Where's the best place for dim sum in Seattle? As I was told repeatedly when I moved here and kept asking the question, there aren't any local restaurants doing justice to the genre: If I wanted har gow and turnip cakes, I'd have to go north to Richmond.
Of course, what makes Richmond's dim sum great is exactly what makes it difficult for first-timers to negotiate the city's dining scene. Restaurants are geared toward Chinese immigrants and their families, which means menus may or may not feature lots of English text and helpful pictures. And Richmond's restaurant business is so robust that it's not uncommon for restaurants to close, open, move or change names. Finally, even if there was a comprehensive guide to Richmond dim sum, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of offerings: The city's tourism department claims Richmond is home to more than 800 Asian restaurants.
So when I recently had the opportunity to devote a Sunday to dim summing in Richmond, I wanted to ferret out a few tips for Seattleites plotting their first dim sum jaunts to the other side of the border. Here, a quick guide to doing dim sum in Richmond:
1. Read up
Many of Richmond's most interesting restaurants don't have websites, but that doesn't mean they can't be found in cyberspace. Many of the English-speaking eaters who travel to Richmond for dim sum are eager to chronicle their experiences on Yelp or DineHere. These reviews are useful not only for distinguishing good from bad, but for determining a restaurant's particular specialty (while dim sum menus often run long, veteran patrons know most kitchens are usually distinguished in one dish category or another. There's no point in ordering dumplings when the restaurant's known for congee.)
In addition to the sites featuring user reviews, blogs worth consulting include Wise Monkeys, Foodosophy and the British Columbia page of Chowhound. The Chinese Restaurant Awards provide another good online starting point.
2. Embrace the menu
Many eaters automatically associate Hong Kong-style dim sum with carts, a piece of equipment first adopted in the 1970s by Chinese-American restaurants. But carts are rarely found in Richmond, where most customers don't need to see a dish roll by their table to know whether they want it. According to online discussions, there are still a few restaurants around Vancouver with cart service, but those restaurants appeal to nostalgia instead of the palate.
3. Be realistic
Nobody would dare attempt to hit all 800 restaurants in Richmond on a single outing. But intrepid eaters might be tempted to try for eight, which is almost as ridiculous. I squeezed six restaurants onto my itinerary, and ultimately regretted being so ambitious. I spent my first few meals not ordering incredible-sounding dishes because I feared I'd fill up, and my last few meals not ordering incredible-sounding dishes because I did.
You're the best judge of your gut's capacity, but I'd venture that it's impossible to visit more than three restaurants without sacrificing the leisurely pace that's part of the dim sum fun. Remember, Richmond is only three hours from Seattle: You can always schedule another dim sum spree.
4. Mix and match
Dim sum is a Cantonese tradition, but Richmond's Shanghainese restaurants also serve dim sum, which means xiao long bao and sesame cakes are as common along restaurant row as chicken feet and egg tarts. To experience both styles, consider making two stops: I loved the soup dumplings and pork cakes at Shanghai River, and Shanghai House and Shanghai Wonderful both get high marks from folks in the know. On the Cantonese front, Jade Seafood is excellent.
Dim sum restaurants also vary widely in ambiance. If you're dim summing twice, it's worthwhile to patronize a fancy dim sum dining room and a family-oriented dim sum hall. Jade Seafood qualifies as upscale, as does the terrific chandelier-lit Shiang Garden, where I was smitten with the ginger shrimp dumplings and pumpkin pancake. (I like both seafood restaurants a notch better than Kirin Seafood, a Richmond mainstay.)
At the popular end of the spectrum, Gingeri in the Lansdowne Mall is a supremely hamishe destination for salted chicken knees and vinegar spareribs, and the big parties crowded into Vivacity weren't shy about cheering loudly for the Chinese women grunting their way through the Olympic weightlifting competition being shown on the room's high-definition TVs; I'm quite sure they weren't cheering for the noodles.
5. Make reservations
You may be new to Richmond dim sum, but if often seems like everyone else in Canada is already hip to the edible adventure. Since it's frustrating to wait for them to finish and vacate a table - especially if you're planning on visiting multiple restaurants - it's almost always a wise idea to make reservations. Have fun.