Believe it or not, Chinese food in this country doesn’t resemble the typical fare in China. (The New York Times had an article a few months ago about General Tso’s Chicken, the quintessential dish in most Chinese restaurants in the U.S. They discovered that hardly anyone in China has ever heard of General Tso, much less his chicken.)
People in China are more likely to gather around a table crowded with plates of dumplings and bowls of soup, sampling a little bit of everything until they are satisfied.
Here in America, that experience has a more rarified, gourmet connotation, generally referred to as “dim sum,” which roughly means “light refreshments” in Cantonese.
Chi’s Chinese Cuisine offers dim sum from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, and it is among the quickest and most affordable meals in town, perfect for lunch. But you have to ask for it.
At least, that’s what we had to do on a recent Saturday afternoon visit to Chi’s West Little Rock location. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the hostess, seated at a booth near the front of the restaurant, and the server brought a couple of lunch menus. When we asked about the dim sum, it was as if we had said the secret password.
With a knowing glance, the server took our menus and asked us to follow her to the back of the restaurant, where she offered us a booth next to a window. She then immediately wheeled over a cart piled with covered steam plates.
“Sticky rice?” she asked. Sure, we replied, and she placed one of the plates on the table. “Meatballs?” Yes. “Pork ribs?” You bet. And on and on it went. We agreed to everything except the tofu.
So in fewer than two minutes after sitting down, our table was laden with plates of food — seven plates, to be exact.
We were hungry and we can eat a lot, so we weren’t intimidated at first. But the sticky rice nearly took us down all by itself. You get two grapefruit-sized balls of rice, each one stuffed with sausage, pork, beef, and shrimp, wrapped in a palm leaf and steamed. Needless to say, it was mighty filling.
After that, we started going after the other offerings with our chopsticks. The meatballs, which had the consistency of matzo balls, were tasty. The pork ribs were small and fatty, and you had to work your way around the small pieces of bone. But the meat was juicy and flavorful, like typical Chinese spare ribs.
We had three different kinds of steamed dumplings, and each plate had four of them. There were shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, and, well, shrimp and pork dumplings. None were particularly distinctive (sometimes we had trouble telling them apart), but all passed muster in the good enough to eat category.
The strangest dim sum we ordered were the salmon mushrooms, literally four pieces of baked salmon, each placed on top of a sauteed mushroom. We each ate one and left the two that remained.
Shocked at how full we were, there was no way we could entertain the possibility of dessert, which also was available via a nearby cart. We noticed several varieties of traditional Chinese sweet rolls, as well as cake, small fruit tarts, and a flaky pastry resembling baklava topped with sesame seeds.
Another surprise was the price. The food for two people totaled $22 — and we ordered far more than normal, knowing that we wanted to sample the full complement of dim sum selections in service to this review.
As we interpreted our bill, we determined that “small” dim sum is $1.85, “medium” is $2.60, “large” is $3.70, and “specialty” is $5.20. We didn’t know which was which before we ordered, and you don’t receive a written menu, so if price is a concern, ask your server the price of each offering before it hits the table.
The next time you are short on time for lunch and want to expand your horizons beyond Moo Shu Pork and Kung Pao Chicken, give Chi’s dim sum a shot. They’ll still give you a fortune cookie when you’re finished.
Chi’s Chinese Cuisine
Three stars
6 N. Shackleford
There’s no menu for the dim sum, so if money’s an issue, ask before ordering. The most expensive is $5.20.
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Inexpensive. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.