I’m not a big fan of restaurant Sunday brunches. The ones in my price range usually involve a buffet, with rubbery scrambled eggs, overcooked bacon, limp French toast, pale and colorless fruit, and, occasionally, a bored chef in a tall hat serving prime rib.
Given a choice, I’d much rather stay seated for my meal and have hot, fresh, interesting choices brought directly to me. Here in Seattle, that means one thing: Dim sum.
Dim sum, served in Chinese restaurants, translates to something like “heart’s delight.” When your party is seated, a paper check is left on the table. Waitresses with carts move about the room, and when one comes by, you select small plates of dumplings, noodles, vegetables, seafood, and meat by pointing at them (there’s usually a language barrier involved). The waitress marks the check with your selections and moves on, and a few minutes later, another cart rolls by with different choices.
Years ago, we were introduced to Dim sum by our friend Phyllis, who took us to Noble Court, on the east side. The timing was tricky: We’d go early to avoid waiting for a table. After stuffing ourselves completely, we’d watch helplessly as later carts glided by with tantalizing items that hadn’t been available at eleven a.m.
Under Phyllis’ tutelage, we discovered char shu bao, steamed buns filled with barbecued beef. I fell in love with congee, a chicken soup where the rice is cooked until it disintegrates to a thick porridge-like consistency. We always ordered sticky rice, where rice and seasoned meat are steamed inside a taro leaf, shrimp dumplings (har gao), and bird’s nests. Many of the plates held three of each item, making it the perfect shared meal for the three of us.
Then we branched out and started exploring the International District, Seattle’s version of Chinatown. We started going to dim sum with larger groups of friends, and at House of Hong, we sat at a large table with a lazy susan in the center. I laughed myself silly, watching Barry try to grab a slippery dumpling from a plate with chopsticks, while someone on the other side of the table was spinning it out his reach, because they wanted the teapot.
My going-away luncheon at Expeditors was a special treat: We all took the bus down to House of Hong for an extravagant two-hour break. We had all my original favorites, plus shu mai dumplings and prawns with candied walnuts. One Chinese friend went into rapture over the chicken feet, but couldn’t talk anyone into sharing a plate of them. As a matter of fact, several people threatened to leave the table if she ordered them!
Over Christmas, we met my sister and her husband at Jade Garden. As we sat down, Barry asked Ed, “Do you want to ‘drive’?” Ed looked puzzled, until the first cart came by and Barry started selecting items to put on the table. Then he realized what Barry meant — the person who sits closest to the aisle is the one who has to do the pointing and choosing, a position of great responsibility.
Last weekend, we met some friends at Top Gun in Factoria, one of the best dim sum places in the area. Along with the usual suspects, we had fried calamari, Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, and pot stickers. Will and Tina introduced us to bean curd sheets, which tasted a lot better than they looked. We had a hilarious time trying to eat mango pudding with chopsticks, since they didn’t give us quite enough spoons. Mango pudding has a consistency a lot like jello, and they douse it in condensed milk, which makes it even more slippery.
One of my favorite things about dim sum in Seattle is the price: It’s cheap. Although you never know how much it will be until you’re done and the mysterious bill is totaled, it’s always reasonable. The groups I’ve gone with have never spent more than $15 per person, and some large groups have been as low as $8.
For me, dim sum is the best use of my meager restaurant budget. The food is lovely, varied, and not too filling. I can meet a large or small group of friends for a lengthy, relaxing meal. And I can’t imagine better, cheaper entertainment than watching folks trying to eat jello with chopsticks.
Some of Seattle’s best dim sum restaurants:
- Jade Garden, 424 7th Ave. South, Seattle
- Top Gun, Factoria
- House of Hong, 409 8th Ave. South, Seattle (not the best, but has the biggest dining room and free parking)
Just curious about dim sum? Check out these links for more information: