Embracing the area's dim sum, a look at new and longtime favorites from the cart — and a la carte.
Lovers of dim sum have strong feelings about carts. Part of the great, gluttonous fun, cart-partisans say, is the bounty of dumplings, buns and assorted delights wheeled right up to the edge of your table, then choosing anything and everything your heart desires. In a life where you’re seldom, if ever, presented with a half-dozen happy options all at once — much less the option of choosing them all — it’s magic. Even some Western restaurants, like San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions and Tray Kitchen here in Seattle, are getting in on it, serving non-dim-sum food from carts or trays ferried around the dining room.
Naysayers protest that ordering from a menu is actually the authentic, Hong-Kong dim-sum way, and that stopping at other tables makes dumplings colder, soggier and generally suboptimal. The truly best dim sum in the area — which they must always point out is really in Richmond, B.C. (and so worth the drive) — isn’t from carts, naysayers say.
I love dim sum so much, I’m agnostic on how it travels to my mouth, and I don’t always want to travel internationally to get it. A new South Seattle place was the impetus for this dim-sum roundup: It’s got carts and it’s great. But excellent a la carte options follow as well. There’s room in my heart and stomach for all of them, and I’ll bet in yours, too.
Foo Lam opened this past Valentine’s Day on the Rainier Valley/Beacon Hill border, but it feels like it’s been around forever. The midsize room has fluorescent lighting, a modicum of Chinese decor, and families and friends piling lazy Susans with startling amounts of food. (It fills up on weekends, but no lines … yet.) The carts have stuff you can’t find elsewhere, like bouncy, noodlelike strips of jellyfish in a chili oil dressing. If that’s too weird for you, all the favorites are made with uncommon nuance here; e.g., the exceptionally tender rice noodle roll with barbecued pork. The chef came from San Francisco, according to the nice woman who keeps an eye on everything; it’s Hong Kong-style and “very Chinese,” she says approvingly. (7101 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., 206-453-3498 or foolamchinese.com)
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Long beloved for upscale Vietnamese cuisine, Monsoon branches out to include a short menu of not-from-a-cart dim sum at weekend brunch on both Capitol Hill and in Bellevue. Here’s a secret: The ha gow and shrimp-and-chive wonton dumplings are made at Jade Garden, as owner Eric Banh holds the craft of the translucent wrappers in such high regard, he says, “We leave it to the experts.” True, it costs less at Jade Garden, but at Monsoon, you get optimally hot food in tranquil, lovely surroundings, plus they take reservations and serve rosé. Also, the house-made daikon-and-taro cake, light and airy with a crispy, caramelized sear, is the best around. (615 19th Ave. E., Seattle, 206-325-2111; 10245 Main St., Bellevue, 425-635-1112 or monsoonrestaurants.com)
The wait at this Chinatown International District institution can be excruciating: Crammed into the tiny foyer, endlessly contemplating the dusty fake fruit (and one errant carrot) hanging from the ceiling. But what the carts purvey here is, in fact, all that, and it’s cheap, too. And guess what: They accept reservations, which aren’t necessarily interpreted strictly but can reduce your waiting time from, say, more than an hour to 15 minutes. Also: Try offering to share a table. (424 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle, 206-622-8181 or jadegardenseattle.com)
No carts at this Bellevue newcomer, with two locations, just fresh-tasting and remarkably good dumplings. The chicken pot stickers here are a revelation of hot juiciness, with a perfect lacy sear. Speaking of juicy, get the soup dumplings; regular dim sum doesn’t know what it’s missing. The atmosphere’s generic but pleasant, and niceties like a chilled bowl of ginger to mix your soy sauce and vinegar in make Dough Zones extra-great zones to be in. (15920 N.E. Eighth St. #3, Bellevue, 425-641-8000; 14625 N.E. 24th St., Bellevue, 425-641-5555 or thedoughzone.com)
This place in quaint old-town Redmond is cool, calm and tidy, with booths and pretty tablecloths giving the appeal of an extra-nice diner. To order, you get a laminated menu and a dry-erase pen (not cart-fun, but fun). The ha gow doesn’t have the most refined wrapper, but it’s tasty, and the lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice is excellent: loaded with lots of Chinese sausage, plus whole shiitake mushrooms. In addition to dim sum, hot pots and Americanized Chinese, chef/owner Charley Lee also makes Hakka specialties. Service can be slow, but it’s friendly, and the tea comes in a cute teapot with a rooster on it. (7844 Leary Way N.E., Redmond, 425-882-2228 or easternpearlredmond.com)