Dol Ho: A bit slow, but You Must Go!
(in my best ComicBook Guy Voice) Best Dim Sum Ever!
We never would've found this were it not for the recommendation here and it being listed in my Magellan Meridian's DirectRoute database. Well, the GPS really helped.
If you can't find Dol Ho, it's right up the street from the place in Chinatown that sells the oranges. :-)
Seriously, though, you don't get much more authentic than this. The arguing in the kitchen only added to the experience. This is not a place that's trying to earn your business by luring you inside with, well anything. There is no decor WHATSOEVER. We didn't even get a menu and had to ask if we were supposed to seat ourselves. They were incredibly busy and the place was just packed full of local Chinatown residents.
Good sign. VERY good sign.
The grandmotherly waitresses were very friendly and accomodating to us. (Is there a Chinese word for "Gringo"?) Our water was served in a tea pot with tea cups. The first waitress saw us and said "We bring dumpling soon" noting our skin color and supposed (and correct) love of sui mai.
Service here is "when it's ready". The wait was long, but well worth it. We kind of got to know some of our dining companions. The older gentleman next to us was having the steamed spareribs over rice and he let us know in no uncertain terms that we were in a very good place to eat. It was really neat to see another great grandfatherly type get up from another table to leave, then come over to sit and chat with our next door neighbor friend once he was recognized.
The only difference between this event and my Grandpa Bill doing the same thing countless times in Frank and Minnie's Cafe in Harrison, Arkansas was the language being spoken.
God bless those cooks wearing homemade smocks almost exactly like my Granny used to wear! They were surely the most incredible sui mai we've ever eaten. I don't know what the difference was, but what a difference it WAS. Something was just very, very good about these. It wasn't our hunger nor the lack of a basis for comparison. There was just something beyond any other we'd ever eaten.
It took awhile before the next dish was out. Well, it took awhile before the next dish made it to our table since a couple were brought out, then taken by the tables between us and the kitchen. I swear, that entire restaurant looked like pack of attention starved dogs at the pound looking for new owners whenever a new tray of little happiness-es left the kitchen. It was hysterical after awhile because the collective "sigh" as the food was taken was just like the group of partying mice in the Speedy Gonzales cartoon where Sylvester keeps turning off the lights.
This was group Bi Polar Dim Sum, for sure.
Anyway, about ten minutes later, we jumped at whatever we could get. This time is was a shrimp paste cooked on top of a bell pepper slice. My wife doesn't like bell peppers, so she enjoyed this dish free of its green cooked, yet crunchy raft.
The next dish was giant meatballs...of what, I'm not sure, but likely beef with crunchy bits of vegetables in tow. (It's been awhile since I've cooked dim sum, but I'm sure this is in my cookbook.) These were almost too good to eat, but we managed.
OK, by this point, we were stuffed. You know how Mom always said to slow down and chew your food? Well, the service on this day made it a necessity. I could understand my wife being full since she has a lap-band, but I didn't understand why *I* was so full.
This is why it was so hard to turn away the lady when she brought a plate of steamed pork buns specifically to us. She looked so disappointed, too. After I looked at my wife, we both decided to get them anyway since they were probably going to be the best we'd ever had. Luckily, I caught her before she gave them away.
Now, I'm usually not a big fan of these. Being from the South, I'm particular about anything called "barbecue pork" and wrapping that in (usually) soggy steamed bread just really isn't my cup o' iced tea. That said, these damned steamed pork buns were also just the best damned things on the planet. The bread was better than ever. Their pork on the inside was nothing but pure, made-with-love goodness.
It probably took about 40 minutes from start to finish to eat the four finest dim sum dishes of our lives. They were just incredible. The differences to us cannot be named, but something about it all made it absolutely stellar in comparison.
The next surprise came when we finally had to leave this friendly little bit of heaven. Our bill.
For four dishes of dim sum that were beyond comparison, the bill was a staggering $7.50. I asked if that was correct and the cashier's tone of "Yeeaass, seven fifty!" confirmed it and told me to not bother asking again. I felt guilty leaving her only $12. Hey, we're not rich by any means, so we're not these $1,000 tippers that you read about in the paper, but at $12 we honestly felt like we were stealing from these people.
We were quite glad that it was now a downhill walk to our next destination.
Thanks for the tips, Chowhounds!
The day before yesterday, I stopped by Dol Ho after an appointment close by. Boy, am I glad that I did. Two days beforehand, I had asked Melanie Wong for dim sum recommendations, and thankfully, she pointed it out as we passed so I could find it later. I had heard of the chicken riblets (is that what those were?) over rice, and so when I saw that it was the first cart out of the kitchen, I pounced.
From the first soul, rich, comforting bite, I knew I was in for something special. It was funny watching her pour the soy mixture onto the rice as two parts of my brain battled. One was the Japanese traditionalist who has watched others (beginning with my aunt when she visited me in Japan) pour soy sauce over rice, and the other was the Chowhound enthusiast who was ready to try something different and trusted the recommendations of others. Well, consider me converted. At least to this particular dish. It wasn't too salty, it didn't detract from the rice, and I definitely ate far more of it than I intended. And that chicken was so delightfully chicken-y. Talk about flavor.
The har gow was delicious as well. Big, round, stuffed dumplings full of shrimp with a strong cilantro flavor. Yeah, the skin was a bit thick, but it was still absolutely delectable. I'd order it again in a heartbeat. The downside to coming by yourself to dim sum is that you really can't order too much, especially if you live too far away to box it up to go.
However, I picked one more dish, the turnip cakes. My thinking was that the last time I had had them, at Yank Sing (no need to mention how completely different that experience was), they weren't hot and I wanted some hot turnip cakes. These turned out to be not only not warm, but room temperature. They weren't greasy, which I appreciated, but I can't help thinking that if they had been steaming hot, their mellow flavors would have really come alive a bit. I enjoyed the natural sweetness of the turnips but I can't say I would order this again. Just not as spectacular as the other two dishes, and after having eaten, I realized that unlike the other two, the turnip cakes weren't being ordered by all the tables around me.
Next time, I think I'll take a better look as well as order those giant meatballs, whose name I am now forgetting, that I saw on the tables around me. I think its atmosphere only added to the food, beginning with the chipped tea pot that arrived and continuing with the fans on the wall that did a marvelous job of keeping me cool. This is not friendly for dim sum beginners, however. I saw a family of four non-Asians walk into the restaurant midway through my meal, and as I went to pay, one woman in the party was yelled at when she asked how the pricing works. Thankfully, I did fine by just pointing. Dol Ho is a truly wonderful dim sum restaurant and one I will gladly return to as soon as I can.
Some places have carts. Some it is off the menu. Some both. Rarely, if ever, available for dinner.
For Dim Sum 101 go to Yank Sing. Pricy, excellent and gringo-friendly for your first time. In this case, they have carts. Pace yourself. Get the sesame balls. Then if you make it through that, search the board for a zillion dim sum posts.
Also many of the Chinese bakeries in Chinatown sell many of the buns and dumplings on dim sum menus. Golden Gate bakery is known for their egg custard tarts. I like the bbq pork buns.
As far as Yank Sing, you won't really see prices. Depending on the dish, there will be a stamp on the menu card.
Please report back on where you go and how you liked dim sum.
I suppose you mean gringo-friendly in the sense that you'll find yourself seated in a room with nothing but other gringos (but friendly).
The servers (yes, THEY are Chinese) don't speak English any better than those in Chinatown establishments, and you'll find yourself paying Stanford tuition instead of Cal tuition for your Dim Sum 101.
re: Gary Soup
I don't know whether you are or are not Asian, but your wife and family is. That gives you a totally different perspective. And good for all you other non Asians that breeze into other dim sum places without any problem. That hasn't been my experience at all ... time after time, year after year, decade after decade.
I just know if it hadn't been for Yank Sing giving me an intro into dim sum, I wouldn't be eating it anywhere today. They made it an accessible and a lot less intimidating to me.
If I had cheaped out, I wouldn't have gotten an education at all.
I don't remember exactly what my average bill is at Yank Sing. Probably around $20 - $25. Yeah, I can pay $10 somewhere else. However, for that $20 I'm getting delicious food in a beautiful room without hassle. And I don't need to drive down the Pennisula to have that meal. It also gives me the background to be able to deal with the $10 dim sum joints.
I'm not Asian except the 1/16th part of me that hoofed it here from Asia 30,000 years ago and I probably taught my extended family (who are Shanghainese, not Cantonese) as much about Cantonese dim sum as they taught me. My Dim Sum U was Asia Garden, now (but unworthy of its legacy) known as New Asia and I attended it in the company of other non-Asian friends and co-workers. As the OP intimated, beyond the point and shoot approach, you can crib the knowledge of your neighbors at the next table (or at the same big table) who are Chinese and probably speak English better than the servers. That is, if there ARE any Chinese sitting near you; at Yank Sing, you can sit cluelessly amongst other clueless and pay three times as much for the privilege of staring up at the Rincon Center's Atrium.
re: Gary Soup
I was responding not to the OP, but to adewaal.
I know how intimidating it was to me the first time I tried dim sum.
I'm not going to argue this again, but as I have said and most other people have told you in the past, the majority of of diners in Yank Sing are Asian. The SF Chronicle's Olivia Wu chose Yank Sing to throw a banquet for food writers across the country to familiarize them with a Chinese banquet. I assume Olivia is Asian given her last name and knowledge of that cuisine.
It might be more helpful to adewaal to offer an acceptable alternative since that poster has your view on Yank Sing
Banquets at Yank Sing are done by YS's catering operations and of course the only people present are the people invited by the hosts. I've never questioned the cooking abilities of YS's staff, and if you want a traditional Chinese banquet you get it. They also do traditional dim sum well, I've never disputed that; I even occasionally get their dim sum "bento" boxes which I feel are reasonably priced for the FiDi. They just happen to charge too much for dim sum and they push a lot of non-traditional stuff at inflated prices without disclosing the price to the unwary customer; you've probably seen the posts from people who left Yank Sing in shock realizing they had paid $30-$40 pp for dim sum.
But to say that "the majority of diners at Yank Sink are Asian" implies that I can't tell an Asian from a non-Asian, which might be the case, but I swear have never seen as many as 5 percent Asians at YS for dim sum on a random weekday, and probably not more than 20 percent on a normal Saturday, not counting the occasional get-togethers by people s well-heeled enough to pay YS's prices. This in a town that's nearly 40 percent Asian.
I'm a little confused by this statement: "The SF Chronicle's Olivia Wu chose Yank Sing to throw a banquet for food writers across the country to familiarize them with a Chinese banquet." What does this prove (unless you're assuming that it was a bunch of food writers from across the country who were Asian, which would be highly unlikely b/c then the assumption would be that most Asian food writers have some background with Chinese banquets)??
I agree with Gary's assertion (though not quite as wholeheartedly) that non-Asians go to YS more so than Asians. That's absolutely true during the week with the FiDi lunch crowd (and I eat at YS more than I care to, as my company is 4 blocks away and my non-Asian vendors seem to like going there more so than other places nearby). Weekends (which I go far more infrequently) have been a mixed bag, with predominantly Asian clientele certain times and predominantly non-Asian clientele other times.
However, I think there's no argument that YS is the most accessible for "gringo" folk who are looking to dip their toes in the dim sum pool (not that this gets you an entire serving staff that considers English their primary language, either). There's also no argument that YS also charges a healthy premium over "less accessible" dim sum joints for this.
As for suggestions on acceptable alternatives, IMO the best thing for any novice dim sum consumer is to do a little research online to gain some phonetic and visual familiarity with the staples (e.g. ha gow, siu mai, cha siu bao, etc.), then go to a bakery that offers dim sum to go and try them out. Any dim sum joint will take requests/orders, whether you're talking to the cart/tray ladies or you're marking up an order sheet and handing it to a server. In the long run, it's a lot cheaper (and often, more enjoyable) to go the "traditional" route of the loud, grungy, bad service dim sum joints than the higher-brow places like YS (or the new paradigm of the loud/bad service/higher-brow places like Koi Palace).
And finally, Zen Peninsula in Millbrae would be a good place to go for a dim sum place that has nice decor, and also a wait staff that would be willing to guide you to what you want. You order off of a menu, and the "captain" that takes your order will speak English well enough to answer your questions if you're looking for guidance or a particular dish. I'm not Chinese, but I've conversed with them well enough when I've had dim sum, dinner and a banquet there in the past few months.
Just to add clarify what rworange said, in places that have cart service they will bring things around and offer them to you, but you don't have to take them (although some cart ladies -- they're always women, don't know why -- are more "hard sell" than others). Don't feel pressured to pick stuff out quickly -- dim sum is supposed to be eaten leisurely. I wouldn't recommend a places that uses menus if you aren't somewhat familiar with the basic dishes. When you choose something, the cart lady will put a mark under the appropriate price category on a card on the table -- when you're done, they'll add it up and figure you bill.
If you do go to Yank Sing, be sure to ask how much things are -- it's by far the most expensive dim sum place in the area, and you can run up a sizable tab without realizing it.
Great report. Melanie will disagree with your "no decor" description, though. She's much enamoured of the dusty crystal chandelier ;-)
Yeah, it's insanely cheap -- I think most of the dishes are $1.50; the "specials" are $2. The old man clearly knew his stuff there -- the steamed spareribs are one of their best dishes -- we were told that the "secret" is dried tangerine peel.
I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I always hesitate to recommend it because (a) it's quite small, and I don't want hordes of visitors forcing out the locals, and (b) some people might not appreciate its charm.