It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and I had somehow managed to restrain myself during the previous evening’s festivities. It was a rare vacation day, overcast and lazy, a perfect morning for dim sum. Another post-pescetarian discovery, I’ve spent the past year exploring the International District in search of the perfect barbecue pork bun (and I found it, along with the best dim sum in town over at Monsoon on Capitol Hill – although Eric Banh’s dim sum is more of the platonic ideal, and less of the actual experience). And the experience was what I was craving this morning, so off we went to Jade Garden.
Not unlike heated discussions about this or that “best” pizza in town, nothing quite gets opinions flowing like who has the “best” dim sum. House of Hong is a perennial contender. So is O’Asian. But I am firmly in the Jade Garden camp, and will leave it at that. I’m not the only one either, since the place is always, inevitably, insanely crowded. Hour-long waits on the weekends are not out of the question. And on this particular holiday, people were crammed into the foyer and spilling out onto Seventh Avenue. It was standing room only, shoulder to shoulder, a crush of people waiting to get their pork shui mai on.
The restaurant itself is deceptively large, with several rooms and all sizes of table. It’s got that charming dingy feeling that you get in many of the joints in the ID, cluttered and a little dirty, with huge tanks of lobsters and creepy unidentifiable fish up front. Above the fish tanks, there is an improvised little shrine with three flickering LED incense burners. For no apparent reason, the ceiling is lined with white lattice and fake plastic ivy. The wall behind the register is covered with autographed glossy headshots of Chinese actors and actresses. The hostess and the runners will scream at each other in Cantonese over the roar of the crowd until they finally call your name (after you’ve reminded them that you’re actually still waiting).
Once seated, it will thankfully only be a matter of seconds before the first cart shows up and you’re devouring baskets of perfectly steamed shrimp and scallion dumplings or pan-fried daikon cakes. Those cakes are particularly good, with little pieces of pork sausage cooked into the otherwise silky, gelatinous mashed turnip. I’m also a huge fan of the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, cooked with a hearty ground pork and chicken mixture. Based on your luck of the draw, there will probably be something new to try as well (I usually just go with whatever the lady pushing the cart says is good, but you have to be careful, since she’ll just keep piling the baskets on the table until you’re completely overwhelmed with food). This visit found me sampling a crispy, breaded and baked pork ball with scallions. The lady with the cart took a gigantic pair of scissors and chopped it in half before serving.
You’ll probably be full by this point, but do not pass up the char siu bau – a fluffy, sweet white bun with a deep red tangy barbequed pork filling. Ladle on some hot pepper paste from the little jar on the table. Drink some tea or a Tsingtao. Conversation with your dining companions may be difficult, as the decibel level ranges somewhere between airplane liftoff and a My Bloody Valentine concert. The final bill will not be expensive. You may have leftovers. They will be delicious.