Chinese à la Carts

Austin's Dim Sum Experience

photograph by John Anderson

On most mornings, I prefer my breakfast simple and stationary. A few coffees, a little bread -- maybe a decadent omelet out -- and I'm good to go. The most effort I want to put into the average morning meal is deciding between rye toast or tortillas. But on certain weekends, I make an exception to the "no moving food" rule and seek out dim sum -- the Chinese meal that eats like a parade.

Originally an elaborate Cantonese teahouse breakfast, a dim sum meal consists of appetizer-sized courses served around brunchtime. Instead of serving individual entrées, dim sum chefs prepare a wide range of intricate specialties in small portions. Diners can fill up on all manner of traditional morsels -- from plump, translucent steamed shrimp dumplings to delicately fried savory turnovers and creamy sweet puddings -- in delicate servings perfect for communal sampling.

But what sets dim sum apart from other bite-size cuisines (Spanish tapas, complimentary American happy hour buffets) is its unique presentation and means of locomotion. Instead of the familiar "one table, one waiter" system, dim sum arrives at your table on steel handcarts that drift through the dining room. The carts may contain steaming bamboo baskets full with billowing pork buns or saucers piled high with noodles and Chinese vegetables.

These wheeled wonders stop at each table, where the driver/waiter presents and explains his inventory. To order, diners simply point out their selections and nod. Seconds later, your choices are placed in front of you and the driver marks your table's scorecard before proceeding to the next group. No numbers, no mispronunciation; dim sum is all about visual appeal and impulse selection.

The process repeats itself as the kitchen staff presents a seemingly endless parade of options via steaming trolley, oversized platter, or creaking bakery cart. The dim sum experience combines certain forbidden elements of our childhood ("don't point") with the joy of choosing meals from a moving target. As a round of culinary skeet, it speaks to the primal hunter-gatherer in us all. And with the right group of open-minded eating companions, it's also a hell of a lot of fun.

When you've had your collective fill (or run out of time), the cashier counts the number of hash marks on your scorecard and tallies your table's charges using simple multiplication. Individual dishes cost around $2 apiece, so the average excursion will end up running somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 per person -- a bargain for the equivalent of dinner and a show.

The most active dim sum cultures tend to be found in urban areas with established Asian populations that support full-time teahouses. Regulars in New York's Chinatown stop in at the renowned 47 Mott Street for a bustling high-traffic luncheon, while San Franciscans hit the carts at Dol Ho Tea Room near the Chinese market stalls on Stockton Street. But here in Austin it's possible to track down dim sum on any given day, especially if you're willing to drive to the far reaches of town.

Rainbow Seafood Restaurant

4544 South Lamar, Ste. 700, 892-2742
Dim sum daily, 11am-3pm

South of the new Ben White corridor and tucked away inside a corporate strip mall, Rainbow Seafood Restaurant runs its popular daily dim sum service in an immense central banquet hall. Weekends usually find the room packed with families making their way through a wide selection of varied delicacies. Like a trusty mail train, Rainbow's carts and trays complete their circuits once every few minutes and travel in tight clusters. The seasoned waitstaff takes time to enthusiastically explain their offerings without being pushy -- an especially good thing for beginning eaters. Standout dishes include a tender squid with wonderfully complex curry sauce and baked coconut bun heavily laced with butter. And still, the carts keep coming....

Mong Kok Restaurant

10014 North Lamar Blvd., 339-8434
Dim sum daily, 11am-3pm

On the far north side, Mong Kok Restaurant serves up the dim sum classics daily during extended lunchtime hours. Mong Kok makes all the classic dim sum dishes, including chicken feet in black bean sauce, which you ought to try at least once -- for bragging rights if nothing else. (Texture-wise, it's a slick little bite, with tasty, tender meat sandwiched between tiny little toe bones.) The meat and nut dumplings have an unexpected yet pleasant hint of cinnamon somewhere in the mix. Firm blocks of coconut pudding quiver with a meringue-like foaminess just right for cutting and eating with chopsticks.

photograph by John Anderson

Tien Hong

8301 Burnet Rd., 458-2263
Sat-Sun, 11am-3pm

Running the carts for seven years now, Tien Hong qualifies as the current granddaddy of Austin dim sum. Weekend customers patiently wait outside for their tables as others circle the packed lot in search of a free parking place. Plan on arriving early, but even if the wait looks interminable, ask the cashier for times, as the lines tend to move quickly. Recent renovations have given the carts more room to maneuver as they deliver such specialties as outstanding sweet corn soup and feather-light baked pork buns glazed with honey.

Twin Dragon

9717 North Lamar (Twin Fountain
Plaza Center), 832-8393

Sat-Sun, 11am-3pm

This well-regarded strip-center Vietnamese restaurant started weekend dim sum service a few months ago and hasn't quite moved past the stage of "single trolley afterthought." During our recent visit, the dim sum emerged from the kitchen on a standard, unheated cart full of cellophane-covered plates and various steamers. The pork-heavy spring rolls (with thin slices of sausage) weren't bad and the shrimp dumplings were tasty, but the entire selection suffered from overall lack of freshness. As time passes, Twin Dragon's dim sum may improve to match the quality of its service.

Pao's Mandarin House

801 Brazos, Ste. 300
(inside One Commodore Plaza)
Dim sum from menu, 11am-2:30pm, 4:30-10pm

Even though Pao's doesn't offer cart service ("We're from the north. The carts are Cantonese, from the south."), their deep stable of dim sum dishes are of outstanding quality. The spicy cucumber, drizzled with a chile oil/rice vinegar dressing, balanced sweet, tart, and hot flavors perfectly. The dipping sauce that accompanied their dumplings (pan fried and steamed) enhanced the intense flavors of ground pork, vegetables, and ginger. Pao's portions run significantly larger than the mobile variety (an astounding eight dumplings compared to the standard three), a fact reflected in the prices (averaging $4 per item). For smaller groups, larger portions may mean less variety, but with dishes so consistently well prepared, it's impossible to complain.

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