Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dim Sum: Great Tastes Restaurant

Say dim sum in Boston, and you may receive one of three responses:
1) I love dim sum. Let's go for lunch.
2) I love dim sum, but there's nothing good in Boston compared to the West Coast.
3) What tha eff is dim sum? Ew... Chinatown.
The first response is, of course, my favorite, while the other two are kind of a buzz kill, especially the third. But having explored a good number of dim sum institutions in Boston's Chinatown, including China Pearl, Winsor Dim Sum Cafe, Empire Garden Restaurant, Great Tastes Restaurant and Bakery, and Hei La Moon, I'd have to say that we're really not doing all that bad. All of these restaurants offer dim sum during their lunch time menu with some switching over to a dinner menu that does not include all the little steam baskets of dumplings and the like during the evening hours. If you're really going all in for the ladies with carts parading around a restaurant experience, then your best bet is to head over to Hei La Moon, which is a sort of stand alone building with a parking garage on the upper floors located outside of the heart of Chinatown. However, if you want what I feel is the best dim sum available in Boston, then at lunch time, you've got to head over to a little place called Great Tastes Restaurant and Bakery, located on the left side of Beach Street just after you cross under the Chinatown gate into the heart of the neighborhood. 
You really wouldn't expect Great Tastes to be a hot spot for lunch in Chinatown for dim sum. This restaurant is on the small side, with few adornments. A left room is dedicated to sit down dining with about ten tables, while the room on the right covers the bakery side of the business. Unlike other restaurants in Chinatown where service can be a bit trying and the menu a little intimidating, Great Tastes really makes it easy. Instead of leaning over to peer into carts of food that may have been circling a cavernous restaurant for an hour or so, one of their smiling, and very kind servers will come right over to your table and point to a little white sheet of paper, stacked along side their regular menus and all of the condiments. The sheet of paper is marked with the list of dim sum available for lunch, and spelled out in both Chinese and English, with the price and the portion size clearly marked at the top of the page and then next to each item. The idea is similar to what you might do at some sushi restaurants when they ask you to mark off how many nigiri and maki you would like to order. You mark off which dim sum you would like on this sheet of paper, and the quantity, and then when ready hand it to the server who brings it back to the kitchen. Super easy, right? Plus, when your food emerges from the kitchen, it has been prepared just for you. You're not going to have to deal with cold, stale food or the task of waiting a little too long for the next dim sum cart to come along, but your little steam baskets of dumplings and goodies will be delivered in a steady stream, paced evenly so you can feast away, and can be assured to be back to work on time. Hot, fresh dim sum. 
Alright, so now you know where to go. But I find it's good to have a little nudge on what to order. So here are a list of my greatest hits, which I often enjoy with a few coworkers that are also addicted to this lunch time adventure (Faiz, I'm looking at you), but are also good introductions if they feel a little intimidated by Chinatown and are having their dim sum cherry popped. 
Shrimp Dumplings
Shrimp Dumplings: This is the first item they list on the dim sum menu. They're a must order, and a classic example of har gau, which the internet has told me looks like this in Chinese: 蝦餃. (Note, on the menu, the characters look a little different so I hope I don't confuse anyone.) These little dumplings feature a delicate wheat skin that looks slightly translucent after steaming, revealing a pink hue of all the little shrimps wrapped up inside. It's salty, and steaming hot with a really savory seafood flavor. 
Shrimp and Chive Dumplings
Shrimp & Chive Dumplings: These dumplings are really the same as the shrimp dumplings, but a slightly more oniony flavor from the chopped chives. They're a bit larger than the shrimp dumplings, and with each bite you'll enjoy not only the delicate wrapper with the seafood flavor of chopped shrimp, but also the added flavor of a very prominent herb as they add quite a bit of chives to the filling. It's fantastic, and another chance to enjoy a soft dumpling with the classic shrimp filling. 
Pork Dumplings
Pork Dumplings: These are another favorite, and a must order. They're shaped somewhat like shu mai, if you're familiar with those, but quite a bit larger, more of a two bite type of dumpling. The wrapper looks to be similar to that used in classic fried wontons, with a wheat or flour and egg base, slightly yellow in color. The filling itself is a mixture of pork meat, minced and mixed with little bonus pieces of chopped shrimp. The steamed dumpling is fairly solid, and much denser than the shrimp offerings mentioned above. They also arrive with a characteristic red dot of little seafood roe on the top. Not only are they pretty, but they are filling, smell delectable, and are juicy, sweet, and savory. 
Crispy Shrimp Rolls
Crispy Shrimp Roll: Do you like spring rolls? Do you like lumpia? Do you like chả giò? I like all of the above. It's all about that deep fried crispy skin. The satisfaction of these little cigar rolls arriving at the table, scorching hot, and the classic crunch sound of that first bite. The crispy shrimp rolls, when you first see them, look just like classic spring rolls: thin, deep fried, golden, crispy. But when you first bite into one, the entire filling is solely chopped little shrimps. It's a very solid, no junk bits filling. They're delicious. Like a crispy, slightly oily snack food from heaven, with that tightly wrapped shrimp filling. It's seafood greatness, and I've yet to meet anyone who's had them before who will not stop to discuss how much they crave them at any sporting event, or even at 8:30 in the morning. "Remember those shrimp rolls from Great Tastes?" "Oh man... those shrimp rolls."
Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaves:
Sticy Rice in Lotus Leaves:
Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaves: Again, the Wikipedia machine has come to my aid, letting me know that in Chinese, you will see the sticky rice in lotus leaves written as 糯米雞. This is another wonderful dish that you will often see on dim sum menus, and also circulating in the carts at larger, classic dim sum restaurants. Glutinous rice, filled with a generous inner layer of ground pork and Chinese sausage, is steamed until penetrated with the flavor of its wrapping, a dark green lotus leaf. The two parcels that you receive with an order are quite pretty to look at, and a fun way to share a rice dish. They have to be unwrapped, revealed, unveiled, and then passed around the table. A little goes a long way too. The rice is penetrated with the umami flavor of pork, and there's even a little egg yolk, which you'll find somewhere in the filling. Great Tastes actually does the best version of this dish that I've ever had.
Fried Turnip Cake w/ XO Sauce
Fried Turnip Cake w/ XO Sauce: You'll find this dish at the very bottom of the menu in the section labeled "Special Snacks." In many other dim sum restaurants, you have the opportunity to order a larger version of this dish, that basically gives you one big slab of pan fried turnip cake. It's a gut buster. Very starchy, very big, and doesn't really look all that appetizing. Enough, I say! The fried turnip cakes at Great Tastes are bit sized, square, deep fried tater tot looking things. The turnip has been mashed up and mixed with little bits of slightly spicy Chinese sausage. They're then cut into smaller individual bites, and I suspect, deep fried to produce a slightly crispy outer texture. They're salty, golden brown, and pillowy-soft on the inside. Each time that I come here for lunch, my friends in the know demand the turnip tater tot dish. They're just that good. Also note, when these arrive, make sure to request that your server bring you a little side dish of "hot oil" which is basically oil that has been saturated with the flavor of red hot chilies. It's an amazing side dish, dunking these beautiful tots into that spicy oil. 
Sauteed Pea Pod Stems with Garlic
Now we'll have to switch to the regular menu for a moment. With all this starch and fried goodness, you know that you should eat your vegetables. So, don't order the seasonal vegetable that they offer on the dim sum menu. They're good, don't get me wrong, but on the regular menu, Great Tastes lists under "Vegetables" a dish called "Sauteed Pea Pod Stems with Garlic." It's an amazing dish. Fresh pea pod stems are stir fried with bits of garlic, until savory, and just cooked through. The stems are a little crunchy, but the leaves have been saturated with oil until sweet and earthy. If you need a vegetable dish, and I'll be the mom on this one and say that you do, you should order this surprisingly fresh, texturally interesting, and light, stir fried pea pod stem dish. 
So if there are three of you or so, I'd say that the dishes above will provide for a substantial meal. And the total price will top out at about $14 dollars per person. A feast for a small fee. If you are more adventurous, and ravenous to boot, I suggest you order the beef tripe with fried tofu. The stir fried tripe are served in a tiny bowl, steamed to be more tender, and flavored with ginger and garlic. They're delicious, and a good introduction to tripe if you've never taken the plunge. Another item which we tend to skip, but that I matter of fact adore, is the bbq pork buns. Fluffy white, bready buns are filled with a delectable sweet bbq, shredded pork filling. This is a great version of this dish. Unfortunately, it's very filling, and sometimes we have to skip it. Finally, if you love congee, then you must start out with the preserved eggs w/ pork congee. A single order will serve as an appetizer, "good digestion" course for about three to four people, if not more. Basically, congee is overcooked rice, stewed for quite a long time, and served as a savory porridge. The preserved eggs scare some people, but they are diced quite finely in this version and help to add an interesting textural element. There's an earthy flavor in each bite, and again, I'll use my favorite awkward gastronomic expression, and advise you to order it, because "it helps with digestion." That means, it'll help you not get the trots... good pooping is key to great feasting.
Godspeed eaters of Boston. It may not be the Chinatown of San Francisco, but unless you've got the time and money to hop on an airplane for a stomachful of dim sum, and you're conveniently located in Boston, Great Tastes should be your next destination for a delicious dim sum experience.

Great Tastes Bakery and Restaurant
63 Beach Street
Boston, MA 02111

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