Usually it's a transplant, someone new to the area, or maybe a traveler recently returned from one of the coasts. Steadily, though, come the phone calls, notes and e-mails from people desperate for a fix: "Is there dim sum in St. Louis?"
Because the average St. Louis diner probably doesn't get a whole lot of exposure to dim sum, a bit of explanation may first be in order. Various sources show the literal translation of the Cantonese words as "heart spot" or "touch the heart," with a more idiomatic interpretation of "heart's delight." The brought-to-North America practice of dim sum involves cart after cart of small portions of food offered to diners as snacks to be consumed with tea (known as yum cha in China), generally in the late morning or early afternoon. You point and they serve, either marking chits on a bill or simply toting up the tab by counting the empty plates on your table.
For a couple of years now, we've been running across a local version best termed "dim sum dum don," a least-common-denominator approach that allows restaurants to say they feature dim sum when in fact what they offer is simply a weekend-menu supplement of maybe a half-dozen buns and dumplings. We have, however, managed to find three local places that serve what can fairly be termed full-blown dim sum.
Our favorite is Hunan Garden, on the Page Service Road between Lindbergh Boulevard and West Port Plaza, filled to capacity on the Sunday we visited and featuring a steady cart-flow of dozens of individual items. Although the women wheeling the carts make an effort to follow a sequence, your first choices at Hunan Garden often depend on where the carts are when you sit down.
Patience and discretion are virtues in the dim sum experience, and eating in a larger party is better, because it's tempting to order one of everything from every cart that rolls by. Another good beginners' tip is to save heavier, starchy dishes like filled buns and sticky rice for later courses.
In our case, the initial offerings came from a cart that featured a hot griddle, on which were finished crêpe-like seafood egg rolls and succulent miniature eggplant stuffed with shrimp, as well as one item we didn't try, radish cakes. After the griddle cart came a hand tray of shrimp balls and barbecued-pork-filled turnovers, followed by a cart of sticky rice flavored with bits of pork and vegetables, available in either an inverted bowl or a lotus leaf. Then it was shrimp or beef inside a broad rolled sheet of smooth, shiny rice noodle; a plate of Singapore-style noodles, flavored with roast pork and vegetables; and the most diverse cart of all, a selection of dumplings and filled buns supplemented with items like barbecued beef ribs, all available in round metal serving plates. Some dumplings were filled with sausage-texture pork, others with shrimp and still others with vegetable; the steamed buns were pristinely white and puffy, with chopped pork and other delicacies within. On the second pass of the "sweets" cart (we had said no the first time around), we finished the meal with egg-custard tarts, muffinlike pastries filled with sweet bean paste, and a similar paste inside sesame-covered rice-flower balls.
At Hunan Garden, perhaps 100 people -- a large number of whom seemed to be speaking Chinese -- ensured that there was always need for new carts to be brought out of the kitchen. Empty tables were available, but the owners appeared to be optimizing the attendance so that the serving staff would be sure to keep up with the load. As for freshness, the sesame rice dumplings were a good barometer, because they tend to go gummy if they've stood for any period or have been allowed to cool. Hunan Garden's had an interior texture something like warm, thick cotton candy, with gentle rather than cloying sweetness from both the dough and the filling.
The sesame-dumpling freshness test was also passed with high marks by China Royal, the distinguished elder of dim sum in St. Louis after having served it up for well over a decade now. In contrast to Hunan Garden's more subdued décor, China Royal shouts Oriental, with a remarkable herd of carved horses greeting you right inside the door, murals and screens for walls, richly lacquered red and black furnishings and dragon-embossed tiles on the ceiling.
Here again, the dumpling, bun and specialty cart was the most diverse, with selections ranging from simple shumai, the wrapped-like-a-present pork dumpling that could very well be the poster child of dim sum, to more exotic items such as little Martian-looking curried baby squid and fried chicken feet. A soup cart included a congee, or rice porridge, with egg poached right in, and the sticky rice came both loose and terrine-style, cooked into a wrapping of rice-flour dough. Then came a tray of fried dishes, including a shrimp roll and deep-fried stuffed crab claws.
Perhaps because we were there late on a Saturday morning, the crowd hadn't yet arrived (arrivals seemed to accelerate after noon) and the carts came around right on top of each other, with sweets and sticky rice showing up well before some of the lighter choices. But the quality was excellent -- warm, airy buns and paper-thin, soft dumpling coatings -- and the curries and interesting combinations (a scallop-and-shrimp dumpling, for example) included many favorable surprises. And when the carts were too close together, we simply waited for a later round.
Prices at Hunan Garden and China Royal were similar, with individual choices ranging from under $2 to about $5. In both cases, total bill for what I'd consider a lot of food for two people ran just over $20, and light eaters (although why would they bother with dim sum?) could easily get out for 7 or 8 bucks apiece.
Great Chef Garden, tucked away at the intersection of Manchester Road and Highway 141 (and a bit of a challenge to get to since the rebuilding of that interchange), suffers a bit in comparison to Hunan Garden and China Royal in that its dim sum is served as part of an all-you-can-eat buffet instead of from carts. This practice was redeemed, however, in the array of unusual choices (fiery slices of "chef's" squid, beef tendon with hot sauce, pig "paws" in five flavors) and a dozen more typical Chinese-buffet offerings (soups, steamed and fried rice) that were available, and the price is a bargain: $8.38 (so set to round up evenly with tax) for as much as you want.
The buffet at Great Chef Garden comprises both the outer and inner counters of a center area arranged in a square, with the common and exotic entrée items on the outer tier and buns, dumplings, tarts and other choices more traditionally associated with dim sum on the inside. The main problem I found here was that especially some of the dumplings were set out on plates, not even in steam trays (although others were), which allowed them to cool the longer they sat. At the same time, however, we were able to graze through any number of very un-Western tastes and textures -- the springiness and fire of the beef tendon, an odd but not unpleasant sweetness in shrimp served with fruit salad, the clean bite of the gently spiced squid.
So, yes, there is in fact dim sum in St. Louis -- not the 100-plus-item, 1,000-person banquet halls you might find in New York, LA, San Francisco or Vancouver, but enough to placate those in search of their fix and certainly a fascinating alternative to the more mundane practice of Westernized weekend brunch.