March 28, 2003--I wasn't sure what to expect the first time I decided to go out for dim sum. I'll admit that I was a little nervous--after all, how was I to know what was inside those things? I wasn't born an adventuresome diner, and the idea of eating these little Chinese dumplings rolling by on carts was a bit scary. I am pleased to report that I quickly overcame my initial wariness and now love most dim sum. (I did give chicken feet a go, but they don't do a thing for me.) If you haven't tried it, I urge you to do so. If you are a dumpling veteran, just take note of my restaurant recommendations and look forward to a great meal.

In many Chinese restaurants, dim sum is served from late morning until around 2pm, but not later. In fact, if you arrive much past 1pm, as I did during Chinese New Year one February, you run the risk of the kitchen running out of the most popular dim sum, and the waitstaff abandoning your table and sitting down for their lunch. So plan to arrive around 11am. Dim sum generally enters on carts wheeled about the room by waitresses. (Otherwise, you order from a menu.) Try to sit near the kitchen in order to get first crack at whatever's on its way around the room. The ladies with their carts will stop by your table and show you what they have. If it looks appealing to you, nod or say yes and the waitress will smack down a dish of perhaps three dumplings and stamp your check (the marks add up, but in general, dim sum is remarkably inexpensive). If the dumpling looks like jellied chicken feet and you're not up to it, just say no, thanks. It's okay to order slowly--finishing one plate, sipping tea, then ordering something else. Despite the many parties waiting for tables, you don't have to hurry. By the way, if you run out of tea, open the teapot lid.

Here's a rundown of dim sum that first-timers will definitely enjoy:

  • Har gau: shrimp dumplings encased in a translucent wrapper and steamed
  • Siu mai: rectangles of pork and shrimp in a sheer noodle wrapper
  • Gau choi gau: chives, alone or with shrimp or scallop
  • Jun jui kau: rice pearl balls with seasoned ground pork and rice
  • Law mai gai: sticky rice with bits of meat and mushrooms wrapped in a lotus leaf
  • Char siu bau: steamed pork buns--bits of barbecued meat in a doughy roll
  • Guk char siu ban: baked pork buns--bits of barbecued meat in a glazed roll
  • Chun guen: spring rolls--smaller, less crowded versions of egg roll
  • Gau ji: pot stickers--a thick, crescent-shaped dough filled with ground pork

Where to go: Yank Sing, in the Embarcadero at Rincon Center (101 Spear St.; tel. 415/957-9300), is considered by those in the know to be one of the premier dim sum houses in town. A bit more expensive than most (but still a good bargain), Yank Sing specializes in this fare, so novices will be starting at the top. Highly recommended. In Chinatown, Y. Ben House (835 Pacific Ave.; tel. 415/397-3168) is typical of the cavernous dim sum parlors that serve hundreds of families on the weekends. Out in the Richmond District at 6255 Geary at 27th Boulevard is one of my favorites, The Mayflower (tel. 415/387-8338). Dim sum is served every day, and the pleasant room caters to a mostly Chinese clientele, so you won't have to queue up behind a throng of impatient yuppies. This would be a convenient place to stop and graze before a trip to the Palace of the Legion of Honor.