Dim sum fans in Northern Virginia who still trek into Washington's Chinatown or out to the Maryland suburbs may not be aware that they can enjoy these delightful specialties closer to home.
A weekend brunch with family or friends can have an Oriental twist at any of three recently visited Northern Virginia restaurants that offer dim sum -- Cantonese luncheon food elevated to an art.
For the uninitiated, be advised that this is one meal when it is best to arrive at the restaurant's busiest time -- usually around noon -- in order to get the biggest selection.
This is especially true at the larger, more established places where the dim sum items -- dumplings, crepes and braised, marinated meats -- are wheeled past the tables on carts.
At peak volume, the carts pass by frequently, each carrying several different dishes. With more than 30 items to choose from, many under $2, there's room to experiment. When you make a selection, the cart pusher marks the price on a tally sheet on your table.
Tea is the beverage of choice, and although more than one kind of tea is available, some establishments in the interest of efficiency just bring a pot without asking your preference.
After getting your tea, request the usual Chinese hot mustard and sweet sauce, and perhaps some hot red pepper sauce for dipping. Now you're ready to make your selections from the carts or, if your favorite dim sum has not yet rolled by, check the dim sum menu and ask the waiter for a special order.
China Garden, 1901 N. Moore St., Arlington; 525-5317; available Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
This second-floor dining room, with a view of the Washington skyline and the expressway tangle at Key Bridge, is one of the older, more established dim sum spots.
A pot of oolong tea was brought to the table although the restaurant also offers the more expensive chrysanthemum tea. We enjoyed all of our selections, including the first two off the cart: lightly textured steamed meat balls, and the thin, crepe-like bean curd rolls wrapped around pork.
Don't be put off by the unfamiliar appearance or name of some dishes, such as the delicious turnip cakes flecked with sweet pork. Also a good bet are the slippery noodle-like rice crepes wrapped around roast pork or beef, and the fried square of tofu topped with a small mound of minced shrimp and drizzled with a light brown gravy.
The dense, pink Chinese sausage is surprisingly sweet -- almost like candy. The white dough that was wrapped around the sausage, and also used in the large roast pork bun, was dry and not as sweet as other versions. But that was a minor flaw. The roasted pork in a dark hoisin sauce made an excellent filling for the buns.
For a stick-to-your-ribs soup, traditionally eaten for breakfast, try one of the varieties of congee, a thick rice gruel. For dessert, an order of banana fritters is a tasty finish.
The Inn of the Eight Immortals, Seven Corners Shopping Center, Falls Church; 534-3043; available Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Located in the parking lot of the shopping center, this is the most elaborately decorated of the four restaurants, with Chinese statues lining the walls, dragons wrapped around pillars, and a colorful, intricately painted ceiling. It is also the noisiest and most bustling.
Both the quality and variety of dim sum are impressive. Try the shark's fin dumpling, a whole shrimp wrapped in an almost transparent dough, crimped at the top to suggest the triangular shape of a shark's fin.
Other good choices are the fried half-moons of dough stuffed with beef and vegetables and flavored with fresh coriander leaves, the delicate fried shrimp balls, and the shrimp and pork sweet rice gok that deflates as you bite into its chewy shell.
A portion of red-glazed roast duck cut into bite-sized pieces, bones and all, was more expensive at $4.50 than most of the other selections. But the sweet, moist meat was worth the extra expense.
Instead of dessert, we ordered a bowl of shredded pork noodle soup that was big enough for our party of six to share. It's a bargain for $3.95.
Good Fortune, 6464-C Lincolnia Rd., Alexandria; 642-2263; available every day, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Occupying the middle section of a subdivided former Safeway store, this year-old restaurant is the only one of the four to offer dim sum daily. Two fans hang from the pitched, 19-foot-high ceiling, and a vertical pattern of palm trees on a background of pale pink suggests the tropics.
At this small restaurant there are no carts, but there is a good selection from the menu. The selection is larger on weekends. The service staff is very friendly and patient with questions. There are four tea choices, including a very fermented pu-erh.
One good, interesting dish was the deep-fried crab, with a minced shrimp mixture wrapped around the red tip of a crab's claw. Other exceptional dishes were the stuffed bean cake with shrimp, and the steamed spare ribs in a slightly spicy broth.
For more adventurous dining, try the duck feet with a wonderful oyster sauce, or the tripe in an equally gratifying five-spice sauce.
The lotus seed jelly filling in the steamed bun with the yellow dot on top was reminiscent of sweet baked beans. The dough for the buns, however, was crumbly and not very chewy.
For a cool and soothing dessert, try the cubes of fragrant coconut gelatin. Hot towels and fortune cookies are offered at the end of the meal.