As an alternative to the cavernous, noisy, social gathering-places where carts are wheeled around with various offerings, what follows is an introduction to the tiny, bakery-style establishments that offer much of the same fare, often at the fantastic price of $1.10 for three pieces. Here we aim to peel back the glutinous dumpling skin of trepidation and reveal minced tidbits of culinary treasure within. "Dim-Hopping" allows you to sample the offerings of several purveyors in one visit to Chinatown, enabling you to establish favorite places for each treat. What's required is a sense of adventure, cultural tolerance, and a not-so-strict need for compliance to health codes. In the future you can bring friends down for a focused sampling, or simply hit-and-run for take-out boxes.
The foundation of dim sum lies in steamed dumplings, fried croquettes and rolls, and sweet buns. Many places also serve rice bowls, chow mein, various fried chicken parts, soups, and cookies, but we're primarily after the former set.
There's a give-and-take in forsaking the cart-service restaurants for Dim-Hopping. What you gain in value, variety, and speed, you loose in food temperature, proper plates, table space, and readily available condiments. Counter-served dim sum often comes in a paper tray or plastic bag with a cheap disposable fork and either a grimy, near-empty bottle of soy sauce on the table, or packets available on request. We've taken to bringing a fork instead of chopsticks to cut the supposedly bite-sized portions, and a small bottle of low-sodium soy sauce. The lo-so sauce doesn't overpower the flavor of the fillings, and this averts the possibility of a soy-sauce-spattering from ripping open those damn packets. These places usually have a few small tables that seat two or sometimes four, so there's absolutely no point in bringing a large group.
Steamed dumplings (gow) are the ambrosia of dim sum. They can be found in the stacks of bamboo or aluminum trays, often in the front window. The server will lift the lids to show them to you, but without asking, you have no real idea what's inside. Most common are shrimp, but there are also pork and vegetable. It's hard to go wrong with these, and we often use the shrimp dumplings (har gow) as a barometer for the whole restaurant.
Fried rolls are a bit trickier. A good tip is to wait until you see a batch come straight from the kitchen, because they'll be hot. You can always ask to have cold ones microwaved, but reheating something that has been previously fried is like drinking beer that has been previously frozen--not a good idea.
A few blocks north of the Stunnel (Stockton Tunnel) is Gourmet Kitchen, one of our favorites and a good place to begin any Dim-Hop. It caters mainly to the Chinatown locals, but the staff is exceptionally friendly and helpful to novices. The har gow is some of the best around, but a tasty variation is the gar choy gow--dumplings with shrimp, chives, and sesame seeds.
The 700 block of Jackson Street is dim sum central. Here the wood-paneled House of Dim Sum offers more seating than most, and its portions are also a bit larger. The fried spicy pork bonnets are the best here, with a zingy taste accented by peanuts.
Across the street at Delicious Dim Sum, their name is justified by a crescent-shaped steamed dumping packed with shimp, cilantro, celery and carrots. The wrapping is thinner than most, giving a less gooey experience and allowing the flavor of the filling to come out. By this point on a Dim-Hop, you should tune into its soundtrack--the incessant chopping from the kitchen and calls from the counter for items running low.
Suffer the tourists on Grant Street only for Kowloon Vegetarian Restaurant. This clean, welcoming place has so many standouts, it's hard to pick a favorite. Delights include veggie standards as well as creative imitation meats often tastier than the originals. Pot stickers, BBQ pork (faux sui mai), curry dumplings, spring rolls, and moon cakes with mixed nuts all give bloodless satisfaction.
Dick Lee and Louie's Dim Sum are what we classify as Extreme Dim-Hopping. These places are not for the squeamish. Wedge yourself into the steamy, stuffy storefront of Louie's for the golden, crispy pot stickers or the delicious deep fried shrimp bonnets. There is no seating here, and nearly every horizontal surface is covered with piles of buns, including the specialty chicken sausage buns--a kind of Cantonese pig-in-a-blanket. Dick Lee is only for the hard-core Hopper. Go there for atmosphere rather than culinary prowess. Chinese septuagenarians hunch over all-you-can-eat meals amid stacks of gluten-flower sacks and fruit boxes. Potstickers are six for a dollar and contain explosions of ginger. Check it out, but don't say we didn't warn you.
Remember, the key to a successful Dim-Hop is to experiment; watch what other people eat, revel in the language barrier, and sample a mysterious dumpling or an unknown croquette. Who knows what your favorites will turn out to be? Now that you're armed with the basics for a sumptuous Dim-Hop experience, buy some lo-so soy, pocket a fork, and head for Chinatown.