The moment I spied “Deep Fried Bitter Melon Ball” on the menu at Chinese Cuisine, a modest dim sum parlor behind Sinh Sinh on Bellaire Boulevard, I knew I’d be back. But that simple plan turned out to be complicated.
Next time I showed up at the lucky-numbered 9888 location, a sign in the window said the owners had sold the restaurant and moved some blocks west, to the 10600 block of Bellaire. Chinese Cuisine would remain the name and dim sum the format at the old spot; the much larger, new restaurant would be called Golden Dim Sum.
Now what? I had to laugh, remembering my conversation with Harris County prosecutor and state representative candidate Gene Wu, who had pointed me toward Chinese Cuisine in the first place. “When the chef changes, Chinese people consider it to be a new restaurant, even if the name stays the same,” Wu had informed me over thousand-layer pancakes at the nearby Classic Kitchen.
The Chinese Cuisine chef had moved down to Golden Dim Sum as one of the partners, so Golden was the new Chinese Cuisine, and the old Chinese Cuisine was something new, even with a similar-but-identical menu.
It took me a couple of days to unravel all this on the phone and online. Eventually, I got my Deep Fried Bitter Melon Ball at the brand-new Golden Dim Sum, where I was greeted by waving lucky cats and brightly hued pictorial menu posters in the foyer. Golden Dim Sum is not one of those cart operations, so I checked off my choices on the long paper list of items, asked for a pot of oolong tea and settled in to watch the pageant.
It was shortly before noon on a Sunday, and as my loose-leaf tea steamed in its pot, the long rectangular room began to fill up with mostly Asian diners, until a crowd of people waiting for tables had formed in front of the cash register. Then came the bitter melon balls, and they were everything I had hoped for.
Which is to say they were wonderfully weird to my Western eyes and palate — bright green and filmed with a crackly flash-fried skin, with a startling interior of pitch-black sesame-flavored sugar that glinted under the lights. This confection was sweet and wildly glutinous and tinged with the distinctive bitter melon bitterness. I had never had anything quite like it.
That, of course, is part of the fun of dim sum: to stretch your tolerance for unfamiliar textures and flavors without spending a bundle of money, as small plates of various dumplings and buns and snacks land on the table in quick succession.
Golden Dim Sum, I discovered, may not be the ideal Chinatown dim sum spot I’ve been seeking for years, but it’s plenty good if you cherry-pick the menu and order some of the more unusual specialities. It’s also a highly useful place that is really two restaurants in one: They serve dim sum all day long and into the night, as well as offering a regular restaurant menu of all the standard Houston Chinese/Vietnamese menu items, right down to the totemic two-lobsters-for-$18.95 special. You can end up with a whole arsenal of menus on the table, from laminated pictorials to long paper check-off-an-item lists. The cooking ranges from serviceable to surprisingly good.
On the dim sum side, I loved the rice rolls with bitter melon and shrimp, the silky-soft rice-noodle sheets folded around juicy shellfish and translucent green lengths of bitter melon, an acquired taste with a refreshing prickle to it. Steamed dumpling bonnets filled with “bean leaves” (they looked and tasted like snow-pea shoots) and a mixture of shrimp and dry scallop were great on one visit, the meaty dry scallop adding a deeper sea tone to the familiar shrimp. Clean flavors, gorgeous color, pure textures of satin and springy leaf. On a second visit, in the early evening, the transparent dumpling wrapper seemed tougher, more glutinous; and there was a lot more shrimp than dry scallop in the filling.
My sense of things, judging from that listless dumpling and a baked barbecue pork puff served at room temperature, is that the dim sum items are better here during the peak hours of 10 a.m. through lunchtime.
One must-order off the dim sum sheet is the astonishingly good Salt & Pepper Chicken Wings: big, juicy numbers with a hot chile edge and a crust that snaps and crackles. Sliced green chiles, scallion and cilantro add even more pop. And it’s a good idea to try the chicken sticky rice with dry scallop wrapped in a lotus leaf because the rice texture can be, well, exquisitely sticky and comforting, and the lotus leaf releases a cloud of dark, earthy aromas when it’s unfolded.
There are pleasant baked barbecue pork buns with shiny glazed tops and resoundingly average steamed shrimp-and-pork shiu mai with skins drying out at the edges and filling that tasted mainly of salt the day I sampled them.
I admired the cobwebby texture of the deep-fried taro puffs, but their minced-meat filling had a wan effect. I might have liked the pan-fried turnip cake (always a favorite of mine) better had I not had the superlative version at Yum Yum Cha recently; Golden Dim Sum’s was just average.
I rolled the dice on some less familiar items. Winner: delicate crinkle-edged tripe, lightly pickled and strewn with green chile and scallion. Loser: morbidly pale chicken feet with vinegar sauce, so hard and gristly that it was like trying to snack on chicken bones. (My search for really good chicken feet must continue, I guess.)
For “dessert,” a slice of Malaysian sponge roll was just gently sweet and touched with custard, good with either strong oolong or subtler chrysanthemum tea.
The teapots are replenished with hot water unasked, which is typical of the unusually good service at Golden Dim Sum. The servers may be rushed, and, occasionally, there’s a slight language barrier, but they are helpful and friendly and never seem to condescend to non-Asian diners.
The staff hustles just as hard at dinner as during the dim sum crush. One cheerful young man steered me toward the two-lobster special with black pepper and butter, and I’m still thanking him. The lobsters may have been small, but they were expertly cooked and seasoned, with nice pepper bite against a mere gilding of butter on the exposed sections of lobster meat. The fine surprise was a slow bloom of ginger on the tongue, edgy against the rich butter taste and texture. I’d go back just to eat this dish.
Good marks, too, for the no-nonsense flat rice noodles stir-fried with good-quality beef flaps, green chile and the ping of fermented black beans; and for meaty black mushroom caps against the vivid green of mustard stalks cooked just to a softening crispness.
Indeed, the only disappointment from the regular restaurant-style menu was the thick-crusted, unpleasantly bitter Salt and Pepper Tofu, which couldn’t hold a candle to those Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings.
I’d go back just to eat those, too, or a spongy white barbecue pork bun with a sauce I like to make myself, mixing red vinegar and red-chile oil and a drop of soy from the tabletop condiments tray, which offers a nice little shaker of white pepper, too.
At the end, the drill is to take your bill — which will seem very reasonable, trust — up to the front register to pay. If you have leftovers, you can stop at a central island to snag to-go boxes and plastic bags, a user-friendly arrangement in this notably user-friendly establishment.
Golden Dim Sum may have the corporate look of a very new restaurant, but it has the quirky feel of a more established one. Which, as Mr. Wu would no doubt remind me, it is.
Golden Dim Sum
10600 Bellaire Blvd., 281-495-1688
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays; 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays
Credit cards: MC, V
Prices: dim sum $2.25-$4.95; starters $5.50-$12.95; entrees $7.95- $18.95
Reservations: first come, first served
Noise level: moderate
★ = a star
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.