Dim Sum On Archer Avenue
- Josh Tuck
- Josh Tuck
I’m going to go on the record and predict that dim sum, along with tiny pies, will be one of the next big food trends. Dim sum’s bite-sized portions, wide variety of exotic options, and affordability should make it a favorite of food enthusiasts every where. Furthermore, the relaxed social atmosphere surrounding dim sum makes it a perfect “dinner with friends” and an opportunity to share many different items. Danielle is responsible for turning me on to dumplings, and in turn, dim sum. When she was in China, she developed a taste for the basic pork dumplings which were made fresh and served everywhere. Here in the Midwest, the dim sum we had at Phoenix Restaurant in Chinatown, on Chicago’s Archer Avenue, might just be the next best thing.
In China, “dim sum” is more commonly known as “yum cha”, or “going to tea”. It’s a mostly Cantonese tradition that developed in China when hungry farmers would stop into teahouses on their way home in the early evening. Eventually, the teahouses began serving the snack-sized treats that we know as dim sum, or “dot-hearts” (i.e. small snacks that touch the heart). Think of it as a Chinese mash-up of tapas and happy hour.
Phoenix Restaurant offers nearly fifty different kinds of dim sum and they vary from soup, to dumplings, to steamed meats, to rice dishes, to sweets. However, it’s not uncommon for restaurants to offer over a hundred choices. At Phoenix, we ordered off a menu that was a checkerboard of photographs with descriptions in Chinese and English. At other restaurants, they bring the dim sum out on carts and, as they make their way between the tables, you stop them and ask for whatever looks good. You are free to have as much or as little as you like, and the tea will keep coming as long as you take the lid off your teapot when you are ready for more.
While sipping our first pot of tea, we oriented ourselves with the expansive menu. We were in the mood for something exotic, but not as exotic as “Chicken Feet with Homemade Sauce” (a.k.a. “phoenix claws”, or “the #5”). Since we had our hearts set on dumplings, we chose shrimp and cilantro dumplings, chicken and scallion dumplings, pork dumplings, pot stickers, and noh mai gai (rice wrapped in a lotus leaf).
Each little bamboo steam basket of dim sum arrived just as we finished the last bite of the previous one. Drizzling the pot stickers with the accompanying spicy sweet oil, added dimension to their savory pork and scallion flavors. The plump and juicy shrimp and cilantro, chicken and scallion, and pork dumplings were exquisite. I probably could have eaten a half-dozen more orders, but I knew we would be eating dinner at Publican in a matter of hours. The lotus leaf wrapper of the noh mai gai added tea-like flavors to sticky rice that had a dab of pork at it’s center.
Although we were getting full, we decided at the last minute we had room for one more piece. Traditionally, sweet dim sum can be eaten at any point in the meal, though the sesame balls we had made for a nice finish. They had a sweet and sticky center of undetermined origin and were crusted with toasted sesame seeds. Most Chinese desserts fall short in sweetness category to those of us with western palates trained to expect high levels of sugar and butter. These, however, were surprisingly tasty and satisfied my sweet tooth.
I hope I am right about dim sum catching on as a food trend, because Chinese food is so much more than kung pow chicken and crab rangoon. Chinese cooking is one of the world’s great culinary cultures and dim sum is a fun way to explore just the Cantonese part of this tradition. Most people would be able to find something they like on a dim sum menu, however, I would recommend working your way up to the phoenix claws.