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The grazer's edge: China Doll's dim sum adds up to total
My less-adventurous friends have always suspected that "dim sum" is Chinese for "duck feet in a steamed bun." Steamed buns are indeed a staple on the dim sum menu. And an occasional dish does contain a suspiciously webbed piece of poultry. But "dim sum" really means small appetite teasers, designed for midday grazing. Half the fun of eating dim sum is the way it's usually served--cafeteria-style in reverse. You sit down and the staff strolls by, wheeling carts loaded with steamed, fried and saut‚ed goodies. When we lived in the Bay Area, we used to go dim summing in San Francisco with our friend Ann, a lanky, blue-eyed, Midwestern blonde with flawless command of Cantonese and Mandarin. She'd get annoyed when carts of exotic delicacies would whiz past our table, the drivers apparently assuming their load was beyond the Occidental palate. "Don't you know how to treat customers?" Ann would shout in irritated Chinese. "We deserve the same respect and consideration you give your countrymen." At this point the carts would rush to converge on us, backing up traffic all around the restaurant. We'd be served like royalty, the fine points of each dish discussed lovingly, if incomprehensible to my wife and me. Too bad Ann moved to Hong Kong instead of Phoenix. We could have used her at the Valley's two outposts of dim sum.
China Doll looks like a Bay Area dim sum palace. On weekends dim sum is served in a cavernous back room that seats hundreds. While the rest of this sprawling, multiroomed restaurant is dark, the dim sum area is as brightly lighted as an emergency room. The decor is limited to some small panels on the wall. An hour after it opened on a recent Saturday, the room was packed, mostly with Asians and their families. Menus aren't part of the weekend dim sum scene--although a list of the dishes is available, something we didn't learn until after we'd eaten. Instead, a waitress brought tea and dropped a check on the table. Each time we chose a dish, the server marked a box with the appropriate price. Then we started eyeing the pushcarts, steered by servers whose English was just two steps ahead of my command of Chinese. The restricted conversational possibilities added greatly to the sense of adventure. After fruitless attempts to pin down the exact nature of the dishes passing by, we decided to point and hope for the best. There's not much to lose. Most dishes cost $1.90; a few are $2.95; and one, shrimp rolled in steamed-rice flour skin, zooms up to $3.15. Only a sumo wrestler could possibly spend $10 to eat here. Most appetites will get out for a lot less. Coming here with a group of three or four open-minded diners is the way to do it. Everyone gets a taste, and you get to do a lot of sampling.
In an orgy of excess, my family chopsticked into 15 different dishes, barely one-third of the offerings. Paternal authority was powerless when matched against a dish of tripe. Everyone refused to take even a nibble at the pale, rubbery looking innards. But I had better success with chicken feet, tastefully arranged with a piece of barbecued pork. As the kids chewed it up, I pondered the inscrutable design of a universe that makes them argue over who gets the last fowl foot, yet call my hamburger-and-macaroni casserole "gross." For every unfamiliar dish, however, there are five that will get your digestive enzymes flowing. And contrary to the sniffing I'd heard from a few West Coast dim sum mavens, China Doll's tidbits go down real easy. The kids really dug into the spring rolls--two crispy, nongreasy and flavorful treats. No one could fault the steamed pork and shrimp dumplings. Four to an order, these are about as exotic as won tons but infinitely tastier.
Two excellent choices would be shrimp or beef stuffed into steamed-rice flour skin, a little like lasagna noodles but much lighter. Just before placing them on the table, the server slathers them with soy sauce. They go a long way toward filling up cracks in your appetite.
For those who want to push their culinary frontiers beyond the shores of egg rolls and dumplings, but prefer to drop anchor several miles short of chicken-foot land, China Doll provides several ports of call.
One is meat-flavored turnip cakes. Three to an order, they're shaped square and flat, like a Wendy's hamburger. The turnips are mashed, then fried. The turnip taste is mild, and the crispy result reminded us of potato pancakes.
Another excellent possibility is wu gowk, two taro croquettes. Taro is a starchy root, like a potato, without much of a distinctive flavor. China Doll fries them into two turnovers that would probably taste good even stuffed with tripe.
Perhaps most intriguing was sweet rice, wrapped and steamed inside a huge lotus leaf that was held shut with string. The rice was sticky and enveloped a chicken thigh, bone and all.
Dessert carts bear no special markings, so you have to look carefully and make sure you don't grab any before you're done with your main grazing. Experience has taught me that non-Western desserts usually can't survive the journey to Western taste buds. Korean neighbors once brought us a tray of desserts that had the texture of pencil erasers and the flavor of graphite. Our Iranian friends served cakes laced with rose water that were dense enough to bounce off the Pacific shelf.