Saturday, June 2, 2012

Chicago Chowdown: Dim Sum Dining: Shui Wah, Chinatown

Plop me down in any major city and you can safely bet that I'll eventually wind up in Chinatown. I just can't resist the allure of those red-painted pagodas, the restaurants serving dainty and delicious dim sum, and shops selling everything from oolong to oysters, steak knives to steamers, and, of course, decorative vegetable cutters in every imaginable shape (because everyone needs a decorative vegetable cutter). I've eaten and shopped my way through Chinatowns in London and NYC - and now Chicago.


During my visit to NYC last summer, I filled up on dirt-cheap (and delicious) dumplings at the famous Vanessa's Dumpling House and spent some time in pursuit of the perfect pork bun. Since I'm a girl who knows what she likes, I set off to do exactly the same thing in Chicago.

My sister and I couldn't find a similarly cheap-and-cheerful eatery to match Vanessa's (but really, is there any place in the world to match their four-for-a-dollar dumplings?) so we ended up at a dim sum restaurant on Archer Avenue.


Now, Archer Ave is full of restaurants and dim sum eateries, so after about 20 minutes of deliberation, we followed our noses into a little place called Shui Wah. As luck would have it, this restaurant has developed a good following for its delicious and reasonably priced dim sum.

This restaurant is tiny, but that doesn't stop it from doing a brisk business. In fact, the place was so full during our visit that we ended up sharing our table with another group - a practice we commonly encountered in Europe but have rarely seen in the US. Close quarters might also be responsible for another of Shui Wah's unusual traits: there are no carts at this dim sum eatery - instead you order on paper, as you would sushi or tapas, and the food is brought out individually. This process takes a little longer than the usual a la carte service, but it does mean that the food is piping hot when it arrives and there's no waiting for your favorite dish to make the rounds.

Clockwise from top left: chive cake, taro cake, shrimp dumpling

Between the two of us, my sister and I ordered steamed shrimp dumplings, chive cakes, fried taro cakes and steamed pork buns. The shrimp dumplings were wonderfully flavorful, if a little too soft, and the taro cake was a pleasant surprise, being both salty and sweet, soft and crispy. Of course, the highlight of the meal was the steamed pork buns - some of the best I've ever had, and I've eaten many. Even my baby nephew tried a bit for his first-ever taste of dim sum!

The delicious steamed pork bun

The atmosphere of the restaurant is a little harried (you'll have to be assertive about flagging down servers during the lunchtime rush) and, for dim sum neophytes, possibly a bit intimidating, but the food is good and the prices are very reasonable.

A few tips: don't be afraid to ask if you're unsure about any of the dishes - our helpful server even pointed out items on others' plates - and if you're really lost, ask for recommendations. The steamed pork buns are a known classic and we saw lots of delicious-looking orders of 'fried dough' and pork shumai. Additionally, the jasmine tea was a warm treat on an unseasonably chilly day - the perfect thing to fortify us for the walk back to the conveniently nearby Metra station. All in all, a Chinatown success!

Note: A message on Yelp states that the restaurant will be closing on August 1st. If true, it's a shame - but that still gives you a few months to get your fill of delicious dim sum!

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Shui Wah Chinese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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