“It’s like a buffet that comes to you!” We’ve just been seated for dim sum service at Mesa’s Mekong Palace Restaurant, and my friend, a dim sum newbie, can hardly contain her excitement. Her eyes are glued to the silver serving cart that’s rolling by our table, trailing puffs of shrimp-scented steam into the air.
She’s in love, she says, with everything about this loud and happy scene: the bottomless cups of hot tea; the shrimp dumplings bulging from their dewy wrappers; even the wobbly, slippery hunks of fried tofu that she can’t quite pick up with her plastic chopsticks.
If you, like my friend, have reached adulthood without partaking in the culinary free-for-all that is a dim sum service, it’s time to acquaint (or maybe re-acquaint) yourself with the small but lively dim sum scene in metro Phoenix.
You probably already know that dim sum refers to a type of meal, one most often enjoyed on the weekends, featuring a roster of bite-sized dishes that are enjoyed with tea. The “Chinese brunch” tradition of dim sum originated in southern China, in Guangdong (formerly Canton) province. It’s most closely identified with Hong Kong, the dim sum capital of the world, where the format that we recognize today first took shape in the 1950s.
In metro Phoenix, the dim sum pickings are slim for a city of this size, and the local dim sum scene doesn’t yet offer what you might find in other big cities — amenities like ultra-cheap dim sum takeout shops, or restaurants with more modern formats, including placemat pictograph menus that have started to replace the iconic dim sum carts.
Dim sum in metro Phoenix leans more traditional, but that’s not necessarily a knock. You’ll find most of the essential dim sum dishes around town, and with regional Chinese cooking blossoming in the southeast Valley, there’s hope that more dim sum will eventually come our way.
Some tips for first-timers: Dim sum is served family-style, and a group of three or four seems to be the optimum number if your goal is to sample as many dishes as possible. Most dishes come with three or four small servings, and are generally priced between $2 to $6. You pay your bill to a cashier. Tipping is not included, so be sure to add it to the final total. While there are no strict courses in dim sum, you’ll want to start any dim sum brunch with a pot of hot tea — chrysanthemum, oolong, and jasmine are tried-and-true favorites.
Great Wall Cuisine
The Vibe: Great Wall is located in a ramshackle west-side strip mall that looks like it’s seen better days. Don’t let that stop you from heading inside, though. The cavernous dining room is dimly lit, with the airs of a fading Chinese banquet hall. Groups are accommodated with large tables equipped with lazy susans, while scruffy booths hold smaller parties. Arrive early (around 10 a.m.) on the weekend, especially Sundays, if you want to avoid waiting for a table.
Be Sure to Try: Highlights at Great Wall include classics like siu mai, steamed pork and shrimp dumplings, which are well-seasoned and deliriously juicy. Keep an eye out for pai gwat (spare ribs), pale in color, very tender, and served in a rich, aromatic sauce. Don’t skip the house sticky rice, which comes wrapped in a lotus leaf. It pairs well with nearly every other dish you’re bound to come across.
Braised chicken feet (also known as Phoenix claws) are good here — gelatinous and packed with lots of gingery, chile pepper-laced flavor. They are commonly served in round metal steamers, usually found on the same cart where you get your dumplings. If your server doesn’t offer them, ask. To eat them, simply bite off a piece of the foot and suck off the cartilage and skin. Spit out the small bones and move on to the remaining joints and toes.
Another delicacy available at Great Wall: duck tongue, a texture-rich treat that is slightly chewy and fatty, with a thin piece of soft cartilage that runs up the middle of the tongue. Some people love eating the soft bone, but you can also just eat around it. Duck tongue leans more neutral in flavor, so mostly you’ll taste the Maggi sauce, a dark, deeply savory and salty sauce that looks a lot like Worcestershire.
You Can Skip: Desserts were a little disappointing on a recent visit. A coconut bun was only vaguely coconutty, and a pineapple bun was more airy than sweet.
Overall: As Cantonese-style cooking has waned in the Valley, Great Wall Cuisine in Phoenix has bucked the trend. This is a west-side staple, and one of the oldest dim sum services in town. It’s an absolute must if you want to experience the meal in its full cacophonous glory, or if you’re looking for hard-to-find offal cuts.
Hungry diners await the dim sum at Mekong Palace Restaurant.
Mekong Palace Restaurant
The Vibe: In Mesa, the bustling Mekong Plaza shopping mall has become a destination for families, shoppers, and lovers of Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and regional Chinese cooking, among others. The mall is anchored by the Mekong Supermarket, but it’s also home to more than 20 other shops selling Chinese pottery, jewelry, cellphones, and medicinal herbs. There’s even a small shop dedicated to selling jerky. Part of the fun of coming to Mekong for dim sum is the window shopping that inevitably follows. Mekong Palace Restaurant is situated on the north end of the bustling mall in what is essentially a blocked-off food court. The space is loud and lively, and service tends to be fast.
Be Sure to Try: Look for the ha gow (shrimp dumplings wrapped in tapioca-starch wrappers), featuring a snappy, fresh shrimp-ball nucleus. Cha siu bao (barbecue pork buns) are yeasty and fluffy, with a deliciously rich sweet-savory pork and gravy center. Veggies are another highlight, and you probably shouldn’t pass up a plate of tender, oyster sauce-sluiced Chinese broccoli — it might be the only greens you eat all morning.
Don’t miss the cheong fun, slippery rice noodle rolls wrapped around seasoned beef, anointed with a wonderful sweet soy sauce. For dessert, there are egg tarts — the ones here are a little eggy and perfectly sweet. This is also a good destination for Peking duck.
You Can Skip: The calamari can be touch-and-go, depending on how long it seems to have sat on a cart. The dessert selection can be disappointing if you come later in the day.
Overall: No dim sum is perfect, but Mekong Palace Restaurant offers one of the buzziest and best services on the east side.
The Vibe: Large, noisy, and full of happy-looking families on the weekend, Phoenix Palace delivers a nice mix of chaos and comfort. Don’t be turned off by the long lines — the restaurant has developed a streamlined seating system, and it’s rare that you’ll have to wait more than a few minutes for a table to open up. The dining room is airy and spacious, decorated with artificial greenery. It’s a little dated, but you’ll come for the food. The restaurant is located in the same Chandler strip mall that’s home to Lee-Lee’s International Market, so you can do a little shopping and restock your pantry after brunch.
Be Sure to Try: The calamari — it’s gorgeously puffy, crisp, and well-seasoned. Lo pak gou, radish cake mottled with nubs of sausage, is lightly fried and ultra-savory. Don’t pass up dim sum staples like aromatic shrimp-stuffed eggplant; plates of tender, melty steamed beef tripe; shrimp balls; or the plate of crispy, fried pork belly, which is reason enough to get up early on a Saturday.
If you start to develop a stomachache at any point during dim sum, a bowl of the silky congee is almost always the cure. Phoenix Palace also has one of the best dim sum dessert carts in metro Phoenix, weighed down with sesame balls, coconut buns, mango custard buns, and, of course, egg tarts. If you want to pack away some dim sum for later, Phoenix Palace has a takeout counter where you can order dim sum dishes to go, along with duck, barbecue, and pastries.
You Can Skip: Potstickers were beautifully browned and crispy on a recent visit, but surprisingly bland.
Overall: You’ll definitely get your dim sum fix at Phoenix Palace, where large crowds and high table turnover seems to ensure a steady supply of very fresh, hot dishes. This is one of the stronger dim sum services on the east side.
The Vibe: Located in a quiet strip mall just down the street from Phoenix Palace, the dining room at C-Fu Gourmet in Chandler feels like it’s fraying a little at the edges. The dining room is massive, which means there’s a chance that about half the room will remain empty during your visit. The negative space and vacant tables can make this feel like one of the least lively dim sum brunches in town, although TVs add some noise and energy. Groups are accommodated with large, comfortable tables with lazy susans, and service tends to be courteous and fast.
Be Sure to Try: Say "yes" to juicy, well-seasoned pork dumplings and crispy shrimp balls rolled in papery, octopus-like wonton skins — both are wonderful. Ha gow, dewy shrimp balls wrapped in translucent wrappers, are reliably good.
To round out your meal with veggies, try a nice, garlicky plate of green beans. Spare ribs are extra-fatty and packed with irresistible flavor, and well-seasoned pot stickers are worth the stamp on your dim sum card. You’ll also find a credible tripe plate floating around the dining room. Dessert egg tarts, on a recent visit, were quite good.
You Can Skip: Chicken feet were served in an underseasoned sauce on a recent visit, and a plate of shrimp tofu was very bland.
Overall: The sparse selection on some days can be a bummer. Still, C-Fu opens at 9:30 a.m. on the weekends, earlier than most other dim sum restaurants, and arriving early will give you access to the hottest and freshest dishes. This is one dim sum that will do in a pinch, because some dim sum is almost always better than no dim sum.
Great Wall Cuisine
3446 West Camelback Road, #155
Dim sum hours:
Daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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Mekong Palace Restaurant
66 South Dobson Road, #120, Mesa
Dim sum Hours:
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
2075 North Dobson Road, Chandler
Dim sum hours:
Daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
2051 West Warner Road #13, Chandler
Dim sum hours:
Monday to Friday 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.