Dim Sum: Cart or No Cart?

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David R. Chan

Photo by J. Annie Wang

Photo by J. Annie Wang

One of the more contentious Chinese food topics is the question of whether dim sum lunch is better served on carts, as opposed to ordered off a menu or check-off sheet. Traditionalists claim that dim sum carts are the heart of the dim sum experience, with the anticipation of seeing what lies under the lids of the metal containers in the cart a primary attraction. Meanwhile, cook-to-order partisans point out your dim sum is absolutely fresh if you order off a menu, while dim sum on a cart may have been sitting out. New varieties can be concocted without worrying if they’ll last on a cart. Plus, with menu-driven dim sum, you don’t have to worry about strategically choosing your table to get the freshest possible food as the carts emerge from the kitchen, or your item no longer being available by the time the cart rolls to you, or having to chase after a cart if it bypasses you.

Even though carts are widely believed to be the traditional method of dim sum delivery, they are of fairly recent origin. I remember when dim sum wasn’t something you ate while seated in a restaurant. My first recollection dates back to the 1950s at the legendary Man Fook Low restaurant in the hidden City Market Chinatown on San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. According to legend, Man Fook Low introduced dim sum to LA in the 1930s and didn’t even list dim sum on its restaurant menu. Like the neighboring New Moon Café, Man Fook Low sold its dim sum via take-out window. The restaurant made only a handful of dim sum varieties; there was steamed barbecue pork bun, much larger than those we see today, and then referred to as hom bao. There was ha gow, pork siu mai (which my mom called “stacks” because of its haystack shape), and the sweet and glutinous bak tong go. Our dim sum orders were placed in large pink boxes that we would take home to enjoy. Any leftovers were re-steamed the next day.

Dim sum was also only a take-out item in Los Angeles Chinatown, such as at the Hong Kong Low alley takeout and Grandview Gardens on Hill Street. One item found in Chinatown that you couldn’t get at Man Fook Low was the giant steamed chicken bao, still referred to this day in some quarters as the Toishan bun. Besides chicken meat, the bun also contains a hard-boiled egg yolk, as well as pieces of lop cheung, a Chinese pork sausage. The story was the same at Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the fabled New York Chinatown dim sum purveyor which has operated continuously since 1921, but where for decades dim sum was merely a sideline item alongside its bakery goods.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that dim sum became a sit-down restaurant phenomenon in Los Angeles, at Chinatown restaurants like Golden Dragon Café and Grandview Gardens, co-incident with immigration reform and the resulting modernization of Cantonese food in the United States. But those “traditional” dim sum carts had yet to be introduced. Rather, dim sum was served by male waiters (there were no Chinese waitresses in those days due to the wide imbalance between men and women in the Chinese community, caused by Chinese exclusion laws) who circulated the dining room carrying trays of dim sum varieties. In Los Angeles, the dim sum cart did not arrive until 1976, with the opening of Chinatown’s Miriwa Restaurant. At this point, Los Angeles was still a tertiary center of Chinese food behind San Francisco and New York, where dim sum carts reportedly made their initial appearances in the early 1970s.

The introduction of dim sum carts both expanded the varieties of dim sum made available, as well as jump-started its popularity. As more items made their way from Hong Kong, new varieties of dim sum began to appear, including egg tarts, rice noodle rolls (cheung fun), hom siu gok, and a bit later, baked barbecue pork buns.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that dim sum took center stage, with the opening of mega-palaces such as Harbor Village with locations in San Francisco and Monterey Park, NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, and Golden Unicorn in Manhattan Chinatown. The construction of these oversized restaurants climaxed in the early 1990s with the opening of Ocean Star in Monterey Park and the relocation of Jing Fong in Manhattan Chinatown, each with facilities that seat 800 to 900 customers.

Dim sum’s next American phase came with the 1996 opening of Koi Palace in Daly City, just outside of San Francisco. Koi Palace introduced a higher quality, more delicate and inventive form of dim sum that was served on carts. However, the way was paved for non-cart dim sum to be introduced in 2002 by Sea Harbour in the San Gabriel Valley city of Rosemead. Non-cart dim sum had already become popular in Hong Kong and Vancouver, and not only for the aforementioned reasons. Restaurant owners prefer non-cart dim sum because dim sum carts need wide aisles, which means fewer tables for paying customers.

So with all this background information, is it better to cart or not to cart? To me, the answer is clear, as the only advantages of carts are the imagined tradition associated with them and the thrill of seeing what lies under the metal lid. As far as quality of food is concerned, menu-driven dim sum wins, hands down. In Los Angeles, all of the top-rated dim sum restaurants are cartless: Sea Harbour, Lunasia, Elite, King Hua, Happy Harbor, Grand Harbor, J. Zhou, Shanghai #1 Seafood Village, World Seafood, New Capital Seafood, and Pleasure Ocean.

In the San Francisco Bay area, carts are more entrenched, but even here many of the highest-rated places like Dragon Beaux, Hong Kong Lounge I and II, Hakkasan, and Lai Hong Lounge are non-cart. Koi Palace is transitioning in that direction. In the top tier, only Yank Sing retains a liberal use of carts.

But if you like dim sum carts, not to worry. Non-cart dim sum has yet to hit many of the secondary Chinese-American communities, and a search of Amazon and eBay shows no shortage of dim sum carts for sale for $500 and up.

"Dim Sum: Cart or No Cart?" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.