Seattle – Chinese Dim Sum

Tasting a wide variety of tiny 2-bite morsels is a Chinese cultural tradition since the last dowager Empress was plied with them and they were named “little gems”, dim sum.

Although the trends are toward the Japanese-style (sushi) or Spanish-style (tapas), dim sum are an amazing choice, if only for their huge variety and the ambiance surrounding their presentation to you. It’s all a unique experience.

The first time I had a fully-immersed DS experience was in Bangkok. Our Chinese landlord wrote out the name and directions in Thai and we showed the taxi-driver. So began our first entry into Bangkok’s Chinatown. The Thai originally came down from China and evolved their own culture, but many Chinese immigrants have come later and kept their original traditions, as they did when immigrating to the United States and Canada.

Knowing no Chinese, we just had to trust that when a waitress came up with a cart of several varieties of dim sum, basically they would be ready-to-eat, safe-to-eat and likely taste good!

That’s they same adventurous attitude you’ll need in Seattle, but there’s a good chance you’ll be able to ask what they are made of, in English, and decide from there.

We had a wonderful first dim-sum meal, and my husband and I have repeated the process many times.

Here are some tips for your Seattle experience.

The dishes are steamed, fried or baked, usually. There usually are not stir-fries or soups on the trolleys (if there are stir-fries, they’ll be more expensive portions than usual).

There are no scheduled courses. Plates arrive on trolleys, and you decide IF you want one or more of that food, or none. You are charged by the plate, and you eat them in the order you decide.

Set aside the ones that look like they are desserts, if you want the sweet things at the end. Dim sum gives Chinese chefs full range to be inventive and to use the huge repetoire already built up over 2+ centuries.

Try to go to a dim sum restaurant with a group of people, otherwise the service will not be good if you go alone at a busy time (best food is usually at week-end brunch).

In Seattle’s Chinatown (a.k.a. the International District), there are dozens of places to try dim sum, but all are not equal.

Go to a restaurant with plenty of exterior signs in Chinese, one that is not garish and preferably one that is large to huge in size (they are able to pay the rent and want to cater to large Chinese families — a good sign). Also see if they take credit cards, otherwise, you’ll need cash.

Dim sum are very labor intensive and require a large staff to make them, and in great variety, so stay away from small establishments and any that seem touristy. The vast majority of diners should be Chinese, when you see who’s entering and after taking a quick peek inside.

Looking further, there should also be several waiters with steaming metal food carts roaming about (these carts contain the dim sum). The more numerous the carts means that there is still a lot of food, and that it’s likely fresh. If it is busy, get put on the waiting list and use just a simple first name to be called by.

When seated, you shouldn’t be asked “if” you want the dim sum at the start of your meal; you should not be ordering from the regular menu if there is one, and they should be wanting you to have dim sum!

If you want water with your meal, you’ll have to ask. Tea usually comes without asking. The first tradition is to open the teapot’s lid and check the status of the tea brewing. Then, pour when it is ready. When you need more tea, turn the lid vertically or take it off, as a signal to the waiter.

Next, order your dim sum, as the trolleys go by. The waitresses will make notations on the long paper at your table (which will become your bill). Point, to choose, if you do not have any other way to order and use your fingers for the number required.

Ask to keep your used plates, and tally them at the end, to make sure the number used is the same as the number you are charged for or keep track of the numbers on your bill, as you order.

If you can’t use chopsticks, be sure to get a fork before you even choose your first foods.

As a sign of respect, if you can use chopsticks, even minimally, be a good guest, and try. You’ll get better practice at a dim sum restaurant as all the little packets are compact and easier than regular fare.

Stay clear of any brightly-(artificially)-colored dishes. The Chinese have a heavy-hand with chemical coloring. These show up mostly in “desserts”.

For budgeting purposes, small dishes generally range from $2 to $3, medium dishes range from $2.50 to $3.50, and large dishes range anywhere from $3 to $5. “Special dishes” tend to be around $5 per dish; this is the category the more regular dishes fit in, but portions are smaller than they would be on the regular menu, too. Depending on appetite, figure on $12 – $18 per person for adults.

A few to consider:
___ Harbor City Restaurant: 707 S King St, Seattle (206) 621-2228
___ Jade Garden: 704 S. King St, Seattle (206) 622-8181
___ Duk Li Dim Sum: 664 S Weller St, Seattle, WA 98104 (cash only)
___ New Hong Kong Restaurant: 900 S Jackson St, Seattle
(206) 223-7999

All are wheelchair accessible and open 7 days a week unless noted above. Dim Sum may only be served at certain times in some of these establishments. Check.

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