The only deity I've ever had a personal affinity for is that corpulent, jolly "buddha" with a small "b" known as Jin Foo, Bu Dai, or Hotei, depending on whom you ask. Personally, Gautama Buddha, he of the Bodhi tree fame, always struck me as a bit too severe, like ol' J.C. in Christianity. And neither J.C. nor G.B. appears to have eaten very well. On the other hand, how can you not like Jin Foo's jocular face or long to pat his generous paunch?
These days, I pretend Jin Foo plumped up by eating dim sum to his heart's delight at the glorious new Golden Buddha Restaurant at Phoenix's Chinese Cultural Center. That's a little pun, because dim sum means "heart's delight" in Cantonese. It's Chinese brunch, wherein noshers down pot after pot of hot tea, while picking from a series of small plates served from metal carts wheeled about by the wait staff. I'd been in a dim sum mood for a while, so I decided to survey three dim sum players in the Valley. Perhaps it was karma that Jin Foo's PHX namesake, with its plump, xanthous buddha guarding the door, ended up being my fave.
Golden Buddha Restaurant, 668 North 44th Street (at the Chinese Cultural Center), Phoenix, 602-286-9888 (www.goldenbuddhaphx.com). Dim sum hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dim sum at Golden Buddha was as tasty as at any dim sum palace in Los Angeles or New York, both in the excellence of the foodstuffs and the superiority of the service. Everything seemed crisp and new, from the furnishings to the shiny metal dim sum carts. I went with a close friend on a Sunday, and encountered that hustle and bustle I associate with a thriving dim sum establishment, with whole Chinese families seated around big tables eating from scores of little plates. Beautiful hostesses gliding about in long, colorful dresses known as chi-pao were an added bonus.
Golden Buddha Restaurant
668 North 44th Street (at the Chinese Cultural Center), Phoenix
Chicken feet: $2.10
Beef tripe: $2.10
Sticky rice: $3.10
602-286-9888, web link.
Dim sum hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
I can't say enough positive things about the fare. The oolong tea was made with loose tea leaves, instead of the dreaded tea bag, which makes all the difference in flavor. And most of the items we picked from the dim sum carts were fresh, and as warm or hot as need be. The shrimp dumplings (ha gow) and the barbecued pork buns (cha siu bao) were the best I've had in town, especially the latter, a white, doughy bun stuffed with reddish barbecued pork. The pork dumplings, or siu my, which are shaped like large tater tots, were filled with savory meat, and the shrimp rice roll, or chong fun -- a big rice noodle with shrimp inside, bathed in sweet soy sauce -- was exquisite.
I surprised one server by ordering the beef tripe. I'm sure she thought, "That white guy must not know what it is," but I love tripe, and Golden Buddha's was especially delectable. Other standouts included a jumbo square of eggy sponge cake (ma lie go) and a plate of barbecued jellyfish -- cold, gelatinous, and so delish that my pal and I nearly fought over it. I don't know why I didn't have the marinated chicken feet (foong jow), but I regret that I didn't. As a waiter tallied up our bill, I saw one of the most beautiful Asian women in my life sucking the last morsel of flesh from this Chinese delicacy, which seemed to indicate how appetizing that clucker's tootsies must have been.
C-Fu Gourmet, 2051 West Warner Road, Chandler, 480-899-3888 (www.cfugourmet.com). Dim sum hours: Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
C-Fu paled by comparison to Golden Buddha. It's an older establishment, and its expansive banquet hall with chandeliers and faded chairs that have seen better days was a tad musty. The dim sum carts also showed their age, but I was fully prepared to judge by what was in the carts rather than how creaky they appeared. I'd happily devoured dim sum at C-Fu on occasions past. And anyway, some of the best meals I've had in Gotham's Chinatown were at terribly dingy places.
The dim sum here was adequate, but it didn't kick my butt like Golden Buddha's. Few items seemed fresh enough. I did like the shrimp-wrapped sugar cane -- ground shrimp molded into a ball around a stick of cane like an obese Popsicle. I'll give C-Fu points for serving oolong tea made from loose tea leaves. But only with the sweets did the grand eatery shine like the C-Fu I've known in the past. The sticky buns filled with custard, and sesame balls stuffed with red bean tasted like they'd just exited the oven and were nearly perfect.
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I found the service annoyingly officious. During dim sum, you have a card at your table that servers mark as they add a plate to your tab. I was just taking a break when a senior waiter swooped down on me and whisked off my card to add it all up, without asking if I'd finished. There weren't many patrons present, but the staff wanted to hurry these in and out as if there was a line 'round the block to gain entry. If there had been, I would've understood. But there wasn't, so I don't.
House of Hong, 3231 South Mill Avenue, Tempe, 480-921-3882. Dim sum hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
I've heard so many good things about House of Hong that I can only conclude I caught the place on a bad day or that something's changed recently. I went on a Saturday and was waited on by a series of Chinese boys who seemed to be in their mid-to-late teens. Over the House of Hong's bar are three or four flat-screen TVs, one of which was showing cartoons. Predictably, my teen servers were far more interested in the cartoons than waiting on me. Not that I blame them. If I were their age, I wouldn't want to be working on a Saturday either.
The tea was from a tea bag. One big demerit there. And judging by the pittance of dim sum brought out, House of Hong didn't seem to have much of a selection. What I did try seemed stale, and the items were not as warm as I would have liked. I only took a fancy to the chicken feet, which were slightly barbecued and gave me hope that House of Hong is not always this disappointing.
Despite my poultry podophilia, I can't recommend House of Hong's dim sum. And C-Fu is only average. But Golden Buddha will make you happily tubby from dim sum, if you let it.