Small plates, big feasts
SN&R takes some tasty bites out of the local dim sum scene
Cart after cart stops by the table, showcasing bamboo baskets, plump dumplings, various fried things and other mysteries. This is dim sum, the Chinese alternative to brunch that’s way more fun, interactive and affordable.
It’s kind of like Spanish tapas—instead of alcohol, you consume tea—with lots of small plates meant for sharing. For what feels like an extravagant feast, you’ll probably spend $10 to $15 per person.
The Sacramento region has quite a few dim sum restaurants, and everyone seems to be highly opinionated about their favorite. In order to determine which dim sum truly ranks supreme, we tried the same 10 dishes at five popular spots.
The most expensive and beautiful spot, Hong Kong Islander, was hit-and-miss. The cheapest restaurants, Happy Garden and King Palace, boasted huge dining rooms and decently English language-friendly staff. But, overall, the food tasted significantly lower in quality. New Canton and Asian Pearl sat somewhere in the middle expense-wise, and despite their more drab aesthetics, delivered the most consistent, delicious dim sum. Read on for the breakdown, as well as a primer on classic dishes.Purity
The quintessential, simple and delicate dim sum dish. Shrimp—possibly mixed with bamboo shoots—are locked inside thin, translucent and slightly chewy wrappers made from tapioca and wheat starches. The more pleats on this dumpling, the more dexterity in the kitchen. Look for at least eight folds. New Canton and Hong Kong Islander both offer plenty of folds and round, plump shrimp.Dual meats
Essentially a pork-and-shrimp meatball hugged by a thin beige wrapper. Sometimes, there are bamboo shoots, water chestnuts or black mushrooms inside as well. Hopefully not too much, though—you want to taste that shrimp. On top, bright orange crab roe or yellow salted egg yolks give a nice color contrast. New Canton’s siu mai exhibited just the right flavor and texture.
Char siu bao
Two pork buns are staples at dim sum: the fluffy, white steamed bao and glossy, golden baked version. We judged the baked ones, solely because of personal preference. At their best, the buns are soft and slightly sweet, with a sticky glaze on top. Inside, hunks of barbecued pork seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce and shallots. The most common pitfall is a poor bread-to-filling ratio, so the whole thing ends up dry. You also don’t want to see a creepy, artificial-looking bright pink filling—a deeper mahogany or scarlet is a better indicator of deliciousness. New Canton and Asian Pearl do them right.
Fried and glutinous
Ham sui gok
Texture, texture, texture. These little egg-shaped bulbs are made of glutinous rice flour, filled with pork and deep-fried. The result is a crisp, light exterior with a pleasing mochi-like chew. Inside, there’s a little mound of sweet-savory ground pork, gravy and scallions—but also plenty of air to keep them from feeling heavy. As long as they’re freshly fried, these dumplings are truly delicious anywhere. Asian Pearl was particularly tasty, though.
Gimme a rib
These pork spareribs are somewhat unrecognizable to most Americans after being sliced and hacked into 1-inch, bone-in cubes. They take a bit of work, but the morsels of extracted meat are rich, juicy and tender, steeped with fermented black beans and ginger. Unfortunately, when they’re bad, they’re really bad: gristly, fatty, tough, bland. That said, I recommend one place and one place only: Hong Kong Islander.
The closest you’ll get to pasta at dim sum. Cheong fun are large, handmade rice noodles wrapped around filling: whole shrimp, barbecued pork or, sometimes, crispy Chinese doughnuts. We sampled the most traditional offering—shrimp—and found silky-smooth rolls at every Sacramento restaurant. The flavor—accented by a light, sweet soy sauce—varied much more though, and New Canton and Hong Kong Islander had the best.
Lo mai gai
Compared to some of the more delicate dishes on this list, lo mai gai gets you a lot of bang for your buck. Look for deep green lotus leaves wrapped into two rectangular packets, which contain glutinous rice steamed with bits of meat for flavor. The rice should be sticky, sweet and savory. Shredded chicken is the most common accompaniment, but the excellent version at Asian Pearl contains slices of Chinese sausage and chunks of cured egg yolk as well.
Not actually turnip
Lo bak gou
For some reason, everyone calls these little squares “turnip cake.” In fact, there’s no turnip at all. It’s actually radish, grated into rice flour with chewy, meaty bits. The cakes are steamed, thinly sliced and pan-fried. They greatly vary around Sacramento: some aren’t pan-fried at all, some are served hot, others are served cold, some contain Chinese sausage, some contain dried shrimp or black mushrooms. The most satisfying came from Asian Pearl, with a smooth, porridge-like center, crispy edges and studs of pork sausage.
Gao choi gao
There are a few variations on the chive dumpling, but if you can have it steamed, then pan-fried, why wouldn’t you? The translucent, wheat starch-based wrapper is usually supple yet chewy, while the filling might contain some shrimp, egg or water chestnut. Still, the zingy garlic chives dominate. I found no perfect version in Sacramento, but liked them best at Asian Pearl.
There are lots of desserts in dim sum, and no, you don’t have to wait until the end to order them. These individual-sized egg custard tarts are particularly popular, with a just-cooked filling of eggs, evaporated milk and sugar. They might be served hot or cold, inside a puff pastry or shortbread-like pastry. In Hong Kong, the puff pastry ones are held in higher regard for their buttery, flaky goodness. Try them at King Palace or Happy Garden.