Dim sum translates to “a little bit of heart,” and it’s brought joy and love to many families and friends. During the pandemic, dim sum restaurants took a toll, as the meal is mean to be shared and eaten together and many only had indoor dining.
Dim sum can be served in high end restaurants via carts full of baked dan tat, har gaw, and siu mai—or sometimes ordered off a menu and even from small, to-go deli-style places. These small bites and intricate dishes are labor-intensive to make, usually pulled off by cooks with years of experience and dexterity. Dim sum is also dubbed “yum cha,” which means drink tea and is synonymous with “dim sum”—the small dishes are meant to be enjoyed with tea
I checked in with some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s chefs, critics, and community leaders about their favorite dim sum places and their favorite dim sum dishes.
Luke Tsai, food editor at KQED: Saigon Seafood Harbor
“Most of the time, you can get in without much of a wait. It has everything you want, all the classics that you’re going to want to get, and done really solidly. If you want your cha shao bao, shrimp rice rolls, they will do above average to quite good versions of all of those things.”
Brandon Rice, chef-owner of Ernest: Yank Sing
“The Yank Sing space is huge and they have a ton of different carts that move around the restaurant at all times. The Shanghai dumplings, pork and shrimp shui mai, and the har gaw are some of the favorites. All dishes are executed really well and the carts are always bringing over new dishes. I normally would go here on New Year’s Day for lunch. It’s a nice tradition where we eat and drink too much, then just lay around the rest of the day.
Julio Aguilera, chef-partner at Copas: Yank Sing or Palette Tea House
“Yank Sing seems to have a more delicate dough than most places around, while Palette Tea House has a really fun, creative side. I usually order seven to 10 dishes. At Yank Sing, I have to get the duck and XO green beans. At Palette, it’s always the lobster dumplings. I always remember how cool it was from a young age to go to dim sum. I used to go to the Chinatown in Los Angeles near Dodger Stadium. The carts with the steam baskets always caught my eye as a kid. I had never seen that at a restaurant before. My mom and I would take us to Chinatown, and it was always a great time.”
Nelson German, chef-owner of Sobre Mesa and alaMar: Fusion Delight
“My wife is Chinese Vietnamese—she’s the first one who introduced me to dim sum, and I really got to learn how beautiful it is. And it’s within my culture too, just family sitting around a big round table and breaking bread together. Usually when her parents are in town, we’ll go [to Fusion Delight] to celebrate something, a birthday for her mom or dad or any of the elders in her family. It’s a huge place, you mostly see Chinese people there or Vietnamese people, so you know it’s good.
“The one dish that comes to mind is chicken feet. Most people won’t say that as a first, but it’s so delicious. It reminds me of home [because] my grandma would cook braised game hen including the feet. I like just how tender it is, the umami flavors.
“The chef there does these little bao and makes them look like little pigs, kind of like cha siu bao. There’s another dish, it’s a fried bao shaped like a swan. It’s the little intricate things, kind of old school, and new school too. My father-in-law used to be a chef and have a Chinese restaurant in Hayward. He tells me to make it more upscale, shaping food like an animal or flower. It’s a way of showcasing love and love for food when you are intricate in the details with the hand carving. I’ve really enjoyed dim sum and the cultural aspect of sitting around the table and having little bites.”
Dim sum and other traditional Chinese dishes make me feel more connected to my heritage.— Yuji Ishikata
Sydney Arkin of Bad Walter’s Bootleg Ice Cream: Dragon Beaux
“My favorite dim sum in the Bay is Dragon Beaux. While the line can be long, once you’re inside, service is super fast and attentive. Plus, there’s just so many food options to pick from. The xiao long bao are the closest ones I’ve found to Joe’s Shanghai in Flushing, NY — my gold standard for soup dumplings. The meat is super tender and the bao are full. I always burn my mouth of them because I’m just so impatient. It’s worth it. Also, the last time I was there, I got the Peking duck for the first time and it was flawless. I’m an ex-New Yorker and in the times of COVID, it’s been impossible to see family for holidays. Also, as a Jew, it’s tradition to have Chinese food on Christmas. So, my partner and I’ve expanded on it and have been going out for dim sum instead of doing Thanksgiving the past few years. I don’t think we’ll ever go back!
Yuji Ishikata, J-Sei’s Nutrition Program Chef, Emeryville: Saigon Seafood Harbor
“I grew up in El Cerrito, and Saigon Seafood Harbor has always been one of the closest dim sum places to me and my family’s home. Saigon always has a good balance of quality and price, and is always a good meal.
“I love the cheung fun, or rice rolls. I usually order the shrimp or fish and parsley rice rolls. They always get the texture of the rice rolls right, and the seafood is always cooked well. I also like ordering their fried taro dumplings or wu gok. I tap into my adventurous Cantonese side and also order the beef tripe. It’s perfectly chewy and super flavorful. All three dishes bring up memories of my grandmother’s cooking, or the dim sum she always had laying out on the table when we would visit. I always make it a point to make my own sauce: I mix chile oil, mustard, red vinegar, and soy sauce on my plate which is a perfect dip for any steamed or fried dim sum bite.
These days, most dim sum restaurants provide an order form, but I prefer the dim sum cart drive by. I am third generation Chinese and fourth generation Japanese (or yonsei), and for most of my life, I’ve identified more with my Japanese culture but as food has become my career and my language in this world, dim sum and other traditional Chinese dishes make me feel more connected to my heritage. As a chef, dim sum still impresses me even though I’ve grown up eating it. From the flaky sweet and custardy egg tart (dan tat) to the fried glutinous rice dumpling (ham sui gok), I love the creativity of these inventive and soulful dishes.
SiewChinn Chin, Ramen Shop in Oakland, cook, pickling expert: Hong Kong East Ocean
“It’s pretty guaranteed that you’ll get a good dim sum experience. This is sort of like the standard for me. It’s also the atmosphere. There’s a beautiful view of the Bay. It’s very spacious, it’s very clean, and we always bring our own tea and get tea service for us. They brew it, they bring out a pot, and are very attentive and knowledgeable. To me, dim sum is not dim sum without tea.
They do an amazing cucumber in ginger sauce pickle. And right now, because it’s bitter melon season, they do this bitter melon honey pickle that a tiny bit spicy and very cold. It’s very refreshing, after eating oily food. Of course, I get the standard siu mai with fish roe on top. I also like the chive and shrimp dumpling, it’s called crystal shrimp dumpling wrapped in translucent potato flour wrap. The other thing I love is chicken feet. I’m teaching my little grandnephew to eat chicken feet. Another thing I like very much is the rice noodle roll, with cha siu inside, sometimes with shrimp or beef. It’s rolled up, sauteed with some chives, then they put XO sauce. It has a lot of wok breath. It’s smoky. That’s delicious. I also liked the fried taro. Taro is in season now, during the harvest moon.”
Matthew Ho, Bodega SF: Bamboo Steamer
“There are so many places that come to mind: Koi Palace, Hong Kong Lounge, Grand Harbor Seafood and Dim Sum, but by far, my favorite would have to be Bamboo Steamer in Hayward. The family-owned restaurant shares a similar story to mine. Chef Lin, a seasoned chef for a dozen well-known dim sum restaurants in the Bay Area, decided to open a restaurant with his son during the pandemic. They are currently closed for remodeling and I am excited to go back when they reopen. Chili oil wonton, steamed egg custard buns, Peking duck sesame pockets, steamed spareribs in black bean sauce, and honey glazed bbq pork buns are my go-to items. A must order is the eel fried rice with roe. The flavors of freshwater eel, roe, wok hei make an amazing combination. The Bay Area is a mecca for dim sum. It’s great we have so much variety here in San Francisco, from full service restaurants to Chinese delis.”
Grace Hwang Lynch, San Jose-based Writer: Palette Tea House
“I’m still avoiding indoor dining when possible, but one of the things I’ve really missed since the beginning of the pandemic is going out for dim sum, as most have big indoor banquet rooms. I’ve ordered a lot of frozen pre-made dim sum, but it’s not as much of a relaxing and social experience steaming them at home. Palette in Ghirardelli Square has a large covered outdoor patio and this year’s unseasonably warm weather means it hasn’t been cold or foggy the Fisherman’s Wharf area often is.
When I go to dim sum, I usually stick with the Cantonese classics. But at Palette, I always order the multicolored [xiao long bao] sampler because they are festive and eye-catching, and I love variety. If there are two things that Palette is known for on Instagram, it’s the multicolored XLB sampler and the Black Swan Taro Puffs, which are your traditional minced pork and shiitake stuffed fried taro balls—only tinted black, with the addition of a swan’s neck and head made out of dough. The Lobster Dumpling, which is a har gow made with lobster—is over the top, with the addition of those little drip containers of melted butter. Another less flashy, but very delicious, item is the seafood crispy chow mien. They also have a full bar with interesting cocktails, which makes it fun for a group.”
Jennifer Li, Executive Director, Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council: Yummy Dim Sum and Peony
“I like Yummy Yummy dim sum because it’s good food, no frills. Their ha gaw is especially good and fresh. The shrimp have a good springiness to them, and the skin has a nice chewiness. They’re not mushy like they’ve been left in the steamer too long. I also like that their pai gwut/ pork ribs comes with taro— that’s been left together long enough that the taro has nice juice pork flavor. I love getting a bunch of their dim sum to go to enjoy at home, to eat at Lincoln Park, or to eat and walk at the same time.
I like Peony because of the options. My favorites there are the silken tofu and the medicated chicken feet— the silken tofu is fried on the outside and the smoothest eggiest texture on the inside, with crispy fried garlic sprinkled on top. The texture and flavor is so satisfying. I love herbal flavors and I love chicken feet, so the herbal chicken feet two things I love in one. Plus, it gives you a collagen boost so it’s good for your skin!
Both these places mean something to me not just because of good food, but because they are conduits for community gatherings, or played a role in my own community organizing whether by feeding our young people or recognizing older leaders who have come before us. They both do Cantonese style food, and each bite is a taste of home and community to me.”
Momo Chang is a freelance writer focused on stories about food, health and immigrant communities, for such publications as Wired, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Berkeleyside NOSH; and the alumni coordinator for Oakland Voices, a community journalism training program. Follow her on Twitter. Follow Resy, too.