Dim sum is a frenzied, fast-paced way to start your Sunday. But when you’re the first to arrive, it’s an altogether different experience.
My first memory of dim sum is Chinatown in downtown Washington in the early 1990s. I remember staring through the ornate Friendship Archway – blue and red and gold with unfurling dragons and pagoda roofs – down H Street Northwest, to a neighborhood that was little more than a row of ramshackle rowhouses at the end of a vast empty block that would soon become the MCI Center. The neighborhood had once been a thriving German neighborhood, succeeded by a flourishing Chinese neighborhood following displacement in the 1930s from the city’s earlier Chinatown where Federal Triangle now stands. By the early 1990s, the neighborhood was only a phantom of its former self – a bombed-out, decaying Potemkin Village housing a few remaining businesses and the Wah Luck apartment house. Lincoln’s assassination was planned in one of those houses: Number 604, now Wok and Roll. Across the street, there was another restaurant behind a Formstone façade, now the Eat First Restaurant which advertises a lunch special for $3.95. It was a dimly lit place and mostly empty. Though ordinarily an adventurous eater as a child, I asked for chicken fingers. Out came a metal tin of phoenix claws – chicken feet. I liked them, and a love affair with dim sum was born.
A few times in life, you get lucky. Like when you get that job you’ve always wanted, or when you win the lottery, or, when, in the back of the cupboard, you discover that last bag of Utz-brand crab chips and no one else is home. You hardly ever know where that luck came from. Other times, though, you know exactly. That job I got? I worked hard for it, goddammit. That sweater I got on sale? Well, I did get that fortune cookie back in 1994 that said I would buy new clothes. And that memorable dim sum feast? Check No. 0001 at Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant.
Out in the sprawl of the Arlington-Fairfax County line, around the spiraling, hateful Charybdis that is Seven Corners, you find an unbelievable wealth of good food. There’s the Eden Center, a sprawling strip mall-cum-little Saigon decked out in red and yellow, the South Vietnamese flag flying, where you down the most amazing bành mí and avocado smoothies as a French and Vietnamese cover of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” blares from speakers above you. There’s Bangkok Golden nearby with its exquisite Laotian menu, where only the Beerlao tames the potent piquancy of its cuisine. Just down Route 50, there’s Present, an elegant take on Vietnamese, with dishes that are pure poetry: “rainbows white cloud,” “lotus flower garden,” “cow on the open field,” “basking in the summer sun,” “king in the mango grove,” “fish in the emerald water,” “far-traveled shrimp,” “being here and now.” And then there’s Fortune – easily one of the best spots for dim sum in the metro area.
Dim sum is Cantonese for “delicious.” Or it might as well be. (Actually, it comes from a verb meaning “to eat a little something” even though, in my experience, dim sum involves eating quite a lot.) The meal originated in the older tradition of yum cha, or “tea tasting,” which sprung up in small teahouses along the Silk Road to satiate weary travelers. Small dishes were added to the tea, and, by the 1950s, the leisurely teatime had became a loud, boisterous affair with families sitting in noisy, cavernous dining rooms around large round tables encircled by a jubilant parade of carts. The tradition spread from Guangdong province to America with immigrant communities, and dim sum can now be found – of varying quality – in large and mid-sized cities across the nation.
As a teenager in Richmond, Virginia, I loved dim sum brunches at Full Kee in the suburban neighborhood around the Tan A Supermarket that served as the pan-Asian shopping district. The roasting ducks hanging in the front window and the perfume of chive blossom and garlic were an escape from the stoic brick houses, staid fox-hunt paintings, and country club set of the surrounding city.
In Washington, too, the best dim sum – like Fortune – is found in the suburbs. Downtown’s once-vibrant Chinatown is now mostly for show – a district of character-bereft Fuddruckers and Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts with Chinese characters scrawled garishly across their signage. This is by no means unusual. In Vancouver, you head down to Richmond for good food, not the city’s “Chinatown.” And as a piece in Lucky Peach describes, even in San Francisco, you head out to suburban Chinatowns.
There are still a few exceptions, one being the hand-made noodles with roast duck at Chinatown Express which the Washington Post deservedly named a must try dish last year. But most of the rest of the neighborhood went the way of the city as a whole in the late twentieth century, when Washington’s population fell from over 800,000 in 1950 to 572,059 in 2000. In 2011, 400 to 500 Chinese immigrants remained in the neighborhood, with 243 of them living in the Wah Luck House, the brutalist, vaguely Chinese apartment house at the intersection of 6th and H. The District government built the apartment house in 1982 to house Chinese immigrants displaced by the building of the old convention center, now the site of the massive new development at CityCenterDC. At the time, there were Chinese groceries and good restaurants nearby. By the late 2000s, however, residents resorted to piling onto a once-monthly charter bus to visit the nearest Chinese market 14 miles away in Falls Church, not far from Fortune in Seven Corners.
Fortune is a squat brick building along Route 50 behind a Home Depot and surrounded by parking lots. Large advertisements in Vietnamese advertise multi-course family-style dinners with Vietnamese pop singers. I’ve been a few times now but always in the thick of the dim sum madness, when every seat in the immense banquet hall is taken, when a hundred carts are moving about the room in frenzied fashion and the conversation is so loud you can barely hear har gow from char siu bao. The carts come by in quick succession. You point, you slather dumplings in chili oil, you devour, you repeat, and suddenly twenty minutes have gone by, you have ten marks on your check indicating the ten dishes you’ve eaten, and, as you moan and yawn and fall into a deep food coma, you begin to question the wisdom of what you’ve just done.
One recent Saturday, a friend and I ventured again out to Fortune. Arriving at 10am sharp, we were the first customers to arrive that morning. We were seated at a table near the center of the vast, empty restaurant. A pot of hot tea was brought, and we waited. The television on the wall above us broadcast footage of veterinary operations. We waited. A large group of young men and women in red shirts and jeans – mostly women, most apparently high-school age – began to assemble near the door to the kitchen beside a long line of empty carts. Some spoke to each other in Chinese, others in Vietnamese. A man came out and spoke to them in English. The price of certain dishes had gone up. The price of the roast duck was clarified. Our waiter – a serious man in a red vest – approached to assure us the food would be out soon. But there was no rush; the theater – watching the early morning machinations of an intricate dim sum enterprise – was worth the price of admission.
One by one, and slowly, carts began to appear. First, there was a wobbly cart with a defective wheel filled with steamed dishes: har gow (ethereal, translucent shrimp dumplings), char siu bao (barbecue pork steamed buns), and shumai (a thin dumpling bursting with ground pork and shrimp). We ate these at a leisurely pace, savoring each chili oil-slathered bite, before the next cart arrived with plates of har cheong fun – broad rice noodles rolled around lightly marinated shrimp and doused in sweet soy sauce. Some time passed before a cart bearing lo mai gai arrived – sticky rice mixed with Chinese sausage and chicken and steamed in a lotus leaf – and another containing lightly-fried chive and prawn dumplings. More time passed before we selected another har cheong fun.
Ordinarily, I would have finished my meal with my favorite dim sum: the egg tart, golden and radiant as the sun. The tarts are actually British and Portuguese in origin and came to southern China by way of Hong Kong and Macau where they were adapted to local tastes. They generally sport a crust as flaky as a snowstorm and a pool of rich, eggy custard that’s sweet but considerably less creamy than its Western counterparts. But the oddest thing had happened: I was full. Full before I’d had a chance to get the egg tarts. Full before I’d amassed ten marks on our table’s check. That had never happened before. Usually, I down at least one or two of the tarts before realizing not only that I’m full but that I’m uncomfortably full and begin dreading the walk to the car that I know will feel like an endless trek across the Gobi Desert without a camel.
It turns out a leisurely dim sum is an altogether different experience. Unrushed, you order one or two dishes at a time. You eat them slowly, at your own pace, sitting back to talk and sip tea. You watch the servers line up with empty carts and receive their instructions. In a still mostly empty restaurant, there’s none of the anxiety you won’t get that one dish you want. (I still resent not being able to try a barbecue pork bun at Yank Sing in San Francisco.) And, with time slowed down, after only six or seven dishes for a table of two, 45 minutes into dim sum with the restaurant only then beginning to fill up, you find you’re comfortably, pleasantly full. It’s a slightly surreal experience paying your bill, sitting back, sipping your tea, unharried, relaxed, catching the last moments of the veterinary operation on the television. You watch the young women in their red shirts and jeans pushing the now-filled carts around the restaurant. You’ve seen them all before. You recognize the squeaky wheel and the wobble of that steam cart. You saw them begin their parade into the kitchen and emerge with hundreds of tins of dumplings and buns and phoenix claws and rolled rice rolls. You rise from your seat, mosey to the door, say thank you to the hostess, wave goodbye, pause to admire the lobster tanks in the vestibule, and saunter easily to the car without waddling. It’s wonderful.
But that was my good fortune: Check No. 0001.