There’s brunch, and then there’s dim sum. I’m talking about Hong Kong-style dim sum, eaten in a huge, bustling dining room where servers with steam carts bring little plates of goodness right to your table. The dim sum tradition is alive and well in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, where dim sum of varying quality can be had for very reasonable prices.
I’ve written before about dim sum; it’s a tradition with a long history that dates back to the Silk Road, when teahouses popped up to feed weary travelers. Some dim sum dishes are seasonal, some regional, but in the US those differences tend to melt away in favor of giving diners a complete overview of the dim sum experience.
We’ve visisted three dim sum restaurants in Philly’s Chinatown over four occasions in the last few months: two visits involved only Joe and me, and two included our friend Lynn, who grew up in Taiwan and knows her dim sum. All of our visits were on Sundays in the early afternoon.
911 Race St.
I’ve visited H.K. Golden Phoenix twice, once with Joe and once with Lynn. It’s a huge complex of a restaurant, with a vast main dining room on the first floor, and an equally vast combination dining room/event room with a small stage/altar on the second floor. It seems to be a popular spot for weddings and banquets. It’s always busy and bustling, but I’ve never had to wait more than a minute or two for a table. I’ve only seen one or two other non-Asians, generally a good sign. We sat on the first floor the first visit and the second floor on the second visit, and found that the level of service was much better on the first floor. The food also seemed a little heavier and greasier on the second visit.
Highlights of our meals included dense, flavorful shrimp balls; small roast pork buns with sweet-ish dough; beef wrapped in large, flat rice noodles and doused with soy sauce; juicy pork dumplings; and garlicky stir-fried bok choy. We were also impressed with our desserts: a light, fluffy pineapple cream bun; light, delicious fried sesame balls; and Lynn’s favorite, a small egg-yolk tart that immediately brought up memories of her childhood in Taiwan. Somewhat less exciting dishes included pork ribs, which were well seasoned but cut in hard-to-eat bites with little meat on them; greasy shrimp dumplings; and bland siu mai.
Prices are fantastic: two people can eat themselves silly for about twenty dollars.
207 N. 9th St.
Joe and I were really excited to check Lakeside Deli out. It has great reviews all over the internet, and people on the message boards at Chow.com recommended it highly. It was closed for summer vacation the first time we tried to go, so we came back the following week with high expectations. Unfortunately, we were disappointed. I’m really not sure what all the fuss is about. Lakeside seems to have done a better job marketing to white Americans; they get a lot of love for vegetarian and kosher dishes. When we arrived at Lakeside’s small, dingy, surprisingly dirty space, there were only two other tables occupied, all by Americans.
There are no carts here, perhaps because of the lack of space. The servers were wonderfully friendly, and happy to recommend dishes to us; service overall was excellent. The food, however, was just not all that exciting. It tended toward the bland and greasy. The shrimp balls were rubbery; the bok choy was more bitter than usual and quite oily. Steamed pork buns were utterly bland. We did enjoy a dish of chopped roast duck. The meat and peanut dumpling was savory and delicious as well, and the beef brisket dish tasted like something you’d eat in Texas (and I mean that as a compliment). Our meal ended with fortune cookies, another sign that we’d found a particularly Americanized spot. We left bloated and sleepy from the greasy, heavy food. Pricing was reasonable, but somewhat higher than H.K. Golden Phoenix.
1023 Race St.
We’d been pointed toward Ocean Harbor by several Philadelphians in the know; it has a reputation for high-quality seafood dishes. Our dear Lynn is leaving us for the charms of San Francisco, so we got together today for one last dim sum feast. We arrived at 12:30 to find that the line to get in stretched down the stairwell, through the foyer and out onto Race St., and that Joe and I were the only white folks in line. We were issued a ticket with a number, and spent the next fifteen minutes following the flurry of number-calling and ticket-brandishing as though we were on a commodities trading floor somewhere. We were seated fairly quickly, though, at a table in the center of a massive dining room decorated with crystal chandeliers, Buddhist sculptures and a big wall of lobster and crab tanks.
There was no messing around with menus here. The carts approached our table, Lynn consulted the servers in Mandarin, and we rejected the General Tso’s chicken they offered in favor of pan-fried taro cakes, sweet, tender salt-baked shrimp and egg yolk tarts. A plate of battered, fried tiny little fish reminded Joe of a similar Italian dish his family used to make when he was a kid. Pork and mushroom dumplings in a tofu skin were rich and a little creamy. Steamed pork buns were tangy and sweet.
We got a little more adventurous than usual, since we had Lynn’s guidance, and tried both jellyfish and tripe. The jellyfish, served cold and cut into strips with a sesame sauce and some thin slices of fish cake, was a treat. It’s less gelatinous than you might expect– it has a bit of crunch to it, and overall behaves kind of like a noodle, with most of the flavor coming from the sesame oil. Tripe was mildly seasoned with ginger and broth. I thought it tasted a little gamy, and Lynn said she could tell that it wasn’t fresh. That was the only disappointing dish of the meal, and it still wasn’t bad. I’m won over enough that I’ll probably try a tripe taco next time I’m at a good taqueria.
We finished our meal with egg yolk tarts and coconut jelly, a big white square of opaque jello packed with cool coconut goodness. The bill came out to about $15 each, and we left full but not painfully so. We all agreed that it was the best dim sum we’ve had in Philly.
And the winner is… Ocean Harbor!
Note to gluten free diners: you can get some wonderful gluten-free meals at dim sum, but you have to watch out for both soy sauce and wheat gluten, both of which hide in unexpected places. If you are fortunate enough to know a Chinese speaker, I would strongly recommend treating them to dim sum and asking them to check for you. Otherwise, proceed with caution! Kosher and dairy-free folks are in luck, though, and vegetarians should be fine. (Although New Harmony down the street offers a fully vegan dim sum menu, we didn’t review it because it’s a little too heavy on the wheat gluten for me.) Enjoy!