We grabbed a seat in a beige booth at Toa Toa Chinese restaurant in Sunrise for a dim sum brunch and found what you might at any similar eatery. On each table were pairs of paper-wrapped chopsticks, set next to small plates and teacups. To the side was a small glass jar of soy sauce, only the full-sodium variety with the red top, and another filled with red chili flakes fried and steeped in peanut oil.
Yet what we thought was standard, wasn't. Trying to find out where we could get solid dim sum — the traditional Chinese meal composed of many bite-sized small plates — in South Florida, we sampled three West Broward restaurants. At nearby Pine Court Chinese Bistro, tables were set with soy sauce and black Chinkiang vinegar, brewed from glutinous rice with a smoky flavor reminiscent of balsamic.
At China Pavilion, about a 20-minute ride south to Pembroke Pines, we found soy sauce and Sriracha sauce (a Thai hot sauce with chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt) as well as a bottle of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. None of our servers could explain why the restaurant had chosen those sauces.
Back at Toa Toa, Master Li Siu Hung from the Lee Koon Hung Choy Lay Fut Kung Fu Association sat with other teachers and students eating char siu bao, steamed pork buns filled with sticky sweet diced pork encased in a cloud-like dough. Adjacent to our table, a Chinese family of at least a dozen shared everything from little bowls of steamed tripe to baked buns filled with sweetened egg custard.
Chinese restaurants throughout the region serve an almost ubiquitous lineup of dim sum classics to packed houses each afternoon, particularly on weekends. The myriad small bites, whether steamed, fried or sautéed, are most popular during lunch.
"Never in the evenings," said Lok Tam, manager of China Pavilion in Pembroke Pines. "Dim sum for original Chinese people is their breakfast; they only have it in the morning or early afternoon."
Outside of this rule, it seemed like anything goes. There are no guidelines as to how many steamed or fried items you should order. Some sort of greens, either mustard greens or gai lan (Chinese broccoli), are usually available steamed and topped with oyster sauce. Yet no one will command you to eat your vegetables.
Toa Toa's dim sum was offered on a checklist accompanied by a picture menu. Baked pork buns ($3.25) came as three golden buns brushed with egg for an appealing shine, yet they missed the balance between bread and protein. Two bites in, we were enjoying the fluffy sweet bun but hadn't found any meat. Stuffed bean curd skins ($3) came filled with earthy bamboo shoots and mushrooms wrapped in a gossamer shell that was crispy without being greasy. The wrappers are a byproduct of tofu production. When soy milk is boiled, a thin skin forms on the surface; it is removed, dried, and used as a vessel for any combination of fillings.
Just as the condiments on each table varied from restaurant to restaurant, so did the way diners built a meal out of 50 or more options.
Americans often find one thing they like and order plenty of it, according to Tam of China Pavilion. Meanwhile, Chinese diners will order a wider variety of items and lots of sweet stuff, like egg custards and deep-fried sesame balls — which here were filled with an almost gummy sweetened bean paste.
Dim sum's origins date back to the Silk Road, a trade route spanning thousands of miles across Eurasia that moved exotic, luxury goods to wealthy Europeans. Teahouses along the path were customary stops for travelers, so enterprising innkeepers eventually began serving light bites during what was once called yum-cha, or tea tasting. The tradition evolved into the bustling midday meal in southern China and is most connected to Hong Kong. Even today, many dim sum restaurants proclaim their offerings as "Hong Kong style," as Toa Toa had written in neon lettering on its façade.
Again, we found no standard for design or décor. While Toa Toa offered a clean, neutral space with tightly packed tables and beige banquettes atop a dark hardwood floor, Pine Court was cavernous. The ceiling seemed to be at least 18 feet tall, with a central tiled area tagged on each corner with Roman-style columns. A stainless-steel kitchen, puffing out columns of steam, sat adjacent to the entrance, and carpeted dining areas extended out to the left and right of the tiled space. Large flat-screen televisions were haphazardly hung from the ceiling broadcasting subtitled news.
Instead of order sheets, dim sum here made its way around the room in stainless-steel steamer carts. One contained a variety of dumplings: shrimp, shrimp with parsley, pork and ginger, and rice crepes filled with whole shrimps or strips of roasted pork, doused in a sweet soy sauce. Others held plates of crispy bone-in duck, fried string beans topped with diced scallions, and clams wok-fried with a fermented black bean sauce.
Items were priced according to size. For example, about five chicken feet, steamed and tossed in black bean sauce, cost the same, $3.25, as the deep-fried taro dumpling, with minced pork encased in the mashed, potato-like root vegetable and shaped into a small football.
"The cart has hot water, so they can control the temperature and keep the food hot," said Pine Court manager Kaiming Deng. "When the cart comes to your table, it comes at its original temperature."
However, there weren't enough carts to keep up with demand, and at one point, a train of them was lined up by the kitchen to be refilled.
Though the pushcarts are the "traditional Cantonese style," we preferred the à la carte method of ordering at the other two restaurants.
"[With] the carts, they make [the dim sum] one or two hours ahead, and that makes a difference," said Tam, of China Pavilion.
China Pavilion was the clear winner in the hole-in-the-wall category. The restaurant sat in the far corner of a sprawling strip mall, and we had to circle several times to find it. Inside, it was dimly lit, with an ornate yet aged-looking red, blue, and gold ceiling. Two rows of fish tanks, one filled with lobster and crab, the other tilapia, sat across the dining room from the entrance. Soon after we sat, freezing drops of water hit our heads and splashed onto the table. We had to slide our table out of the path of the dripping air-conditioning vent before food arrived.
When the small bamboo steamers hit our table, Tam's point was proven. Fun gor ($2.70) came as three blue-white purses filled with diced mushrooms, ginger, scallion, and tiny dried shrimp that gave each bite a briny punch. The highlight, however, was the veal with black pepper ($3.50). A dish we saw nowhere else, more than a half dozen slices of veal ribs, with tender meat and narrow strips of fat on each edge attached to a small bone, came tossed in a thickened soy sauce gravy with just enough pepper to give each bite a hit of spice. When we were done, all that remained was a bowl of cleaned bones and a drop of leftover sauce.
The opportunity to try new things, like those veal ribs, is what gets most hooked on dim sum in the first place. Pine Court manager Deng said items like chicken feet and tripe became popular because there weren't enough of the choice cuts for China's massive population. Not to get too philosophical, but when history comes in an edible form, you have to try it once.