For some cuisines, Salt Lake is becoming a downright decent spot to get respectable food. The East Asian community, long represented in small numbers in Utah, is growing, and the availability of very good, very authentic food is really pretty remarkable in recent years.
This week it’s dim sum. A cultural event of its own in Southern China, going out for dim sum is more commonly called yum cha, a phrase that literally means “drink tea.” To go drink tea in Hong Kong or Guangzhou tea houses is a social event, akin to the hip brunch in contemporary America. The accompanying “snacks,” which can quickly pile up into a filling meal of their own, were called dian xin (Mandarin pronunciation) or dim sam (Cantonese) which describes them as something that “touches the heart.”
To experience dim sum the intended way—surrounded by friends and chatting—may be something we can get back to later in 2021, all fingers crossed. But the best restaurants in Salt Lake offer swift, fresh takeout service, and I’d encourage you to support the ones you love the most with your continued patronage even if you’re not yet comfortable going back to dine inside.
I have often recommended three of my favorite dim sum restaurants to friends who visit Salt Lake (a fourth, Cafe Anh Hong, sadly closed in 2019 as rising rent forced the owners out). But I’ve had a hard time choosing a favorite. For this column, I decided to be as scientific about it all as I could be, and made a plan to order the same three plates from my three favorite restaurants. The restaurants are Hong Kong Tea House, Dim Sum House, and New Golden Dragon, all within Salt Lake itself. There are a few others scattered farther around the valley that may merit their own exploration another time.
The three dishes I ordered are very common, very standard dim sum fare. The first is called shaomai or siumaai. I haven’t seen a very consistent English name for this one, but you may see it called a pork dumpling. Its filling is ground pork mixed with chopped shrimp and mushrooms. Other flavors may be added, but the dense pork/mushroom/shrimp meat center is the standard. It is wrapped with a thin dough, usually yellow, and not closed completely at the top. It’s traditional to serve it with an orange-colored accent, traditionally crab roe, dotting the top.
The steamed barbecue pork bun, called cha shao bao or char siu bao, is a bamboo steamer-cooked yeasted bun filled with twice-cooked Chinese “barbecue” pork with a characteristically sweet, spiced flavor. It is fluffy and larger than other dumplings and can be a large snack on its own, though you will usually see them smaller, in groups of 2 or 3, brought to the dim sum table. In Japan these buns have taken on a popularity of their own, where they are called nikuman and sold steaming at train stations and small to-go vendors.
Finally, I chose a Shanghai dumpling, or xiao long bao, because it can be one of the more delicate dim sum creations and is, I think, a good gauge of how meticulously a restaurant approaches crafting its own delicacies. It is cooked in a bamboo steamer basket like the barbecue pork bun but is encased in a thin, non-yeasted dough closer to what you’d use for a potsticker. The delicate meat mixture within is characteristic of the light, subtle flavors of Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu province, and it is supposed to be a type of soup dumpling, which means that a small amount of broth is captured within the dough and the wrapping is so deftly accomplished that the broth doesn’t escape. In true Shanghai style, these are served with vinegar and julienned ginger for dipping, but I haven’t seen that at most restaurants in the US.
I ordered one order of each of these three dishes from each of the three restaurants, determined to figure out who really was the best in town. Here is a summary of my notes:
Dim Sum House: the shaomai is firm and flavorful. The outer wrapper is a good texture, not too thick. The only thing I’m wondering is about the orange topping. It looks like it’s meant to look like crab roe but I don’t think it is. It doesn’t have much of a flavor of its own. It looks more like baking sprinkles, but I’m not sure what it is actually made of.
Hong Kong Tea House: the shaomai are on the smaller side, but the flavor of the firm filling is very well balanced. I can eat it easily in a couple bites, and it’s very tasty. No orange garnish on top.
New Golden Dragon: the flavor of the shaomai is great, it’s topped with either crab or fish roe, and it’s very satisfying. The only drawback is that it’s almost too big to eat easily.
Barbecue pork buns:
Dim Sum House: The dough has a perfect texture and the bun is attractive. The filling is very red and very sweet. It’s not too sweet, but definitely not shy with the sugar.
Hong Kong Tea House: This is the one piece of dim sum that differs most from the others. The barbecue pork filling is a darker color, maroon brown, and the flavor is very complex. It’s a little different than what you might normally find, but I like it a lot. I think this is my first place pork bun.
New Golden Dragon: This bun is on the larger side and is pretty similar to the one from Dim Sum House. It has perhaps a stronger flavor of five-spice.
Dim Sum House: Each dumpling is steamed and then served in its own small metal pan, presumably to keep in the broth. The filling is firm and has a nice flavor. The dough is a little bit gummy, but not disqualifying-ly so.
Hong Kong Tea House: This is the only Shanghai dumpling that doesn’t use the small individual pans, so it has a more authentic look, but it doesn’t preserve a huge amount of broth either. I do love the flavor of this filling, though. The dough wrapper seems to be the most delicate and deft of the trio, and I think they really capture the delicate Shanghai flavor of the filling. It stands well on its own.
New Golden Dragon: They also serve these dumplings in the small pans and there is a generous amount of broth preserved in each. The dough is softer than the others, but the flavor is good.
After a side-by-side comparison, I think the most evident takeaway is how similar in quality these three restaurants are. There really isn’t anyone at the bottom of the pack or any glaring losses. They are all very tasty, very well-constructed, and I would feel good sending any of my friends to one of these three restaurants with a good recommendation.
That said, for me at least, if I had to pick a winner, I think Hong Kong Tea House just edges out the others in consistency, taste, and delicacy. The construction of the smaller, more meticulous dumplings invokes the sparse but elegant wooden décor of their lovely classic dining room. Nothing is too large to manage. The flavors are intentional and complex. The darker, richer char siu filling specifically caught my attention, and I think I would award that the dim sum of the day. I honestly can’t speak too highly of this place.
None of these three dim sum spreads will lead you astray, though. And if it helps, I’ve had other dishes at each of these three and their family-style main dishes and dinners are great quality as well. A particular favorite is a beef and chewy rice noodle stir fry from New Golden Dragon that you can find at number 110 on their menu—beef with flat noodles (I order it dry). It’s a textural departure from what you’re used to on American Chinese menus, but I think most diners will enjoy the tender beef flavored subtly with green onion and stir-fried with flat rice noodles.
Even if you’re dim summing it up by yourself on a Saturday morning with curbside, please give these three local spots some business; I don’t think you’ll regret it. Get yourself some fluffy barbecued pork buns, chew them while you ponder the outline of the Oquirrh mountains outside your window, and offer a little gratitude for the great immigrant restaurateurs who have made these mountain valleys that much tastier.