Last week I revealed the top 10 places that serve dim sum in the United States according to my methodology. While one might quibble with my methodology and how/why some restaurants are ranked where they are, one thing is undeniable: almost all places that rank high serve dim sum using a menu checklist system rather than using steamer carts or trays. Menu order dim sum parlors occupy 8 of the top 10 spots and 18 of the top 25 spots. Moreover, many of the top places for dim sum in major metropolitan areas use a dim sum menu ordering system. Not only does Sea Harbour (the #1 dim sum parlor) use a menu ordering system, but so does MingHin in Chicago, Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York City, Kirin in Honolulu, and China Max in San Diego.
Do all these data points really mean that menu order dim sum places are superior to dim sum places that still use carts?
There are many who would say no, especially a number of Baby Boomer immigrants from Hong Kong and their 2nd generation Millennial children (the ‘626 Generation’) who grew up with trays and carts being rolled around in grand dim sum seafood palaces. For many of these people, using carts and trays are the traditional way of serving dim sum. Thus, switch to ordering from a menu betrays those traditions and a number of associations with what dim sum is supposed to be like. In the modern practice of eating dim sum in the late morning and early afternoon, it’s part of the “yum cha” experience. Yum cha literally means to drink tea, but in general refers to a long midday meal where you drink tea, eat various dim sum dishes, and chat with various friends and family at your table for quite a while.
So in a way, using carts or trays to order and serve dim sum melds perfectly with these traditions and conceptions of dim sum and yum cha. It allows patrons to order how much and what they want at their own pace, all the while engaging in conversation and drinking tea with their friends and family at the table. By extension, it also allows people to introduce friends not familiar with dim sum in a relatively fun and less pressuring way. Dim sum novices can glance at the selections in the cart and can choose based on what is appealing then and there while skipping those that they may not find as tasty or worthwhile based on the dish’s appearance and description, if a description is offered by the person pushing the cart or friend.
However, none of those arguments for nostalgic carts serving dim sum addresses the quality of the food. A family member of mine recently said that he preferred cart style dim sum because the food seems more fresh to him. Certainly in some cases this might be true, especially if you go to a large dim sum parlor in a big city where the dim sum items turn over frequently; bonus if you are lucky enough to sit at a table close to the kitchen. However, the experience of a number of people that eat extensively at different dim sum parlors, including myself, is that those instances are rare. Often times items are in the carts are overcooked as a result of sitting in that steam and heat too long or turn cold by the time the dishes land on your table. Dim sum items are supposed to hot and fresh, but far too often they end up lukewarm and overcooked even at better cart dim sum places like Ocean Star and Empress Harbor in Monterey Park.
Menu order places, on the other hand, are generally more reliable in turning out hot and fresh dim sum items as the dishes there are usually steamed/baked/cooked to order. One recent example that comes to my mind is the Stuffed Zucchini with Dried Scallops that I ordered at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine in Tustin. That item came to my table piping hot and I had to wait about a minute or so for the dish to cool enough so I could eat it.
That said, not all menu order places and not all cart places are created equal. There are certainly a few menu order places that are near the bottom of the dim sum rankings, per my methodology. Additionally, my visit a few months ago to Red Egg, a menu order dim sum restaurant in New York City, turned up a few severely disappointing items. Likewise, there are many that praise Yank Sing and Koi Palace for being excellent purveyors of dim sum despite their use of carts and trays. Just because a place that serves dim sum uses a menu order method doesn’t replace the fact that you still need good, trained chefs in the kitchen.
All in all, however, the nostalgia and peek-a-boo fascination with cart style dim sum isn’t strong enough to deter me from eating mostly at menu order dim sum places. And if my dim sum meal with two high school friends a few weeks back proves anything, it’s that you can order delicious dim sum from a menu and still enjoy a long meal with copious amounts of tea and long conversation.