Fresh off celebrating the Lunar New Year at the Chinese Community Center down the road, we headed into Chinatown on Saturday afternoon in search of lunch. True, we could have eaten from the bounty of food stalls serving up fresh fish balls on a stick...if we had remembered to bring cash and they were offering the dumplings we were craving. And dealing with the packed, noisy dining rooms of dumpling favorites Fu Fu Cafe and QQ Cuisine wasn't appealing after a full day of crowds.
And then it occurred to us: dim sim. It was right around 2 p.m., the perfect time of day for some yum cha and dumplings. We headed out to see what we could find.
Tucked into the far corner of the always-busy strip center at the corner of Bellaire Boulevard and Ranchester that also houses favorites like Shanghai Kitchen, Snow Star Ice and Cafe La Tea is Dim Sum King. You might miss it -- its entrance isn't visible from the parking lot, and its red lettering is hidden under signs for herbal medicine and an HPD storefront. But despite this, Dim Sum King has a lot going for it.
Despite dim sum being traditionally served as a breakfast/brunch meal or at tea time, Dim Sum King serves the food all day long, six days a week (like Feast, it's closed on Tuesdays). This must certainly help stem the crowds at peak hours, knowing that they can still get their dim sum fix at night. And there are none of the madding crowds present here, like at Fung's Kitchen or other ballroom-size establishments. With only a couple dozen tables in the cozy, somewhat narrow interior, it's like eating with only your closest friends. We vastly preferred this experience to the large, somewhat impersonal and usually noisy dim sum palaces like Fung's.
Similar to Yum Yum Cha Cafe in Rice Village, Dim Sum King offers a picture menu of the Hong Kong-style dishes for the uninitiated -- a nice touch, especially considering that most of the Cantonese staff speaks limited English and it's easy to have questions when confronted with menu descriptions like "White Cloud Phoenix Talons." (Those are just chicken feet; don't get too excited.)
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Ordering is simple. With such a small interior, there's no sense in having trolleys come around. Just mark off your choices from a menu divided into the three traditional sections -- small, medium and large -- and soon your table will be laden with steam baskets and plates full of food. The small plates are $1.98 each, the medium $2.98 and the large $3.98. We went a little wild over some of the less common dishes that Dim Sum King offers and ordered eight things off the menu, which turned out to be far more suited to a table of four than a table of two.
As the plates came to our table, the waitress helpfully snipped the larger items (beef balls, deep-fried shrimp balls, sesame balls) in half with a scary set of industrial-sized kitchen shears. Efficiency reigns supreme here, as it must in a restaurant with a small kitchen. Instead of clearing the plates one by one when you're finished, the bussers take the entire plastic tablecloth off your table, wrapping all the dishes inside of it as they go. The many thin, white, plastic tablecloths padding each table would seem to indicate they do this many times over in one day.
Our favorite items from the menu stood out immediately: the savory, gelatinous turnip cakes had a bit of char on them and were the best we'd ever tasted at any dim sum meal. The beef balls were perfectly seasoned and delightfully spongy, served with a tangy side of Worcestershire sauce for dipping. Deep-fried shrimp balls came out looking like fanciful sea urchins, and the sesame balls with red bean paste were an ideal dessert -- subtly sweet and toothsome. Dim Sum King even managed to transform the plain vegetarian eggrolls into highly fragrant delights filled with more than just cabbage and carrots. The only miss came in the form of some cakey, gritty pan-fried chive cakes that sounded good on the menu but were dense and tasteless.
Considering the quality of the food, the cheap prices, cheerful service and spotlessly clean interior -- you could have eaten the beef balls right off the floor of the ladies' room -- we may have found a new favorite dim sum place in town. And we even got our new year's dumplings: translucent, doughy pockets filled with fresh, fat, perfectly pink shrimp delivered to our table in a steam basket. We tore them open hungrily as we hoped for the best in the new year.