For many, an "authentic" experience of eating Chinese food dim sum style involves dining in a room of carts bearing tantalizing bites in bamboo steamers or presented on pristine porcelain plates. It's seduction on wheels, and it works.
Sadly, COVID-19 put an end to that in many places — including at San Antonio's Dim Sum Oriental Cuisine, a Northwest Military Drive restaurant known for genuine Chinese specialties such as chicken feet and beef tripe.
The dining room's almost total lack of decor doesn't help in restoring romance to the occasion, either. You indicate your choices on a plastic menu with a marker, and they come out in whatever order suits the kitchen. It pays to be prepared.
Here's a little help in that direction, starting with a couple of items you might not think to order: steamed beef tripe and steamed curry squid. The feathery white tripe has an unexpected, but not unpleasant, crunch. Like many items on the menu, the flavor is direct and delicate, modulated only by faintly aromatic slivered scallion. Try it just as it is before automatically adding soy sauce or the restaurant's red chili condiment. The diamond-scored squid also has a bit of a bite, but its flavor is inherently more assertive, the curry coming across as both subtle and sharp at the same time.
Steamed shrimp and pork shao mai is a dim sum classic, its tender filling revealed like the center of a flower surrounded by a petal-pleated wrapper. It's an artful package, and a dot of chili serves as both a flavor and visual accent.
The steamed pork dumpling, fully enclosed in a velvety envelope of a different kind, is also pure in its flavor. Just a streak of soy sauce is appropriate here. Chopped shrimp mixed with corn kernels provides the stuffing for a pan-fried version of the steamed dumplings — worth a try for the textural difference alone.
No wrapper is employed in the preparation of the pan-fried, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, for which a little interpretation is required. The slice of eggplant itself is either steamed or simply braised, and the resulting texture is soft and yielding. It's topped, not stuffed, by what might best be called a fried shrimp fritter. The combination of textures and techniques elevates this bite beyond the sum of its otherwise simple parts.
In the case of the steamed chicken sticky rice in lotus leaf wrapper, the wrapper almost proves more important than what's inside the package. Partly because the leaf adds a faintly aromatic flavor to the dish, and partly because unbundling the loosely bound packet is half the fun. The rice inside is sticky indeed, and the saucy ground chicken serves as a tiny jewel at its heart. Feel free to enhance the bland rice with whatever condiment you prefer.
Speaking of wrappers, the menu description of steamed barbecue pork in rice noodles didn't do it justice. The item is really more like a diminutive burrito in a silken, rice-sheet wrapper. Otherwise, the menu says it all: the only other ingredient is smoky, chopped barbecue pork. The combination — served with a diluted, sweetened soy on the side — is perfect in a minimalist sort of way.
Steamed golden egg yolk lava buns are on-point as far as poetic descriptions go. In contrast to the previous envelopes, these featured a slightly sweet wheat wrapper, one that Dim Sum also tints a golden color. But the joy here is in the filling. Pierce the dome of the bun with a chopstick, and out oozes the golden "lava," a salty-sweet and unctuously lush egg custard. You've gotta love it.
The chicken or beef stir fried with ho fan proved almost pedestrian in contrast. Even so, the dish offered a nice balance to a meal of small plates. Ho fan are short, wide rice noodles that readily absorb soy-based sauces.
With chicken as the main meat component, they're tossed with onion, scallion and sprouts, and the stir-frying process yields a slight smoky char that's sometimes called "the breath of the wok."
It's a welcome addition to a dish that's both satisfying, straightforward and seductive — even if it's not served from a cart.
Dim Sum Oriental Cuisine
2313 NW Military Highway, Suite 125 | (210) 340-0690 | dim-sum-oriental-cuisine.com
Prices: $2.50-$16 per dim sum dish
The skinny: Yes, Dim Sum Oriental Cuisine has a conventional menu with fried rice and various noodle dishes, but you're really there for the steamed or pan-fried dim sum of its name. The buns and dumplings feature fillings such as imitation shark fin, pork, shrimp, beef, daikon or taro root. Pristine beef tripe, lightly curried squid, red beans and lotus seed also appear in various guises. Luscious egg custard gushes from the golden egg yolk lava buns. COVID-19 has quashed the carts, so dishes will appear from the kitchen in no particular order, while the plain decor puts all the focus on the food.