The white-meat chicken chunks have been wrapped in dough and pan-fried. When it seems cool enough to eat, I dip the odd-looking chicken dumpling in the mixture of ground chile and soy sauce on my plate and pop it in my mouth. It's an intriguing bite of chewy, juicy chicken meat and noodle dough that has gotten raggedy from sticking to the pan while frying.
I don't think I've ever seen a pan-fried chicken dumpling before. It tastes like a cross between dim sum and chicken nuggets. My dining companion is so enthusiastic about them, she wants to order more. But I'm afraid that's not a good idea.
Yum Yum Cha Cafe is a different sort of dim sum restaurant, and its format takes a little getting used to. On each table, there's a flipbook of exactly 50 dim sum items, each photographed as it is served. You get a pen and a sheet of paper listing all the choices, and you fill out your own order. Then the requested dishes begin showing up at your table.
Yum Yum Cha Cafe
2435 Times Boulevard, 713-527-8455.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Shrimp dumplings: $2.70
Shrimp rice roll: $3.65
Pan-fried chicken dumplings: $2.70
Sesame rolls: $1.80
Unfortunately, if you want to get anything else, your order moves to the end of the line and you have to wait until everyone else is served. And on this Thursday at two in the afternoon, all nine tables in the tiny eatery are occupied, which would mean quite a wait for more chicken dumplings.
Our pork pot stickers show up just when we finish the chicken. They have a thick and chewy dumpling dough wrapper. Rather than the usual firm ball of meat inside, the filling turns out to be loose and mealy. The seasonings have a strong flavor that reminds me of chorizo.
The pork dumplings aren't that impressive, but the shrimp-stuffed eggplant that arrives next is sensational. The eggplant is velvety soft, and the shrimp is perfectly seasoned. Best of all, the dish, which is often served lukewarm in other dim sum restaurants, comes to the table steaming hot.
That's the main benefit of getting dim sum to order: Everything is very hot and very fresh. The photo flipbook is sort of halfway between ordering from steam carts and checking off boxes on a piece of paper. At least you get to see what the food looks like before you order it. But figuring out how much to order proves to be a problem.
I usually overeat at a dim sum brunch because I can't resist all the steaming dumplings and rice rolls zipping by on the carts. I'm so afraid of missing something, I order too much of everything. But when I have to check off all the little boxes from a list at the same time, I suddenly tilt to the opposite extreme. On paper, six items for two people seems like plenty of food. But as it turns out, it isn't. And then it's too late to order more.
Still, there are advantages to eating your dim sum here. Leading off the plus category is the location. Yum Yum Cha Cafe is in Rice Village, which is a lot more convenient to my usual watering holes than most other dim sum restaurants. And equally amazing, it's open evenings.
On my first visit, a Sunday around noon, we tried the shrimp rice rolls, which were hot, slippery and very fresh. We also got the usual suspects: pork-and-shrimp shiu mai and shrimp dumplings, the two most common dim sum items. Both were superb. The chewy sesame rolls stuffed with sweetened red bean paste were also delightful.
But I soon discovered that Sunday afternoon is probably the worst time to eat here. The place was crowded. I guess a lot of people are accustomed to eating dim sum on Sunday afternoons. With a big crowd ordering lots of food, it took a long time to get anything to eat.
Meanwhile, the restaurant's air conditioner couldn't cope with the combination of a packed dining room, a steamy kitchen and our tropical weather. One of my dining companions was sweating so profusely, his dress shirt was soaked through.
There was nothing wrong with the food once it got there. But I couldn't help thinking that we would've been a lot better off at Ocean Palace, Kim Son's Stafford location or Fung's Kitchen, all of which are running full tilt at that time on Sunday -- and with better air-conditioning.
Compared to those places, Yum Yum Cha Cafe's meager selection and slow service are disappointing. At Kim Son, there are something like 130 items available on the weekend, and at Fung's Kitchen, there's wild exotica like thousand-year-old eggs and duck tongues to sample. All of which makes the 50-item menu at Yum Yum feel limited.
But that underwhelming Sunday-afternoon experience taught me a valuable lesson. To appreciate Yum Yum Cha Cafe, you have to understand its main appeal: It's a dim sum restaurant that's open when others aren't.
There is no point coming here on Sunday afternoon when more impressive dim sum feasts are easy to find. But where else can you go eat dim sum at ten-thirty on a Friday night? When it comes to dim sum for dinner or a late-night snack, Yum Yum Cha Cafe is the only game in town.
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And while the place is quite small, it's also very charming. The wooden floors and dark green walls give the little cafe a calming atmosphere -- when it isn't crowded. The restaurant is run by just two people, a father-and-daughter team from Hong Kong. The young woman runs the front of the house, and Dad does the cooking. He is obviously an accomplished chef. The choices may be limited, but everything I've had there has been perfectly cooked.
The annoying name, Yum Yum Cha Cafe, is a play on words in Chinese, according to the menu. Yum cha is phonetically similar to "drink tea" in Chinese. So yum cha cafe would be "drink tea restaurant." And in China, dim sum is a meal traditionally taken with hot tea. The double yum makes the name a bilingual pun.
Unless you carry a Hello Kitty backpack, "Meet me at Yum Yum," is probably not a phrase that will ever roll trippingly off your tongue. But if you can avoid gagging on the cutesiness of it all, you may find this place quite handy when you've had too many happy-hour cocktails and you need some dumplings to soak up the alcohol.
It's also an Inner Loop haven for people who just like to pig out on fresh rice rolls and shrimp dumplings at odd hours -- you know, the Chinese breakfast for dinner folks.