What exactly is dim sum anyway? While there are aficionados throughout the Bay Area, who can spend hours arguing the merits of what makes authentic dim sum and variations locations, for those of us less well-versed, a quick tutorial: Dim Sum refers to a wide range of dishes, and is more about the style and time of the meal. Typically, the small dishes are served as snacks with tea. Pick your small plates (or baskets) from roving carts. Classic dim sum dishes generally include steamed or fried dumplings with different fillings -- though a number of new and modern takes have extended the title of dim sum to wide range of interesting dishes.
While there are dozens and dozens of dim sum restaurants around the Bay Area, here are a few favorite spots we can recommend. If we missed your go-to spot, let us know in the comments.
- Yank Sing: Often considered a San Francisco classic and one of the granddaddy of dim sum spots in the city, with two locations in downtown, Yank Sing won a James Beard Award in 2009. Make a lunchtime reservation, order from the printed menu or just pick from the carts coming around, and watch out as your bill adds up. The BBQ pork bun is a classic at a classic.
- Kingdom of Dumpling: Down the street from Dumpling Kitchen, Kingdom of Dumpling makes up part of a hub of dim sum excellence -- with a wholesale location nearby. Well-regarded for their xiao long bao, Kingdom of Dumpling also has a long dumpling menu and tasty appetizers, like the garlic green beans.
- Great Eastern: Yes, President Obama has eaten here. But so have thousands of locals. Right in the heart of Chinatown, Great Eastern is basically one very large and bustling dining room. If you can't read Chinese, pick from a picture menu with simple English titles. Steamed Shanghai dumplings arrive in wooden baskets and the steamed pork buns are delicious. A full dinner menu is offered, but dim sum is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cash only.
- Mama Ji's: Started as a pop-up, Mama Ji's has blossomed in its simple space at the edge of the Castro. It's not a typical dim sum spot, but more of a modern take. Along with a regular dim sum menu, there are vegetarian pork buns and a steamed lotus-leaf wrapped packet of glutinous rice and shrimp sausage. The menu also includes family specialties and Sichuan classics.
- Hong Kong Lounge: Hong Kong Lounge isn't connected to Hong Kong Lounge II (though the owner of the second used to own the first, but not anymore), but both are excellent dim sum locations. The Hong Kong Lounge I used to be wildly popular, fell out of trend, and is now back. There aren't any carts coming around, but order all you can of baked good. The steamed pork buns are one-of-a-kind.
- East Ocean Seafood Restaurant: Dim sum is served in this Alameda favorite from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Pick from waiters' carts or tray. But if you go on the weekend, be prepared to wait in a long line. The Dungeness crab dumplings are a fresh Bay Area take on the standard -- actually all the seafood comes recommended -- and finish off with the fried sweet durian custard-filled pastry puffs.
- Asian Pearl Seafood Restaurant: The motto here is: "culinary wonderland." And that's exactly what this Richmond restaurant is. You can order dim sum everyday and at all hours -- along with Hong Kong style meals. You'll want to try the soft baked BBQ pork buns, the fried turnip cakes, and steamed scallop and shrimp dumplings. Once you're full (or while you're waiting beforehand), there's the nearby Asian grocer, Ranch Market 99, and a gift shop and bookstore.
- Imperial Tea Court: This Berkeley teahouse is, first and foremost, about tea. However, the spot above Epicurious Garden also has a surprisingly in-depth menu -- made from local, organic ingredients to boot. Sit on the patio and nibble on the dim sum tasting platter. Specialties include their Dragon Well dumplings, pumpkin or pork shao mai, and green onion pancakes.
- Joy Luck Palace: Stuffed in a shopping center in Cupertino, the hidden massive dining room is home to some of the best dim sum in the South Bay. On the weekends you might have to wait a half-hour or longer, but once you're sitting simply pluck from the nearest cart that comes by. Servers push around steamed baskets of buns or spoon dishes like sauteed green beans directly from hot clay pots. For dessert, try the baked sweet buns with a coconut-honey filling.
- Koi Palace: Koi Palace has three locations, but the Daly City restaurant is perhaps the most well-known for its 20 years of dishing out dim sum. The wait can be long on weekends, but the giant and extravagant space has a koi pond and live seafood tanks for you to admire. The Shanghai steamed dumpling sampler gives you a variety of dumplings to try, from beets to black truffles. And the seafood versions include rare abalone. Dim sum is served only for lunch.
- Ocean Delight: It can be a long drive for city-goers making their way down to San Jose, but once you're there you'll find a bustling (but not overcrowded) dim sum favorite. Seafood is the specialty here: pan-fried chive and shrimp dumplings, steamed shrimp and crab dumplings, shrimp stuffed mushrooms, and fried shrimp stuffed eggplant.