Dim sum isn't a massive part of the Tucson dining scene. Sure, those who know know they can go to Gee's Garden when those cravings kick in for Chinese small plates carted around like a beautifully choreographed ballet of bao and dumplings, but there really aren't many options for this unique morning staple.
That being said, those burnt out on benedicts and searching for more than just the standard breakfast fare should listen up. The Carriage House has made a name for itself in about five months of operation as a beautiful events space that frequently holds cooking classes and demonstrations by some of Tucson's best in the food world. Bread-making demos from Barrio Bread's Don Guerra, taco tutorials from chef Maria Mazon of Boca Tacos y Tequila and more offer the rare opportunity for the community to learn from the pros, but this isn't about those classes. This is about Dim Sum and Then Some, the space's weekly foray into the world of Chinese small plates. With classic Cantonese offerings, spicy Sichuan additions and random inspiration from cuisines all over, this dim sum day doesn't seek to be traditional by any means. Instead, like its sister space Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, which is also run by chef Janos Wilder, the menu grabs influence from all over.
Among some of the more unexpected offerings, a bagel with lox, chorizo chilaquiles, biscuits topped with Dr. Pepper marinated pork and filled pupusas make this experience unlike any dim sum date you've had before. However, you're likely first to notice the atmosphere. Part of the charm of dim sum, for me, lies in the dimly lit restaurants that traditionally house the affair. The Carriage House lies in sharp contrast to that setting though, with plenty of natural light and pristine white tablecloths. It is, by far, the most fancy dim sum venue I've ever been to, and, as such, does take a little getting used to.
Fancy, too, is the pricing on individual dishes, which range from $5 to $15 per plate. You're likely to spend a bit more than you normally would at dim sum, regardless of what you get, but the experience is meant as a share-all with friends.
There was little waiting during Dim Sum and Then Sum, as carts made the rounds with dishes—and, yes, while the digs might be more upscale than usual, the traditional cart service remained intact.
While tableside drink and food service was quick, it was somewhat evident that the servers weren't totally confident in what they were serving, slowly explaining the contents of each of the dishes they carted out. This might be because dishes change so regularly, but even some mainstays seemed to trip up servers. Still, the energetic and warm delivery made the transaction a light and fun venture.
Of course, as a brunch, this event features its very own "adult beverage" cart, which offers regular and riffs on mimosas and Blood Marys and arrives tableside first. The house bellini comes topped with a lychee foam and the spicy Bloody Mary gets its heat from Sichuan peppercorns. The space also serves usual drinks like coffee and iced tea.
With three food carts offering up all manner of things, it can be tough to pick just where to start, but the cold dishes cart is probably the most likely suspect. A host of salads can begin any dim sum experience right, but the green papaya salad is a definite winner here. Bright and tangy, yet light and fresh, the salad is an easy introduction into a world with decidedly much heavier dishes to come. For those looking for something to nibble on, the "animal crackers" serve up something you likely weren't expecting. No, you won't find a small red box full of animal-shaped cookies here. What you will find is perfectly crisp samples of chicken, duck, pig and salmon skin, served with two sauces: XO aioli and chili sesame oil. Of the four, the duck skin is an intensely rich and fatty experience, wholly decadent and not the sort of thing you should indulge in every day—maybe just this once.
Other successful offerings are delicate siu mai dumplings that encase a pork, shrimp and scallion filling, as well as Sichuan eggplant with oyster mushrooms, peanuts and gai lan (Chinese broccoli). If you're lucky, you'll arrive on a Phoenix claw day, which is code for tender, braised chicken feet coated in a spicy black bean sauce. The act of pulling phalanges out of your mouth with chopsticks might be off-putting to some, to say the least, but if you can get past it, this traditional offering will quickly become a favorite. Similarly, the bo ssam—a slow-roasted Korean style pork butt with accompanying kimchi—stands out.
Best of all of the dishes sampled thus far has to be the hot pot style ma po tofu with ground pork and catfish. While the ingredient list might not be immediately appealing, trust that the variety of texture and depth of layered flavors in this spicy, stew-like clay pot with keep you diving in for more.
With rare and small misses (some dishes being more lukewarm than hot as intended, the not so sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf, the dry pork belly in a fluffy steam bun and the comparatively drab chicken satay), the dim sum service is overall a worthwhile addition to your brunch roster, adding some new flavor to what you'd normally find downtown on a Sunday morning. By and large, it seems the expansive and varied menu executed each weekend by chef Devon Sanner is generally something to look out for.