“Chicken foo-ot?”, asked our server as she tilted her bamboo steamer slightly to show off the dish. We smiled politely, declining, but the other family at our table excitedly accepted. If you are looking for an exotic and adventurous brunch option in Chicago, Dim Sum is a perfect choice.
A variety of small dishes usually served for the morning meal, Dim Sum literally means “of the heart”. These unusual dishes are traditionally served from a series of mobile carts. Servers work the dining area, wielding trays or carts laden with bamboo steamers, giving diners a variety of dishes to pick, most costing between $2. and $4. Your check will be stamped for each dish you choose. Even for the most hearty appetite, expect your bill to total $20.00 or less.
Head down to Chicago’s Chinatown, marked by the ornate oriental arch at the southern intersection of Cermak and Wentwork. Just five minutes south of the loop by car, or a few stops on the CTA Yellow line and you can feel like you are in foreign country. The streets are lined with restaurants, teas shops and gift shops. You may have to rely on visual or sniffing skills in determining the nature of some dishes since most of the staff speak little English. It is customary to seat multiple parties at the large round tables which seat 10-12. Don’t expect your neighbors to help you decipher the fare either, as the majority of patrons speak primarily Chinese. Two great choices for Dim Sum are Phoenix and Three Happiness restaurants.
At Phoenix, located on Archer just west of Wentworth, the dining room accommodates about 500 guests. The space doubles as a banquet hall for weddings and parties, clearly reflected in the Asian inspired formal decor. But on any given Sunday, be sure to arrive early. No matter how early I’ve arrived, there is always a line down the three flights of stairs spilling out onto Archer Avenue. Fortunately, the line always seem to move quickly. The large crowd requires a lot of food, and Phoenix provides a fabulous variety of the delicious Cantonese offerings. You won’t find innovative or creative gourmet creations, but you can expect many exotic treats. There’s a constant stream of passing carts offering such delicacies as Steamed BBQ Pork Buns, Pork or Shrimp Dumplings, Fried Taro Cake, Steamed Spare Ribs, Fried Bean Curd, Bean Cake. Silky smooth rice noodles surround Beef, BBQ Pork or Shrimp cooked in flavorful sauces. Water Chestnut Cake, Lotus Seed Buns and Sesame coated Bean Paste Buns are served as dessert, providing a sweet end to your meal. If you see something you like, grab two, as the same dishes rarely appear twice. Dishes range from $2.50 to $6.00. Phoenix is located at 2131 S. Archer, (312) 328-0848. Serving Dim Sum Sundays 8am-2:45pm. Call for additional hours.
Three Happiness also offers Dim Sum on Sundays, though on a much smaller scale then Phoenix. The restaurant has expanded to two locations, with the larger location at the northwest corner of Cermak and Wentwork. Here you’ll find a more cozy experience in the restaurants’ regular dining room. It is clean and pleasant with a warm ambiance. Although the scale is reduced, the variety of dishes is not. Expect the same wide range of dishes, all flavorful and expertly prepared. Again, don’t expect to rely on a verbal description of the tempting contents of the endless stream of bamboo steamers. Servers speak little English, so be prepared for a dining adventure. If you have any allergies, as I do to shrimp, be sure to learn the Cantonese word for shrimp, or have a designated dish taster! Dishes range from $1.50 to $2.95 each. Three Happiness is located at 2130 S. Wentworth (312) 791-1228 and 209 W. Cermak (312) 842-1964. Hours 9am – 3pm on Sundays
In the slightly unlikely company of Uptown’s tiny Vietnamese enclave, you’ll find an authentic Dim Sum Brunch at Furama. In fact, it’s served daily here. Patrons are served in a large yet inviting space from swiftly moving carts laden with bamboo steamed filled with various Cantonese delicacies. The dining room is also used for banquets and large parties, and is decorated with celebrations in mind. Furama has no menu, like most Dim Sum houses. Simply choose from the many different dishes your server will present. It is likely that the staff will speak little English, so you’ll need to be a bit adventurous. Dishes here were delicious and full of flavor. Expect standard steamed or fried Dim Sum offerings such as mini Egg Rolls, dumplings of several varieties, Fried Bean Curd, and Rice Noodles filled with different meats. While the fare is exotic and unusual, Furama stays true to the standards and provides solid good food with minimal inventive or creative interpretations. Dishes range from $1.90 to $5.50.
4936 N. Broadway at Ainslie. (773)-271-1161 Daily 9:30am- 9:30pm, Dim Sum served till 6:00pm.
Providing a fresh and inventive twist on traditional Dim Sum is LuLu’s Dim Sum….. and then some, located in Evanston. Since relocating to a new space about two years ago, this Evanston legend has maintained it’s Pan-Asian expertise. Never fear, the Big Blue ….Horse still holds a place of honor on the east wall. The vibe remains friendly and fun, while the decor is even more vibrant and upscale. This is Dim Sum American style. LuLu’s serves consistently excellent dishes, full of robust flavor and always cooked to perfection. While less exotic and adventurous place to eat that some of the Chinatown restaurants offering Dim Sum (servers speak English), you’ll find more innovative and creative dishes here. Since reopening, the menu has been refined, and the bar menu expanded. It’s impossible not to feel giddy when sipping a tall curvy glass of chilled Mai Tai complete with a bright umbrella and a fruited skewer sticking out. Tasting flights of wine have also been added. The menu is divided in to “Small Eats” and “Big Eats”, allowing diners to choose between ordering a single dish or sampling many. For vegetarians and vegans, there is an good number of well marked dishes to pick from. The Salt & Pepper Calamari is light and crispy with a slight bite. Cold Sesame Noodles, one of my perennial favorite never fails to delight. The variety of Asian Salads combine cool crunchy greens with delicious meats and dressings. Steamed muscles arrive in a succulent butter and basil sauce. Dishes range from $2.95 to $19.95. The “Munch-A-Bunch” at $12.95 per adult/$9.95 per child is a great way to sample small portions of many of the fantastic dishes and is offered every Monday and Tuesday from 5:00pm to 9:30pm and on Saturday and Sunday from 11:30am to 3:00pm. Bring the kids, as the staff is amazingly accommodating. LuLu’s, 804 Davis St., Evanston, IL (847) 869-4343.