Saturday, January 28, 2006

eats: dim sum at the phoenix in chicago

I've got a spotty track record when it comes to dim sum. Years ago I went to a place near Livingston NJ with my wife where, on the advice of a Chinese colleague, I ordered the chicken feet which he claimed were "very delicious" and "something that Chinese people love."

I thought they were like rib tips, and proceeded to eat the entire thing, bones, skin, cartilage and all. After a few days of worrying about a perforated colon care of the razor-sharp chicken toenails, I reported back to my Chinese colleague who proceeded to laugh his ass off. Turns out you're just supposed to nibble on the damn things. Glad he told me in advance.

More recently, we had dim sum at another place in Morristown, where the meal was so hideous that we decided that dim sum actually translated into English as "phlegm nuts". Think mucilaginous pseudo-meat/seafood/vegetable nuggets and you're close.

So it was with some degree of trepidation that I packed up the family today and trekked into Chicago to visit The Phoenix Restaurant for a dim sum lunch. Explanation: my son had been exposed to potstickers somewhere along the line, and care of modern educational excellence had also learned a) that potstickers were a member of the larger dim sum order and that b) there was a Chinatown in Chicago where dim sum was served. In a spasm of ordered associative thinking, he asked to go into Chicago to have dim sum for his birthday lunch.

(Note: enough of the italics, already)

If you've been watching your lunar calendar, you know that tomorrow is Chinese New Year, so Chinatown was hopping in anticipation of the great day. We queued up at the Phoenix, got our number, then wandered around in an outdoor mall across the street for the 25 minutes it took for a table to open up. Result: I am now the proud owner of a number of little phials of ginseng-related liquids of mysterious medicinal value. More on that another time.

When I got back to the restaurant, I noted that there were an awful lot of Chinese people waiting on line and looking happy about it. Good sign #1.

The meal itself flowed in beats, with carts meandering past, round dishes presented and withdrawn, a changing cavalcade of random smallish nibbles. Highlights were tripes sauteed in garlic, hot pepper and vinegar; a fragrant pork dumpling seasoned with ginger; a steaming hot sesame-flecked ball filled with an unctuous sesame paste; and (god help me) the chicken feet.

Good sign #2 took place about 90 minutes later when, absolutely stuffed with the finest dim sum I've ever enjoyed, my wife and I shared the last of a perfectly spectacular pot of tea as we looked out at the distant, cloud-shrouded Chicago skyline.

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