Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Dim Sum Experience

It was Christmas morning in the late 1940’s. Mrs. Parker had prepared a turkey for dinner for her husband and two sons, Ralphie and Randy. However, a horde of the next door neighbor's dogs manages to get into the house, trash the kitchen, and eat the turkey. Making a last-minute decision, Mr. Parker takes the family out to a Chinese restaurant where the employees sing, in a stereotypical Asian accent, “Deck the hars with bawrs of horry.”

This Christmas, we found ourselves in a situation similar to that facing the Parker family in the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story.” We did not have an unfortunate incident involving our turkey dinner, but we wanted to go out for lunch before heading over to Chuck’s aunt Evelyn’s for pie. So, following the theme of this movie, we looked for Chinese restaurants open for lunch. We found The Great Wall.

We expected a small number of fellow diners, so were not prepared for what we saw as we drove into the parking lot of the strip mall in which this restaurant is located. All the cars shown here belonged to either employees or diners, since no other shops in the mall were open.

And there was a line of diners—and a twenty-minute wait.

When we were seated, we estimated that there were settings for about 250 customers. The restaurant was full—248 Asians and 2 non-Asians. With this number of Asians, we knew we were in the right place to enjoy some Chinese food.

Now when it comes to ordering from a Chinese restaurant menu, I am no dummy. I know what to expect when ordering something Szechuan style vs. Hunan style. I know my Kung Pao from my General Tso’s. I know that something described as salty and peppery will be dusted with Five Spice Powder. I know that fu yung means "like an omelet." I know that vermicelli means cellophane noodles. I know that a dish called Ants Climb a Tree is made with ground pork and cellophane noodles. And I know that most dishes described as hot and spicy have been toned down for American palates. But I really don’t know dim sum ("to touch your heart").

Dim sum dishes come in small portions and may include meat, seafood, and vegetables, as well as desserts and fruit. The items are usually served in a small steamer basket or on a small plate. While some Chinese dim sum restaurants now present the diner with a written menu of dim sum items, The Great Wall is not one of them. This restaurant still employs the rolling cart type of service where one peruses each cart’s offerings and chooses what looks interesting. Since the restaurant was so busy and so noisy, we didn’t have the opportunity to quiz the server on the nuances of each cart item. So, we mostly guessed.

We let the soup cart pass (too boring) and the steamed buns cart pass (too filling). But who could resist the cart containing a veritable mountain of thin noodles mixed with mung bean sprouts and scallion slivers? We certainly could not and a generous plate of these soon found a place on our table. (clockwise from top left: noodles, fried won ton purses, eggplant, pepper dipping sauce, spring rolls, beef pastry.) The super thin noodles were slightly dry and crunchy and were complimented by the equally crunchy sprouts. I suspect that the sprouts had been quickly blanched, since they had almost none of their usually somewhat musty taste. We did find that a generous shake of soy sauce did enhance the taste of this dish.

Neither Chuck nor I are big eggplant fans, so what possessed me to choose the slices of Chinese eggplant topped with shrimp paste? I don’t have an answer to that question, but this small plate proved to be the surprise of the meal. The eggplant was tender, but not mushy, and the salty shrimp paste gave flavor to what is really a pretty bland vegetable.

Being lovers of fried foods, two of our choices were the fried wonton purses and the fried spring rolls—both filled with shrimp—sweet, succulent shrimp. Both items were fried to perfection with cracking shells encasing the tender and juicy seafood. What was especially surprising to me was that the spring rolls had no filler other than the shrimp—no shredded cabbage, no shredded carrot, no sprouts. Just beautiful shrimp.

The final choice was the only one that we didn’t enjoy, and this was a flaky pastry with a minced beef filling that was sweet and almost dessert-like. I think had the filling not been so finely minced (it almost resembled a paste) this would have been more palatable.

I really don’t have enough knowledge of dim sum to honestly assess the quality of the Great Wall’s food other than to say that we enjoyed our lunch and have added another experience to life’s ledger.

So, to paraphrase the question posed at the conclusion of each episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson: “What did we learn from our lunch today, Kate?” We learned three things:
1. Go to a restaurant serving dim sum on a day when the restaurant is not crowded so you can ask questions of the servers.
2. Select the food items in the sequence: lighter, steamed dishes come first, followed by exotic items such as chicken's feet, then deep-fried dishes, and finally dessert.
3. Select only a few items at a time so that the food is warm when eaten.

We’re looking forward to more learning opportunities.

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