Sunday, Dec 21, 2014, 11:52 PM CST – China

Outside In

flavor of the month

Dim Sum 24/7

It’s 5 AM and old men can already be seen hobbling off to the local teahouse. Their lightweight t-shirts cling to their bodies with the immediate sweat that breaks out on a muggy Hong Kong morning.

They greet their usual group of friends and seat themselves into their favorite booth. Large, creaky ceiling fans screech overhead, their blades dangerously close to the jumble of birdcages suspended beside them.

It’s a peaceful time to engage in small chat, catch up on the morning’s news, coo over captive birds, and yum cha, “drink tea,” while pecking at steaming portions of dim sum.

In Beijing, this time-honored breakfast tradition has morphed into an entirely different beast – at least at one of the few restaurants in the city to specialize in dim sum, Jin Ding Xuan. It was 3 AM on a Sunday morning. Instead of a homely little joint, I found myself squinting at the glare coming off of the buffed glass windows of this three-story, 24-hour establishment near the city’s Lama Temple.

Its palatial exterior reminded me of an epileptic Christmas light show. Hard to miss, the restaurant is mocked up to look like a temple, with tiki lights roped around its gaudy upturned eaves. The bobbing red lanterns and bright neon sign can be spotted from miles away on a rare, unpolluted day. 

While hardly on the map with China’s die-hard dim sum fanatics, Jin Ding Xuan is just what I had been jonesing for in the middle of the night, when this Beijing institution enjoys some of its best business.

Inside, it was loud and lively, with swelling cheers and clinks of glasses from diners swigging Yanjing, the cheap, local brew. Deep-yellow lights cast a sickly glow over the tables, out-sleazing the restaurant’s efforts to retain some elegance and taste.

The restaurant seems to expect little decorum its eaters – as we sat, a waitress tossed seat covers over our purses and jackets, in an attempt to protect them from grease stains. But overall, the atmosphere felt fun and we were more than ready to feast.

There were some hits and misses.

Dim sum is not a matter of appetisers, entrees and dessert. It’s usually a dozen or so (the more the merrier) light dishes served in bamboo steamers. Usually, everyone manages to sample one serving of each dish.

The nuomiji, a plump portion of glutinous rice stuffed with chicken scallops and wrapped in a lotus-leaf was wonderful – chewy, sticky grains of rice rich with flavors from the chicken.

The xiajiao, or shrimp dumpling. was less delightful. The casing, generally fine enough to see the shrimp, was thick and rubbery, and I even left the wrap, usually my favorite part of this Cantonese staple, on the plate. The shrimp paste was dry and tasteless.

The sweet and salty filling of the barbecue pork bun was up to snuff, but the other order of buns, filled with yellow custard, was off – strangely artificial with an unappetizing and filmy aftertaste.

The pan-fried turnip cake, another must-try, was delicious, slightly crisp on the outside, and soft in the middle parts. Bits of shredded radish that had not been mashed into the paste added a nice depth in textures.

The thick rice-based porridge, or congee, was superb with slices of fish, crunchy wonton threads, ginger, and scallions. It was enhanced with a touch of vinegar, soy sauce and chili oil.

Overall - I wasn’t wowed by the quality of ingredients. But for a late-night snack that satisfies the dim sum munchies in a city where 24-hour dining is typically a choice between the Golden Arches or a dubious streetside kebab, one can do a lot worse than Jin Ding Xuan.

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