When Dim Sum Garden opened back in late 2007, two sentiments seemed to be voiced above all others: 1) Finally, a reliable source of soup dumplings! and 2) What an unexpected location for such a gem.
In the more than three years since then, this dumpling-sized, hospital-colored nook of a restaurant beneath the 11th-and-Market overpass, right by the Greyhound station and some of the city’s more aggressive beggars, has had its expected ups and downs; especially in the beginning, after a thoroughbred start out of the gate, I experienced meals that ranged from the majestic to the middling.
But now, it seems, the Garden has deep enough roots, and a successful enough system in place, to have emerged from its awkward adolescence as one of the more reliable and affordable restaurants in a Philadelphia Chinatown with no shortage of trip-worthy destinations.
Much of the success here rests on the food’s overall heartiness and freshness—most notably, and most addictively, those soup dumplings. Appearing on the menu as Shanghai steamed juicy buns, and clocking in at less that $6 for an order of 8, they will likely be my go-to snowy-day treat for the remainder of this insane winter ... and then I’ll keep on downing them in the summer just on principle, and out of unabashed addictive need.
Depending on the day you visit, the skin of these dumplings may be thinner or thicker than the last time you stopped by. Thinner is more appealing, and traditionally more desirable, but there’s a trade-off: These are more likely to tear as you lift them from the steamer, meaning you’ll lose a good portion of the liquid inside. Personally, I prefer a slightly thicker skin: It’s a small price to pay for an intact bun, juicy as it’s supposed to be. Either way, the thick, almost reduced character of the gelatinous juice and the paradoxical dense fluffiness of the ground pork—or ground pork and crabmeat, depending on which one you order—makes for a heady combination, richly satisfying and comforting.
Still, even splitting an order with someone requires something to break up the richness, and there’s plenty here to accomplish that. A heaping plateful of cold cucumber, a lighter shade of green than the walls, is anchored by the slick nuttiness of sesame oil and flashed to life with a generous application of tangy vinegar. Seaweed with Chinese wine sauce also balances out the dumplings, but in a completely different way: These bowties of thick seaweed, each fettuccine-broad strip knotted in the middle, mine a deep sense of salinity whose only respite is a high-toned alcohol sweetness from that Chinese wine. You can’t necessarily eat a plateful of them, but a nibble here and there is an unfamiliar treat.
The Garden does a bang-up job with their house-made scallion pancakes, too, nearly the texture of phyllo. And, yes, a recent Chinese-American special, fried cheese wontons, were an unexpected joy to eat. The cream-cheese filling was kissed with the sweet funk of onions, hearty seafood and assorted pureed vegetables, all of it lovingly encased in fried dough.
As with all dough-based dishes here, the hand-drawn noodles were a strand by springy strand tour de force of technique. They served as delicate, subtle second-tier players next to softly perfumed, sliced spiced beef, and as ballast for a tub of soup flared with spicy strands of cabbage, hyper-savory slices of pork, and peppery sprouts.
Really, the only letdown I’ve experienced recently was the roast duck over rice, which lacked the crisp skin that’s such an integral part of its appeal. Still, the accompanying florets of what has to be called toddler bok choy (it was more delicate and diminutive than its typical “baby” version), as well as those same pepper-perfumed sprouts, brought real brightness to the otherwise plodding bird.
And whatever you do, make sure to save even a tiny bit of room for the sweet rice ball soup. It’s not often you get to flex your adventure-eating muscle with a vegetarian dish, but here it is in all its unabashedly glutinous glory, the starchy rice balls marooned in a thick broth, the mouthfeel perhaps unfamiliar but, ultimately, likely to win you over.
This is a deeply satisfying way to eat: Soulful, deliriously affordable and devoid of even the slightest pretension. In other words, perfectly pitched for what it sets out to accomplish, and immensely satisfying in the way it gets there.
59 N. 11th St.
Cuisine: Shanghai-rooted Chinese.
Hours: Daily, 10:30am-10:30pm.
Price range: Most dishes are less than $7, and two people can eat until they’re uncomfortable for less than $25.
Atmosphere: Bare-bones, but friendly.
Food: Soulful and comforting.
Service: Helpful and pleasant, with very occasional language issues.
Dinner with Luke Palladino