Annals of Dim Sum Innovation: Jin Fong and Very Tong Vie for Supremacy
Ever seen this one before? Shrimp paste and vegetables packaged like sushi at Very Tong.
Three years ago, the city was in the dim sum doldrums, a condition that had persisted for a decade or more. What you got when you traipsed into one of the football-field-size dining rooms was a procession of carts bearing tidbits that were gummy, gluey, and stale-tasting, made with shrimp redolent of iodine and meat-paste stuffings that might have been library paste. Now, all that has changed.
Pigs in blankets at Jin Fong.
Not only do we have great dim sum in all the standard configurations -- from shrimp noodles to braised tripe to fluffy pork-stuffed bao to two or more kinds of chicken feet -- but we have them at a half-dozen standout places in Flushing, Sunset Park, and Manhattan's Chinatown. And now great dim sum can found in Forest Hills, Queens, and Borough Park, Brooklyn, and more will certainly follow in far-flung places. Theories vary as to the reason for the bounce-back, but my favorite is that middle-class Chinese-Americans who had moved to the suburbs are returning to Chinatowns, assimilated children in tow, to show them just how wonderful dim sum is.
Kids are enthralled by dim sum -- until they remember their iPads.
While all the standard varieties are still available, dim summeries are now vying with each other in a race to innovate, as it's done in Hong Kong. In Manhattan's Chinatown, Jin Fong (20 Elizabeth Street, 212-964-5256) fashions dyed sweet-potato starch into carrot shapes and stuffs them with peanut butter -- and the kids go crazy. Using Chinese sausage and pastry something like a cross between a bao and a croissant, they also make a tasty version of that cocktail classic, pigs in blankets.
At Jin Fong, peanut-butter-filled faux carrots.
This eggplant sandwich is stuffed with panko crumbs, at Very Tong.
But perhaps the greatest innovator is the southern Chinese restaurant in Borough Park formerly known as World Tong, which Counter Culture reviewed in 2005. The name has recently changed to Very Tong (6202 18th Avenue, 718-236-8118), but the dim sum is better than ever. In fact, I think it's the best dim sum in town.
My friend Zach Brooks -- the founder of Midtown Lunch, now expatriated to L.A. amid much hand-wringing -- invited me and a group of friends there to sample the dim sum when he returned to N.Y. on a recent weekend. Arriving at 11 a.m., we waited a mere 15 minutes to sit in a dining room less than one-quarter the size of Jin Fong's.
These durian dim sum pastries are only slightly stinky when you break them open.
Strawberry Jell-O studded with fermented black beans might not be for everyone.
Amid a parade of carts featuring dim sum pristine in its perfection (though sometimes not as warm as we would have liked), we noted several things we hadn't seen in town before, including a shrimp paste lozenge topped with crisp celery and carrot and bound with a strip of nori to resemble sushi. It was steamed, which is a weird thing to do to nori, but the taste was interesting.
There was also a kind of braised eggplant gâteaux with panko crumbs between the layers, black-bean-studded strawberry Jell-O in the shape of bonbons, and durian cigars made with exceedingly flaky pastry tinted green -- "To warn you off," said Zach. It left our party excited about returning again to see what else would appear -- except Zach, who had to beat it back to California.
Zach emerges from the restaurant totally sated (click to enlarge).
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.