Dim sum is hands (chopsticks) down the easiest food to eat with kids. The dishes are bite-sized, the service is fast-paced, they get you in and out in under an hour. And, often, there are fish tanks! What more could you want?
For the uninitiated, dim sum involves trays of food (usually dumplings, but also noodles, pancakes and seafood) rolling by on carts. All you have to do is point, and the plate will be yours. Sometimes you don’t quite know what’s inside the dumpling, which is all part of the fun.
Some dim sum spots offer menu service, but that’s not quite as thrilling. There’s just something about a cart careening through a dining room with servers shouting orders that lends a certain energy to the proceedings. Most of these plates are around $5 a pop, too, so it’s an economical way to try lots of delicious things.
My favorite dim sum spot is Winsor in Quincy (there’s a smaller Chinatown branch, too), which offers both cart service and menus, plus easy street parking. Here, you get the excitement and unpredictability of the carts (when will the next one roll by? what will be on it?) coupled with the sanity of actually reading a menu and making an informed, not an impulsive, choice.
To get the most out of your dim sum experience, I humbly offer some essential tips. I say this with the knowledge of someone who took her first son out for dim sum when he was under a year old. We have a video of him eating leftovers in his high chair, turning into a black-bean-sauce-coated monster. It was adorable.
- Go first thing in the morning. Lines for dim sum spots are long, and you’ll need to take a number, just like at the deli. Nothing is worse than seeing carts of food go by that you just cannot touch. Your children will get hangry. I recommend looking up your favorite parlor and arriving exactly when they open, when they’re not too crowded and food is fresh.
- Don’t go late in the day. The food is picked over and often cold, and some favorites will inevitably be gone. No sticky buns equals bad news.
- Make new friends. If you want to get seated quickly, be open to sharing a table. Most dim sum restaurants have large, round tables in addition to two- and four-tops. Tell the host or hostess when you arrive that you’re willing to share. Your wait will be quicker.
- Try kid-friendly stuff. This goes without saying, but what are the safest bets? Well, my son loves glazed pork buns with a slightly sweet pork filling. Other kid-friendly nibbles: sesame balls filled with red bean paste, deep-fried chive dumplings (can’t go wrong with anything deep fried), fried taro cakes (crispy and crackly) and baked egg custard tarts. I enjoy steamed shrimp dumplings, clams in black bean sauce with shards of garlic and steamed shrimp noodles, but my son turns up his nose. More adventurous kids might want to try something like, say, chicken feet, which is admirable, but just know that feet aren’t especially meaty. They’re tough to eat.
- Order a lot of food! You should, because portions are small (usually three pieces per order) and prices are generally low. Our family of four usually pays about $30, and we often have things to take home.
- Pace yourself. It’s tempting to go hog wild and order six dishes from the first cart you see. Be judicious. You don’t want to fill up at the outset of the meal.
- Don’t expect explanations. This isn’t the style of place where you can banter with your server over ingredients, preferences and restrictions. They’re in a hurry. What you see is what you get.
- Bring cash. Many dim sum parlors are cash only. And those that aren’t are often incredibly busy. If you’re dealing with a fussy kid, you want to get in and out. It’s easiest to just plop cash on the table.