November 27, 2004

Rubbing Our Heads and Eating Our Dim Sum. Yum, Yum.

Dim sum, the Southern-Chinese style teahouse lunch, has followed the Cantonese people from China and Hong Kong to Chinatowns and now even to ritzy suburbs like Walnut Creek, CA, which is home to the new location of Tin's Teahouse, one of Oakland Chinatown's venerable Dim sum specialists. The new Tin's, occupying one large wing of a strip mall, is cleaner and less cramped than most Dim sum restaurants I have seen. Because of this and the fact that the food is quite good, I am pleased to report that in this case Dim sum suburbanizes well.

Like its urban cousins, Tin's offers a vast selection of Dim sum. Their choices ranged from the standard ha gow (shrimp dumpling), and lotus leaf-wrapped packages of sticky rice to banal potstickers and spring rolls, to the authentic but less-seen chicken feet and tripe. As normal, these wares were served off of carts pushed through the dining rooms by waitresses who yell in Cantonese the names of what's to eat.

In my experience, suburban Dim sum houses, particularly those in the "whiter" suburbs, tend to offer less variety than their urban (and in particular Chinatown) counterparts. Tin's, to my surprise, sold perhaps the greatest variety of Dim sum I have seen in the same restaurant. My dining partner, Angelee Field, and I took advantage of that. We enjoyed shrimp in many ways--steamed in rice-flour dumplings as ha gow; steamed and wrapped in chow fun noodles; minced and stuffed into black mushrooms and stir-fried; minced and stuffed into tofu and deep-fried; and as the often-seen dinner dish, walnut prawns. The availability of walnut prawns as dim sum is probably a concession to suburban white folks because they are already familiar with them. Authentically dim sum or not, all the shrimp dishes featured beautifully pink, tender, high quality shrimp, deftly removed of their gritty intestines.

Angelee and I also enjoyed a few non-shrimp items. I was a big fan of the savory sticky rice, steamed in a lotus leaf and studded with lop cheong (Chinese Sausage), chicken, and (you guessed it!) more shrimp. Finely chopped garlic chives brightened pan-fried scallop dumplings. The only miss was a bland and plain, though not unpleasant dish of chow fun.

Dim sum origins can be traced to free nibbles given out at tea houses, a long time ago. Now, it is flipped around--the tea is free at Tin's, but they charge you for the food. This can lead some lesser dim sum houses to use bad tea in teabags. However, Tin's uses loose-leaf tea. Tea service is up to par as well. When I wanted a new pot of tea, all I had to do was flip up the teapot's top. Within seconds, a member of the waitstaff replaced my empty pot with a steamy full one.

Tin's should be proud to have transported the good parts of a Chinatown dim sum hall out to the happy (and well-fed) faces and open spaces of Walnut Creek.

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