Dumplings Anyone?

China Phoenix serves up passable dim sum one tray at a time.

Since I arrived in the Old Pueblo last August, I've been looking for good dim sum. There are few greater pleasures than waking up late on a Sunday morning and treating yourself to dim sum while lazily sipping jasmine tea and browsing through a Sunday paper. So after almost a year of feeling unpampered, my wife and I got over our fear of eating seafood in the desert and started pestering people on where to find a good quality assortment of this Chinese-style brunch that originated in the southwestern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

Dim sum typically works as follows: Servers walk about pushing carts full of small-compartmentalized trays that hold hors d'oeuvres-sized portions of steamed or fried dumplings, sweet and savory filled buns, rolls and much more. These dumplings primarily consist of different assortments of seafood, meats and vegetables.

This method of culinary adventure is perfect for the linguistically challenged. As far as Chinese goes, you don't need to speak a lick and the food is usually far better than anything that you'll find wilting under the buffet bar heat lamps that tragically pass for Chinese food at many Tucsonan eateries.

But in all fairness, dim sum is far different than what you would get during a traditional Americanized Chinese meal, and navigating through the feast is far easier. The reason: One only need ask to see the possibilities. As the cart comes around I do this by pantomime, pointing to my eyes then the dish, which usually does the trick of conveying to the server that I want to see their goods. If it looks like it is worth a try, point to it and nod your head an affirming "yes" to indicate, "I want that one." The server will show you all their eats, then they will stamp or write on your bill to document what you were served before going on their way. This, in turn, makes way for the next cart. There is also no shame in waving a server over to show you're interested in their offerings.

To find a good dim sum restaurant in Tucson I specifically targeted Chinese people: namely, the boyfriend of my wife's friend and a checker at the local Safeway who wore a small pin under his name tag that advertised "I speak Chinese." Both of them told me to go to China Phoenix. Both said China Phoenix has the best dim sum in the area. But both warned me the quality would not be as good as that in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Las Vegas and dismissed Phoenix as not being worth a drive for dim sum.

They were right about China Phoenix. The food was passable, but if you are hard up for dim sum, it will get you by. The shrimp har gow, a shrimp-filled dumpling, was tasty. The pork shumai, a variously spiced dumpling seasoned with shitake mushrooms and cilantro, was flavorful. But neither was great. Unfortunately, the Chinese broccoli was bitter, indicating that it was either poorly chosen, past its prime, or both. The sesame buns filled with sweet bean paste were over-toasted, giving them a slightly burned taste, and the sweet bean paste seemed saturated with oil. We then ended our meal with sweet cream-filled buns; you'll be able to spot these by the baked sugar on top that make them resemble Mexican pan dulce. These seemed a little sweeter than what I'm used to, but I've never been one to complain about the sugar content in anything.

Be prepared, the procuring of dumplings from pushcarts is noisy business. There is the inevitable clanging of metal trays, and if you have a low sound threshold, this may make for an unpleasant experience.

But if you don't mind a little hustle and bustle, you're in for a cultural treat. Most of the activity takes place between 11:30 and 12. This is when the cart pushers of China Phoenix seem to be peddling the most goods, hence you will have a greater selection of food to sample.

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