Chinatown/International District area.
House of Hong, led by award-winning Chef K. Wei
409 Eighth Ave. S., Seattle
Many dim sum restaurants predominantly have Chinese eaters. House of Hong has the largest non-Asian clientele. It features the more popular deep-fried dim sum items, like shrimp balls, taro balls, squid, seafood rolls, and shrimp cakes. Americanized BBQ pork (without the fat) is also available here.
Because Chinese diners are not the main demographic, the most exotic dim sum you can find at the House of Hong would probably be the chicken feet and beef stomach. Tripe and duck feet are not on the menu.
Chef Wei, a partner and the general manager, has won several awards nationally and overseas. Creativity is Wei’s strength during this slow economy. Wei created a new dim sum item, Chinese donut with shrimp, which is influenced by the idea of stuffed crab claws, a Chinese banquet dish. Instead of using expensive ingredients such as crab meat, he uses Chinese donut wrapping.
Wei is also renowned for his stir-frying technique and banquet-style cooking. You can order special dishes to go with your dim sum lunch. My friend loves his white boiled chicken (called Empress Chicken on the menu) with ginger sauce.
With its huge dining hall, House of Hong makes you feel comfortable, even when it’s packed. You can always find seats on busy days. If you have kids, House of Hong can easily accommodate them. There is no worry in climbing any stairs, as it is one big, open dining area.
Its steamed Chinese broccoli plate is the best. The stems are just right — not too big and not too small.
Jade Garden, also known as the Siu Mai King
424 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle
Jade Garden got its new name from Seattle Magazine because it sells 2,000 siu mai, a type of meatball, on weekends.
“It’s the best,” said Weng Chan, manager of Jade Garden. The ingredients of siu mai include fish eggs, shrimp, pork, and mushrooms. The meatball is always moist. I have one friend who can devour eight of these (two orders) in one lunch in addition to other goodies.”
Considered to be one of the most authentic dim sum restaurants in Seattle, Jade Garden is packed with many loyal customers, both Chinese and non-Chinese.
Chan is proud of the dim sum’s freshness.
Chan says his brother, owner Leo Chan, has worked in the dim sum industry for more than 40 years. “My brother has followed some grand old masters for decades,” he said, many of whom passed their secret techniques to their beloved apprentice.
Jade Garden serves as many as 60 different kinds of dim sum each day, the largest variety in Chinatown. You can eat dim sum as early as 9 a.m. Ask for its pan-fried shrimp cake with chives, sticky rice, veggie dumplings, salty and spicy squash, and fresh crab dumplings. You should visit Jade Garden before 1 p.m. to try these popular items.
Dim sum is labor-intensive. Each siu mai is made by hand. Jade Garden’s kitchen team starts preparing the dishes at 3 a.m.
When asked what the chef eats when he and his men begin their morning shift, he said, “Hum bow.” Some folks drive from far away for Jade Garden’s steamed or baked hum bow.
I am lucky. I am right in Chinatown and get to enjoy my favorites regularly, such as BBQ pork pastries, egg tarts, chicken rolls wrapped with fish, mushrooms and veggies, and three kinds of mushrooms wrapped in cheung fun (noodles).
Less MSG at New China Gate
516 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle
Under new owner Alan Woo, who took charge six months ago, New China Gate has been attracting a full house on weekends for its dim sum lunch. Before the new ownership, its lunch hour was slow.
How did Woo do it?
“From no business to good business is not [to] my credit,” said Woo. “It is due to the hard work of every single staff member. They have transformed the restaurant. When business was down during the snow, the wait staff came to work, [even though they] might not even make money. … Of course, I wouldn’t be here today if the community does not support us. And they have been our biggest fans.
“Our goal is to make our food taste good without using a lot of MSG. We want diners to enjoy the food and not feel thirsty after they leave.”
New China Gate has also employed a new strategy: lowering their price to $2 for most of its dim sum items. Items at other restaurants go for $2.15 and up.
When asked if he has changed or added any new kitchen staff to enhance the quality of its dim sum, he replied, “No change. My staff has worked hard to make things better. And I appreciate their commitment and dedication.”
New Hong Kong, the biggest
900 South Jackson St., Seattle
The largest one-level restaurant in the ID is the New Hong Kong Restaurant. With a capacity of 750, you never have to worry about not finding seats or parking. It has plenty of free parking in the upper levels of the building. For friends who have never dined in the ID before, I usually invite them to New Hong Kong.
On any day, New Hong Kong has the most diverse customers, including American-born Asians, immigrants, and non-Asians. A diner once told me that owner Lap My Linh is like her friend. The diner also knew her kids’ names. “There is no such thing as a boss [here],” he said.
Compared to other dim sum chefs who finish their work at 3 p.m., Chef Jian Lun Liu says he works a much longer shift on a daily basis. He wrapped so many dumplings that his fingers could turn numb. During his days off, he visits his competitors’ sites.
His conclusion is that he makes the best bee hive taro and sesame seed ball. No wonder his peers asked for his secret.
“It is not easy to [get new] customers” because of the slow economy, he said. “But they are still coming.” Every three weeks, he introduces new items to his dim sum repertoire, like deep-fried donut hum bows (with peanuts and sesame fillings) and steamed donut hum bows.
A fire destroyed Linh’s other dim sum restaurant called Hong Kong, located on Rainier Avenue South. Her plan is to rebuild it to be even bigger, while keeping it the same quality as New Hong Kong Restaurant. Construction will start soon.
Fine Tea at Tea Garden
708 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle
Dim sum has to be eaten with fine Chinese tea. In fact, a Cantonese slang for dim sum is “drinking tea.” Tea Garden’s owner says its tea is freshly brought over from China. The four kinds available are black teas pu er and shou mei, and green teas jasmine and tie guan yin.
Tea Garden is popular because of its free parking nearby. I brought my non-Asian friend to try Tea Garden’s dim sum.
Initially, he said he likes to have light lunches. He ended up eating everything I ordered and enjoyed every bit of it.
Tea Garden’s portions seem to be slightly bigger than those of the other restaurants. Its owner aims to please customers with its quality and quantity. Tea Garden offers many stir-fried dishes to go with its dim sum. They also serve noodles and rice soup.
Converted from a Mexican restaurant less than two years ago, Tea Garden has a diverse clientele. If you are an early bird, Tea Garden would be a good choice, since it serves at 9 a.m. in the morning.
In February, new management took over Tea Garden and many ideas for the restaurant have been implemented. The ceiling and walls have been redesigned. Plans to remodel the storefront are currently underway.
Ocean City’s dim sum buffet
609 South Weller St., Seattle
Are you in a hurry? Do you have a large appetite?
If your reply is yes to either, Ocean City Restaurant’s dim sum buffet is for you.
Ocean City is the only restaurant in the ID that serves dim sum buffet-style. At $8.95, you can gulp down more than 10 different kinds of dim sum. The buffet has some Chinese dishes like mapo tofu, sweet and sour pork, fried rice, and soup.
Usually, it is difficult for one person to have dim sum because each dish comes with three to four pieces. It is boring to eat the same thing. At Ocean City, even if you are alone, you can still enjoy a variety of dim sum at the buffet. If you’re a traditionalist, the carts do roll around in the dining room of Ocean City.
I recently visited Ocean City and witnessed that both Asian and white customers come away satisfied. Parties of 10 can even pay with separate credit cards.
Sun Ya, the oldest dim sum in Seattle
605 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle
Opened during the late 1960s, Sun Ya Restaurant is the oldest dim sum restaurant in Seattle. Andy Chan, (no relationship to other restaurant owners), took over Sun Ya in 1995 and added a new décor and a new kitchen.
With an interesting clientele, Sun Ya is patronized by mostly Chinese immigrant customers on Mondays and the largest number of American-born Asians and whites on weekends. To introduce dim sum to new diners, Sun Ya provides the best-looking, most reader-friendly, bilingual dim sum menu, one page of 48 full-color photos.
For customers who don’t speak Chinese, the comprehensive menu will guide customers who only recognize the dim sum taste but never remember its name.
Chef Chao Min Luo, originally from Toishan, China, described his dim sum as “homemade Toishan flavor.”
Chef Luo, who worked in China and San Francisco before he came to Sun Ya, said he can practically make everything that other chefs make.
Cooking is in the family. Many of Luo’s relatives are dim sum chefs in China.
Luo said his pan-fried hum bow, fun ngor (meat dumplings), cotton cake, chicken feet, and steamed hum bow are popular. My dim sum lunch would not be complete at Sum Ya had I not ordered the Chinese BBQ combination plate including roast pork, soy chicken, and duck, and its dessert, steamed sponge cake.
What I love about the BBQ plate is that the leftovers can be saved for dinner, which makes this lazy cook very happy. (end)
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.