Dim Sum Worth the 136 Mile Drive (in Richmond, BC)
I’m constantly apologizing to my Seattle-area friends for turning down dim sum invitations. Sure, dim sum is just dandy here compared to most of the country, but the bao and other delicacies are simply much better to the north in Richmond, B.C. There, a thriving Chinese population eats out regularly and demands the best for its dollars. Competition translates into culinary quality.
Perhaps because the chefs are from Hong Kong, the mecca of dim sum, I find the flavors to be cleaner and better-balanced than in Seattle, the food less greasy. In addition, there’s better attention to such details as the crimping of dumplings. Take, for example, har gow (shrimp dumplings)—the benchmark of quality at a dim sum establishment. In Richmond, these dumplings have translucent wrappers that are delicate and yet sturdy enough to support the shrimp inside. As for that shrimp, Seattle’s tends to be a bland clump that’s almost unrecognizable, whereas in Richmond you’ll find large pieces which taste fresh and sweet, with a tell-tale snap when you bite into them.
But Richmond can be intimidating, even for people just across the Fraser River in Vancouver. With the traffic, the crowds, and the sheer number of restaurants—usually with signage and menus full of Chinese characters—it’s easy to feel like a stranger in a strange land. But the food makes it worth conquering the fear factor. To help, here are tips on where to go, what to order, and how to do dim sum right in Richmond, especially with Chinese New Year just around the corner.
No carts, and ordering smarts
One thing is quickly evident in Richmond’s dim sum restaurants, some of which are cavernous spaces with dripping chandeliers, garish linens (pink seems popular), and elegantly uniformed workers. While the crush of customers asking about seating times at the host stand might be chaotic, you’ll notice that what’s missing is the frenzy of dim sum carts in the dining area. In Richmond, dim sum dining means ordering off the menu.
I love carts as much as the next person—especially the chance to ask “What’s in that basket?” and get a peek inside—but I gladly give them up in exchange for food made to order, arriving fresh at my table. If you want a preview of what’s available, ask for a table close to the kitchen and spy as the servers walk by with the food.
Even minus the carts, it’s still easy to over-order, getting too much food too fast. In Cantonese, dim sum is called yum cha, which translates to “drink(ing) tea.” Tea is really the crux of the dim sum experience, with all those dumplings and such serving as snacks to accompany it. So be in control of your meal. Order as few or as many items as you’d like, at whatever pace feels right. Think about variety. Chinese food is about texture as much as flavor, so diversify your dishes. For every fried spring roll, get a slippery rice roll. Maybe even try something out of your comfort zone, like tripe or chicken feet.
What to eat where
Shiang Garden (4540 No. 3 Rd., 604-273-8858) I try har gow wherever I eat dim sum, but year after year I return to Shiang Garden for what I believe are the best in Richmond, sometimes ordering a basket of them and little more before moving on to another restaurant. (If duck tongue is on the menu, I recommend it as well.)
Jade Seafood Restaurant (8511 Alexandra Rd., 604-249-0082) Perhaps my top pick for dim sum in Vancouver. The pickled ginger with century egg and prawn roll (picture a translucent fried egg roll filled with shrimp and a dark-colored preserved egg) serves a big burst of flavors, while the steamed mushroom dumplings contain a variety of mushrooms and—could it be?—a little truffle oil.
Empire Seafood Restaurant (5951 No. 3 Rd., 604-249-0080) The baked barbecued-pork buns are a nice alternative to steamed, with a tender bun that’s buttery and a sugary crust. For dessert, I like the baked tapioca pudding—rich and creamy, and best eaten while still warm.
Golden Paramount (8071 Park Rd., 604-278-0873) My newest discovery in Richmond, this restaurant is less gaudy than other dim sum “palaces” and ultimately more my style. If you order (and you should) the “steamed dumplings with crab meat and meat” (actually crab meat with pork and vegetables), they’ll come to your table first, to show off the freshness of the crab and the delicacy of the dumpling. I’m also impressed with their stir-fried sticky rice, its great smoky flavor evident from the use of a hot, well-seasoned wok.
Logistics and money matters
The joy of dim sum is that it’s an interactive meal that’s fun to share while socializing with others. If you’re making the trip to Richmond, recruit a small group, as many of the orders come with three or four pieces, and with more people, you can sample more menu items. If you drive out of Seattle early, you can beat traffic and arrive in time for late-morning dim sum.
While it’s not a long drive, I like to take the train; it’s scenic and restful, and eliminates concern about traffic, parking hassles, and fees. I recommend the evening Amtrak, which sets you up in Vancouver or Richmond for an early start the following morning. From Vancouver, a Skytrain to either Lansdowne or Richmond-Brighouse puts you in perfect position for most dim sum places.
Don’t limit yourself to just one restaurant. A progressive meal at two or more gives you a fuller dim sum experience. Eat a few bites at one restaurant, take a walk (which will do you good!), and then order food at a second and even third place. Some restaurants start serving as early as 9 a.m. (Note, though, that not every item is available that early, as some chefs hold back certain dishes until bigger crowds arrive.) Arriving that early enables you to go without reservations (essential especially on weekends) and to beat the crowds, with an added bonus: Most restaurants offer a 20 percent discount on orders before 11 a.m.
Speaking of money, check your credit cards to find one that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. Or bring a debit card which reimburses you for foreign ATM use. The restaurant staff will appreciate your use of cash as a tip for their service during your meal.
Hungry for more?
While the focus here has been on Cantonese dim sum, Richmond is an ideal place to eat Shanghainese dim sum as well. Restaurants like Dinesty, Top Shanghai, and Shanghai Morning serve dishes like daikon pastries, beef rolls, and xiao long bao (steamed dumplings traditionally filled with ground pork and broth), though my favorite xiao long bao in Richmond are at Shanghai River (7831 Westminster Hwy., 604-233-8885). Their soup dumplings have the most delicate wrappers, and inside is a remarkable amount of pork and delicious broth. If you want to space out early Cantonese dim sum with later Shanghainese dim sum, you can easily go shopping at one of the local malls, or perhaps enjoy a relatively inexpensive session of foot reflexology or shiatsu massage at one of the nearby Chinese clinics.
(Originally published at Seattle Weekly on December 30, 2013.)