Call it cart anxiety.
It’s that moment when the dim-sum pushcart stops at your table, and you stare inside at the stacks of stainless-steel containers. The server, facing a busy dining room and the slowly degrading dishes in her steam-heated cart, quickly rattles off the meats and vegetables stuffed inside each dumpling, as if the variations on shrimp and pork tell you much of anything about these handmade delicacies from southern China.
In a panic, you take the first steamers that look halfway decent, with little thought on how to compose the meal as a whole. Before you know it, your weekend brunch has turned into a steamy Cantonese parade of minced pork, with all the variety of a crowd at a Celine Dion concert.
At some point in our dim-sum adventures, we’ve all been there.
There is an art to building the perfect meal, and it begins with tea, a drink as central to dim sum in Guangdong province as beer is to Buffalo wings in Upstate New York. Always start by pouring your companion a cup. It’s considered poor form to serve yourself first, a generosity of spirit that mirrors the abundance of dim sum hidden in those roaming carts.
For my purposes, I’m focusing only on dumplings — the unleavened packages that are typically steamed or fried — even though dim-sum dishes span a much wider spectrum, from sweet pork buns to savory chicken feet coated with fermented black-bean sauce. No matter what you order, though, the approach remains the same: Aim for variety, as much as your appetite and taste buds can stand.
“I always tell people they should try the different doughs and fillings. Try not to get everything the same,” says Janet Yu, owner of Hollywood East Cafe in Wheaton.
To illustrate the doughs and fillings available at your typical dim-sum parlor, I’m going to guide you through several of my favorite restaurants, one dumpling at a time.
Fried fun gor at Oriental East
These half-moon dumplings are often steamed, which leaves the skins translucent enough for you to spy the fillings trapped within. But at this Silver Spring mainstay, the kitchen deep fries the pockets until they’re supernaturally crisp and chewy, the result of tapioca starch in the dough, the same ingredient that helps add crunch to gluten-free fried chicken. The shell’s dueling textures provide the first waves of pleasure — until you reach the marinated pork-and-shrimp filling, which supplies the final rush of flavor.
$2.95. 1312 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, 301-608-0030. orientaleast.com.
Rice noodle crepes at Mark’s Duck House
Also known as cheong fun, steamed rice crepes offer no room for error. The noodles need to be thin and semitransparent, but the satiny sheets also need some tooth. What’s more, because the crepe has so little flavor itself, the interior ingredients have no place to hide, which means the fillings must be beyond reproach. Defects will be sussed out. The seasoned soy sauce, splashed on the crepes when ordered, should have a touch of sugar to accent a filling of, say, sweet-salty Chinese roast pork or to counterbalance the lengths of savory fried cruller. The crepes at Mark’s have it all, including fillings set into the very fabric of those silken sheets.
$4.50. 6184 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church, 703-532-2125. marksduckhouse.com.
Deep-fried taro dumplings at Da Hong Pao
The bronze fritters have a bubbly, weblike appearance that the Chinese describe as “honeycomb.” When fresh from the fryer, as they are here, the dumplings are hot and crunchy, but soon reveal their softer side: a taro-and-wheat-starch shell that blurs the line between creamy and starchy, concealing a soy-marinated pork filling that has an almost gravylike consistency.
$4.25. 1409 14th St. NW, 202-846-7217.
Steamed pork, shrimp and vermicelli dumplings at Hollywood East Cafe
Before customers learned about the horrors of shark finning, a practice that turns the ocean’s great predator into easy prey, dim sum shops would regularly serve shark fin dumplings. No more. Diners won’t stand for it, even if many Chinese consider the shark fin a symbol of wealth. Hollywood East has substituted vermicelli for the flavorless shark fin threads once used in its dumplings. You won’t miss them. These golden, translucent purses, each sealed with a row of tiny pleats, are the elegant alter ego of shumai dumplings, the squat, interior linemen of dim sum.
$3.25. 11160 Veirs Mill Rd. in the Westfield Wheaton shopping center, Wheaton, 240-290-9988. hollywoodeastcafe.com.
Steamed and pan-fried chive dumplings at Hong Kong Pearl Seafood
These bundles are available daily, but if you want them on Saturday or Sunday, the odds are high that you’ll have to wait. On weekends, the cavernous dining room fills up fast with expats anxious for the dim-sum cart service. The star ingredient may startle those unfamiliar with its forward persona: Chinese chives taste more like ramps, those garlicky darlings of spring, than the slender herbs commonly used as a garnish. Just as important, the wrappers, first steamed and then carefully pan-fried on both sides, add a little chew to the pungent chives, which are tempered ever so slightly with chopped shrimp.
$3.75 till 3 p.m.; $3.95 after. 6286 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 703-237-1388.
Har gau at Wong Gee Asian Restaurant
Perhaps the specimens here don’t always measure up to classic Cantonese standards. You might not, for instance, count precisely 12 folds in the ivory skins, and the fat bundles may sometimes look more like bloated organs than elegant purses. But if the aesthetics can be off, the flavors are spot on. The wheat-and-tapioca-starch wrappers are thin and elastic enough to allow the shrimp to speak clearly, their clean, nutty flavors supplemented by a small amount of rendered pork fat, the invisible stowaway in har gau.
$2.95 for lunch; $3.95 for dinner. 2417 University Blvd. West, Silver Spring, 301-933-3277. wonggee.com .
Pan-fried pork potstickers at A&J Restaurant
Unlike most Washington-area dim-sum parlors, which specialize in the teahouse fare of southern China, A&J focuses on the snacks of the north, which favors meatier, wheat-based dishes. A&J’s potstickers are not the shapely, pan-fried gyoza commonly found at ramen houses. These are a manly stack of wheat pasta logs steam-fried until they literally stick to one another. They are served bottoms-up, looking like a doughy rack of spare ribs. The wrappers are thick and hearty; the pork filling as complex as sausage.
$7.45. 4316 Markham St., Suite B, Annandale, 703-813-8181; 1319 Rockville Pike, Suite C, Rockville, 301-251-7878. aj-restaurant.com .
Hate to say it, but this list barely scratches the surface of dim-sum dumplings. I’m thinking specifically about the deep-fried glutinous rice dumplings at Hollywood East, the shrimp-and-abalone beauties at Mark’s Duck House, the steamed beef dumplings at A&J, the . . . well, you get the picture.