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Dim Sum Is a Family Experience That’s on Hold. How Are Restaurants Learning to Adapt?

As restaurants like H.K. Cafe transition to takeout, a gathering space disappears

A white table covered in buns, shumai, har gow, and yu choy at H.K. Cafe in Portland
Dim sum from H.K. Cafe
Nick Woo/EPDX

As a kid, I loved the loud, frenetic energy of my family’s weekly trip to Chicago’s Chinatown for dim sum. My mom, uncle, and grandparents would loudly chatter in Chinese over the din and the rushing clatter of plates and chopsticks being set up for the next table. Often, my grandparents would run into old friends who still lived in the neighborhood they had settled into when they first came to America. I’d sit, wide-eyed, eagerly awaiting the stainless steel carts to make their way to our table and for my grandparents to order glistening, oil-slicked towers of har gow-siu mai and a plate of jin doi just for me.

As I got older and moved to Portland, I still found solace in those greasy metal steamer baskets. I traded in carts for ordering straight from the kitchen and never ate in groups big enough to try everything I wanted, but I still found glimpses of my childhood dim sum experience here that brought me comfort: big, multigenerational tables of Chinese families, and small groups of elders hugging hot cups of tea alongside a few baskets of shu mai.

Dim sum is special. Like for many other Chinese people across the world, dim sum isn’t just about the meal; it’s the experience. It’s often the one meal of the week or month where entire families or big groups of friends would eat together, the meal itself less the centerpiece and more the vehicle to bring us together.

In the subsequent weeks since Gov. Brown announced a statewide shutdown of all on-site dining, restaurants across the Portland area have scrambled to reorganize their business models to stay afloat. But dim sum is inherently an on-site dining meal, as many of the city’s biggest dim sum houses deliver fresh-steamed dumplings, thick bowls of congee, and fried snacks from those stainless steel carts. It’s a tradition, now on hiatus, that’s created a vacuum for many in the community. While some spots, like Wong’s King, have closed entirely, three dim sum restaurants — Ocean City Seafood Restaurant, Pure Spice and HK Cafe — have switched over to the only models they can to try and ride out the closures and bring a semblance of normalcy to the community: takeout and delivery.

Pure Spice has jumped on Uber Eats, Postmates, and GrubHub, as well as offering takeout from the restaurant itself. The Southeast Division restaurant’s dim sum, which favors direct delivery from the kitchen over carts, is available nearly in full, with only a couple items like taro and radish cakes unavailable. Maybe most excitingly, larger dim sum orders — as in multiple orders of the same type of dim sum — can be ordered raw, owner Qing Tan said, which customers can take home and steam up fresh themselves or pack in the freezer for later.

“This is the way we are working hard to survive and to support our community,” Tan said.

Portland’s larger dim sum houses like Ocean City and HK Cafe have seen an enormous drop in business, as weekend mornings would often bring long lines for tables. But they too have adapted, with Ocean City offering a limited dim sum menu all day for take out and delivery via DoorDash, owner Lisa Fan said. Similarly, Southeast Powell’s HK Cafe is also offering a limited, takeout-only dim sum menu. The menu is available all day, though is shortened to steamed items-only after 3:30 p.m.

Delivery apps, while becoming a necessity for many restaurants, continue to take a large commission out of orders, sometimes upwards of 20 to 30 percent. With most dim sum dishes priced at $5 or less, that commission is felt especially hard. Some restaurants, like Pure Spice, have raised the prices of their dishes on the delivery apps to try and balance out the fee; take-out order prices, however, are unaffected by this.

Without access to dim sum restaurants and similar gathering spaces, many in Portland’s Chinese community feel isolated. The restaurant closures have affected the city’s elderly Chinese population, who go out for dim sum daily for both food and fellowship, particularly bad, said Rosaline Hui, editor of the Portland Chinese Times.

“It seems like they are missing something,” Hui said. “Especially for the older generation who usually don’t need to cook. They go out to eat whatever they want but now there’s nowhere to go...They’re not like [the younger generations] who order to-go.”

Younger diners, though, are adapting to the takeout model, Hui said, creating a new sense of normalcy and community, albeit at home.

“After a week or two’s time, I realized that people really start to miss dim sum so much,” Hui said. “As far as I know, for the past weekend the restaurants that are doing dim sum to go had quite a lot of orders.”

I miss that slice of normalcy, too — the passing of fiery chile oil across a table of friends to spoon over piping hot dumplings, the brief moments hearing my family’s tongue in the background, if even for just a meal. In the meantime, I’ll join the rest who are recreating that space at home, with my small group of friends I quarantined with and fresh takeout.

Updated May 29, 2020, 11:13 a.m.
This story has been updated to show that Wong’s King has permanently closed.

HK Cafe

4410 Southeast 82nd Avenue, , OR 97266 (503) 771-8866 Visit Website

Pure Spice | Chinese Restaurant

2446 Southeast 87th Avenue, , OR 97216 (503) 772-1808 Visit Website

Ocean City Seafood

3016 SE 82nd Avenue, Portland, OR 97266 503 771 2299 Visit Website