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Dim sum’s delights

For variety of flavor and texture, and a lively scene--not to mention bang for the buck--it’s hard to beat China’s small plates breakfast tradition.

Anthony Tieuli

In Boston’s Chinatown, Hei La Moon’s offerings include fried dough wrapped in rice noodle. Weekends bring the best selection of dishes.

If you’re going to go out for brunch, the food has to be worth ditching your pj’s for. Omelets and French toast have their charms, but they’re easy enough to make at home. Dim sum, on the other hand, is not. These Chinese small plates evolved as snacks to accompany tea; the name means “touch the heart,” though it’s the stomach that’s usually the most grateful. Dim sum encompasses a kaleidoscopic array of dishes and flavors, and prices are reasonable, so you can try many dishes and go home with leftovers. The atmosphere is festive, often with several generations gathered around one table. Everybody shares.

Once you’ve decided you want dim sum, there are still choices to be made. Do you prefer to select your own dishes, ordering off a menu? Or do you want serendipity to make the call for you?

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If you’re an intrepid eater, opt for the latter and go to one of the big dim sum houses, where food is served from wheeled carts. Hei La Moon in Chinatown is a fine place to start. A large space with red carpet and lanterns hanging from the ceiling, it fills with the sounds of laughter, conversation, and clinking china. Employees weave among the tables, pushing carts laden with steamers.

Dumplings will likely be your point of entry. Plump har gao are shaped like bonnets, their chewy skins surrounding tender shrimp. Squat siu mai are the open-faced sandwiches of the dumpling world, their juicy pork filling exposed on top. Simply point to whatever looks good.

Other dishes to watch for: steamed buns filled with sweet-savory pork; rice noodles formed into an oblong package around shrimp or beef; sticky rice and sausage folded inside a leaf; and fried football-shaped fritters. The fritters with the shaggy exterior of dough are made of taro, a bit like potato but with a lavender hue, and filled with pork. The ones that are smooth on the outside have a similar filling but are made of chewy, glutinous rice paste. China’s cuisine is as vast and varied as the country itself, but one constant is an emphasis on texture. After chewy, try warm and silky: bean curd topped with sweet ginger syrup.

Ordering from carts feels like an adventure, but if you want more control over your meal, head to a dim sum restaurant with a menu. In Chinatown, Winsor Dim Sum Cafe is a favorite, serving dim sum all day. Dumplings are well made here, with delicate skins. And the chicken congee is the ultimate comfort food, a gentle rice porridge one yearns for when sick with a cold.

Also in Chinatown, the newer Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant gives Winsor a run for its money. This cramped space is divided down the middle, tables on one side, bakery counter on the other. Dumpling fillings here are particularly flavorful; you can taste individual vegetables in the fish fin-shaped dumplings, so named because of the frilly mohawk of dough atop each one.

If you’ve ever wondered about chicken feet, Great Taste makes a version with medicinal properties, the broth full of roots and herbs. The soft, gelatinous nubbins are satisfying to gnaw on. For more fun with texture, there is something called “custard tapioca pearls tarts.” Wobbly, bouncy cakes made of tapioca, they vaguely resemble frogs’ eggs; lightly sweet, they have nuclei of yellow custard.

After your meal, hit up the bakery side for dan tat, flaky little tart shells filled with the creamiest bright-yellow egg custard.

Much of the dim sum in the Boston area is Cantonese. But there are several places, such as Chung Shin Yuan in Newton and Asian Gourmet in Concord, that specialize in dishes from Taiwan. On weekends, lines form in front of Shangri-La in Belmont, and there is a reason. Or reasons. First among them is “five spiced sesame beef in crispy sesame pancake,” otherwise known as the best roast beef sandwich you’ve never had. Thin slices of beef are lightly perfumed with star anise and served between crisp, layered bread. Then there are “steamed small pork buns,” aka xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. The skins contain soup in addition to a pork filling; tilt one upward with your chopsticks, nibble a tiny bite from the top, and slurp, taking care not to scald your tongue. At just about every table you will see fried crullers, which pair with either salty or sweet soy milk. For the ultimate carb fest, the sticks of dough are often stuffed inside the flatbread shao bing.

Yes, it’s a bread sandwich. Isn’t that worth getting out of your pj’s for?

WHERE TO EAT

ASIAN GOURMET

794 Elm Street, Concord, 978-369-8114, asiangourmetma.com

CHUNG SHIN YUAN

183 California Street, Newton, 617-964-0111

GREAT TASTE BAKERY & RESTAURANT

61-63 Beach Street, Boston, 617-426-6688, bostongreattastebakery.com

HEI LA MOON

88 Beach Street, Boston, 617-338-8813, heilamoon.com

SHANGRI-LA

149 Belmont Street, Belmont, 617-489-1488, shangrilachinese.com

WINSOR DIM SUM CAFE

10 Tyler Street, Boston, 617-338-1688

Devra First is the Globe’s restaurant critic. E-mail her at dfirst@globe.com.
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