Most dim sum experiences in the U.S. are decently sedate ones. You arrive. You talk to a host or hostess to get a table. You sit and wait for the dim sum carts to come around (or, heaven forbid, you order from a menu…blah). The cart arrives and you pick an item or two or three. You get your dim sum dance card stamped and then you tuck into the delights. There’s a modicum of noise, you get excited at the prospect of the next cart and what it holds. As I said, sedate.
Now imagine a world where you are vying for food in a borderline animalistic manner, where you fight for a place to sit, leap up to grab the next morsel that is flying by, devour it with gusto then repeat the whole hedonistic tableau several times until sated. You stagger away from where everyone else is still undergoing the feeding ritual while someone else takes your spot to feed. On your way out, you realize that although you feel a bit dirty, you fight back the urge to go back in a few hours to repeat the carnage. Welcome to Hong Kong’s Lin Heung Teahouse.
Lin Heung is on one of those slightly hilly, narrow Hong Kong streets that bridge the gap between the high rises and the street vendors. The first thing you’ll notice once stepping through Lin Heung’s bright red and gold exterior entrance, is the dull roar of activity that is coming from the upper floor at top of a set of stairs directly in front of you. Greeting you at the top of those stairs is a room with a beehive of food frenzy. There are nothing but round, 8-person communal tables, most of which have 10 people around them. Two or three dim sum carts weave their way though the available aisleways, stopping nearly as many times to wait for people to get out of the way as dispensing steamer baskets of dim sum.
There is no hostess coordinating seats at tables. You literally walk a circle around the room (causing some aforementioned dim sum cart stoppage) until you see anyone who seems to be approaching being “finished” eating. Then you stand next to or close to them and give them the “you gonna eat that” eye until they start to get up. If you’re not fast, someone else will literally cut in front of you to help them out of their seats to secure their own table space. And forget about waiting until someone clears away the dirty dishes; you’d better sit down when the seats are available. If you don’t, you’ll lose those seats every time. Think that’s a little bit rude? Sure, but everyone else is doing it and you want to eat dim sum right?
But Lin Heung is a teahouse first and foremost and as soon as you sit down, most people at your table are juggling one or two tea cups with lids, pouring out steeped water from one to the other or to a trough-like bowl in the middle of the table. The somewhat soothing ting-tang of the ceramic quickly gets lost in the cacophony of the rest of the room’s noise level but it remains constant throughout. Since we were the only foreigners there at the moment (a couple of others wandered in dazedly, as we were leaving), our waiter assumed that we just wanted a pot of crysanthemum tea. Although I will learn for the next trip to Lin Heung, the ceremony with which some folks were doing their tea cup jangling business was well beyond the scope of my feeble brain so I was grateful to just have a simple pot. And the tea ritual was the only thing remotely sedate about Lin Heung.
Although there are dim sum carts navigating the floor, the real action occurs when a new cart makes it’s appearance from a small but densely packed steam room. The noise level of the room actually goes up as several people from each of the tables get up, with their dim sum cards in their hands, race over to the newly laden carts.
Of course the race is all about getting the freshest, hottest har gow, sui mai, char sui bao, chicken feet and other house specialities. The cart driver is inundated with customers grabbing the lids of the steamer baskets and looking into them, moving them around and re-stacking them to see what is underneath, and people shoving their dim sum cards to be stamped before wandering away with their dim sum booty. There’s lots of banter and waving of cards. I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest locusts but I think I saw one cart nearly emptied of it’s contents in about two and a half minutes from the time it emerged from the steamer room.
Wanting to be one of the locals, I would scan and jump up with everyone else. This was well worth the effort as Lin Heung’s dim sum is bare-bones basic but truly excellent. There’s a certain rustic-ness to the dishes that conjours up home-cooking that adds to the delight. The chicken feet are bathed in black bean sauce and their own sticky-sweet collagen; the sui mai are fat, tall, pork-liver-y bites of goodness; shrimp in rice noodles are plump and slippery. There’s nothing fancy about any of the dim sum items nor do they need to be. Your table quickly becomes a teetering collection of steaming hot baskets, drips of sauces and refilled tea cups. You feed, you drink and when you’ve had enough, you push back, stand up and let the next person take your place.
Lin Heung is a real experience and although it’s fast-paced and noisy, it is packed with people who have a mission: to eat and drink tea. You’ll definitely get jostled. You may be mildly scolded by your waiter for not letting him or her clear the previous person’s plates. You’ll want to jump up to get your dim sum, over-and-over again. All of this is part of the adventure and when you’re done you’ll feel like you’ll return. If not the same day, the next time you’re in the neighbourhood.
Lin Heung Teahouse, 160-164 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong