"Okay, so it's Sunday morning," he recalls, "and I'm hungover and sitting at a booth with a bunch of friends who are eating everything in sight. I take a taste of this and that, but nothing really looks that good. And when the boiled chicken feet were put in front of me, I lost it." I remembered that conversation recently as I confronted a steaming, wizened chicken foot at the Plaza Bo Ling's, where dim sum is served on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Richard Ng, a Hong Kong native who owns the three Bo Ling's restaurants (the third is at 9574 Quivira in Overland Park, 913-888-6618) with his wife, Theresa, says "dim sum" translates as "little jewels." Other sources, such as Sharon Tyler Herbst's Food Lover's Companion, report that the Cantonese words "dim sum" can be loosely translated as "heart's delight" or "a little bit of heart," which was also the subtitle of Wayne Wang's Dim Sum, a 1984 film set in San Francisco's Chinatown. That movie had more to do with sacrifice and romance than with shrimp toast or stuffed mussels in black bean sauce. But looking over the packed dining room at Bo Ling's, who knows what tales were really playing out in the cozy booths and big round tables. The customers came in as many colors and styles as the dozens of dumplings, steamed buns, shrimp balls, funn rolls, and pastries that came rolling out on clattering carts for customers to peruse.
I noticed a few booths occupied by tastefully appointed WASPs and at least three tables of well-dressed, well-coiffed male couples, but the primary customer base during dim sum is Asian and Asian-American.
"Not just Chinese, but Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese," said Ng, scouring the room. "It's 80 percent of the dim sum customers." It's the Chinese, Ng said, who love chicken feet. "They're considered a great delicacy."
Ng stared at me on that Sunday afternoon, silently daring me to taste one of the two gnarled things half-floating in a little china dish filled with a fragrant, peppery broth. I looked over to an adjoining table and saw a beautiful young Asian woman, half my age, put a chicken foot in her mouth and pull it out again, leaving just the bone and claw.
Shrugging, I picked up a foot and started nibbling on the thin, rubbery tissue that loosely covered the shank of the bone. It wasn't flavorless, but the texture was so much like chewing on an old eraser that after a few game tries I tossed it back in the bowl, defeated. I'll stick with the steamed shark fin dumplings, thank you -- even though there's no shark fin in them anymore. "It's too expensive," Ng sighed. "So we make them with shrimp, pork, and a little cilantro."
The square of quivering jellyfish, however, was all too real, when it came around on a cart filled with Saran-Wrapped "cold plates."
"No, thank you," I told the waitress as sweetly as I could. "I've already had the chicken feet." Not to mention the taro dumplings and the milky-white, gelatinous concoction known as a funn roll, which looks like a prop from an old episode of Star Trek. Eating dim sum can be funn, I guess, if you're willing to set aside any preconceptions.
"I prefer American Chinese food," announced one of my coworkers, who wasn't impressed by the little Oriental delicacies that passed by. "Dim sum is very weird looking."
In China, dim sum is a frequent accompaniment to yum cha, or tea drinking, where a snack of something salty, sweet, sour, or spicy only enhances the enjoyment of the tea. Bo Ling's serves three different kinds of tea during dim sum: the strong, partially fermented oolong; the fragrant and exotic jasmine; and the pale, lemony-colored chrysanthemum, which Ng said is the least-requested by non-Asians but the most perfect tea for dim sum.
"It mellows as you eat," he said, taking a hefty sip from a little white china cup.
I gulped down a pot of the chrysanthemum tea myself, between greedy bites of the shrimp dumplings folded into translucent rice wrappers and the fluffy steamed buns stuffed with spicy barbecued pork. Each cart that rolled through the dining room was loaded with some new treasure, either tucked into a round steel box, stacked on a plate (the hot, crunchy shrimp toast and spring rolls), or packed into a wooden bucket (as was the hot sticky rice wrapped in a fresh lotus leaf).
Chef Lam Au prepares 50 different dim sum items; among my favorites were the delectable crispy shrimp (I ate them whole, heads and all) and green peppers stuffed with shrimp paste. Then there were the taro dumplings, which looked like fried shredded wheat until I bit into them to discover a gray filling that tasted like chalk.
"There is a little shrimp and pork in there too," Ng said, noticing my scowl.
The slices of cold barbecued pork were more to my liking; so was the marinated beef and the spicy cabbage that shared space on the cart for the plastic-covered cold plates. And the funn roll was a slab of warm, jellylike steamed rice flour, the consistency of boiled egg whites, wrapped like a crêpe around pork or shrimp and doused with tamari sauce. It tasted better than it looked (I'm always wary of shiny food), but two bites were plenty.
I was still gnawing on a vegetable-filled spring roll when the desserts started appearing. I gave a thumbs down to the pastry balls stuffed with red or black bean paste (unlike the funn rolls, they always look better than they taste). But both versions of the egg custard -- either a light flan or baked in a shell of flaky pastry -- were extraordinary. On another cart, a server ladled freshly made tofu, still warm from the oven, out of a big oak pail and into a dish as if it were custard. The soft bean curd actually looked and tasted like custard, especially with a dollop of tart ginger syrup.
For as crowded as the dining room gets, it's surprising that only two of the Bo Ling's locations offer weekend dim sum: the Plaza restaurant and the dining room at Gateway Plaza at 90th and Metcalf. "It's an expensive proposition," Ng said. "Very labor intensive." And it's not inexpensive for customers. A lot of those little plates can add up quickly, although sharing them with friends spreads the costs -- as well as the funn.
The lobby of the Plaza restaurant starts filling up early, and since the wait can be as long as 40 minutes, you might take along a book. Or a really interesting date. And yes, some of the offerings may look weird. But hey, you only live once. Don't be a chicken.