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Dim sum- the drill or bad interpretation?

DH and I recently became fans of dim sum. I think I'm starting to see a pattern in the way the employees serve- tell me if you've noticed this too.

When we first sit down we get more or less swarmed by all the people with all the carts. We try to space our selections out a little, but after about twenty minutes it gets harder and harder to flag down the people with the carts. Is this so you'll fill up fast and get the hell out of the restaurant, or is it in my imagination?

Not looking to get all butt-hurt, we don't plan to spend the day there, is an hour too much for two people to take up valuable space at dim sum? This is at a two-seater table. It's also one of the only shows in town for dim sum.

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  1. It depends on the time of day you go (well that's my experience here in Montreal). It's packed between 11am and 1pm, so lots of carts and selection. It starts to slow down considerably after that so it's a lot harder to get what you want. Don't try to space out your selections too much though, Dim Sum is a war if you see what you want get it while you still can: Survival of the fittest. Some people are walking around looking into the different carts to snatch their favorite dumplings. When the har gow or shumai come along get them while you can cause you won't be seeing them anymore :D.

    1hour seems quite fine for 2ppl.

    1. That has more or less been my experience as someone eating dim sum since childhood all over Los Angeles. Even if the restaurant is relatively empty, we'll get asked once or twice early on, then basically ignored unless we request something. This is usually not a problem since we'll just grab everything we want up front, but I can see how it could be troublesome if you want to take your time and maybe don't know the name of everything you want yet (there are definitely things I point to without knowing the names of).

      In my dim sum places I've been to, if you ask for an item from a waiter, they'll just go in the back and grab it from a cart or wherever they load the carts and bring it to you. This can make it easier to take your time.

      1. This "dim sum menu" might help you know the names of things and then you can order. We usually take plenty with the first rush and then order more if we wish.


        1. That's one of the problems with cart service. It's quick, and when I ate in Hong Kong, everyone seemed to be in a rush. (But that seems to be true generally in HK.)
          But you have to think about it from the restaurant owner's point of view. What's he going to do with the left over food? The staff probably gets sick of it, and there's so much that can't be stored. So they try to keep the carts full from 11 to 1, and then begin to shut it down.

          A lot of restaurants in Toronto now no longer use carts. You fill out a slip indicating what you want, and they bring you dishes as they are prepared. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. The disadvantages are it's slower, and you need to know what you're ordering; you can't just look at the cart and get something that strikes your fancy. The advantages are your food is generally piping hot when they bring it to you, there's considerably less waste for the restaurant, and - this may just be an impression on my part - but the portions seem to be larger and the price is competitive with the cart spots.

          1 Reply
          1. re: FrankD

            one other big adavantage of the slips, you don't run the risk of them happenting not to serve any of the Dim Sum you like that day (which can happen in places that have a very extensive menu, but don't make eveything on it every time) And if it happens that they arent making what you love that day you'll probably find it out a lot earlier than you would with the carts.

          2. In Manhattan and Flushing, New York, the dim sum joints are so extremely busy and so crowded, I just don't think that they have the *time* to make the effort to get people out by withholding visits from the cart.

            Additionally, the people who push the carts in these places have enough trouble figuring out how to get to every area of the dining room before going back to the kitchen for a refill. I just don't think they're capable of keeping track of time for each table, and adjusting their trips accordingly.

            Indeed, if one has a favorite item one's waiter can bring it, either from a cart across the room or from the kitchen.

            5 Replies
            1. re: shaogo

              At one place in SF, we sit close to where the carts come out of the kitchen :)

              I also agree that, as I've become able to order, I do think the food is hotter. (How couldn't it be?)

              1. re: shaogo

                That's a real good point, Shaogo (she wrote as she suddenly realized that dim sum wasn't always all about her! ;-D ) .

                The people with the carts really do hustle around. The restaurant gets really busy really early on and stays that way, it appears to me. I just wondered since our last three experiences were nearly identical. We do tend to go early and the place starts filling up right after we get there- that probably has more to do with it than any plot to get rid of us!

                1. re: EWSflash

                  Early??? We go between 730 and 800 a.m in SF and are there by 900 in NYC.

                  1. re: c oliver

                    Well, our place doesn't open until 10:00 am, so it would be fairly pointless to go much earlier than that. Otherwise, I would.

                    1. re: EWSflash

                      I hate that! I see those but gratefully have options. That is, on the occasions when we GET dim sum. Where we live, we don't even have decent Chinese food.

              2. It really depends on when you go and where you're seated in the room. If you go very early (say before 10:30 or 11), a lot of the specialty dim sum won't be ready yet. If you go late (say after 1) stuff will start to sell out. If you're in a bad spot (what I call dim sum Siberia), God knows how long it will take for the carts to get to you, and that's if they don't sell out first.

                Best thing to do is to figure out when the best stuff is starting to come out of the kitchen and how early you need to be there to get a good table. When I do cart service, I like to get there around 10:30 on the weekends which is early enough to avoid the crazy madhouse seating and get some basic stuff, not so early that you're stuffed before the specialties come out. Although many of my friends are not morning people, if we're doing dim sum I do make them show up at least by 11 because even by 11:30 things can start selling out.

                And hour isn't too long to stay for dim sum. Dim sum is a time to stay and chat with family and friends, so don't feel like you have to wolf everything down in half an hour. An hour is appropriate.

                1. Speaking from years of cart dim sum I think it's a drill.

                  I think what happens is a new party is seated and depending on the size of the restaurant there might only be one cart for a particular type of dim sum and they'll try and get the cart to the new party seated.

                  My experience in ordering and with other people who do the ordering is to get everything they can from the one cart. Thought being if they have it now, you'd better get it because they might not have it later. If they're out of something they'll let the cart gal or a server know what they want when it's ready or restocked. After that depending on how busy they are or if they see you aren't eating anymore they may not stop by again. I'm sure pushing that 100 pound cart around, opening and closing hot steaming dim sum lids "showing" the wares over and over is a drag.

                  I don't think an hour is too much time to spend, I see a few people sitting at large tables and they may order a few items and as more people in their party show up they'll order accordingly.

                  1. EWSflash,

                    Take control of your dim sum experience.

                    What are you doing being so passive??

                    Ditch the "flag down the people with the carts" nonsense.

                    Get your butt off of your seat and go to the carts with the goodies you want !!!

                    Either escort the cart back to your table, or bring your tab with you so they can stamp it when you walk back to your table with your dim sum item.

                    21 Replies
                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      If everyone did that there'd be more chaos than there already is.

                      1. re: monku

                        That's part of the fun of going to a cart-style dim sum joint.

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          We have very different interpretations of fun. I've been going to dim sum for years with a group of friends -- this group has been doing this for about 15 years at this point -- and at least at our favorite cart-service places in Boston, the drill is exactly the opposite of what you're describing. For one thing, here it's expected that your group is going to be at table for however long you're gonna be there, and it's not uncommon for that to be in the two-three hour range. I have never once been either subtly or overtly hurried out of a dim sum restaurant: that's just not how those places work.

                          As a result, it would never even occur to us to go hunting through the multiple levels and rooms of our preferred venue in search of anything, nor do we feel the need to fall on an order of pineapple buns or turnipcakes like it's the last helicopter out of Saigon: they're gonna come around again. (The one exception to this is that we do snag three or four plates of the egg custard tarts when they first come around, but that's mostly because there's someone in our party who would consider the entire dim sum experience a massive fail without a couple egg custard tarts at the end.)

                          The key to true dim sum enjoyment is to recalibrate your thinking about what you're there for. It's true that you're there for the food, but you're also there to be with your friends and/or family, and the sitting around talking and drinking tea is the real centerpiece of the experience. Yes, I would be disappointed if I didn't get enough char siu bao, pork and peanut dumplings, or jien duy, but the idea isn't that you sit down, start eating, and don't stop until you're full.

                          1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                            How are the two -- enjoying a meal with family and being assertive with the dim sum carts -- mutually exclusive?

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              Because if you're going to be there for a while, the carts you want are going to come to you -- usually more than once -- and you're not going to have to hunt them down like a predator stalking its prey. Whatever works for you, but your way doesn't sound fun to me. Of course, it could just be that we go to different types of dim sum places.

                              1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                If you go to a large, busy dim sum place and you are not seated in a prime location, there are some carts that are just not going to come your way ever. A lot of the best/most popular/most luxurious stuff gets snatched up near the kitchen exit.

                                If you're near the back of the hall, you'll never get a decent selection unless you either actively catch the attention of cart passing to other areas, or go and find the items you want.

                                Mind you, this is why I go places with menu systems and order. Plus, carts have almost disappeared here.

                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    I sure did liberate myself when, after about 20 years, I got to the point that I could order from a menu.

                                  2. re: Atahualpa

                                    Clearly, I've just been spoiled, because that just does not happen here.

                                    As I said above, I've been doing dim sum regularly for years, primarily at a large (two floors, multiple rooms on each floor), busy (lines out the door and down the stairs) dim sum place, and even in the out of the way rooms, our trouble tends to be the opposite: we have to wave carts away because we've already eaten our fill of their offerings. This place generally has 18-24 carts circulating on each floor at peak hours. So they're hardly getting picked clean the second they leave the kitchen. Furthermore, there are many items -- mostly seafood dishes like periwinkles, mussels, clams, shrimp, etc., but also a selection of vegetables and barbecued meats -- where you just go to a steam table and counter with your card and take the dishes back to your table.

                                    Menu places are also entertaining, but not all cart service places are like what you're claiming.

                                    1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                      I wish I'd had the opportunity to attend such a well balanced cart-service dim sum place. I have not. If you didn't have to actively flag-down the stuff you want, that was usually a bad sign.

                                      If you did't have to hunt/chase/shout for the items you want, then the opposite problem occurs – there is too much out on the floor and all the stuff on the carts get cold.

                                      If I'm in Boston this winter, I'll give this place a try. What's the name?

                                      1. re: Atahualpa

                                        China Pearl, on Tyler Street in Chinatown. Ideally, you want to be there sometime between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on a weekend for the best balance of carts and customers. Hint: the more people you have in your party (we're usually somewhere between 6 and 8, although it can range from 4 to 12 depending on who's in town that weekend), the less likely you are to have to wait for a table.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  I like to think of dim sum carts experience as a family sporting event--we all try to get the stuff we want.

                                  1. re: raytamsgv

                                    Yes, indeed!

                                    Treating it like a sporting event helps burn off all those calories as well ...

                            2. re: monku

                              Dim sum is actually Cantonese for "loud, organized chaos." :-)

                            3. re: ipsedixit

                              Well, if I'm "being passive" it may just be because I've never seen anybody else doing it and therefore DON'T WISH TO BE VIEWED AS AN ASSHOLE.

                              Honestly, I've never seen any cart-chasing at all. Not once. I'm brand new to dim sum in general, and I'm not inclined to be the first one to try out a new behavior in a public place. The people with the carts have a busy enough job without getting dragged hither and yon all over the place.

                              Besides, there's quite a language barrier there in general- I have a difficult time understanding them (not a complaint, just a fact), so I don't always know what I want, hence letting it come to me for the first several trips, until I at least know what my favorites look like.

                              As for those egg custard tarts and the coconut custard buns- man, are those good!

                              1. re: EWSflash

                                I've only had to "chase" the carts at Jin Fong in NYC. We would have gotten very little food if I hadn't. But it seemed like everyone else was doing it so I finally did also. It's a gargantuan place and they seemed to always start on the opposite side of the room from us. I adore dim sum but their's was pretty blah to me so that was another reason not to go back.

                                1. re: EWSflash

                                  "I've never seen anybody else doing it"

                                  Really? Here in Toronto, at the cart places I used to go to, that behaviour has quite common. There were the chasers and then there were the shouters (in loud Cantonese across multiple tables). For TO people reading this, I'm thinking of places like Dragon Dynasty in Scarborough about 10 years ago.

                                  As it is now, the best places have dropped carts except for Saturday/Sunday specials so the remaining cart places are less violently busy and such actions less essential.

                                  1. re: Atahualpa

                                    Like I said, we're new to it. We've only been to the one place, and only four times so far. It doesn't appear that people chase carts at Gee's Garden, or shouts them down.

                                    Good to know that you can in other places, though. I'll keep an eye out from now on. I'm still not going to do be the first one in the place to do it. Or the second or twentieth. 8^O

                                    1. re: Atahualpa

                                      Do you know if Ruby's in Scarborough has re-opened after their, er, incident? I used to work near there, and our policy was to have a 30 min lunch Mon-Thur, and a full hour on Fridays. So on Fridays, a bunch of us would go, and even if we got there a bit late (12:10), we never had trouble getting anything we wanted. And, as in Barmy's example, they had a special table with soups, congee, and some specials where you just went up and ordered.

                                      I know some Toronto hounds will sneer at it, but it was close, fun, and tasty enough.

                                    2. re: EWSflash

                                      I've never seen cart-chasing or shouting either. We do request specific dishes from the server or manager or any other resto staff that happens by, sometimes.