Dim sum was born in China more than a thousand years ago, when minced pheasant, lark tongues and sweets made from steamed milk and bean paste were served to Song Dynasty emperors. As the Mongols sacked China in the 13th century, the emperor and his court moved south, introducing the palace cuisine along the way. We may not be south of China, but dim sum fortunately made its way to America. Instead of war-crazed Mongols, you only have to fend off chopstick-wielding Chicagoans for a taste of dumpling zen at these local dim sum palaces.
Phoenix Restaurant – 2131 S. Archer
The Sunday morning line at the Phoenix is about as long as the queue for the women’s restroom at the United Center during a Justin Timberlake concert, a testament to its status as the king of dim sum establishments. Taro dumplings with shrimp are creamy sweet puffs and glistening roast duck is crispy and succulent. As the carts roll by, just point and choose whatever your heart desires, but make sure you’re discriminating or you could end up chowing down on braised chicken feet (not that there’s anything wrong with that). For all the cleanliness and spectacle, you will pay a premium, with a bill that’s 10 to 15 percent more than other Chinatown dim sum establishments.
Shui Wah – 2162 S. Archer
In the window where other Chinese restaurants might display a spiritual icon sits an 8×10 glossy depicting the Colgate commercial smile of the Hungry Hound, ABC-7’s Steve Dolinsky, the ultimate foodie endorsement. The Shui Wah aisles are too small for cart service, so you order directly from a menu, ensuring fresh hot fare. Squid, pork skin and “chopped meat” congee is a bowl of soul-satisfying porridge studded with fragrant ginger, toasted peanuts and porky goodness, and batter-kissed fried squid in pepper salt taste like from-the-sea French fries. Steamed golf ball-like domes of airy buns envelop a duck egg floating in satay sauce, the perfect sweet/savory dessert.
Furama – 2828 S. Wentworth
Located far from Chinatown’s boisterous center, this joint feels like a secret dim sum speakeasy. A sure sign of quality, the huge expanse is always packed with a boisterous crowd of Chinese families chowing down. English is definitely a second language for most of the staff, meaning you’ll have to rely on your ability to point during the weekend cart service. Your persistence will be rewarded with steamed spinach and ground shrimp dumplings that have a sweet kick from the shrimp and an earthy grassy tang from the leafy spinach. During the week, there’s no cart service, instead you get a list of dishes from which to choose, but at $1.60 per item, this is one of the best dim sum deals in town.
Ed’s Potsticker House – 3139 S. Halsted St.
Can you really trust a guy named Ed to make a good potsticker? Apparently. These distinctive cigar-shaped dumplings are damn good (though the restaurant’s yellow walls and neon green accents suggest that you probably shouldn’t trust Ed with your interior decorating). There’s no cart service or separate dim sum list here; instead you’ll have to construct your own tasting from the list of appetizers, but this ensures you’ll get a piping fresh selection. Every dim sum joint in town has a scallion cake, but Ed’s crispy chive and bacon pancake outdoes them all. Soup dumplings burst in your mouth, and while the fried glazed eggplant isn’t technically an appetizer, its garlicky goodness should not be missed.
Three Happiness – 209 W. Cermak
“Dim sum” is a Cantonese phrase meaning “touch the heart,” and this spot touches it like no other place in Chinatown. “Little” Three Happiness (so named because there’s a huge Three Happiness across Cermak) is so revered by local foodies, there’s an internet food board named after it. Like Ed’s you’ll have to construct your own dim sum tasting from the menu, and though the restaurant is legendary, not everything on the menu is good: Stick to classics like salt and pepper shrimp slathered in scallions and jalapeno. The other classic dish is the crispy skin chicken, served with a side of lemon and a five spice salt mixture (cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves, star anise and fennel), which recalls crispy Peking duck and boasts a lustrous golden crust and juicy interior meat.