My Sweet Dumpling

Written, styled & photographed by Kara Mickelson

Dumplings fall under the dim sum category of small bites—like cupcakes or cookies to dessert. They come steamed, fried, baked or as small sweet offerings in different shapes and folds with varying types of wrappers and arrangement of ingredients.

Some are soft and tender, burst with a juicy broth and come packed with satisfying flavor combinations of shrimp, bamboo and pork. They are best served with a salty soy sauce, a hint of tangy vinegar and fresh ginger. What’s not to adore, as each artfully crafted small package delights the senses.

The literal translation of dim sum is “dot of heart” or “touch the heart” … which makes perfect sense for those who love dim sum both as food and as an experience. Dim sum is typically an extended brunch taken with tea, or the familiar casual term “yum cha”—the act of attending dim sum, a ritual tea offering now forever linked to the small bites.

The tradition began in the Han dynasty, when roadside teahouses offered snacks or light fare to weary travelers along the Silk Road. Today’s dim sum is a sensory overload—but all in a good way. It’s a cacophony of sounds—noisy talkers and clanging trays—mingled with a range of swirling aromas.

With the richness of food options in LA proper, heading to Hong Kong with your passport in hand isn’t required. While most restaurants have eliminated the famous pushcarts of delicacies, there are more than enough places to try that offer both traditional and modern fare.

When it comes to finding the best restaurant, the dim sum dance is forever changing. You can painstakingly search online, sorting through wildly mixed reviews of thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Or ask a trusted local chef with a penchant for Asian cuisine for his or her favorite dim sum place.

Local chef Tin Vuong of Little Sister and Dia De Campo, among other eateries, is also a San Gabriel Valley native. And the Valley is home to some of the best dim sum in the U.S.

Chef Tin recommends Lunasia on Main Street  in Alhambra as the place to go. They serve modern Chinese dim sum cuisine. Be sure to try the foie gras dumplings, jumbo shrimp har gow, chicken feet, X.O. sauce seafood fried rice, stir-fried beef chow fun, BBQ pork rice roll, X.O. sauce ribs with black bean and egg tart. According to the chef, “Everything is delicious!“

Chef David LeFevre of Arthur J, Fishing with Dynamite and MB Post fame recommends Empress Harbor Seafood on Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park. When pressed for more details, he quickly responds, “Try the har gow, pork ribs, shrimp noodle … the flat burrito-style fold.”

It’s worth taking a few friends in order to maximize the tasting options. Most servings come in portions of three to four, and some places like the famous Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung will have you commit to a steamer basket of five to 10 pieces for one style of dumpling.

Don’t expect to mix-and-match your favorites. You will need to order based on the portions listed in the menu, so if you go solo or as a duo, you may come up short on variety in relation to the price. Plus the experience is meant to be social, and sharing is the norm.

If you can’t make it to San Gabriel Valley, local dim sum options are limited. However, Din Tai Fung recently opened in the refurbished Del Amo mall and offers a more streamlined menu in a modern setting. Options include xiao long bao, shortened to “XLB,” which are the popular soup dumplings filled with a porky, briny broth.

They also serve an assortment of bao, buns, steamed dumplings, appetizers such as pork sticky rice wrap; sweet and sour short ribs; noodle dishes with spicy, sesame or minced pork sauce; and wontons and sweet desserts such as XLB red bean, sweet taro and chocolate and mochi, to name a few.

Even their modified menu still offers a memorable indulgence of the senses. Be patient, though, as many dim sum places including Din Tai Fung don’t take reservations, and high demand can cause long wait times before being seated.

As typical of Asian culture, tradition and order and discipline are important elements of the dining experience.  All the rules aren’t set in stone, but dim sum is expected to begin with hot tea—not a fancy coffee or boba!

Start slow with steamed dishes. Then move on to more adventurous or challenging items like chicken feet, and then on to deep-fried dishes. If the pot of tea is getting low, cock the lid to the side to signal a refill.

For some, myself included, dim sum dessert options are optional and not my favorite part of the overall experience. Plus your pants feel a bit tight by that point.

The typical dessert tasting options are unfamiliar to the American palate and, except for traditional egg tarts with the flaky crust and custard, textures and combinations don’t round off the menu as well as you might like. Unless you opt for a more modern dim sum restaurant that has more refined and tasty options, skip the sugar and save your waistline. But again, no rules.

If during your adventure you summon the nerve to try chicken feet, not so aptly called “phoenix claw,” beware. It is not a dish “rising from the ashes.” It’s basically bones with a strangely gelatinous texture (boiled and sometimes fried chicken feet skin) and some masking sauce. Yet this is a staple for diehard fans. Some believe the collagen in the feet is responsible for youthful skin.

If you are feeling festive or inspired by Chinese New Year approaching, you might consider throwing your own dim sum party. This year the Chinese New Year begins on Saturday, January 28 and lasts for a couple weeks.

There are several dim sum dish options that are relatively easy to make. You’ll find a fair share of challenging ones as well, so do a little research in advance. The main goal is to keep it simple unless you consider yourself autodidactic or a quick self-learner.

While YouTube and websites such as Lucky Peach or Serious Eats have a plethora of tutorials to dive into, I wouldn’t plan on making crystal shrimp (har gow) or XLB soup dumplings if you are a novice. You can easily become overwhelmed finessing the technique or searching for hard-to-find ingredients.

Instead, pick one or two folds to master with easily found dim sum wrappers (located at Asian markets) and have ingredients available to make an occasion out of it, like making tamales. Once your guests craft a few beauties, place them in a stovetop bamboo steamer and pass around the dipping sauce and chopsticks.

Better yet, mark a day on the calendar with friends and plan a dim sum crawl. Or stake out a weekend to soak in a nice new place. It might just be love at first bite.