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"Dumb" dim sum question/Ton Kieng

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I know the other chowhounds will think this is a silly question, but what exactly is dim sum? How does a dim sum lunch work?

What are some eating/participating/paying guidelines? What are some good choices? Also, is tipping 15-20% customary, etc?

I have heard great things about Ton Kieng (sp?), but what do you all think? What are some good dim sum spots in SF?

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  1. Just a few comments from me, while entirely skirting your pertinent questions! For every "dumb" question posted here, there are any number of folks who think, "Boy, am I glad someone asked that question". How else are we going to learn?
    I hope someone will reply to your specific questions. pat

    1. I've never been, never had it - but hope to rectify that Labor Day weekend. In the meantime, check out this website: "bayarea.citysearch.com", click on restaurants, then on dim sum in the categories listed to the right hand side (I also happen to be hopelessly low tech). They give what seems to be a pretty thorough explanation.

      1. Dude,

        The only dumb questions are the ones that don't get asked.

        The literal translation of "dim sum" is little treasures that pull at the heart. This is one of the best ways to eat!

        Imagine , if you will, having a meal consisting of course after course of tiny appetizers. That is how dim sum works. In less formal places you simply order off a menu, or order takeout at a deli counter. Formal dim sum is presented on carts. If a passing cart has somehting you want you take some. At the end of your meal your plates are counted to determine the bill for your meal. Everyone should try this at least once!

        There is a place in the city thats famous for it's formal dim sum, the name escapes me. Hounds?


        1. karen,

          lucky you, you get to have dim sum for the first time. it's such a great eating experience that i'm sure you'll remember this for a while.

          basically, it's done during lunch or brunch hours on the weekends. you just go, usually wait in line for as long as one and a half hours for the really popular places (bring something to read, but the wait is worth it), and then get seated.

          at the traditional places, there will be people rolling carts around with little dishes, different kinds of dumplings, chicken feet, mini spare ribs, etc. each dish will have about 3 or 4 of the same thing in it, kind of similar to spanish tapas, the point being, you get lots of different things, and try a little of each. it's best to go in a larger group so you can all share.

          basically, when a cart comes around, just ask to see what they've got and (bonus if the person pushing the cart actually speaks english) ask if they can tell you what it is. best bet is to just go crazy and try as much as you can, since it's probably something you'll do more than once, and though you may get lots of dishes, the price usually doesn't end up being all that much.

          when you're done, just pay the bill and give the usual tip.

          i've heard ton kiang has always been good though i've never been there myself.

          there's a great place in daly city/pacifica called koi palace if you want to venture outside the city. the lines are killer but it's worth the wait. let me know if you have any other questions. and good luck and let us know how it goes no matter where you go.


          1. I've always liked both Yank Sing (Battery at about Saccramento or the new on on Stevenson) and Harbor Village (Embarcadero 4), although I'm sure there are lots of other good places. You need reservations at both, but I've never had much of a wait.

            One word of caution: go slowly -- it's such a temptation to get lots of everything, but those little plates start to add up (not the money, but you start to get really full) and you definitely have to save room for the custard tarts, especially if you go to Yank Sing.

            1. I've eaten at Ton Kiang (the restaurant of Geary, right?) Everything we had was delicious, and plus, it was very *clean* tasting, i.e. not greasy.

              I've had good dim sum at Harbor Village. It probably helped that we knew the GM. Also, I've heard tons of great things about Yank Sing, but that it was a little more $$ than the usual dim sum places.

              1. j
                Jefferson Scher

                1. Bring a guide. Invite someone who is enthusiastic about it but not overbearing. Someone who, more than anything, wants you to have a great experience. This person can explain and interpret. Also, if you have any food allergies, particularly involving shellfish, you'll want someone to taste for scallops, for example. (FYI, I'm free most weekends.)

                2. Bring a group. Most dim sum is served in multiples of 3 or 4, and you can try more (and stretch your budget) with a group.

                3. Study in advance. If you're the type of person that doesn't like to ask questions in the restaurant, you have many ways to learn about dim sum before you go. Thanks to the Internet, you can find photos of dim sum (see sample link below) and even recipes. Or you can pick up a cookbook (or perhaps even a take-out menu). Then ask people what they like best and why, and between the pictures, the ingredients, and the comments, you'll get a sense of what you most want to try.

                4. Approach it like sushi. There are certain things that every place will serve, and there are some things that will be very unique. And there are some things that someone raised in mainstream culture could never imagine eating (like chicken feet and monkfish liver) that you can just ignore the first time. Don't feel like you have to try anything that doesn't sound appealing.

                5. Consider my favorites:

                shrimp dumplings (har gow) - these translucent dumplings are made of a slightly sweet starchy flour, filled with chopped shrimp, perhaps a little fish paste and some bamboo shoots; I always order these and judge the quality of the place by them (note, the "r" isn't really pronounced, it's more like "hah gow")

                BBQ pork buns (cha siu bao) - these fluffy "buns" are made from steamed dough filled with BBQ pork, often stir-fried with onions; the quality of the pork really varies from place to place, from dry to succulent to way too fatty; there's also a baked pork bun with a smooth brown top (often brushed with something sticky-sweet), but it lacks the aroma and bite of the steamed bun

                rice noodle "crepes" with shrimp (shrimp fun) - wide (4"?) sheets of rice noodle are cut roughly into squares and rolled around a variety of fillings, including shrimp or beef or BBQ pork; they are topped at the last second with sweetened soy sauce and usually some extra oil (not really needed); this dish really is about the silky texture of the noodles

                stuffed bell pepper (or eggplant or mushroom caps) - this dish looks simple, but so many places don't seem to get it quite right...; a filling of ground chicken or shrimp is packed into a piece of bell pepper and then fried; just before it is served, black bean sauce usually is brushed or dribbled over it; the pepper usually has a nice crunch, and its tartness (or whatever you want to call that green pepper taste) contrasts nicely with all the sweeter stuff; but watch out for undercooked chicken in the thickest part of the filling

                Chinese broccoli (gai lan, or "guy lawn") - this vegetable, which tastes vaguely like mustard and usually is not on any menu, is a perennial favorite at dim sum houses, and a welcome source of fiber in a meal replete with protein and refined flours; typically, it is steamed and served under a heavy dribble of oyster sauce, but I usually order it sauteed with garlic (that also ensures that it is hot; otherwise, it might be served cold, which deprives you of all the aromas); warning: even highly skilled chopstick users may end up flicking sauce on themselves trying to keep hold of the slippery stalks

                sesame balls - these chewy desserts are rolled in sesame seeds and deep fried; the filling usually is a sweetened bean or lotus seed paste, but you never know when you'll get a sweetened, and slightly watery black sesame "soup"

                Two more that are hit or miss...

                taro dumplings - these can be pretty spectacular at the right place; a ground pork filling is surrounded by a thick coating of taro paste and deep fried; the exterior usually is a beautiful lacy brown, but sadly, the contents vary so much from place to place that it's always a gamble; maybe look at other peoples' tables to see if they're enjoying them

                pork dumplings (siu mai) - these steamed dumplings are one of the most fundamental (and cheapest) dim sum, and everyone's recipe is different; some siu mai are delicately flavored and finely ground pork, others contain pork and shrimp, or chicken; and the texture varies from finely ground to overtly chewy (sometimes gristly!); so unless you already know you don't like them at a particular place, you probably shouldn't shy away (unless, like me, you're already full)

                Link: http://www.dimsum.com/ds1.html

                1. I live in Maine, where all the Chinese restaurants serve the same lowest common denominator food. Last year when we went to Amsterdam and saw a Chinese restaurant that served dim sum, we jumped at the opportunity. The menu was in Chinese and Dutch, and though I read some Japanese (hey, this one has beef in it), we let the waiter choose for us. He just kept bringing courses until we'd had enough. Everything was great, nothing like we had ever had before.
                  Just do it!