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Suggestions for a Dim Sum first timer?

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  • aal00 Sep 1, 2011 10:34 PM
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I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I and a number of my friends have never had Dim Sum. Naturally the rest of our friends think that we're insane, so we plan to rectify the situation over the long weekend. Unfortunately, most of us are recent college grads, and therefore broke. Most of the suggestions I've seen for Dim Sum are along the lines of, "X is fantastic but expensive", which sadly won't cut it.

We're also hoping to make this the first stop on a day trip into the city, so proximity to public transit- especially BART- is a plus.

Lastly, if it makes any difference, we'll have along at least one friend fluent in Mandarin, though given the way I understand Dim Sum to be served I'm not sure if it that's relevant.

Is there any chance that SF has a restaurant that would be a good fit?

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  1. I might also add that there will be at least six of us, possibly more, so seating is a concern as well.

    I'm not sure how dated some of the threads I've been browsing through are, but thus far City View Restaurant and Tian Sing Chinese Restaurant sound like they may be close to what I'm looking for. Is that an accurate assessment? And are there any gotchas in terms of time to arrive, menu, etc. for those restaurants?

    -----
    Tian Sing Chinese Restaurant
    138 Cyril Magnin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

    City View Restaurant
    662 Commercial St, San Francisco, CA 94111

    5 Replies
    1. re: aal00

      City View is a good choice. It's not expensive, but not cheap (<$20 all in, unless you go crazy). I liked the variety of dumplings, but haven't been lately. It's also pretty and close in, and staff is friendly, if not necessarily English speaking.

      You might download a dim sum app on a smartphone to figure out what things are. Or just grab them off a tray.

      If you were willing to travel further, I eat regularly at S&T out on Noriega & 33rd Avenue. Last weekend, with tax and tip, dim sum came to $14 each. The food is delicious. Best combined with a trip to Ocean Beach or Golden Gate Park.

      When you say BART, do you mean you're coming from the East Bay? Because Millbrae has three or four solid dim sum choices within a mile of BART. Enjoy.

      -----
      City View Restaurant
      662 Commercial St, San Francisco, CA 94111

      S&T Hong Kong Seafood Restaurant
      2578 Noriega St, San Francisco, CA 94122

      1. re: Windy

        Yeah, East Bay unfortunately. I'd seen a number of fantastic suggestions for South SF, Daly City, etc., but that's a bit more of a trek than we're prepared for given our other plans.

        Thanks for the tip on S&T, and on the smartphone app- wouldn't have even occurred to me.

        1. re: aal00

          This one's .99. I've never tried it, but might be a good investment.
          http://itunes.apple.com/app/yum-yum-d...

          1. re: Windy

            Droid user, sorry.

            1. re: aal00

              there's a couple including a free one in the Android market

    2. Here's an article from the Chronicle that's a good introduction to dim sum, including photos so you can recognize items when they come by on carts--

      http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

      1 Reply
      1. re: charliemyboy

        Wow, huge list. Thanks for the article!

      2. East Ocean Seafood in Alameda is more bang for your few bucks than you'll get in SF. If you need close to BART, Legendary Palace.

        -----
        Legendary Palace
        708 Franklin St, Oakland, CA 94607

        East Ocean Seafood
        1713 Webster St, Alameda, CA 94501

        26 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Interesting... a family friend used to rave about a dim sum spot in Alameda, I wonder if that could be the one...

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            The food at City View is better than East Ocean, at least in my experience.

            Once you get away from Yank Sing and Koi Palace, dim sum in the city isn't expensive.

            -----
            Koi Palace Restaurant
            365 Gellert Blvd, Daly City, CA 94015

            City View Restaurant
            662 Commercial St, San Francisco, CA 94111

            Yank Sing
            49 Stevenson St Ste Stlv, San Francisco, CA 94105

            1. re: Windy

              City View's good, but I didn't think the food was better than East Ocean or even Legendary Palace, and I think it might be a little more expensive. Plus the BART fare will add $5-6 a head.

              Old Place Seafood is another possibility. REALLY cheap, tasty, high quality for the price, and they're friendly to English speakers. Excellent place for East Bay beginners on student budgets.

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/303905

              -----
              Old Place Seafood
              391 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Old Place sounds good but wins the award for worst name for a seafood restaurant.

                Does it have better connotations in Chinese--like Legendary Palace?

                1. re: Windy

                  many Chinese restaurant names in ingles are not translations of the Chinese name for the establishment. the Old Place happens to be the Chinese name, so if that sounds inauspicious in ingles, call it by its Chinese name, Jiu Di-fang. in amerikan ingles, we use 'place' as a truncated 'place of business' or 'establishment', but the Chinese usage is generally more in the context of a geographical region, locality, or one portion of a whole, as in 'that place in act three of Hamlet'. the amerikan expression that resembles 'jiu di-fang' is the way we us the phrase 'the Old South'. 'di' is the ideogram for 'earth'

              2. re: Windy

                haven't been to city view but been to great eastern. they use a check off list. very good dim sum. oh, ton kiang's pricey too.

                old place seafood, i found to be old stuff, not fresh. dim sum didn't taste fresh to me.

                1. re: shanghaikid

                  Everything we had at Old Place was fresh. We went on the weekend, the place was pretty full, the kitchen if anything wasn't quite keeping up with demand.

                  1. re: shanghaikid

                    Check list may be easier for first timers who may be intimidated by the carts and feel pressured to accept items.

                    1. re: jman1

                      Carts are fun and give you a better idea of what's available than a checklist, for which a beginner would really need a book or printout.

                      You have to learn to say "no" sometime. I recommend rejecting all fried items, they're generally crappy compared with steamed.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        while rejecting all fried items is an excellent guideline. i would make an exemption for the fried egg puffs i thought i saw at saigon seafood harbor.....

                        1. re: shanghaikid

                          I usually have to get one of those fried shrimp balls.

                          1. re: bbulkow

                            yep, it you "trust" the dim sum place, it's a good option, years ago i tried it at ton kiang, tasty, pricey with the dipping sauce.

                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                  east ocean's dim sum is the de facto msg-infused offering. with due diligence, one can find better offerings in the same price range.

                  1. re: shanghaikid

                    Better in the same price range where?

                    I haven't had better dim sum in the East Bay than at East Ocean except maybe at the public-transit challenged Hong Kong East Ocean in Emeryville, which I would not recommend for beginners anyway, and most places I've been have been worse. I have no idea what you mean by de facto.

                    -----
                    Hong Kong East Ocean Seafood
                    3199 Powell St, Emeryville, CA 94608

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Hong Kong East Ocean's dim sum is pricier than east ocean so i'm not comparing the 2.

                      i consider mayflower in union city and saigon seafood harbor, richmond to be better than east ocean. they are in the same price range and they use less msg. freshness is also evident at my favs. arguably asian pearl in richmond and fremont would also qualifiy but i find the early dim sum at asian pearl to be leftovers from the day before.

                      by de facto i am grouping east ocean and most dim sum restaurants as habitual and chronic msg users. most people know they use it but they go anyways.

                      1. re: shanghaikid

                        It's the same with Koi Palace, very MSG heavy.

                        Zen Peninsula in comparison is not as heavy, and Asian Pearl Peninsula is the least heavy. Family thinks that Asian Pearl Richmond is superior to the Millbrae location. But then again dim sum is a very personal matter for many thus differing opinions.

                        -----
                        Koi Palace Restaurant
                        365 Gellert Blvd, Daly City, CA 94015

                        Zen Peninsula
                        1180 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030

                        Asian Pearl
                        3288 Pierce St, Richmond, CA 94804

                        1. re: K K

                          I have to agree with shanghaikid and K K, MSG is very bad. My grandmother died of CHINESE RESTAURANT SYNDROME, and she was only 93:

                          http://health.nytimes.com/health/guid...

                        2. re: shanghaikid

                          The request here is for places close to BART.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            i was responding to your request for comparative dim sum places and you didn't specific promixity to bart stations.
                            btw, old place seafood and east ocean aren't near bart stations.

                            fyi. oaktown's chitown is near bart. legendary palace and joy luck has reasonably priced dim sum. quality is inconsistent. stay away from gourmet as it isn't

                            1. re: shanghaikid

                              Old Place Seafood is 12 blocks from 19th St. BART. Not as convenient as Legendary Palace but cheaper and I think friendlier to clueless newbies.

                              -----
                              Legendary Palace
                              708 Franklin St, Oakland, CA 94607

                              Old Place Seafood
                              391 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Saigon Seafood Harbor in Richmond is about the same distance from El Cerrito BART as Old Place is from 19th St (almost a mile)

                                Mayflower in Union City is much closer to a BART station than either of them
                                http://www.bart.gov/stations/closest....

                                -----
                                Saigon Seafood Harbor Restaurant
                                3150 Pierce St, Richmond, CA 94804

                                1. re: drewskiSF

                                  Oh lord, I look away for half a day and I've gone and started the Holy Wars again...

                                  HKEO looks like it's in an interesting spot, but we wouldn't be able to get there readily via BART and the bay-side location can't help with the already mentioned pricing.

                                  Since SF is the goal of the day, I'm on the fence about the Oakland options, especially if we're going that far from the stations.

                                  At this point I'm most curious about Dol Ho / Y Ben / City View since I also have business elsewhere in Chinatown that day.

                                  -----
                                  Dol Ho
                                  808 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

                                  City View Restaurant
                                  662 Commercial St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                                  1. re: aal00

                                    Re: Dol Ho/ Y Ben/City View you have them in relative order of price and luxury. If you haven't been before, any of them will be fine.

                                    1. re: aal00

                                      Dol Ho and Y Ben are practically across the street from each other so if one is too crowded you have an easy alternative.

                                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3160...

                                      City View is relatively clean and upscale, not really the classic dim sum experience.

                                      -----
                                      Dol Ho
                                      808 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

                                      City View Restaurant
                                      662 Commercial St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                                      1. re: aal00

                                        great eastern at 649 jackson st. is one block over from dol hol/ y ben.
                                        they have no cart service, just check list. .dim sum is very good.
                                        great eastern is known for their seafood specialities.

                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                              We've had terrific experiences at both East Ocean and HKEO in the past month. The latter might have been a little more expensive but I think in the same ball park for similar items. HKEO offers more upper end items, though. For example, a modest plate of crispy suckling pig will set you back $18. But it will probably be the most delicious pig you ever had! HKEO is a combination of menu ordering and a few carts. So most items come to the table fresh from the kitchen. This is one place where the fried food is consistently great and practically greaseless. On a nice day, the view of the bay from the giant picture windows can't be beat. We hadn't been to East Ocean in Alameda for awhile and it was really, really good too!

                        3. Y Ben is very cheap, has large tables, carts roll around from which you can pick by pointing, and it is reasonably good. I think it used to be better, and may still be better than on my last visit. For your purposes I think it is ideal. It is a huge barn like place, very popular with less than wealthy Chinese who come in to shop in Chinatown. At peak hours you might have to put your name on a list for a big table (seat 12).

                          Across the street is the excellent Dol Ho, but it is much smaller. I think you could get a table for 6 easily, but more than that might be a problem. Also very cheap, authentic.

                          At either place you need not speak Cantonese. Just smile and point. Mandarin and English will be of little use. You will be able to stuff your hungry selves and take home extras for well under $15/person, tax and tip included.

                          -----
                          Dol Ho
                          808 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

                          Y Ben House Restaurant
                          835 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

                          1. Tips on actually doing Dim Sum somwhere:

                            1) At the better places, you will have to order a tea. Jasmine is a good first choice. Chrysanthamum is a little more interesting. If they have pu'er, that's good, although it gets oversteeped in a hurry. I don't know what the default is - probably oolong.

                            2) You will order too fast, and then you'll see a bunch of really good stuff come out of the kitchen when you're stuffed. I would recommend doing no more than 1 dish per person, then stopping until everything is eaten, and taking stock of what you really liked.

                            3) The cart ladies will be pushy. Some of them will take anything other than NO as license to unload their cart on you. Simply keep saying no if there's something you don't like the looks of.

                            4) After a few visits, everyone ends up with some of their favorite dishes, so your goal is to just try lots of stuff. I would recommend getting almost every dumpling you can find. I really like the sticky rice chicken in a leaf thing; few other people do. Load up on dumplings. I'd consider shying away from too much duck or pork, but focusing on the dumplings. Try the taro paste thing, and har gow noodles. I always try to get some greens when I see them - just a dish of simple lightly fried greens. Complements the rest.

                            Do not go and hold out for things you saw in your phone app, because you might be there for a very long time. Except you need steamed BBQ pork buns, that's a classic. Heck, they sell them at the Oakland Colosseum during baseball games.

                            5) Also don't be shy about asking for your food cut. Often the cart ladies will save time and start trundling off; you have to scold them a little bit. If they ever ask you if you want the food cut, say yes.

                            6) do not let them give you sweets until you are well and fully done with the savory. Then get some egg custard tart things, and the fried sesame seed with sweet bean paste in the middle.

                            7) when it comes time to paying your check, you have to give it to one of the hovering people in the vests. There's a only slightly subtle heirarchy of the busboys, the cart ladies, the tier 1 managers, the tier 2 managers, the owner. Managers usually have vests, and they are the ones you wave at to get your check turned into a bill.

                            Good luck! Don't stress. And --- for god's sake --- don't go with picky eaters. At the best places, it's hard to tell what kind of meat is in a given dumpling. If you have to ask, you shouldn't eat it.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: bbulkow

                              While not particularly informed, I do enjoy some kind of pu-erh tea with dim sum (especially if I over eat, or items are a bit oily). I've had difficulty being understood if I ask for pu-erh (perhaps my pronunciation is off). I understand that the Cantonese call it bolay and that seems to work better. Otherwise, I say "red tea" and that sometimes works.

                              BTW, don't Cantonese people say "yum cha" do express the concept of going out for dim sum?

                              1. re: jman1

                                cantonese has different sub-dialects (a huge population spread over very diverse physical geography) and you might be understood if you ask for pu erh by saying something closer to " p'o neigh " [ch'a is one word common to both standard chinese and cantonese].

                              2. re: bbulkow

                                Seems like some good advice, but some comments on my part.

                                Regarding sweet vs. savory, while Westerners like sweeter options at the end, I haven't observed Chinese making that distinction.

                                Unless someone is in charge, I like to agree to a rule that anyone (adult) at the table can take anything that they like. Don't try to ask for agreement from the entire table; it's often impossible and distracting. And, the servers will get impatient. Hopefully, most people will like most things and won't complain about an item they didn't enjoy.

                                1. re: jman1

                                  That's a really great idea. It drives me nuts when people hem and haw about an item. It's not a life decision!

                                2. re: bbulkow

                                  Re: cart service -- I'd like to add that sometime hot items may have lingered too long and cooled off on an unheated cart.

                                  Don't hesitate to ask if the item is still hot (particularly for fried items like the taro dumpling and turnip cakes as these can cool into leaden grease bombs).

                                  1. re: Stephanie Wong

                                    Some friends try to position themselves at a table near where the carts enter from the kitchen. Is that a good strategy?

                                    Also, even when a place is cart order, it seems that one can still ask for a particular item if it's not visible. Although, you might have to find someone who speaks your language.

                                    1. re: jman1

                                      you can usually order specific items from the folks bbulkow describes as managers (7). the hovering people in vests that would also take care of your check..

                                  2. re: bbulkow

                                    Personally I can't stand jasmine tea, which most dim sum places bring if you don't say anything. I always order black.

                                  3. Well, after consulting with the others we ended up at City View with a much smaller group than anticipated. The smaller party turned out to be perfect, since it gave all of us the chance to try everything that we picked up. Thank you all for your advice on etiquette, what to look for, what to try etc., we were much more at ease given some idea of what we were doing. I'll definitely have to try some of the other restaurants you've recommended in the near future!

                                    -----
                                    City View Restaurant
                                    662 Commercial St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                                    17 Replies
                                    1. re: aal00

                                      So please tell what you got and especially liked. I love going for dim sum. We went to City View with my cousins, and, unfortunately they're not big eaters and we were splitting the bill, so we were hungry when we left. Tragic!

                                      1. re: The Librarian

                                        The pork sticky buns and the shrimp and cilantro dumplings were my favorites. I'd also never had the red bean paste sesame balls fresh before, which was delightful. There were a number of other dumplings we tried that I can't identify out of hand, though the only really memorable one had a spiky fried coating and a potato / vegetable filling of some kind. I do recall an odd dumpling that I believe they called something like "Ginger balls", which were served with a red sauce and came in (read: stuck to) little aluminum tins. That and the sticky rice in lotus leaves were the only disappointments, though I certainly wouldn't call either bad. A lovely experience, over all.

                                        1. re: aal00

                                          Spiky fried coating could be taro dumplings:

                                          http://www.chow.com/photos/240910

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Aha, NOT potato then. Not half bad, either.

                                            1. re: aal00

                                              Taro dumplings can be really good when they're hot, pretty much always gross otherwise. Yank Sing's are the best.

                                              -----
                                              Yank Sing
                                              49 Stevenson St Ste Stlv, San Francisco, CA 94105

                                          2. re: aal00

                                            Perhaps you're not the one to ask, but are lotus leave wrappers pretty standard for sticky rice or is some other kind of leaf more often used?

                                            1. re: jman1

                                              I've never seen anything but lotus leaf. It's not hard to get as it's dried.

                                              1. re: jman1

                                                Depends on the sticky rice application. Ngoh mai gai (which are what you usually get in dim sum places) are wrapped in lotus leaves. Zongzi are wrapped in bamboo leaves. Each leaf imparts a slightly different flavor.

                                                1. re: sfbing

                                                  If you're talking about sticky rice in general, yeah, there are other dishes, but I've never seen anything but no mai gai at dim sum places.

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    There is also ngor mai faan, which is stir fried sticky rice without any wrapper.

                                          3. re: aal00

                                            Glad it worked out, and that you're continuing your quest. I wonder what the ginger balls were.

                                            How much did it end up costing?

                                            1. re: Windy

                                              Only about 50 or so for 3 people after tax and tip for just enough food to sate us. Certainly not cheap, but it didn't break the bank either.

                                              As for the "ginger balls", I've consulted some of my more knowledgeable friends and they were baffled as well. The world may never know...

                                              1. re: aal00

                                                Thanks, good to know. I've found that with the exception of Yank Sing and Koi Palace, it's hard to spend $20 per person even in fancier places like Asian Pearl and City View. It's a little nerve wracking when you don't have a menu with prices, and the servers are pushing items onto your table.

                                                -----
                                                City View Restaurant
                                                662 Commercial St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                                                Asian Pearl
                                                3288 Pierce St, Richmond, CA 94804

                                                1. re: Windy

                                                  On the other hand, at Y Ben House it would be hard to spend $20 for two.

                                              2. re: Windy

                                                These ginger balls may be xiao long baos. They're sometime served in those tin flowers (which I think make them hard to eat), with the red vinegar sauce with strips of ginger. Is the inside of the dumpling soupy and meaty?

                                                1. re: chocomel

                                                  ...actually, given my abysmal hearing, that IS probably what she said, and that does sound like what we were served. Now I feel silly.

                                                  1. re: aal00

                                                    Don't feel silly! We all started somewhere. A question isn't silly if you learn something from it.

                                                    I'm glad your first (of many, hopefully) foray into dim sum was a success and that Chowhounders were helpful in making it so.