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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

    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?

      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!

      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?

              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.

                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.

                2. I personally think Winsor is putting the best food. That said, the carts have a certain appeal and would go to a cart place if I had friends in town who were first sampling dim sum. It's what differentiates dim sum vs just going to a Chinatown restaurant..and it was how I was introduced to dim sum.

                  I like China Pearl, Hei La Moon, and Chau Chau City..CCC seems stronger in seafood, CP..meat, HLM seems to have slipped but maybe I just caught them on a bad day.

                  Sat/Sun is the best selection and I rarely wait if I'm there by 11AM.

                  Some of my faves are shu mai, sticky rice, sharksfin dumplings, turnip cakes, any new dumpling that I haven't seen before, spare ribs (not the traditional red sauce cooked but in a clear garlic black bean sauce, cut crosswise), shrimp/eggplant, rice noodles w/shrimp..comes as three items about 4" long, tarot root. Ive tried the chicken feet and don't care for them..but you might love them. Not too long a go it was fairly common for a 2 top to share a large table with strangers thepeple at the table got a kick out of me trying them. The table sharing seems to be on the wane.

                  Keep in mind that these are a few of the things I like; but that's my personal taste and you might like some other things and not like my choices. Everyone I know like the soft, sweet buns x me...FWIW

                  It sounds like you're adventurous so just try anything that looks appealing. If you don't like it, you just blew $3,,:)

                  If you have a question, ask it. The cart servers generally don't speak a lot of English but there are no dumb questions.


                  BTW, in 30+ yearsof eating dim sum, I've never been asked what kind of tea I want;which is fine because I'm fairly indifferent about it..but next time I'll take y200k's advice and order that puher..:)

                  Hei La Moon
                  88 Beach St, Boston, MA 02111

                  China Pearl Restaurant
                  288 Mishawum Rd, Woburn, MA 01801

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: 9lives

                    Only issue about not knowing what to ask for is the cart ladies recognize you as uninformed, and generally only open the the silver lids to show you the very standard fare of shumai / dumplings. It is unlikely you will be able to point at the interesting things since they won't be offered. Best bet is to sit next to a table of people with all the good stuff on the table and tell the cart lady to give you what they just ordered!!!!

                    1. re: Cork

                      Or if it is just the two of them it might be wise to sit at a large table w/ other groups. That way they don't have to look at neighboring tables.

                      1. re: Cork

                        Sounds like this is exactly the OP's fear, but I don't think it should be a concern. I think a lot of the very interesting stuff is often special ordered. But there's plenty of great things that come around in the carts. If you'd like to look at something that isn't opened, feel free to point to it. But likely what you'll find is that if they're not opening a lid, it's because it's more of what they just showed you.

                        One suggestion I have is to resist ordering too many dumplings and shumai at the beginning, but wait to see what else comes around. Else you'll get stuffed on those things and it happens faster than you think.

                        Something you may like is a steamer basket with what-looks-like two big stuffed grape leaves; that's sticky rice inside and you unwrap it and eat the rice but not the leaves. I personally love it. Also the carts that fry the squares of taro right in front of you, I'd get that too.

                        If you see them come out of the kitchen with plates of spicy s&p squid, see if you can score one of those too, while they're hot.

                        Don't worry just dive right in. And now you're making me crave dim sum.

                        1. re: Niblet

                          good advice... typically the steamed carts come by first (they tend to have a surplus) while you might have to wait a while for the carts with fried stuff to get refilled by the kitchen and come by your table, so save room...if the cart which fries taro (typically has a clear plastic "windshield" on one side to prevent splatter) comes by, look also for the disc-shaped panfried shrimp chive dumplings...also if you have a hungry crowd, you can order a plate of noodles on the side (such as panfried (partly crispy) egg noodles w/ seafood or roast pork, or beef chow fun (flat wide rice noodles)...and if you want something at the end to cleanse your palate, look for the cart with the big wooden tub, which holds a slightly sweet warm tofu custard...

                          1. re: Niblet

                            I agree with Niblet - while it's true that you may miss out on esoteric items that are special-ordered, I've never, in roughly 40 years of dim sum experience, had a cart lady refuse to show me all the choices in a given cart. And indeed, if she shows you what's in one stack and not in the next, it's because that's another stack of the same.

                            Have fun, and let us know where you go and how you do!

                      2. Everyone else seemed to cover where, when and what time.
                        Now here is some little tid bit:

                        If you run out of tea, pick up the lid and put it on the table or just up above from the holder.
                        There is no shame in using forks. I know this sounds mean, but I always giggle/laugh at people who cannot use chop sticks properly. I know you mean well, but I am still judging you. You can't master it, it's fine. Just use a fork rather than spending 2 minutes trying to pick up something to eat- it'll be cold and no good by then.

                        Food wise - I love the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves (it'll come around in a steamer, 2 of them and they look kind of scary, square, and a unappetizing color. It's delicious). Most dumplings are either shrimp, pork or a combination of both. So if you don't eat either, dim sum really isn't for you.

                        (This is if you go to Hei Lai Moon) I would recommend avoiding most of the fried dishes that are not in a hot box/cart thing because they're probably not very warm or hot like the rice noodles, shrimp etc. I usually avoid the steamed black bean spare ribs because there isn't much meat, mostly fat or bones and nothing else.

                        11 Replies
                        1. re: amatuerfoodie

                          Im going to have to disagree with this one. Some of my favorite items are on the fried cart. You just have to be aware of how long its been on the cart and not get something thats been sitting forever. Usually if its the last 1-2 of an item then its been on too long. The fried shrimp with taro on the outside. The fried mashed taro with pork inside. Fried shrimp/chive dumplings. Etc..

                          Also the ribs are another favorite, especially if you can get one of the bowls that has either cubed taro underneath or rice noodles underneath. Hei La Moon also has a another type of ribs that are flat/larger and beef rather than pork. We had both just past sunday there. Sure you do get some fatty pieces and bones but its still a ton more meat than on the chicken feet!

                          1. re: hargau

                            I think you didn't read my post clearly:

                            When I said avoid the fried/stir fried items I specifically said items NOT in the fried food cart . Meaning the lightly fried shrimps, and stir fried rice noodles that they push around in just large white plates without a warming dish (those items always look so depressing to me anyway). Whereas I suggest getting the loh bac goh, and the pan fried to order cheong fun noodles and etc because those ARE pushed around in the carts and cooked to order.

                            Maybe I am spoiled by the steamed ribs I eat at home so I cannot bear the sight of looking at the fatty pieces of ribs at dim sum. Ordering just the plain spare ribs I would not recommend, but the ones with the cheong fun underneath, that is fine with me. Granted, the last time I had the spare ribs with noodles underneath I found them under seasoned and with little black bean flavor. But that's just me.

                            ...chicken feet do not have any meat, it's just skin, it's always been just skin and a little cartilage.

                            Anyway, I think Hei La Moon has actually been going down hill the past few years. A few years back I said their dim sum was comparable if not better than Flushing's dim sum. Now, it's only becoming acceptable to me. But of course, to each their own.

                            1. re: amatuerfoodie

                              speaking of steamed ribs, my favorites are actually the (slightly spicy) steamed ribs coated with rice flour and served over yams, at Chung Shin Yuan in Newton (weekend lunchtime only, take-out if you can't get a seat)..

                              Chung Shin Yuan
                              183 California St, Newtonville, MA 02458

                              1. re: barleywino

                                i've never had the ones with wu tao underneath. i'll have to try it next time. but i agree that mildly spicy steam ribs (jalapenos!) are delicious. my dad makes great steamed ribs, and if we're lucky enough to have some jalapeno peppers lying around he always thinly slices them and puts it in. I've never had dim sum in newton. my fam and i always just go to Chinatown.

                                1. re: amatuerfoodie

                                  Chung Shin Yuan is more Taiwanese (weekend lunchtime only), you tiao (fried cruller) and jia jiang mein (Peking meat sauce noodles) are especially good there, but if you want to get in on the first seating, get in line around 11:15am at latest (opens 11:30 or sometimes a bit earlier).

                                  Chung Shin Yuan
                                  183 California St, Newtonville, MA 02458

                                  1. re: barleywino

                                    I've never had jia jiang mein in the boston/mass area before (nonetheless taiwan style jia jiang mein). i'll have to go sometime. At 11:15am? I believe there are 2 types of asian people. those who rise and eat meals early (not me), and those who are the late comers, and are waiting for a dim sum table on a sunday for 45 minutes around 12:45pm (me!!!!!).

                                    1. re: amatuerfoodie

                                      i've been there at 2pm and there was still a line (although short)

                              2. re: amatuerfoodie

                                Flushings is a bit of a haul though! So where do you prefer in this area?

                                Sorry I did misread that. At Hei La Moon anyways the fried cart has no warming either that i can recall. Its a multi tiered cart with items on various shelves. Fried items on the very top. Maybe there is warming that passes thru from all the way at the bottom, i dont know. I agree on the noodles the ones they push around on the white plate are nothing compared to ordering them from the kitchen.

                                1. re: hargau

                                  Well, I have been playing ol' faithful to Hei La Moon. But, I used to go to Empire Garden (3 years ago), but now it's Hei La Moon mostly because of the convenient parking and the C-mart right next door as well.I guess instead of a preference I would tell people to steer clear of China Pearl. I just never found it that great, the food we got was never steaming hot like Hei La Moon's either.

                                  The fried push carts are always reliable for hot goodies because they're cooked to order. So that means one must have patience when ordering stuff from those ladies.

                                  I'd rather go to HK Eatery and get a bowl of wonton noodles and a bowl of jook. Or to Mike's Banh Mi for a sandwich these days over dim sum.

                                  1. re: amatuerfoodie

                                    You and I are talking about 2 different fried carts. The pan fried one cooked to order has Turnip cake, etc on it.. The one im talking about with fried items is deep fried and not cooked to order. It has Spring Roll, Taro with pork inside, Shrimp pattie with shaved taro outside, fried wontons with shrimp/chive inside, tofu skin with shrimp/celery inside, fried tofu with shrimp on top, etc...

                                    1. re: hargau

                                      Oh, you meant that fried cart. Hehe, yes mild confusion. Honestly, not too much of a fan of that one neither because I am always afraid the stuff will be cold. No one wants to eat a cold fried gow choi gao =)

                          2. There are at least a couple of dim sum apps for iPhones, namely Yum Yum and Yum Cha. Of the two, Yum Cha is a bit more detailed, and allows you to save favorites, but they both include Chinese writing and pronunciation, as well as sound clips so you can press the button and let the waiter hear what you want, (Cantonese in Yum Cha, not specified in Yum Yum.)

                            You can also find a few more general food apps, including Handy Chinese Food Menu, which while somewhat buggy and not entirely accurate is still pretty useful.