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Need Dim Sum tutorial so don't make an idiot of myself w/ new stepson

Years ago I used to live in the Hudson Valley and would take the Metronorth commuter down to NYC for dim sum with a friend who spoke six different Chinese dialects.

I don't know where we went, I couldn't read the menu, the storefront, or the street signs.
He'd chat with the waiters and amazing food would appear. People in chef's gear, not waiters, would come out of the kitchens with little plates of things that never seemed to show up on the bill.

I never knew what I was eating but jeez was it good.

Okay, so now I have a part time teenage stepson in the Boston area and we want to go out for dim sum. I'm an adventurous eater and he's starting to discover that he is, so we'd rather not stick to the "safe" things that probably get recommended to anyone who looks like a white-anglo-saxon-jewish/protestant-tourist.

Where should we go? What day/time of day?
What should we be sure to try/avoid?
What dumb questions should we not ask?

Feel free to pile on all sorts of conflicting opinions!

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  1. Id say go to Hei La Moon sunday around 11. You dont have to say or do much of anything. They will give you a card and carts will come and show you what they have. Just point to what you want and they mark your card. I used to keep a dimsum blog at dimsumtimes.blogspot.com that has lots of photos of various items. You could look at that to get an idea of whats what. As for try/avoid... Thats up to your personal taste. Its all good

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    Hei La Moon
    88 Beach St, Boston, MA 02111

    2 Replies
    1. re: hargau

      Ask away. You will likely get no m ore than a one word answer like fish, chicken, etc. If you go to hei la moon and they have the small fried fish, go for it. In my case the only things I don't care for are the slippery textural stuff and some of the sweet taro. I've been told second hand you can tell the ingredients by the shape, markings etc. but I have no idea waht is what.
      BTW, has anyone been to Oriental Pearl in Framingham lately?

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      Oriental Pearl
      576 State Rd, Westport, MA 02790

      1. re: trufflehound

        I have not been there in years. It was ok as a close ayce place back years ago when we went. Our last framingham area adventure was at the golf course on rt 9 , i will write a report on that someday. For dimsum buffet in the burbs are standard now is Lin Garden in Dracut.

    2. How fun and lucky you. We had our first experience of dim sum out in Seattle and like you, we are very adventures eaters so everything was awesome. Back here in the Boston area, we've done Chau Chow City on Essex Street on a Sunday and was blown away. But as mentioned by hargau - we didn't have to say a word, just look at the cart and say yes, or no. If you love certain things (I love shrimp), you can ask and they'll point out shrimp items or point to another cart comign around. Word of advice, pace yourself - don't grab everything off the first cart. If you look at the reviews on google or yelp, you might get great ideas for what others love.

      After doing the carts, I really don't enjoy a dim sum place that doesn't have the carts - like you, I have no idea what I like and the visual thing is just sooooo awesome!

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      Chau Chow City
      81 Essex St, Boston, MA 02111

      1. I can't even imagine what a dumb question for dim sum would be. The cart experience can be easy since people come around with food to you, and if you're truly open to trying anything, it works well. Usually upon being seated, they ask what type of tea you want - I don't know if they ask non-Chinese people this question to be honest.

        I much prefer the "order and they bring it to you" - items are a bit fresher and IMO, better tasting. You are given a list of items you can choose from and you can just select whatever sounds good! They have this available at Winsor and at Great Taste Bakery.

        When you say adventurous, I'm not sure if you mean "I'm open to unusual dishes" or if eating dim sum itself is adventurous enough. The food is a lot of shrimp, and small bites or dumplings of pork and/or beef cooked various ways, with some veggies and tofu thrown in. Nothing that should turn off most people I think.

        Some more adventurous standard dim sum dishes - beef tripe, chicken feet (usually described as phoenix claws), "ngau jaap" - which literally just means 'cow mixed parts' - think tripe and cow offal with daikon.

        And just an FYI, if you found something you like and want more of, but the cart isn't coming around. You can ask the waiter to bring you more (provided you can identify what it is).

        4 Replies
        1. re: kobuta

          Your right, im sure he wont be asked what type of Tea he wants. They see us white folk and they try and bring the oolong and forks right away!

          Your also right about the menu based places but for a beginner the carts are much easier and more exciting.

          1. re: kobuta

            "When you say adventurous, I'm not sure if you mean "I'm open to unusual dishes" or if eating dim sum itself is adventurous enough."
            My family background is old-school northern European thrifty, so adventurous definitely includes feet and ears and organs and any other edible parts, cooked or raw or still wiggling.
            y2000k has it right, the carts are great fun but the problem is that I don't know the "language" of size, shape, markings. I'm hoping to find my way to things with unusual tastes, not sweet/bland/safe.

            So what kind of tea SHOULD I want?

            1. re: beethoven

              If you like darker/stronger tea, you can ask for PUH-ER

              If you prefer lighter tea, I personally like SAU-MEI. Or you can ask for Oolong.

              Some of my relatives like Chrysanthemum tea, but I don't like the scent.

              There won't be raw food at dim sum. Organ meats is usually intestines (I like the beef tripe steamed in black bean sauce). Some places also have pigs blood but it's not usually on the menu. Another "unusual" food would be chicken feet.

              1. re: beethoven

                Jasmine tea is also very popular - in Chinese (cantonese) called heung peen or moot lai. You can even combine tea types. No right answer to this at all. In Cantonese in fact, having dim sum is actually called "drinking tea", so it's all dependent on your tea preference.

            2. For the OP, I think Winsor is a better option, with the menu available in English. And I believe the staff @ Winsor speaks English reasonably well.

              Great Taste, as mentioned above, is another place that offers dim sum menu in English. and I can vouch that the staff @ Great Taste speaks decent English. However, I've tried 1 or 2 dishes of dim sum at Great Taste, and they aren't as good as Winsor.

              The problem with Hei La Moon or any dim sum cart place is, even when the carts come around and you can see the food, chances are you still have no idea what they are (eg, what type of dumplings, what type of rice wraps or tofu wraps, what type of buns). And my experience is that the cart ladies @ Hei La Moon aren't very good at describing the food in English.

              The best time to go is probably right after the lunch rush hour; around 1pm or so?

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              Hei La Moon
              88 Beach St, Boston, MA 02111

              1 Reply
              1. re: y2000k

                I have been to Chow Chow City, Hei La Moon and Empire. Empire is by far my favorite. First of all, I love the atmosphere. Secondly the food is great. The other thing I really like is the manager, if you ask him for something he will have them bring it to you. We told him we wanted congee and he tracked down the cart and had it sent over. Then we wanted mango dessert and he also had someone bring over.

                This is a reply as I though I liked Winsor but it's Empire that I like.

              2. I like the carts, so my two favorites are Hei La Moon and China Pearl.
                For time of day, I suggest 11am on Saturdays, and 10:30 on Sundays.
                Since you're adventurous, and dim sum is cheap, I'd say don't worry about avoiding things. Ask the cart ladies to lift the lids and order anything that looks interesting. If it tastes good, great! If not, you learned something.
                By the way, most places will serve you jasmine tea by default. You can get black tea or chrysanthemum tea if you ask.

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                Hei La Moon
                88 Beach St, Boston, MA 02111

                China Pearl Restaurant
                288 Mishawum Rd, Woburn, MA 01801

                2 Replies
                1. re: Baiye

                  Jasmine tea by default? Not in my experience. Default offering is usually oolong or black tea.

                  1. re: Allstonian

                    I think default typically tastes like Pu Er to me.