As a kid, dim sum always seemed like ambrosia for the erudite. Growing up, it was a vague magical Chinese food term that conjured professorial characters bedecked in corduroy, or socially liberal urbanites living in Herman Miller mid-century-style-furnished salons receiving spa-like facials from steaming noodle bowls. Little did I know that the humble egg roll on which I’d gorged a thousand times in my suburban Detroit blue-collar youth was the most basic form of this ancient pleasure.
Dim sum has always been a culinary bridge of the classes. More than a thousand years ago, minced pheasant, lark tongues and sweets made from steamed milk and bean paste were originally the province of Song Dynasty emperors. As the Mongols sacked China in the thirteenth century, the emperor and his court moved south, introducing the palace cuisine along the way. Soon Silk Road teahouses added dim sum-style snacks to their menus, and rural farmers and weary travelers gorged on what were once royal delicacies.
Ultimately I grew up, and my taste horizons, along with my waistline, expanded. The dumpling, in all its forms–baked, deep-fried, steamed and pan-seared–became an emotional centering point. In college, the pot stickers from Ann Arbor’s Oriental Express with their ginger-perfumed pork innards and pan-fried caramelized exterior were a constant salve for failed exams and bleary hangovers.
The quest for the perfect dumpling continued in Chicago, and yet, for a city with ten great versions of most things, it seemed there was very little in the way of great dim sum. The Sunday morning line at the lauded Phoenix in Chinatown was as long as the women’s restroom line at the United Center during a Justin Timberlake concert. If you sat too far from the kitchen, the rolling-cart service usually meant lukewarm or over-steamed congealed buns. Even if you headed downstairs and ordered directly from the kitchen, the scallion cake wavered between satisfyingly crisp and greasy and limp.
Eventually, I took a trip to San Francisco, and dined at the rolling-cart palace of Yank Sing and I chomped on pillowy chive-and-shrimp-infused rolls at Ton Kiang. During the 1850s, with the gold rush and the railroad boom, there was an influx of Cantonese immigrants to the West Coast. California had a twenty-year head start on the assimilation of Chinese culture, and regarding dim sum, it still hadn’t fallen behind.
While I longed for a local dim sum hub, I settled for a regular crawl up and down the Wentworth, Cermak and Archer strips seeking out individual dishes in multiple restaurants, and always ended up at Chiu Quon bakery for the golden egg-wash-crusted buns with a chewy white interior and egg custard or barbecue pork fillings.
Irrespective of the search, even mediocre dim sum is always a great excuse to gather with friends and family. So this Sunday, when a couple of friends called to invite me to brunch at Shui Wah in Chinatown, with claims of transcendent fare, I eagerly accepted.
I hadn’t been to Shui Wah, and normally I’d be skeptical about such claims, but these guys revere food and wine like Opus Dei worships Jesus. As a testament to their intensity, my friends arrived with a Crate and Barrel-sized inventory of wine glasses, a trove of wine including 2005 Carl Schmitt-Wagner Riesling with a fragrant mineral bouquet, and a gentle sparkler from Domaine Huet (Shui Wah is BYOB), and most importantly, a Windows Smart Phone holding the blueprint for the perfect dim sum tasting. It was a blueprint carefully hewn from countless visits and a complete tasting of all sixty of the Shui-Wah offerings, coursed out from light appetizers to heavier dumplings to a sweet dessert finish.
Peering in the window, Shui-Wah immediately passed my ethnic joint test, which is to say, other than one of my friends, I was the only white guy in a sea of mostly Chinese patrons. Where other Chinese restaurants might display a spiritual icon, a picture of Buddha perhaps, there was instead an 8×10 glossy depicting the Colgate commercial smile of the Hungry Hound, ABC-7’s own Steve Dolinsky. Beyond that, the sparse decor was filled out with a large painting depicting bright-plumed birds frolicking in a patch of metallic-hued flowers, and a handful of unframed photos. Food was clearly the thing.
The Shui Wah aisles are too small for cart service, so you order directly from a menu, ensuring fresh hot fare. I deferred to my friends and their feast plan and soon bamboo steamers and ceramic plates filled the green faux marble table.
Squid, pork skin and “chopped meat” congee was a bowl of soul-satisfying porridge studded with fragrant ginger, toasted peanuts and porky goodness. I popped batter-kissed fried squid in pepper salt into my mouth like French fries, while double-fisting sweet glutinous rice wrapped in a tannic herbal lotus leaf and airy Chiu Chow pork and peanut dumplings with a zing of scallion.
Japanese eggplant, a purple cornucopia of rich starchy flesh, and deep-fried shrimp glistened with black bean sauce, while thick steamed shrimp crepes doused in aged soy sauce filled my mouth with rich tongue-coating waves. Beef short ribs, billed as “baby bone in satay sauce” on the Shui Wah menu, were melt-in-your-mouth wafer-thin marinated gems. A steamed golfball-like dome of airy bun enveloped a duck egg floating in satay sauce, the perfect sweet savory dessert.
Dim Sum is a Cantonese phrase which literally means “touch the heart,” and indeed, while fighting off the waves of pain from my overstuffed stomach, I realized that Shui Wah had definitely touched mine.
Shui Wah, 2162 South Archer, (312)225-8811
This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago.