CART IN THE ACT

Great Wall, 5055 North 35th Avenue, Phoenix, 973-1112. Dim Sum Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

There are three times in life when you should choose your partner very carefully: when you get married, when you climb Mount Everest and when you dine on dim sum. Each activity requires a healthy sense of adventure and a clear understanding of the risks.

What can happen if you misjudge a companion's ability to handle whatever the future brings? It could add up to years of domestic misery, months of traction or hours of mealtime shrieks of, "You expect me to eat that?"

The meat-and-potatoes crowd will have you believe that dim sum means "steamed duck web." Although the Chinese delicacies are indeed offered at Great Wall, dim sum actually translates as "pointing to the heart." They're bite-size, savory morsels, midday hors d'oeuvres of astonishing variety and taste.

At least half the fun of dim sum is how they're traditionally served. There's no menu. Instead, a merry-go-round of servers continually wheels by, pushing carts stacked with food. You examine the choices, pick out whatever looks intriguing and then send the servers on their way. (It helps a bit to grab the laundry list of dishes by the entrance.)

Only a few Valley restaurants feature dim sum. Great Wall, with a new menu, new chef and new management, offers the best version I've sampled yet.

Located in a west-side shopping center, it's your Basic Ethnic Joint, reassuringly lacking any pretension. The dining room has a cavernous-warehouse look, with a bar at one end and a big-screen television set tuned to NFL football. The most promising element was the large number of Asian families filling the sea of tables. Dishes come hidden under metal lids, in bamboo baskets or wrapped in leaves. They come fried, steamed or boiled. And they come with little explanation from the pushcart servers, most of whom speak limited English. But a helpful manager dropped by several times, patiently answering our questions.

The first cart we stopped offered shrimp fun quor, delicious steamed dumplings filled with shrimp, pork and toasted nuts. When I asked about another delicacy, the cart pusher pointed to the Chinese characters next to the words "Beef Balls" on the printed list. But they weren't Rocky Mountain oysters, just four small meatballs that tasted nothing like the ones that come on top of spaghetti. Despite the translation, the dish was a treat even the most unventuresome eater could handle.

Steamed chicken feet, however, are a somewhat different kettle of limbs. The risk-averse may be put off by the fact that they look disturbingly like "Thing" of The Addams Family. I find them an acquired taste, one I haven't totally acquired.

But there's no need to linger over them. The other dim sum are outstanding.
Take the scallop dumplings, for example. Tender scallops are stuffed into rice flour, dotted with sesame seeds and deep-fried.

Or take the fabulous fried Japanese eggplant, lightly dipped in batter. Both of these treats made us want to hitch the cart permanently to our table.

But then we would have missed the fried turnip and the taro cake. These two dim sum staples, cooked fresh tableside, taste a lot better than their principal ingredients would suggest. The turnip is starchy, like potato, and a bit more strongly flavored. Taro cake has the texture of bread pudding, sweet, thick and pasty. The hard-working cart pushers also prepare other superb dishes to order. Habitu‚s of the Grant or Mott street Chinatowns will recognize the shrimp rice noodles as chow fun. This thick, starchy pasta is layered with shrimp and doused in hoisin sauce. It's addictive.

Those into brunchtime nutrition will appreciate the huge pile of greens that Great Wall calls "Chinese broccoli." They're snipped before your eyes to chopstick-wielding length, then saut‚ed and lightly coated with sesame oil and hoisin sauce. One of the benefits of dim sum grazing is the ability to pace your own meal. Getting a bit full? Absorbed in conversation? Let the carts roll by for a while. They'll be back.

After a brief respite, we resumed with sweet rice in lotus leaf, which combined sticky rice, pork and nuts. Seaweed shrimp rolls, another favorite, enfold chunks of shrimp in a crisp batter, exotically banded with a ribbon of seaweed. Having done nothing this day more physically demanding than flipping through the Sunday comics, our appetites finally began to flag. But guided by the principle of "no pain, no gain," we pushed our limits. Stuffed bell pepper featured shrimp mousse on small squares of pepper. Shrimp sil myl turned out to be a yummy concoction of shrimp surrounded by sticky rice. Chinese desserts have never appealed to me much. But the exception is jin dui, a glutinous ball of deep-fried sweetened rice flour. It won't help you fill your RDA-vitamins quota, but consumed with a steaming pot of jasmine tea, it's a great way to finish up.

And this place has more than quality food and helpful service going for it. About half the dishes cost $1.90, and most of the rest check in at $2.90. Great Wall's dim sum meal is a real ethnic value. Go for it.

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