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San Francisco Restaurants, Delis, Bakeries, Bars

Our critics reveal the telltale signs of great dim...
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Soleil Ho

Oct. 31, 2022 - SF Chronicle

Customers enjoy dim sum at Riverside Seafood Restaurant in San Francisco, Calif.

In case you missed it, associate critic Cesar Hernandez and I recently collaborated on the Top Dim Sum Restaurants list, in which we sought out the Bay Area’s tastiest incarnations of the classic Cantonese dumpling and tea house. Since we have so many options throughout the Bay Area, it took a lot of time to whittle down the list to a reasonable 20-ish options. As we made our way through our long list, we had frequent discussions about what we considered to be the tell-tale signs that we were in a great spot. Sure, we all want well-executed pork buns and tender steamed greens, but what are the other factors that can make or break the experience?

For Cesar, one of those signs is a house-made chile oil or sauce. An ideal chile oil isn’t just a blast of heat: It has dimension. One of his favorites was the oil at Saigon Seafood Harbor, a mixture rich with toasted chile flavor. Like draping a spoonful of salsa macha over refried beans, you want the impact of a chile oil to complement the soft richness of dishes like congee or shrimp siu mai. The heat stimulates your taste-buds and keeps them from being overwhelmed with the savory notes of the dishes you’re eating so you can keep trucking through all the stuff that you clearly didn’t need to order. (But there’s no room for regret in dim sum!)

Another thing I like to look for is a tea list. Tea and dim sum are inseparable: The genre itself sprang from Chinese tea-houses that populated the Silk Road and served as pit stops for traveling merchants. Whereas English high tea includes cucumber sandwiches, Cantonese tea has shrimp har gow.

An example of a place with great tea is Osmanthus Dim Sum Lounge in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The restaurant’s list of 17 teas is sourced from local shop Vital Tea Leaf and includes roasty Japanese genmaicha, which flavors of brown rice and popcorn, and licorice-tinged Blue People Oolong from Taiwan. There are also tasting notes on the menu for those hoping to explore. Even if a restaurant doesn’t have a full-blown list like this, most places will be totally cool with you bringing your own premium tea to brew (sometimes for a nominal fee).

Vegetarian options are another big nice-to-have. At some restaurants, I felt snowed under with rich meat and seafood and sought refuge in vegetable dishes. Steamed greens are always a good option, but it’s refreshing to see bountiful meat-free morsels, like cucumber salad or more elaborate vegetable dumplings. At Yank Sing in San Francisco, the vegetarian options are clearly marked on the menu. In particular, I really dug the mushroom dumplings ($7.20), with a saucy interior that makes the filling feel more special than just a bunch of sautéed vegetables.

All in all, this was a true gem of an assignment — one of those gigs where I felt very, very lucky to be in the position of examining a culinary genre that I’ve loved ever since I was a kid. So even if a restaurant doesn’t have any of the things I just mentioned — or even particularly well-made dumplings — I can understand why people would rally around their neighborhood spots. Though we’re centuries past the origin point of the Silk Road tea-house, that spirit of rejuvenation and reunion lives on at dim sum restaurants around the world.


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