Since it’s January, let’s start with the bottom line. Dim sum brunch for six adults. Everyone pushes back their chairs happily stuffed, like a gaggle of plump dumplings. Total bill: $45. With a generous tip, that comes to $9 per person.
This was the tab for a recent meal at Dai Tung, a bustling Hong Kong–style Cantonese restaurant on Kingsway between Fraser and Knight. Dai Tung has been my no-brainer dim sum spot for ages. It’s where I go when I roll out of bed craving dumplings but not feeling particularly adventurous. It beckons when I want the basics: some good har gow (shrimp dumplings), a couple of siu mai (pork dumplings), a spring roll or two, and other standbys like shrimp-stuffed wide floppy rice noodles (cheung fan) and steamed minced beef balls (ngau yuk kau).
Around for over 20 years, Dai Tung has an old-school atmosphere with a traditional dining room crammed with round tables. There are certainly trendier places for dim sum in town, with more refined cuisine or stylish service. But it’s hard to compete with this kind of value. And when money’s tight and it’s difficult to justify going out to eat at all, it’s easy to justify Dai Tung.
Unlike a lot of dim sum restaurants, Dai Tung still has cart service. Although there’s a good argument to be made for prepared-to-order dim sum—it’s invariably hotter and fresher—I still prefer the charm of the carts. The rolling parade adds entertainment to the meal and encourages you to try new dishes: just peer into a stack of steamers and choose something on impulse. Cart service also means that once you’re seated, your meal is practically on the table. This counts for a lot at Dai Tung—I’ve often waited a good half-hour to get in.
A word of warning: the restaurant is always crowded on weekends, and doesn’t take dim sum reservations. (It’s also cash-only when dim sum is served, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.) Arriving at 10 a.m. on a recent Sunday, our party was seated immediately. But half an hour later, the restaurant was full and a handful of people were milling about the entryway. By 11 a.m., we had to fight our way out the door, as the mob had spilled out onto the sidewalk. The unflappable hostess does an admirable job of crowd control, calling out your number in both Chinese and English, but you’ll be happier if you arrive before 10 a.m. or after 1:30 p.m.
Any restaurant that’s constantly busy is doing something right. Here, it’s reasonably good dim sum at an excellent price. Most cart items are $2.50; dishes hand-carried from the kitchen, such as deep-fried squid, are $3.50, while specialties like salted chicken on rice are $4. Tea is 70 cents per person, and it keeps coming as long as you set your teapot lid askew. I never keep track of how many bamboo baskets pile up on my table, but I’ve noticed that I usually spend about 50 percent more when I’m dining with just one friend, rather than as part of a group. Maybe there’s less conversation, so I eat more? In any case, eating with at least four people encourages variety.
I always have the har gow. With a translucent rice-flour wrapper encasing nuggets of tender pink shrimp, Dai Tung’s har gow is very good, though not the most delicate I’ve ever eaten. It’s always in high demand, so I pounce when I see it; otherwise, the response from the cart servers is usually “Coming, coming.” The veggie food group gets a nod with crispy, garlicky, salty green beans, which I pretend aren’t stir-fried in a generous amount of oil. I tend to avoid most of the oily deep-fried items unless the pork spring rolls catch me at a particularly weak moment. I do, however, also have a fondness for the deep-fried taro dumplings (wu gok). These soft little footballs stuffed with minced pork have a contrastingly crispy shell that encases the mashed taro. With one bite, the feathery coating shatters.
I’ve unfortunately found that Dai Tung’s deep-fried cart items are often served warm, rather than hot. That’s the tradeoff with cart service: except for the items kept piping hot in steamers, by the time a dish rolls around to you it may have cooled considerably. I keep my eyes peeled for servers coming out of the kitchen carrying full trays, to catch dishes at their prime.
Service at Dai Tung can be a bit frenzied, but it’s professional and responsive, although sometimes you must be persistent. Tables are packed tightly together, and those seated on the aisles may have to scootch in to let a cart pass, but then that’s all part of the fun.
Come early enough and Dai Tung will reward you with a great brunch at a great price. That’s worth rolling out of bed for.