For the past few years, New York has been in a dim sum slump. A decade ago, Chinatown palaces like Triple Eight and Golden Unicorn were churning out perfect har gow and shui mei for armies of diners, when suddenly, the dumplings became shrunken and desiccated like small rodents on the verge of extinction. Flushing provided some respite at Gum Fung, where the sweet homemade tofu remained spectacular, as did the limited dim sum choices at Taiwanese tong shui spots like Sweet-n-Tart, but for years our intense longing for these noodley morsels has remained largely unfulfilled.
Watching New York’s four Chinatowns—downtown Manhattan, Flushing, Sunset Park, and Homecrest—hasn’t produced results, but lately Hong Kong–style restaurants have been appearing off the grid, especially along Brooklyn’s N train route. In particular, there’s World Tong, a glitzy, red-dragoned place that occupies an obscure corner in New Utrecht. Typical of these restaurants, the interior features a humongous color transparency of Hong Kong harbor ablaze with light, and enough marble to furnish a Roman emperor’s mausoleum. And the waiters, when they speak English, sometimes do so with a slight and somewhat comical British accent. Also typical of these eateries, the lengthy evening menu spans many styles of Chinese cookery, from Sino-American egg foo yong to pork chop Peking-style to Sichuan diced chicken with hot pepper to a surprisingly good moo shoo pork.
We knew we were in for something special when the first cart creaked by one weekday afternoon, as we sat among tables of chattering Chinese and Russian diners. The crustaceans in the shrimp noodles were three-bite wonders, far larger than the picayune specimens usually found wrapped in the glistening and diaphansheets of rice starch. About half of the dim sum wheeled by seemed to feature these gigantic shrimp; heck, even the pork sui mei had a supernumerary shrimp poised on top. But there were also pork-stuffed sheets of bean curd skin; bowls of tripe with chayote dotted with camphor pods, making you feel like Mom had just rubbed Vicks VapoRub on your chest; and delicious miniature dumplings filled only with scallions and flat-leaf parsley (most plates $1.95 to $3.95).
One day a hush fell over the room as a waiter in a waistcoat ran down the aisle like a bridegroom late for his wedding, swinging a bronze suckling pig by the tail. Within minutes, we had acquired a serving ($10.95), with the meat, fat, and crisp skin neatly arranged on a bed of shredded leeks. Another day the highlight of our meal was a wiggly plate of mango pudding molded into a goldfish shape, with black sesame seeds for eyes, flanked by slices of ripe mango. It finally dawned on us that there must be an improvisational dim sum maker operating in the kitchen, a chef of uncommon vision who devoted himself mainly to the smallest of morsels.
But sometimes his experiments go awry. One day we plucked a strange-looking roll, which was cut into four pieces, from the cart. There was red Chinese sausage in the center surrounded by cream-colored fish paste, and the whole thing had been wrapped in nori—the dried seaweed beloved of Japanese and Taiwanese—and then dipped in batter and deep-fried. The sodden result was greasy, fishy, and revoltingly sweet.