There comes a point in every young foodie's life when a certain bite of something something leads to romance. When you're hitting sensory overload and you're practically blushing at your fork and thinking of food-baby names—you might know what I'm talking about.
The Cantonese tradition of dim sum translates to "to touch your heart." If you've never heard of it, click here for a quick breakdown. Touching your heart, touching your tastebuds, same thing.
My first time at a dim sum house was a bit overwhelming. I'll begin by explaining that my friends and I wandered into Chinatown on a Saturday morning and followed a group of locals that seemed to have a game plan. The six of us waltzed into an unassuming hole-in-the-wall joint, and found the host stand. No menu needed, we were famished. Before being seated at a large round table with my friends, I was nearly bowled over by hustling push carts a few times.
We were in a large ballroom with grand red and gold decor all over the walls. If it wasn't for the clanging of tin rather than clinking of champagne flutes, I would have expected Leonardo DiCaprio to be raising a glass to me from across the room. The crew was taken to big round table and we were immediately served pots of hot tea.
One of the carts that nearly hit me pulled up beside us, and a Cantonese lady motioned to the assortment of round bamboo steamer baskets that the trolley overflowed with. We looked wide-eyed and waited for her to tell us more about each dish, but that moment never came. She didn't speak English, and none of us knew Cantonese.
We decided to choose from the menagerie of carts that proceeded using three criteria:
1. Does it look fluffy, golden-delicious, or gooey?
2. Does it smell like some mean home cooking or a little bit alarming?
3. Someone at the table decides "screw it, we're in Chinatown, my tummy is grumbly, that mystery bun is going in mah belly."
And that amateur course of action left us with an array of round canisters filling the center of our table, steaming up my glasses and preparing me to fight over my friends' greedy hands for a bite of everything. We ended up with a few recognizable treats: pork steam buns, egg custard tarts, and turnip cake. To the left, someone savored taro root dumplings, and to the right someone's face was scrunching up after tasting steamed chicken feet.
When I say I fell in love with shu mai, please know that I fell hard. I had to beg for another because the little shrimp-filled dumplings were too good to get lost in the crowd of brunch bites. Another underdog of the meal had to be the egg custard tarts. The egg custard center has this delicate, subtly sweet crème brûlée flavor in a thin, flaky pastry.
I can't say the same for every dim sum restaurant, but foodies on a budget (aka college students) may enjoy hearing that I've never had to pay much to get my Asian brunch on. The six of us footed a bill under $50, and we left stuffed (I'm talking Thanksgiving-turkey-for-a-crowd stuffed).
While the small plates made me half wish I'd rolled up to brunch solo and gotten twice the food, the atmosphere of it was so wonderful. Something about sharing dishes while sharing stories and laughs really makes time with friends feel closer, and the meal being more interactive makes it an experience rather than an awkward silence as chewing breaks up chatting.
Experiencing the whole tradition of tea and mouthwatering dishes really made me appreciate a culture that sees food as a means of bonding. While the restaurant was exciting and vivacious, we left feeling calmer and closer.
If I could just reiterate something here: Chinese food. Brunch food. Free tea. Chances are, there's a joint near you. Give it a try, and feel free to set your dining experience expectations to a level a little more epic than most.