How/what to order, Dim Sum.
I have never had Dim Sum. I am going to San Francisco this weekend and plan to eat some Dim Sum in Chinatown. There are a million suggestions on where to eat; I've yet to pick a spot... But once I'm there, what do I eat? Is there etiquette? What's do they generally have at Dim Sum joints, what's good to start off with for my first go? I'm not particular about food; I'll eat anything (just about...).
re: Cheesy Oysters
Right. There are classic dim sum dishes that almost every restaurant will offer, and then others that vary according to the specialty of the restaurant.
Look at the Yank Sing website to familiarize yourself with some of the dishes, but I don't suggest you go there. It's good, but it's expensive. When you're first learning about dim sum you want to be able to try a bunch of different things without running up a huge tab. Also, you might end up thinking dim sum was always that expensive, which it isn't.
I suggest you go to a place with carts. That way you can see what something looks like before you order it. There's really no etiquette. The cart ladies (always ladies, I don't know why) will come around and show you their offerings, and you either ask for one or say no thanks and wait for the next bunch of offerings. When you're seated they'll give you a card, and when you select something the cart lady will put a mark in the appropriate category (usually small, medium, large and "special"). At the end, they tally up the marks and figure how much you owe. Simple. Most places these days also have a small (usually $1) per-person charge for "tea," which is more like a cover charge -- they won't charge you by how much tea you actually drink.
I suggest Gold Mountain. It's sort of mid-range in price and quality, but they have carts every day (some places only have carts on the weekends -- you order off a check-off sheet during the week) and a bustling Chinatown atmosphere.
Gold Mountain Restaurant
644 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133
re: Cheesy Oysters
Gweilo who has been eating dimsum for more than 35 years here but is by no means an expert. If you pick a place with carts (which are sadly to my mind anyway becoming scarcer here in Vancouver) you can look at each item as it passes and nab what strikes your fancy. The cart ladies -- and in my experience they are always female -- will either whip the lid off automatically to show you what they have, or will reveal their wares if you ask. The Yank Sing website and others I've run across are useful for a bit of prep if you've never been before, because often the cart squad speaks limited English.
If you choose an order-off-the-menu place, I've noticed that some actually have small pictures of items which is a help but again the English descriptions can be less than accurate. We went to Great Eastern in SF which has the picture card approach to ordering and ended up getting shiu mai (a popular and regular dim sum item) because the description sounded like something else and the picture was inconclusive! Not a big deal as we like shiu mai and unless you're in a very high end joint or ordering something really pricey you're only talking about a few bucks if you order something you don't like.
As for etiquette, it seems to me that dimsum is designed to be leisurely enjoyed, so craning ahead and looking to see what the next cart is bringing is maybe not ideal. Trying to eat super quickly may not always work well either but that shouldn't be an issue if you are on hols. You might also try inquiring about different teas if you're into that sort of thing -- matching tea to dimsum can be quite fun.
For newbie dimsummers, the steamed dumplings (many, many varieties) are a good bet, as are the deep fried options. You might want to hold off on the more exotic items for your first time, although I have to say the sauce that chicken feet come in is pretty tasty. The other tip I can offer is to think twice before you grab things like sticky rice (one version often comes in a banana leaf) or the smaller plates of noodle dishes often prepared for dim sum. Not because they aren't good but because they are predominantly starch and tend to fill you up and limit the number of other dishes you have room for. The most fun for me at dim sum is the opportunity to try many small plates at one time, which is why I like to go with 3 or more people, although dim sum a deux is perfectly feasible.
Finally, I have become curmudgeonly about waiting endlessly for even the best dim sum so I do tend to patronize places that offer resos. This can limit my options but we are lucky to have many good places that do take resos -- not sure about the resos for dim sum in SF but there are as you said so many threads on that.
I also love dim sum, and while down here in L.A. many of the experts prefer places where you order off the menu I prefer the carts for the atmosphere, being able to see the dishes, and the fun and unpredictability. My favorites are the fried items -- the potstickers and the egg rolls. The most common items are the shui mai (ground pork wrapped in circles open on top), the shrimp in rice noodles, and the bao (golfball size soft white dough with bbq pork in the middle, steamed or baked), among dozens more. There will also be carts dishing out Chinese broccoli, congee, and numerous desserts. Almost all of these items will just be a couple of dollars or so for two or three or four pieces, meant to be shared. Beware of the special items such as the roast duck -- these are usually lukewarm and very fatty, and cost upwards of $8 a plate or more, so they can increase the cost of your meal very quickly. (Don't hesitate to ask the server whether the item is an "A" "B" ... or "E" on your card so you don't get caught by surprise.)
There have been some great posts lately on the L.A. board about some of the dim sum places in the San Gabriel Valley, with blogs and photos of numerous dishes. In a cart restaurant it is certainly ok to ask the ladies or managers about the availability of particular items and to ask that the cart be steered your way. Finally, I always ask for a little saucer of hot chili oil when I'm seated to help spice up some of the milder items. Have fun!
I will also give a vote for a place with carts, especially if you have never been. Feel free to be inquisitive, but don't be offended if the ladies pushing the carts are short with you -- somehow they pull off being annoyed at most everybody! Dim Sum is all about the food, the conversation with your tablemates, and washing the food and oil down with lots and lots of tea.
Speaking of which, you have a choice usually of what tea to drink. Personally I prefer bo lay, which is a darker tea and does a great job as palate cleanser in between bites.
Be adventuresome, as most places are reasonable enough and portions are small enough that if you don't like it there won't be too much waste.
Some things are actually better the longer they have been on the cart (i.e. the taro or turnip pancakes, Lo Ba Go) or in the case of dessert, the egg tarts (Dan Tat) they are incredible when they are fresh out of the kitchen.
As for etiquette, since it's Chinatown you won't be out of place if you need a fork, but chopsticks will be on the table, ask for a fork if you need one and don't se one. And on some items it's OK to use your hands (at least if I were your tablemate I wouldn't bat an eye) so if there's a particularly bulky item that you can't hold or spear with your chopsticks, feel free to grab it unless it's so sticky/oily that using your hands would make it worse. :o)
And have fun!
Just my 2 yuan...
What to eat? A few of MY favorites are har gao (steamed shrimp dumplings). Usually on the same cart as sui mai (perhaps pronounced sue my), steamed pork dumpling things. I also love steamed pork ribs with black bean, shrimp with salt&pepper, beef tendon steamed with star anise, snails or clams in black bean sauce.
Best plates to wow your friends? Duck or chicken feet, intestine stew, congee, and cooked blood cubes (a kind of boudin without casings).
'Safe' plates with squeamish friends? Pretty obvious on the carts such as spring rolls, any noodles, steamed chinese brocoli, soup, etc.
Yeah, the cart drivers are always women. In Montreal, most of them don't understand English very well, so they'll park the cart near your table and uncover each of their offerings. We simply say "no" or point to the plate we want and say "yes".
I find many times a cart pusher will ignore non-oriental diners when she has things like chicken feet or initestine. If they ignore you, simply wave them over and ask what they have. They'll show you and you can then decide to simply say no or yes.
Theres always waiters buzzing around, dressed differently from the cart pushers. You order your drinks or non-cart stuff from them. You usually have to give them a nod, letting them know when you're finished, and they'll tally up your bill.
They generally supply a small teeney-weeney bowl of hot sauce and hot mustard. If you like this with your dim sum, it goes pretty fast. You'll have to ask your waiter for more.
Run out of tea and want more? Simply leave the teapot cover open and someone will replace it with a full one.
Maybe check out their hours of operation and plan your visit accordingly. I think traditional Dim Sum days are Saturday or Sunday, when you'll probably get the most variety (although SF may have great dim sum joints open 7 days).
At the busiest places, you might have to wait at peak times, like 11:00am to 1:00pm, but this is when most variety is available.
Too early and there may not be a lot of stuff coming out.
Too late and they may be winding down service.
Ohhh, relax, have fun, and people watch too!