We love brunch, but we have to admit– sometimes it’s good to switch things up a bit. If you’re a fan of Chinese food, you’ve probably heard of dim sum. If you haven’t, never fear! That’s what we’re here for.
Dim sum is Cantonese food (Cantonese indicating the Canton culture of China) represented by the current region of Hong Kong. In fact, the words “dim sum” come from the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese characters “little heart.” Fitting, since the dishes are typically served on small plates or steam baskets. Some parts of China call dim sum “zao cha,” or “early tea.” That’s why I describe dim sum as “tapas for brunch.”It’s inexpensive, it’s social, and where else will you get food wheeled in carts by little old ladies right to your table?! Here’s your step-by-step guide to dim sum.
Who should you bring? As many people as you care to invite! Tables typically sit 8-10 people. My personal sweet spot is 6 or 8. Dishes are typically served in portions of 3’s or 4’s, so if you’re skeptical about a dish, you can simply share.
Warning for those with dietary restrictions: There’s seafood, pork, and beef. While these can be safely avoided, dim sum is not particularly vegetarian-friendly. In fact, if there are sales quotas for the carts, all is woe for unlucky soul who gets stuck with the veggie cart. However, there is one vegetarian dim sum place in Manhattan that’s been tried-and-tested for excellence: Buddha Bodai. Unfortunately, there are no little old ladies wheeling carts here.
Most dim sum places open around 9-10am, so go at 11am at the latest. Any later and you’re waiting up to an hour for a table—I’ve yet to come across a dim sum place that takes reservations—those crowds of Cantonese people waiting to partake in their weekly cultural rite can get pretty vicious.
There are so many dim sum restaurants in the New York City area, and since Manhattan’s Chinatown is a bastion of Cantonese food, you really can’t go wrong. But I prefer the restaurants in Flushing, Queens. In Manhattan, I recommend Golden Unicorn and Jing Fong. In Flushing, I recommend Asian Jewels, but Jade Asian is also a top pick. If you’re a stickler for good service, Asian Jewels is the hands-down favorite here.
These choices are especially good for your 6-10 deep entourage, because they’re large banquet halls, that can cater to Westerners and will have the novel dim sum carts you’re looking for. However, they won’t split checks and rarely take credit cards. If they do, they’ll only accept one card per table. So to make everyone’s lives easier, BRING CASH.
So how’s it work? The short explanation: Just smile and point at what you want. The long explanation:
1. Arrive early and tell the host(ess) your party size.
If you arrive before 11am, there is a 95% chance that you’ll get a table right away. Otherwise, you’ll be given a number and told to wait, and wait. And. WAIT. The rudeness curtness of the host(ess) is proportionate to how overwhelmed they are by hungry customers. Again, get there before 11am.
Make sure your entire party is present! Like most restaurants, they won’t seat you until your party is complete. The only exception I’ve seen to this rule is at Asian Jewels in Flushing. Sometimes the host(ess) will seat you if you’re only missing one or two people, but having your entire party present is crucial to getting a table if there’s a line.
2. Once seated, pick your choice of teas.
Give chrysanthemum tea a try. It’s light and floral, and served with rock sugar for sweetening. There’s also jasmine, green, and black teas.
Lazy Susans are essential for large parties, which make sharing easy. Another reason why you should go as a party of 6 or 8. If you want water or silverware, you’ll have to ask specifically for it. Chinese people drink tea with dim sum, and everything is served bite-sized, so silverware isn’t needed unless you’re not comfortable with chopsticks.
3. Point and shoot.
Immediately, the “ladies with carts” will roll up to your table to hawk their fares. All that’s left to do is point at what you want. Feel free to speak in English. Chances are very high that they understand what you’re saying. My favorite dishes are:
This dish is called “Phoenix claw.” In reality, they’re chicken feet. This is a staple of dim sum, and you must try it.
Cheung fen: Rice noodle “crepes.” I usually get the shrimp, but these come in veggie and beef. Asian Jewels also serves one with famous Cantonese “char siu” BBQ pork. It’s delicious.
Fried taro with minced pork. I love taro. You should try taro. This is a good way to try taro.
Pork spare ribs. I love this dish because the meat is always tender. Asian Jewels cooks this with taro. See my feelings regarding taro above.
Other staple dishes of dim sum:
Shrimp dumplings with rice wrappers
Siu mai: Minced pork in wonton wrappers.
An Asian Jewels creation, sesame green tea glutinous rice balls were a favorite dessert of mine growing up, so it’s cool to see this at Asian Jewels.
Sesame glutinous rice balls, which are usually filled with sesame or peanut paste. Asian Jewels had a variation with lotus paste, which is my favorite for Chinese desserts.
Most restaurants also serve their lunch or dinner menus too, so if you’re having a craving for fried rice or lo mein, you can order that off the menu. Give it a shot, and let us know how it goes!
Asian Jewels Seafood Restaurant
13330 39th Ave
Flushing, NY 11354
Jade Asian Restaurant
13628 39th Ave
Flushing, NY 11354
Jing Fong Restaurant
20 Elizabeth St
New York, NY 10013
18 E Broadway
New York, NY 10002
5 Mott St
New York, NY 10013
Feature photo: Golden Unicorn
A foodie in perpetual wanderlust, Rose makes it a mission to sample the best ugly delicious delights around the world, but also enjoys the occasional dress-code-required fare and is always ready for a spot of afternoon tea. Currently based in the Boston area, she has been writing for GMF since 2013 and called DC, NYC, and Mexico City home. Rose is a graduate of the University of Virginia and New York University, and is on the board of the University of Virginia’s Asian and Asian Pacific American Alumni Network as well as the Thomas Jefferson Partnership Fund, which supports the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. She pays her bills by helping companies communicate with Wall Street as an investor relations professional.