It Dim Sum – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Shortly after “moving on up to the east side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky,” George Jefferson was uncharacteristically late returning home. Knowing George had gone to a Chinese restaurant after work, his dutiful wife Weezy asked neighbor Tom Willis what Chinese restaurant George might have visited. Ever the gourmand, Tom asked what style of Chinese food George liked then proceeded to rattle off five different types of traditional Chinese cuisine available in the neighborhood: Mandarin, Sichuan, Hunan, Cantonese and Shandong. Until that very moment I had no idea there were so many different styles of Chinese cuisine, wrongly believing there was only Chinese food period.
That’s pretty much what most Americans believed even back in the 80s when that particular Jefferson’s episode aired…especially those of us who didn’t live in a populous, cosmopolitan city. In our naivete, we also believed such favorites as crab Rangoon, orange chicken, chop suey and even the ubiquitous fortune cookie to have originated in China. It didn’t dawn on us that many Chinese dishes were “invented” to cater to American tastes. We also had no idea how significantly Chinese dishes in China differed from those adapted to American tastes. Some of us even believed Mongolian barbecue actually originated in Mongolia.
Today, thanks to a shrinking world and the electronic dissemination of information, most of us understand and enjoy the nuances and subtleties of Chinese cuisine–the peppercorns that make Sichuan dishes both incendiary and irresistible; the ubiquitous chilies of Hunan cuisine used to enliven stewed, fried and pot-roasted dishes; the crispy, stir-fried fresh of Shandong cuisine; and dishes from all the styles of Chinese cuisine Tom Willis listed…and more. Accounts differ, but sources say there are anywhere from eight to fifty-eight distinct styles of Chinese cuisine. Some among us have made it a life’s quest to try every one of them.
Many of us who perceive ourselves to be somewhat worldly are no longer so snobbish that we dismiss and diss “Americanized” Chinese dishes–most of which were invented by Chinese Americans. In fact, some of us cheered an op-ed on CNN entitled “American-Chinese food is real Chinese food,” in which Clarissa Wei lept up in impassioned defense of American-Chinese food: “There’s nothing inauthentic about American-Chinese dishes. The bulk of them were created by Chinese people for Chinese people. These Chinese people just happened to be living outside of the mother country.” So, There!
Another Chinese tradition which has captivated American tastes is dim sum, a term commonly translated to “touch the heart.” Dim sum refers to small bite-sized dishes typically served in bamboo steamer baskets or on small plates. Dim sum predates (by centuries) the small plate culinary traditions of other nations–tapas in Spain, stuzzichini in Italy, izakaya in Japan, for example–and like these small, shareable delights, it appeals to the spirit of adventurousness and variety. Some culinary Cognoscenti even credit Chinese immigrants from the Canton region for inspiring the notion of “brunch,” the portmanteau that combines breakfast and lunch into one large mid-morning meal (the Smithsonian posits other origins). Indeed, use of the term “brunch” coincided closely with the introduction by Cantonese immigrants of dim sum.
The Duke City is no stranger to the bounty of small plates offering a variety of tastes and flavors. For more than three decades, the Land of Enchantment’s preeminent practitioner of the dim sum tradition has been the magnificent Ming Dynasty. Serving the city for just about as long is Amerasia, an exemplar of two-and-three-bite deliciousness. Other Chinese restaurants such as Budai Gourmet Chinese offer some dim sum as does Cafe Dalat, a top-tier Vietnamese restaurant.
In the spring of 2019, Albuquerque saw the launch of a third restaurant devoted (almost) exclusively to dim sum. Fittingly its appellation is It Dim Sum which leaves no doubt as to its raison d’être. It Dim Sum is ensconced in the space which once served as home to Best Lee’s, a traditional American-Chinese restaurant. That space is pristine and attractive in a contemporary industrial style with plenty of multi-hued wood accents and metallic seating which is more utilitarian than it is comfortable. Exterior signage leans toward cutesy with a depiction of an anime person peeking out from inside a steamer basket.
Instead of a fusillade of stainless steel carts making their way to each table with each cart wielding several different treasures (as it’s done at Ming Dynasty and Amerasia), at It Dim Sum, you’ll find a plastic laminated menu and black marker at your table. Simply circle the items you want and the quantity of each. The fare you select will be ferried to your table in short order. Timing of each delivery is well-spaced. You still get the variety you want, just not all at the same time. That’s optimum for ensuring your dishes don’t cool off.
First in our cavalcade of small plates was barbecue pork bun (char siu bao), three baked golden brown rolls glazed with a sweet, sticky honey syrup and stuffed with roasted Chinese barbecue pork (with discernible five-spice powder, soy sauce and honey). More often than not, we’ve found the barbecue to be as sweet or sweeter than the roll, but that wasn’t the case at It Dim Sum. That made for a delightful contrast of sweet and savory tastes that go so well together. Much as we’ve always enjoyed barbecue pork bun, we’ve sometimes wondered how the roll would taste with a salty French butter in lieu of the barbecue pork.
We don’t have a similar problem with Cruller Rice Noodle Rolls which no one in right mind would adulterate. Described by our server as “Chinese donuts” and sometimes described as “carb heaven,” these savory, slippery cylindrical stuffed noodles might remind you of sliced Spanish canalones right up to the point where you first taste them. Nearly opaque noodles are stuffed with savory fried Chinese crullers. With a texture similar to crispy puff pastry, the crullers aren’t a textural and flavor-rich delight. Together with the rice noodles, the crullers sop up the Hoisin-soy sauce like a thirsty sponge.
Though we often make them at home, we just never seem to get tired of potstickers, the ubiquitous and aptly-named (they can adhere to your cooking pan if you’re not careful) crescent-shaped dumplings. If anything, the potstickers my Kim and I make are more “Americanized” if being overstuffed can be equated with being Americanized. It Dim Sum’s rendition does have ours beaten in terms of flavor. These are darn good. So is the chili available on a cozy at each table. It’s not nearly as good as the chili at Ming Dynasty, but you could say that about virtually every other condiment chili in town.
When I order a dish such as curry beef tendon, it’s about a fifty-fifty proposition as to whether or not my Kim will like it. Sometimes it’s the flavor of one of my “strange” dishes she finds off-putting. Sometimes, as in the case of the curry beef tendon, it’s the texture. While my preference would be for her to enjoy such delicacies with alacrity, when she doesn’t enjoy a dish it just means more for me. When I ordered it, our server warned me about the texture (obviously not realizing I was Asian in one of my previous lives). Not everyone will enjoy this dish, but if you aren’t scared off by rubbery, gelatinous foods, you should like this…a lot.
Perhaps our favorite from among the six dim sum plates we enjoyed were the pan-fried chive dumplings. Chinese have used chives for thousands of years so it stands to reason they know what to do with these long, thin herbs which are closely related to leeks, onions and scallions. Thin wrappers enveloping chives and pork are first steamed then meticulously pan-fried on both sides to give them just a bit of chew and a whole lot of tastiness. More so than the other savory dim sum we enjoyed, these did not require any sauce.
It’s not often you visit a dim sum restaurant and are offered “dessert.” Generally as you’re ordering from a menu listing an array of dim sum options, there’s no demarcation between sweet items and savory items. After we had polished off our dim sum, our server actually recommended dessert, specifically noting the deliciousness of the baked sweet cream bun, three baked pastries in cupcake baking cups. Resembling corn bread, they’re moist, crumbly and terrific. Bite into them and a burst of sweet, cream mango custard ekes out. It’s a nice way to finish a meal.
Call it It Dim Sum and then some because the menu also offers several big plate dishes. Among them are half and full roast duck plates. Perhaps no culinary culture prepares duck as well as the Chinese do. Duck was certainly the highlight of the duck noodle soup, a swimming pool-sized bowl of broth, noodles and sliced duck. Honestly, the broth didn’t have much personality and could have taken a cue from its Vietnamese and Thai brethren. The broth served as a holding tank for al dente noodles and not much else. The duck, on the other hand, was superb with a crispy skin sheathing tender, rich duck which deserved better than sharing space with such an anemic broth.
If George Jefferson was late getting home because he was enjoying a meal at IT Dim Sum, Weezy could certainly understand. This is a very good dim sum restaurant that will happily expand your repertoire of authentic Chinese cuisine favorites even as it expands your waistline a little.
It Dim Sum
7900 Carmel, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 17 June 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Baked Sweet Cream Bun, Roast Duck Noodle Soup, Pan Fried Chive Dumplings, Curry Beef Tendon, Potstickers, Cruller Rice Noodle Rolls, Baked Barbecued-Pork Buns