THE ONLY problem about dim sum is having to be a morning person. Or at least it used to be. Happily, one of the more generous accommodations Chinese restaurants have made to American dining habits is to offer these teahouse snacks more and more frequently -- some on a daily basis. At Dragon, northern Chinese-style dim sum are part of the permanent menu, and now the only problem is not sneaking out to scarf scallion pancakes at all hours of the day.
This is a very plain restaurant; Dragon's kitchen is betting its "face" on the cooking. There are some 80 dishes listed on the menu, 20 of them classic dim sum, and another eight or 10 special casseroles and more familiar stir-fries on a separate menu card on the table. The menu is a sort of do-it-yourself check-off list, with space for customers to put the number of orders of each dish desired. Most of the dim sum are identified as singular or plural -- they range from two scallion-filled sesame buns to a dozen steamed veggie dumplings -- but sizes vary considerably, so the first time around it may be worth checking with the staff.
The No. 70 pan-fried pork dumplings, for example, are not the half-moon ravioli-ish potstickers most Americans are familiar with, but the authentic northern Chinese rectangles, so six is a pretty substantial portion. (They are delicious, too, crusted on one side and still juicy inside; they may with good reason remind MoCo dim sum cognoscenti of the prize potstickers at Rockville's popular A&J establishment.) On the other hand, No. 84, which is described as "steamed spareribs with spicy rice powder," is smaller than it sounds, a bamboo mini-steamer of pork morsels the size of a finger joint, rolled in roasted and ground rice. It's not all that spicy, but you need to watch for bone shards, as the meat is cleavered and somewhat camouflaged.
You can't gauge size by cost, either. The burger-sized pork-filled pastry is only $1.50 and the potstickers $4.25, while the pork roll, at $3.95, is a tasty but less-filling moo shu-style wrap of sliced roast pork. (Note: Dragon is currently a cash-only establishment.)
As in India, geography defines the staples: rice to the south, wheat to the north. (Just to instill a little respect for tradition in our fast-food nation, consider that the Yangshao people of northern China were cultivating both, along with millet and barley, and raising pigs, their primary source of meat, 7,000 years ago.) Noodles and steamed buns, collectively known as mantoo or mantu, make up a large proportion of the dishes from the region -- "mein," now a rather general term for noodles regardless of starch type, originally implied wheat flour -- and the various doughs here, from the pancakes to the bun pastries, the ethereal dumpling papers and the almost equally light hand-pulled wide noodles, are Dragon's premiere draw. Appropriately, the pork is a close second: roasted, braised ("water pork" refers not to a type of animal but to the cooking technique), shredded, double-cooked and fried.
Among the chicken dishes worth trying are the cold shaoxin-poached chicken Nos. 01 (leg and thigh) and 02 (wings) and the chilled shredded white meat over julienned cucumber and sesame dressing (No. 31).
There are plenty of vegetarian options here, and not the same old, same old, either. In fact, cold side dish No. 26, chopped mustard greens tossed with fresh soy beans and tatters of bean curd skin, is one of the most tempting salads around, even more refreshing with a splash of vinegar from the table carafe. Thin-sliced seaweed, carrot and bean sprouts with vinegar and chili, No. 27, will erase any old brown-rice health-food cafe from your memory forever. The turnip bun, No. 74, seems odd but quickly grows on you; the pastry is surprisingly flaky, and the chopped veggie stuffing has a tang of radish that begs for a spoonful of chili sauce. (Don't be afraid to take advantage of the table condiments in any case -- the soy, vinegar and chilies are essential factors.) The No. 49 noodles in hot and spicy sesame sauce with peanut powder aren't dangerously hot, either, but a smooth, almost guilty pleasure.
For fans of fine offal, the chilled chili-spiked No. 36 tripe is so light and thinly sliced -- is there a mandoline on the premises? -- that it makes a great palate-cleanser between buns. The sliced slow-roasted pig's ear, No. 29, is something like a cross between sweet-glazed ham rind and jellied bacon. If I had been feeling any more rambunctious (or had any room left), I'd have mixed the pig's ears and the sesame noodles together into a sort of Chinese carbonara. I may yet. But not until after I have the shredded pork and pickled mustard green noodle soup.
Dragon also has several pearl tapioca drinks, including juices and sweet black tea; the sensation of the hazelnut-size black jelly pearls bubbling up through the straw is giggle-making to the extreme and will take any last smear of chili sauce off your lips.