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...).
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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!