BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
For those who like sidling up to the steam table for moist, oily lumps of Chinese, Indian or similar deliciousness, the instant gratification of the buffet is not without peril. Loading every possible item onto your first plate leaves you sadly nibbling on massive amounts of some cold and soggy thing you never should have taken, making the trip for a second plate that much further away. Even worse, you actually have to get up and waddle over TO the buffet table mid-gorge. You don’t deserve this, and you don’t have to: go to Chinatown for dim sum instead.
There are two basic types of dim sum; in the more genteel version, you fill out a card ordering various items and they are brought to you. In the other version, weary Chinese women push around carts laden with covered plates of fresh morsels and try to talk you into eating them. There’s no waiting for food to be prepared (although carts can take a while to make a full circuit of the dining area), no cold or lukewarm food, and you don’t have to leave your seat. Emperor’s Garden is the best by far of Boston’s cart-based dim sum, both in setting and cuisine.
Emperor’s Garden (or Empire Garden, depending on which sign you go by) is housed in a converted theater; the vaulted ceilings, chandeliers and ornate architecture would have made it a good venue for opera or concerts or similarly inferior uses of space, and the owners haven’t changed much except for repainting the walls with images of the sky and Chinese flora and installing a golden dragon or two. The grandiose setting is a bit intimidating, even more so when it is filled with a few hundred people and a dozen-odd carts weaving around. Even getting a seat is pretty impersonal: you take a number and mill among the crowds waiting for the announcer to blare it out over the loudspeakers in Cantonese and in English. The sheer volume of the operation, of course, makes it pretty cheap – no matter which 5 or 6 items I share with someone else, it never costs more than $9 or $10 per person.
So, which items are worth picking up off the carts? Knowing the names of dishes doesn’t help too much, since there’s no menu and only Chinese is spoken. As an initial guidepost, note the variety of dishes on the cart. If there are 5 or 6 different dishes on a cart, they are generally homely leftovers from the first pass around the room. It basically works just like pursuing members of the opposite sex. If the cart-pusher slows down to give you a long, lingering look at her wares, or entices you with a come-hither look and some description other than “fresh from the kitchen,” then you should probably steer clear. Even this stuff is still fresher and less oily than that served at competitors Grand Chau Chau and China Pearl. The more questionable items – inverted bowls of fried rice, fried spheres, etc. are most often featured during slow periods; if you wait a bit longer, you’ll have access to the good stuff.
My favorite item is the sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf – the leaf traps in moisture and heat really well, and the rice is studded with juicy chunks of duck, pork and egg. The char siu bao – puffy buns with a gooey center of barbequed pork – are pleasantly lofty and the filling is not too sweet. Shrimp dumplings, or har gow, are made with fresh, crisp shrimp. Long cylinders of tofu filled with shrimp or beef that are drizzled with sauce from a big yellow squeeze bottle are also worth trying. The dessert items are tempting, but not really well differentiated from the other offerings – custard in a pastry shell is pleasantly jiggly, but the pastry itself isn’t sweet enough, and too similar to the high-fat items that precede it.
Once the curtain falls on the dim sum midday event, Emperor’s Garden isn’t really worth returning to. The food served for dinner is delicious – particularly the pan-fried shell-on shrimp ($10.50), if you’ve never had the pleasure of shrimp whose shells are heated to the point of being thin and crispy enough to eat, but the prices are a few dollars too high for each item, compared to the relative bargains at nearby Hong Kong Eatery and Peach Farm Seafood. The most compelling reason to try dinner is that the place could seat and feed 50 people without blinking. For a relaxing midday alternative to buffets and omelette-ridden brunches, however, Emperor’s Garden is the best option.
Emperor’s Garden690 Washington StreetBoston617.482.8898Open 8:30am-11pm daily