The yellow dragon rears back on his hind legs and opens his jaws wide while an ominous drumroll thunders through the room. The monster leaps into the air, trying to grab a bunch of lettuce hanging from the doorway. When he catches it, pandemonium ensues -- cymbals crash, flashbulbs pop, and a crowd of more than a hundred roars in applause. My daughters are jumping around the table trying to get their pictures taken with the dragon, and it's everything I can do to keep the teacups and dumpling dishes from being upended. It's the first Sunday after the Chinese New Year, and the dim sum brunch at Kim Son's Stafford location is a wild party. But the truth is that this enormous outpost in the local Vietnamese chain hosts a pretty wild dim sum party every Sunday morning.
A few months ago I wrote a review in which I called Ai Hoa the best dim sum restaurant in town (see "The Best Dim Sum in Guangzhouston," November 2, 2000). A few days after that review appeared, several Asian acquaintances approached me and said that I had made a mistake. Ai Hoa used to make the best dim sum in town, they said. But their magical chef had been wooed away to the Kim Son in Stafford. That's where everybody goes now, they said.
Kim Son is a Vietnamese restaurant. Why would it specialize in Chinese dim sum? I wondered. So I led a couple of expeditions down the Southwest Freeway to find out.
12750 Southwest Freeway (in Stafford)
Dim sum is served on carts from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, and from the menu between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday
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)
On the Sunday after the Chinese New Year, the restaurant was packed at 11 a.m. We were offered a table in the otherwise empty bar after five minutes of waiting. I declined it. After ten minutes of waiting, we were offered a table in a tight section to the side of the hostess stand. I turned that one down, too, much to the consternation of my girlfriend and my hungry daughters. After 15 minutes, we were rewarded for our patience with a round table at the intersection of two aisles in the huge front dining room, next to the fish tank and close to the kitchen -- a very lucky location.
It's clear that Kim Son is designed around Buddhist feng shui principles. Water, according to feng shui practitioners, is thought to channel a positive ch'i, which in turn channels customers with money to your business. Hence, there are ponds in front of Kim Son's building, as well as a fountain at the front door and a giant aquarium. I have always thought of feng shui's sometimes dogmatic, sometimes delightful aesthetic principles as a combination of common sense, Buddhist spirituality and funny superstitions.
When it comes to picking a table at a dim sum restaurant, I have developed my own version of feng shui. The fun of dim sum, as you know, is selecting steaming delicacies from passing carts. The first time I tried it was 20 years ago at a famous dim sum palace in San Francisco's Chinatown. My companion and I grabbed an empty table right next to a window with a fabulous view of the city. But we never got any food. The table was up a couple of steps from the dining room, and the cart drivers couldn't get there. Eventually we gave up and went to find another table. But first I took a few minutes to observe the scene.
As each cart rolled out of the kitchen, it was stopped immediately for inspection by the people at the tables closest to the kitchen door. This was where the serious connoisseur sat. Then the cart reached the larger round tables located on the edges of the main cart thoroughfares. The selection looked pretty good there, too. But around the fringes of the room, people were craning their necks and waving their arms, trying to get a cart driver's attention before all the dumplings got cold.
So here's my advice: Forget everything you know about picking a table. Forget about the quiet little nook by the window. Forget about intimacy. Think like a cart driver. Stay away from tight corners, steps and inclines. Go for a table in the middle of the highest traffic area. If you sit at the intersection of two aisles you will double your luck. And don't get too far away from the chef. The closer you are to the kitchen door, the hotter your dumplings will be.
It may sound greedy now, but wait until you've had a couple of these dumplings and crave a couple more -- suddenly the location of your table will mean everything. On our Chinese New Year's visit, we were in a perfect spot. Not only was the dragon dancing right beside us, but also we could see every cart go by. I let the girls each pick an item to get things rolling.
My daughter brought a friend along who had never eaten dim sum before, so we got her a menu. Kim Son has a handy version illustrated with four pages of color pictures. On the weekends, the carts carry a lot of specials, which aren't on the menu, but it's a start anyway. The menu's also a great way to learn the names of your favorite items.
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.
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.
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"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.
Dim sum means "to touch the heart" or "a little bit of heart." The other name for this morning meal is yum cha, which means "to drink tea." According to Maeve O'Meara, an Australian food writer who wrote the cookbook's foreword, the dim sum tradition began in the Guangzhou (Canton) region of China when teahouses began offering small snacks to attract customers. This Chinese happy-hour buffet evolved into a culinary art form with elaborately stylized creations. Restaurants in Hong Kong sometimes serve a couple of hundred different dishes with hot tea at breakfast and lunch.