The local blogosphere's been buzzing lately with opinions on what it takes to be a true Clevelander. Whether it's braving the lunch line at Sokolowski's or taking in a concert at Severance Hall, we all seem to have our standards. Here's one more to add to the list: Experiencing weekend dim sum in Asiatown. If there is a more enjoyable way to spend a lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoon than sipping tea and nibbling on Chinese delicacies, we have yet to discover it.
The timing for tackling this culinary challenge seems particularly auspicious: February 3 marks the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year, a two-week celebration that ushers in the Year of the Rabbit. What better opportunity to take chopsticks in hand and explore the tasty world of dim sum?
Though many Asiatown restaurants offer dim sum-style tidbits throughout the week, only two provide the full-blown weekend experience: Bo Loong and Li Wah. Dim sum regulars have their favorite, but we prefer Li Wah. Brighter, busier, and better geared to newbies, this place gets our vote for "Most Fun Dim Sum."
At its most basic, dim sum is a lazy man's buffet, where instead of having to track down the food, the food finds you. All day, staffers make their rounds, pushing stainless-steel carts piled high with steamer baskets. Some carts are tricked out for specific tasks, like heating a huge wok for stir-frying mussels or cooking crispy turnip cakes. Deep-fried items like egg rolls and spring rolls glide by in roving display cases, while porridge-like congee is ladled out of dedicated soup carts.
Most dishes contain three or four fun-size pieces, perfect for sharing. And with prices set between $2.25 and $5 per plate, there is no reason not to be adventurous. In fact, fearlessness is almost a requirement, at least in the sense of culinary exploration. While the beauty of dim sum lies in the ability to look, point, and order items as they roll up to the table, it is impossible to get a complete rundown of every dish. The servers do what they can, but language barriers exist. And while Li Wah's pictorial menu is helpful, it's far from exhaustive. So at some point, you just have to take the plunge.
Spring rolls, available in both meat and veggie versions, are a good place to dive in. Hargow and shu mai are other popular and accessible points of departure. The former are plump steamed dumplings filled with whole shrimp, while the latter are fluffy soufflés of minced shrimp, pork, and veggies.
Though it looks exotic, lotus-wrapped sticky rice should not be missed. Tucked inside its leafy green blanket, a large clump of slightly sweet rice awaits, studded with various bits of minced pork and sausage. The result is fried rice that you eat with your hands — what's not to love about that?
For fowl fans, a serving of finely sliced roast duck makes a honey-brown delicacy. A nearly identical version of chicken is also available.
Diners go nuts for turnip cakes, those sweet, gooey wedges with a crisp outer crust. But more challenging — texturally speaking, anyway — are the steamed rice rolls. Folded like crepes around shrimp, pork, or beef, these rice-flour pancakes are slippery as a raw oyster. Also high on the list of culinary challenges are "phoenix claws": whole chicken feet that you pop in your mouth, spitting out the tiny bones like watermelon seeds. If you can get past the idea of ingesting feet, by all means give it a try. They just explode with flavor.
For dessert, snag a trio of the custard tarts, warm miniature pies with a flaky crust and lush eggy center. Also on the sweet side: fried sesame balls, pastry buns filled with a nutty bean paste.
There are far more dishes in a typical dim-sum spread, but this list should get you started. Don't see something you really want? Ask and you shall receive.