Here in the Northwest, there is tremendous Asian influence when it comes to food and cuisine. In many neighborhoods in Seattle, you’ll likely encounter a Chinese restaurant that serves dim sum.
In my forty-plus years of eating dim sum across the US, Canada, and China, I’ve encountered a big range in the quality of dim sum. From personal experience, about 10% of dim sum restaurants will be excellent, most will be mediocre, and the rest will be unpalatable.
Initially found in a few restaurants in big city Chinatowns, you can now find good dim sum in the suburbs and even in small towns. In fact, I’ve found that some suburban restaurants do as good or a better job than many restaurants in Chinatowns.
Short of consulting reviews in places like Yelp (which I’ve found to be off the mark on many occasions), how can you tell which restaurants are likely to have good dim sum and which ones you should avoid? Based on my decades of eating dim sum, I’ve boiled down my observations into these five simple questions:
1) Are there a lot of Asians eating?
It’s a widely known and reliable measure of how authentic the food is. If most of the patrons are Asian-looking, the food is more likely to be authentic. That’s because most Chinese people stick with a good thing when they find it. In many restaurants, you’ll often see a bunch of “regulars” meeting for dim sum on the same day and time each week. People coming back to the same place every week is a good sign.
2) Is the dim sum served from carts?
You want to stick with restaurants that serve their food from carts–that’s part of the experience. My encounters with dim sum ordered from menus has not been positive. Who knows how old the food is when it’s kept in the kitchen? Places that serve dim sum from menus do not get the volume that restaurants with carts do. Thus, menu places tend to have less variety of dishes and the food is not as fresh. You want to see the hot steam rising from the carts. You want to see a high turnover of items. You want to see your dish before you select it. Otherwise, you just don’t know how fresh the dim sum is.
3) Is there a big wait on Sunday mornings?
Many Chinese families go to dim sum on Sunday mornings for brunch. At the best places, you will see a long line of people waiting for a table even before noontime. If there is no wait at the peak time, there’s probably a reason. I don’t like to wait more than a few minutes for a table so I usually go for dim sum before 11am or Saturday to avoid the crowds. Typically, the best dim sum and longest lines are at the bigger restaurants.
4) Are there roast ducks “hanging around” and fish swimming inside?
Authentic Chinese restaurants tend to have the obligatory roast ducks and barbecue pork literally hanging around on hooks over a butcher block. Invariably, a tired-looking, middle-age guy will man this station wielding a big cleaver ready to dispatch a roast duck into a few dozen bite-size pieces. The most authentic places will have fish and shellfish such as lobsters and crabs swimming in a live tank. That’s because Chinese people are fanatical about eating their seafood fresh. Restaurants with roast duck and live fish tanks are a good sign of fresh dim sum. BTW, those roast ducks are great with hot wonton noodle soup, but that’s another blog.
Recently, in the Seattle and other major metro areas, I’ve been seeing the “gentrification” of dim sum with new fusion-type restaurants “translating” traditional dim sum to a more upscale and Western eating experience. Their interpretation comes along with much higher prices and artsy decor. I tend to avoid these places; they are just not worth what they charge and you’ll get a less authentic experience.
5) Is the restaurant decor slightly “grungy”?
Yes, grunge music started in Seattle but I’m talking about grungy restaurants. At one of my favorite dim sum restaurants in Seattle’s International District, I once saw a large mouse scurry across the floor in broad daylight while I was enjoying some great roast pork buns. When I alerted the manager, he merely chuckled and thought it was quite funny! Despite that somewhat traumatic rodent sighting, I (and probably that mouse too) keep on patronizing that restaurant because it has the best dim sum in Seattle.
Chinese restaurants, especially those in older Chinatowns, are not known to be especially clean and you may even see some minor food handling issues. But as long as you are eating steaming hot foods, it’s unlikely you’ll be a victim of bacterial food poisoning. Some dim sum addicts I know view the grungy nature of some Chinese restaurants as an essential part of the overall experience. To be clear, “slightly” grungy is good but “grossly” grungy or dirty is not. If the carpets smell and haven’t been changed since the place opened its doors, that’s not a good sign. And if you see serious food handling violations, don’t go there no matter how “authentic” the food is.