Dim Sum, Want Sum?
Dim sum means “small treats that touch the heart.” They began as a type of snack in teahouses in the Canton Province of China. Typically they're eaten from early morning till late afternoon, and provide a perfect way to snack while socializing, doing business and enjoying tea. I love to eat multi-course meals comprised of lots of little dishes or tastes, so dim sum suits me just fine. Savory pastries, steamed or fried dumplings, filled buns, noodles and sweet treats are an integral part of dim sum menus. Amerasia, as the name implies, is an Americanized version of the dim sum experience.
You won't find exotic animal extremities here, like duck webs or chicken feet, which are often featured on dim sum menus in Chinatowns on both coasts. What you will find are lots of very tasty treats and a room full of happy diners.
After working at Amerasia for 24 years, current owner Hyangmi Yi bought the place. Her love of the business is evident as she greets regular customers and zips around the dining room pushing her dim sum-filled cart. Just inside the entrance there are two tables set in a deep purple alcove that seat eight. A lovely print of a traditional Chinese-style watercolor of the “Three Friends of Winter” (bamboo pine and plum blossoms) graces the wall. The main room is painted gray with a wall of window-shaped curved mirrors that help to make the smallish main dining room seem more spacious. Colorful still life prints of fruits and vegetables and strings of old fashioned Christmas lights round out the rest of the décor. Tables and chairs are standard café issue with plastic cloths. Parties larger than six often have to be split up into neighboring tables because the aisles need to be clear for the cart to pass by.
If you're looking for a place for an intimate romantic meal, keep looking because this is not it. The pace is fast, the ceiling is low and the crowd is loud. All the hustle and bustle seemed to enhance the experience for me. A rolling cart kept circulating around the room from table to table and guests get to choose from 22 different rotating items. Some are hot, some not; some are spicy, some sweet. There is no menu; instead you pick your dishes directly from the cart. Not to worry, the server will describe what's inside each one of these tiny treats. After the first few rounds of the cart the folks at our table had them pretty much memorized. At nearby tables, it seemed like there were a lot of regulars that knew exactly what they wanted by name.
Scallion pancakes were a huge hit with our group. They were thick but light and perfectly browned and flecked with sweet scallions. Chicken- and peanut-filled dumplings were also delicious, with flavorful chicken and crunchy water chestnuts and peanuts. I enjoyed the spicy pork with rice served in a small bowl because it really had some heat. The buns filled with BBQ pork were also a huge hit; in fact we ordered a second plate. Vegetarian versions of several meat items were remarkably good, especially a spicy tofu bowl with rice and tree ears. There are also vegetarian egg rolls, seitan-filled steamed buns and a cold noodle salad that was light and refreshing with carrots and celery in a very light vinegar dressing. The shu mai (open steamed dumplings) were a bit bland and unfortunately no dipping sauces were offered with them. We improvised and made our own with soy sauce and chili paste, the condiments on each table.
Dining on dim sum is most definitely a group sport. It allows you to try lots of plates and helps keep the cost down. Be careful though, it's very easy to get carried away and build a pretty hefty tab. Keep track of the empty plates so you can tell how much you've eaten and therefore what you've spent. Here's how it works: each plate costs $2.75 and it can include one, two or three delicious treats. A small bowl with meat and rice or noodles is also $2.75. At the end of the meal, the plates are counted and the bill is tallied. Our group of four enjoyed more than their fill of dim sum, and with two iced teas added the total came to $29.95, including tax. On another visit, I had a nice little lunch with three choices and it was a bargain at $6.95.
There is no beer or wine license and, surprisingly, only one kind of tea is offered, a very mild Chinese tea served either hot or iced. Skip the iced, the tea doesn't have enough flavor to stand up to dilution.
Usually I'm not terribly fond of Chinese desserts but the sesame balls with rice and sweet red bean paste were really good. My companions loved the lemon-coconut bites and everyone enjoyed the fried wontons smothered in powdered sugar.
Reservations are not accepted and I would recommend getting there early since the place is very popular. I'm told that wait time for tables is not long, made possible by the instant service aspect of the roving cart.
Next time you're in the mood for a special treat, stop by Amerasia for some dim sum--small treats that'll probably touch your heart, too.
Amerasia; 301 Cornell SE; 266-8400; Hours: Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-2 p.m. lunch, Fri & Sat 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. dinner; Price Range: Inexpensive to moderate (depending on how many plates you choose); Major credit cards accepted.