Point and Eat

Dim sum--laboriously-prepared snacks on wheels--rolls into Tucson

As a former Angelino for 30 years, I appreciate that Tucson probably is the Mexican food capital of the United States. However, I desperately crave the vast choices of inexpensive Chinese fare frequently found in nondescript strip malls and ethnic enclaves in the L.A. melting pot. I miss the ornate, bowling alley-sized restaurants in Chinatown and Monterey Park, where the frenetic cacophony of Saturday morning dim sum was music to my ears.

In Cantonese, dim means "point" and sum is "heart"--point to what appeals to your heart ... and taste buds. Sometimes called "tea cakes," dim sum originated in Chinese tea houses centuries ago. In order to raise the fiscal ante, tea houses--which at the time served only tea--began offering dumplings plus a little nosh; dim sum became wildly popular. Dim sum includes a variety of small, mouth-watering sweet and savory fare that has been steamed, pan-fried, baked and deep-fried.

Once upon a time, I predicted that dim sum would be the next sushi. I was wrong, but tell that to the people in Hong Kong, where there are more than 10,000 eateries, most serving dim sum. Or tell that to the throngs of large, multi-generational families--Asian and otherwise--who flock to Gee's Garden Bistro every weekend, where three Hong Kong-trained chefs start dim sum preparations at least 48 hours in advance.

First-timers may require a leap of faith, because there are no menus. I invited dim sum virgins Richard Johnson and Marianne Bernsen to join me in this surprisingly huge space with upholstered chairs, mahogany tables and enormous sparkling chandeliers.

First, the waitress inquires about beverages. Tea--jasmine, green, oolong or sensual chrysanthemum--offers balance, aids digestion and cleanses the palate. Wine or beer would be blasphemy.

Then, women pushing metal carts laden with covered dishes roll up to your table. They remove the lids to display food, delivering a litany of sometimes hard-to-understand offerings. Get ready to point and eat.

My favorite is baked cha sui bao--three soft mounds of shiny egg bread buns stuffed with barbecue pork ($2.20). There's also a steamed version in which the buns are doughy and glutinous. Richard proclaimed this "foreign," or at least an acquired taste. Yet Bill Yiu, Gee's manager, says that steamed barbecue pork buns are one of the more popular plates.

Our feast was comprised of the above buns plus shark fin gow ($3), which Marianne thought looked like a kreplach, a wrinkled Jewish dumpling. The plate piled with sliced roast duck ($5.75) should have been warmer, while the five-spice fried shrimp ($5.75) was an exercise in perfection. Although unfamiliar with the consistency of the almost translucent rice noodle dumpling, everyone deemed the shrimp and vegetable har gow ($3) delicious. Pan-fried green pepper squares topped with shrimp ($3) provided a bit of crunchiness. I thought I pointed to the scallop gow, but after our first few bites, we realized sui mai pork dumplings ($2.20) had been served instead.

Although 45 to 55 different dim sum varieties are served on the weekend, it's unlikely that all will roll by during a single sitting. I've been several times and was surprised to learn that so many choices were indeed available. The adage--what goes around, comes around--doesn't apply here. And if you're a dim sum novice, there's no way of knowing what to ask your waitress for. Perhaps a better solution would be to provide each table with a list or a laminated sheet featuring colored photos (like sushi restaurants use) to make dim sum more approachable.

Vegetarians would not do well here, as most of the offerings are pork, spareribs, duck, shrimp, clams, chicken, beef, ox and more pork. I suppose you could always order a vegetable or tofu dish from the regular menu; your dim sum options are limited to turnip cake, fried taro cake, steamed bean curd skin, sticky rice in lotus leaf and Chinese broccoli. By the time the steamed Chinese broccoli cart pulled up on each of our visits, we were too full to eat more.

Most plates come with three or four pieces in one dish. Traditionally, the cost of the meal was calculated by color-coded dishes or the number and size of dishes left on the diner's table. (This idea was discarded when plates started disappearing.) Here, after the server removed the lid and placed the items on the table, she stamped your check by category; the categories are divided into $2.20 for small plates, $3 for medium plates, $3.90 for large plates and $5.75 for deluxe. Compared to sushi or even tapas, this is a deal, especially for three or more people.

One recommendation I have is that when you see dessert roll by, grab it. Although Mr. Yiu says he serves my favorite--coconut gelatin--the snow-white cloud of lusciousness has never floated in my direction. On one occasion, we asked the waitress to bring something coconut, and she returned with a sublime plate of coconut cream buns ($2.20). The baked egg tart ($2.20) boasted sweet custard tucked into flaky European pastry.

Dining should be a lively adventure; let the dim sum experience take you there.

Gee's Garden Bistro
1145 N. Alvernon Way
Cart service is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays

Other restaurants serving dim sum include:

  • China Phoenix Restaurant, 7090 N. Oracle Road, 531-0658, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends
  • Rose Garden Chinese Restaurant, 1800 E. Fort Lowell Road, 327-5055, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily