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 sauted 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.

Happily, China Doll has sweets that won't have you fleeing to a Village Inn pie shop. The egg-custard tart, for example, is appropriately bland and creamy. But I suggest you take a stab at my Chinatown favorite, jin dhui, a fried ball of dough studded with sesame seeds and stuffed with a dab of sweet lotus-seed paste. It goes great with the excellent pots of steaming fresh tea. Emperor's Garden in Scottsdale can't rival China Doll in either the size or scope of its dim sum offerings. There's no bustle of carts around the room. Instead, you'll be handed a short dim sum menu with 16 choices. Nothing on it would startle squeamish Aunt Edith from Milwaukee.

But the place is much longer on decor. Red tassels hang from pagoda-shaped lanterns. A wall-size Chinese mural depicts scenes from everyday life. There are artificial flowers everywhere, and a glassed display case dividing the restaurant's two rooms.

The clientele was mostly Asian, and the staff less than fluent in English. Naturally, we took these as positive signs. Same for the hot pot of smoky tea. But the piped-in music of an oldies station was a jarring and incongruous note.

Here we started off with fried Chinese bread. It's just like a Mexican churro, a hunk of fried dough, except it's not coated with sugar or cinnamon and it's a foot and a half long.

How do you sweeten it up? Order the sweet bean milk. This clear liquid tastes like what's left over after you've eaten all your Frosted Flakes but still have some milk in the bowl. The Chinese family sitting next to us was happily dipping fried bread, and we quickly caught on to the custom. At 95 cents per bread and $1 for the sweet bean milk, it's a cheap and pleasant starter. The 95-cent green-onion cake is also a terrific bargain. It's a crispy, pancake-shaped treat, cut into quarters, with lots of fragrant green onions. It would have been even better had it been served with hoisin sauce.

Unlike China Doll, Emperor's Garden offered soup, so we tried the spicy, shredded-pork-noodle version. My kids, fearful of hot peppers, needn't have worried--this soup was about as torrid as Wonder bread. Mostly it was a big tub of noodles, with a few desultory pieces of pork, pickled cabbage and green onions swimming in an indifferent broth.

Pot stickers also seemed no better than ordinary, a bit greasy with a flavorless meat filling. But the dumplings got us out of the dumps. They come fried and steamed, and both methods roused our enthusiasm. Chewy, meaty and light, they got our minds back on the dim sum track. Unfortunately, the noodle dishes caused a derailment. At $5.95, chow mein is the costliest item on the dim sum menu. But it was just a bunch of crispy, pan-fried noodles in a gloppy sauce, with only a hint of veggies and so little pork it could escape a rabbi's notice. Saucy noodles were no better. The thin noodles came seasoned with ground pork and hoisin sauce. If Marco Polo had brought this back to his homeland, Italians would be putting meatballs and tomato sauce over rice. The dim sum menu offers no pastries or dessert, although the fried bread and sweet-bean-milk soup would go as well at the end of the meal as they did at the start.

Stop at Emperor's Garden if you need an introductory dim sum course. But serious students will do their advanced wok over at China Doll.


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