The small metal box arrived at our table at Metairie’s Royal China Restaurant emitting the aroma of ginger and scallions. We lifted the lid and found four neat dumplings, their wrappers tightly pulled against bits of garlicky, juicy pork, with doughy edges neatly crimped into closure.
It was the first course for an extended mid-day meal of dim sum, and much more would follow in quick succession: basket-shaped shumai dumplings topped with slender slices of scallop, thick wedges of tofu stuffed with shrimp, and a mound of sticky rice studded with dense, dark Chinese sausage and steamed inside a sweet-smelling lotus leaf.
Even after all the gifts have been dispersed from under your tree this Christmas, there can still be a parade of little packages to open and bundles to unwrap with dim sum.
An age-old Chinese teahouse tradition of savory snacks, the contemporary dim sum approach now resembles a form of brunch and is best enjoyed with a small group, the better to sample different dishes and extend the pleasure of a meal that can unfold at whatever pace you set.
In the days ahead, when you need a break from holiday leftovers and perhaps an excuse for some social activity outside the home, the circuit of local Chinese restaurants serving dim sum is a good call. These restaurants serve many of the same traditional dishes (with prices ranging from $3 to $6 for most items) though each has its own style and particulars of service.
Panda King Fine Dining
925 Behrman Highway, Terrytown, (504) 433-0388; pandakingrestaurant.com
Attached to a huge Asian buffet (and adjoining the Asian grocery Hong Kong Market), Panda King Fine Dining is a specialized offshoot — a dedicated dim sum destination and the only place in town where the little dishes are wheeled around the dining room on carts. This essentially functions as a buffet that comes to your table, and each waitress makes the rounds like a street vendor, hawking her particular selection. Some carts have plates of broiled jalapenos stuffed with crab, squares of taro cake (crisp at the edge, chewy within) and sweet custard tartlets for dessert. One ferried a collection of clams with basil in a buttery sauce, small periwinkle snails in a coconut curry and a bin of large sea snails that looked more like something you’d get at a beachside gift shop than have for lunch. Chewy and fiercely spicy, extracting them required a strong grip, and eating them called for many napkins. The delicate, two-bite dumplings (filled with pork, shrimp and greens or quail egg, to name just a few) make an easier introduction. Dim sum is served Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
600 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, (504) 831-9633
Royal China proprietor Shirley Lee has been guiding people through the basics of dim sum for many years, serving her 100-item menu every day next to her regular menu and lunch buffet. Try paper shrimp, a morsel of chopped shrimp and cilantro fried in very thin wrappers; garlicky gai lan, the leafy, bitter Chinese broccoli; and small rounds of sliced Chinese eggplant topped with minced shrimp and garlic in pools of sesame-flavored broth. For a deeper dive, there are bony but succulent short ribs and chicken feet, a sinewy snack that must be an acquired taste I’ve yet to acquire. Save room for the red bean pancake, which is like a thick crepe filled with a sweetened red bean puree and covered with powdered sugar. Dim sum is served at lunch and dinner daily, including Christmas Day.
Bao & Noodle
2700 Chartres St., (504) 272-0004; baoandnoodle.com
A new addition to the restaurant scene, Bao & Noodle also can field some dim sum cravings, albeit on a smaller scale than the others. Bao & Noodle opened in October as a very casual, counter service cafe built into a former Marigny coffee shop. Assemble a few of the appetizers and you have a good representation of dim sum with scallion pancakes, fried and steamed bao (filled with ground pork or barbecue pork) and dumplings. The menu is very short, but the quality of individual items is very high, and it’s served at lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Three Happiness Restaurant
1900 Lafayette St., Gretna, (504) 368-1355; threehappiness.com
This combination Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant normally serves a lengthy dim sum menu on the weekends, though because the huge venue also doubles as an events hall, dim sum service is postponed in December in lieu of private holiday parties. Still, if you want to explore the local options for dim sum, add this one to the rotation in the new year for traditional flavors and the option to augment a spread with pho or spring rolls from the Vietnamese side of the menu. Dim sum is served Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.