By Brooke Viggiano
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Joanna O'Leary
By Francisco Montes
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Katharine Shilcutt
We emerged from our first selection frenzy with two orders of colorful xiu mai, a fluffy shrimp-and-pork filling stuffed inside pale green dough wrappers; a plate of Chinese broccoli, crunchy green leaves and stalks topped with a thick soy sauce that was too salty; golden-fried turnip cakes, a starchy oddity that is one of my favorites; and slurpy rice noodle rolls stuffed with shrimp. Call me a sadist, but I always get a laugh watching the kids try to pick up those elusive rice noodle sheets with chopsticks.
My favorite that day had to be the mushroom-capped meatballs. The dish featured the same light and springy shrimp-and-pork filling as the xiu mai, but this time it was liberally spiced with Chinese five-spice powder and formed into three meatballs, each one topped with a succulent brown mushroom cap. The mushrooms, which had been steamed with the meat, were slick and saturated with flavor. Every bite gushed with anise, cinnamon, salty shrimp and pork juice.
Houston, TX 77003
Region: East End
12750 SW Freeway
Stafford, TX 77477
Region: Outside Houston
10603 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072
Region: Outer Loop - SW
Small plates $1.95
Medium plates $3.25
Large plates $3.85
Special plates $4.95
Bottomless pot of tea $1.25
(50 cents for each extra cup)
My girlfriend preferred the velvety shrimp-stuffed eggplant. The kids' favorites were the sections of green pepper stuffed with shrimp paste and, of course, the impossibly tall steamed egg cake. This airy yellow cake is a wonder to behold; the slices jiggle on the moving cart as if they were made of Jell-O. My girlfriend says she wants to make tres leches out of it. Now that would be an interesting fusion dish.
On my second visit, I arrived with three friends at 11 on a Sunday morning. One of them had never had dim sum before, and I warned her -- as I'll warn you -- that it's not possible to order dim sum without MSG. If you're sensitive to the seasoning, you should go easy or refrain completely. This Sunday things were calmer, and we promptly got our choice of tables in the big back dining room. Within half an hour, however, the restaurant was full, and by the time we left, there was a waiting list.
On this visit, we got a few more examples of the fabled dim sum chef's handiwork. Cylinders of shrimp paste wrapped in seaweed and deep-fried in tempura batter were our favorite. We also had unique pork dumplings: Dainty, hard-boiled quail eggs sat on top of the meat, which was wrapped inside noodle dough. Though not on the menu, the dumplings were real stunners.
But the real measure of a dim sum chef is variety. Kim Son's carts push an average of 70 items per weekend. In two visits, with a total of nine people eating, I probably sampled 25 items. I regretted not ordering the steaming baby clams in black bean sauce, which came out of the kitchen five at a time on a tray carried by runners. Both times I saw them, I had just paid the bill.
But I sampled several varieties of dessert items, which I've never had before. A bun filled with sweetened beans in a thick paste of egg yolks was the biggest surprise. It tasted a lot better than it sounded. On our second visit somebody at the table had his heart set on the sweet taro roll covered with almonds. We saw it on the dim sum menu, but we couldn't find it on a cart. So we asked the waiter for help. This turned out to be a good move. He put in an order, and we got some piping hot rolls, fresh from the kitchen. The gooey taro filling was flavored with almond extract and tasted like warm marzipan wrapped in crunchy dough, with lots of slivered almonds. It reminded me of the almond pastry called a bear claw.
After I got home, I called Kim Son and spoke to the manager, Andy Truong. Andy confirmed the rumors I'd heard. The name of the much-sought-after dim sum chef is Wah Tak Chiu, and he did indeed work at Ai Hoa for a while before he came to Kim Son.
Andy also confirmed that none of the other Kim Son locations serves dim sum. Then he gave me a tip: Although the carts run only on weekends, you can order dim sum off the menu at the Stafford location during weekday lunches, too. Andy also explained why the best dim sum in Houston is served at a Vietnamese restaurant.
"I was born here in the States, but like the owners of Kim Son, my family is Chinese-Vietnamese," Andy said. The Chinese-speaking community in South Vietnam included many merchants and landholders. A good number of the South Vietnamese who fled when the communists took over were of Chinese descent. Hence, most members of Houston's Vietnamese community and especially Houston's Vietnamese restaurant owners are ethnic Chinese.
"Chinese people ate dim sum all the time in Vietnam," Andy said.
"Eating dim sum in a Vietnamese restaurant in Houston makes perfect sense to Chinese-Vietnamese-Americans like me." For more information:
A cookbook called Dim Sum by Vicki Liley (Periplus Editions, 1999) can teach you to make dim sum at home. It's also a good primer on the basic shapes. A dumpling sealed with a ridge on top is called a cock's comb. The one sealed with four wings is called a swallow, while the one with a rounded bottom and twisted top is called a money bag. Open-topped shapes with wavy sides, like xiu mai, are called flower dumplings. The pressed half-moon shape is called gow gee, and the wrinkled free-form types are called Shanghai dumplings.