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Let your belly guide your dim sum choices at Chef Chan Tea House

Choreographing a team of crack Chinese-food aficionados for an assault on Chef Chan Tea House, a new dim-sum parlor, wasn’t hard. The difficulty lay in the familiar feeding frenzy that followed. With the arrival of each cart, the excitement only mounted, until the scene resembled a rummage sale held in an especially upscale neighborhood. Had we tried the slippery looking noodles with shrimp before? Was it OK to repeat a plate found to be exceptional? Did we really have to try chicken feet ... ?

Chef Chan prepares fried shrimp turnovers and curry puffs. (Photos by Laura McKenzie)

The answer to all the questions is “yes,” but the real point is this: Weekend dim sum, when you order from passing carts, not the menu, requires discipline and dedication. Decisions need to be made quickly and, given the language barrier, often with little information. The corollary is this: It doesn’t pay to ponder — just order what looks interesting and let fate (and perhaps a sixth sense) deal the deck.

Chef Chan’s décor is unexceptional. There are some moon-gate openings, a silly crystal chandelier misplaced in the cavernous entry, and a large tank of lobsters and crabs to illustrate the seafood subtext, but little more. Though the main menu is quite large and boasts of several seafood dishes (salt-and-pepper squid, shrimp cake with Chinese celery, and seafood in birds’ nests among them), the draw was the traditional-style weekend dim sum. On Saturdays and Sundays, servers roll carts laden with bamboo steaming baskets and small plates from table to table, letting diners choose dishes as the meal progresses. During the week it’s possible to order most of the dim sum dainties from a list, but what’s the fun in that?

Steamed bean-curd rolls, pork and shrimp siu mye, steamed shrimp dumplings, and steamed barbecue-pork buns.

The difficulty in deciding what to eat is that, except for obvious items such as chicken feet, you often don’t have a name to go with the dish you just plucked off the cart. One of our favorites, though, appeared to be a scallop dumpling, and, lo and behold, that’s just how it was listed on the menu. The taste was perfume-like, the texture firm and reassuring. (Texture is a key element in dim sum appreciation.) Another favorite, sugar-cane shrimp, consisted of ground shrimp molded around a sugar-cane core. At first we thought the cane was meant only to lend flavor and should be removed. Wrong! It should be eaten — despite a slightly woody consistency — along with bites of panko-coated shrimp. Puffy steamed buns are almost emblematic of the genre, and the sweet BBQ pork version plays perfectly against the bland, almost sticky pastry.

Barbecue pork appears again in a flaky pastry turnover, and is just as robustly flavorful in this form. In contrast, what I’m guessing to be the steamed (and very broad) rice noodle with shrimp was a triumph of slithery texture and delicate tastes that nevertheless needed drizzles of hot chili oil to come alive. (A beef version of the same dish was much less rewarding, even with added heat.) The hot oil was also necessary on the mild turnip cake flavored with what appeared to be bits of ham.

Other plates stood on their own feet — oh, wait, the feet come later. Sausage in a segmented bun with Michelin Man overtones had a kind of pig-in-a-blanket appeal; the deep-fried, taro-paste dumpling with ground-meat stuffing had a wonderfully crunchy crust; the chicken dumpling with mushrooms was at once earthy and fresh tasting; and shrimp and pork-sausage dumplings were rewarding as much for their pinched, purse-like form as their elusive, vaguely meat, vaguely fish flavor.

Chef Chan Tea House

5545 NW Loop 410

11am-9:30pm Sun-Thu,
11am-10pm Fri & Sat

Price range:
Dim sum $2.10-4.50;
menu $4.50-21.99

Credit cards
Wheelchair accessible

But perhaps the most visually arresting form accompanied a deep-fried shrimp ball cloaked in a pastry resembling a filo fright wig. Served with a sweet chile sauce, this crackly creation was the star of the show. In another telling contrast, the small stew of braised tripe and turnip was Cinderella before the ball for all of its visual appeal, but the combination of ingredients, sprinkled with fresh-cut scallion greens and lashed with a little more chile oil, made for a success regardless. The stew upstaged a more exotic-looking, lotus-leaf-wrapped packet of sticky rice with “mixed meat,” which seemed to promise hidden delights but only produced yawns — though our fevered pitch was fading to a dull roar by this time.

Desserts, if you can call them that, may come around on the cart at any time, so carpe dim sum when they do. An orange-dotted spongy bun was especially visually clever; it was filled with custard that looked like a hard-boiled egg when cut.

A gelatinous ball stuffed with chopped peanut and coated in shredded coconut offered both nutty flavor and intriguing textures. Unfortunately, a wonderfully wiggly consistency was all a plate of plain coconut gelatin had going for it. A sesame-coated red-bean-paste roll won best-of-breed for its hint of sweetness, which made it an appropriate companion to nearly all the previous plates.

As for the chicken feet, my apologies to those for whom the dish is a delicacy or a use-it-all necessity, but I cannot find the form appealing, the gelatinous texture rewarding, the inherent flavor of any interest ... in a word, yecch. I’m not sure the preserved egg-and-spareribs congee will offer much more, but at $2.50 what’s to lose?

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