OAKLAND, Calif. -- Throughout my childhood, dim sum was always a family affair. Often everyone else's as well, the meals were noisy with conversation, frantic with harried servers and screaming children, rich with variety, and characterized by amazing longevity. All of these traits were amplified by location, location, location -- in New York's Chinatown, one of the most heavily touristed destinations in the world.
In Oakland, with its large Chinese population and a colorful 150-year history to rival that of the city across the bay, many people have opinions about where the best dim sum can be found. Chinatown here is more local and less touristy than its counterparts in New York or San Francisco. Consequently, the pace is slower, the setting less crowded, and the community friendlier -- all of which is reflected in the city's winning dim sum experience. Drop by on a weekday, or at the tail end of weekend meal hours, and you will find that dim sum can indeed be taken far from the madding crowd.
At the Pacific Renaissance Plaza mall, on the second floor by a sky-lighted atrium, Restaurant Peony does a brisk dim sum business in its large pink-and-white confection of a dining room. Despite its considerable scale (which makes it a top pick for those who must make it a family affair), the restaurant manages high quality in its Hong Kong-style dim sum.
Servers wheel carts around the restaurant in the traditional style, calling out small-plate offerings as they roll by. Some servers are laconic, while others are gifted in the hard sell -- one tries fervently to persuade us of the culinary joys of pork knuckles. You won't go wrong with the "dan-tat" (egg custard tart), which comes to the table piping hot and lightly browned, with a thick, flaky pastry crust. Another standout is the delicate and flavorful "see-yow-guy" (soy sauce chicken), with tender meat that avoids being excessively salty. The cold seaweed salad with sesame seeds and chili has a pleasantly chewy texture, and the "tsa-leung" (fried dough wrapped in rice noodle and topped with fragrant soy sauce) is a must-have.
Peony's classic "hah-gow" (shrimp steamed in a thin, shell-like wrapping) are wonderfully plump, though the restaurant's "jook" (rice porridge with scallions) is rather bland. If you want to order anything special from the main menu during the dim sum hour -- a family-size plate of Chinese broccoli sauteed in oyster sauce, for instance, or steamed pork buns instead of browned -- ask for one of the waitstaff to come and take your order, but be prepared to wait, as the servers are busy with their carts.
For dim sum around the clock -- a boon for night owls -- head to Tin's Tea House, just a few blocks from Peony on Webster Street. Alice Wan's restaurant is a small, intimate space, made airier with the benefit of skylights and the fragrance of jasmine, oolong, and chrysanthemum tea.
The restaurant has been a neighborhood favorite for all of its seven years, with a mainly Chinese clientele, and has recently opened a wildly popular suburban outpost 16 miles away in Walnut Creek. At Tin's, the service is fast and friendly, and the food is remarkably fresh -- indeed, often made to order. We make a special request for lotus seed buns, which arrive at the table five minutes later; they are sweet, creamy, and steaming hot. Unlike most traditional dim sum establishments, Tin's offers quite a few vegetarian options. The mushroom and baby corn dumplings have a satisfying substance and inner crunch, and the cabbage, ginger, and scallion dumplings come to life with the red vinegar dipping sauce.
For meat eaters, the "tsah-sew-bao" (barbecued pork buns) are tiny, perfectly round, and top rate, with a glistening, pearly glaze -- as aesthetically pleasing to the eye as to the taste buds. The "hah-tseung" (shrimp wrapped in rice noodle) come warm and well seasoned with soy sauce.
There's definitely a local presence here -- the hostesses laugh and chat easily with those who frequent the establishment -- but you don't have to be a regular to score a seat by the window or charming, attentive service. (Each server wears a maroon T-shirt with the words "Tin's Tea House: Adventure Cuisine" emblazoned on the back.) You only need to bring a welcoming palate.
Another mainstay on the Oakland dim sum scene is Jade Villa, which has been voted "Best of the East Bay" by readers of the East Bay Express. Located on Broadway, downtown Oakland's main thoroughfare, it's a dim, cavernous restaurant lighted by purple neon on its upper walls. Jade Villa has less of a pleasant daytime ambience than either Restaurant Peony (which is comparable in size, but brighter and livelier) or Tin's Tea House (which has more character). That said, it is certainly well known. The "law-mei-fan" (sticky rice with sweet pork sausage and egg) is aromatic and rich, and the Chinese broccoli is fresh and crisp, if a bit oily.
You can only eat so many dishes of dim sum in one afternoon, so if you can't squeeze down another bite, it helps to know where to get the goods to go. Across the street from Tin's is Delicious Food Company, a popular local bakery that sells sweet and savory items to take out. The low display windows gleam with golden egg tarts, lotus seed buns, and turnip cakes, and the side steamer lures you with the promise of freshly made steamed barbecued pork buns. Be forewarned: You might have to elbow your way past Chinese grandmothers and Oakland businessmen and businesswomen on their lunch breaks to get a spot in line. After all, they're neighborhood locals in the know.
Bonnie Tsui is a writer based in California.