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January 11, 2004

A journey to Chinatown: come for the dim sum and then some

One of our favorite spots in Chicago (when the pressure of even being in the immediate vicinity of the Reg is too much to bear) is Chinatown. Since it's a simple matter of jumping on the Red Line, Chinatown is also one of the easiest ethnic neighborhoods to reach from Hyde Park.

The real reason I find myself in Chinatown so frequently is that I love Chinese food. Even as a first-year, I found myself wandering the crowded streets, breathing in air rich with mouth-watering smells as I explored the gift shops in search of beautifully painted chopsticks, affordable trinkets, or the odd jade bracelet. Perhaps I've been exposed to more of Chinatown than most because my roommate is Chinese and a Chicago native. She has an opinion on everything in Chinatown, as well as interesting scraps of gossip about the owners of the various shops and restaurants. I know that the owner of one of the food markets is something of an herbal expert, and if only I could ask him in Mandarin, he would happily recommend the best tea to help a sore throat or tension headaches.

Whenever we visit the bakeries and restaurants together, I become, by association, more than just a tourist who doesn't speak the language. I get to see an entirely different side of Chinatown. Right around the time finals hit, it's just what I need, so my roommate and I decided to spend the Saturday of reading period gorging ourselves with one of the best types of food in Chinatown: dim sum.

To satisfy our appetites, we made our way to the Happy Chef Dim Sum House, located in Chinatown Square. Dim sum—literally "something that touches the heart's delight"—is the Chinese version of a smorgasbord, a little of everything served in small portions. As such, it's especially well suited for the adventurous eater, but there's definitely something to please every palate. My roommate says it makes her think of old men gathering around the table, surrounded by tea, memories, and dishes from the good old days. It's not merely a great image; the Happy Chef serves Cantonese dim sum from 9 am to 2 am every week. On the weekend, entire families crowd around tables to sip jasmine tea and drink "heart's delights." However, even on the busiest days, there is no need for a reservation.

Most dim sum houses are loud and raucous, and the Happy Chef is no exception. Unlike many restaurants, though, the Happy Chef does not serve dim sum off of waiter-pushed carts, where customers point at the dishes they want. Instead, waiters circulate taking orders. The downside to this is that it's important to know what to try—or what to avoid.

The nature of dim sum is that it is almost impossible to walk away from the table without a doggie bag and the gurgle of an overstuffed stomach. Be warned that the dishes are small (but filling) and sometimes pricy, and order accordingly. My roommate and I are guilty on this front; we always leave the table swearing this will be the last time we overeat, and Saturday was no exception.

We started with the pan-fried chive cakes, which were excellent. They were the size of silver dollars and melted in our mouths. Then came the steamed rice rolls, which are like giant rice noodles wrapped around various fillings with sweet, tangy, brown sauce. We ordered shrimp, which was promptly selected for our favorites list, and the BBQ pork, which wasn't. We also ordered sliced turnip cakes; rich, inch-thick bricks of rice flour mixed with bits of meat; julienned white Chinese turnips; and deceptively filling steamed pork dumplings garnished with tiny orange fish eggs. The fried dough fritters, which are usually dipped in soy milk, were mediocre and frankly not worth ordering. The Happy Chef pork dumplings were delicious, as were the deep-fried taro puffs with meat, the deep-fried savory triangles, and the steamed BBQ pork buns—all typical finds in Chinese bakeries. Another interesting and tasty treat is the sweet rice with conpony and meat, wrapped in lotus leaves. Unfolding the leaf package reveals steaming, sticky rice that you can scrape off the leaves in clumps and eat with chopsticks.

For dessert—not for the faint of heart—there are delicacies galore. I must warn you, though, with the experience of one who knows: pace yourself or skip dessert all together. It's easy to overdo it especially with offerings like coconut pudding and baked custard egg tarts.

If, unlike us, you manage to escape from your dim sum experience without feeling vaguely horrified by the amount of food you've consumed, there are legions of dim sum eaters who will be clamoring for your secret. If not, you can do what we inevitably end up doing after a dim sum outing—live off the leftovers for a good part of the next week.