It’s an incredible heart joy to stumble on a little authentic taste of home when you’re in a foreign country. The unexpected whiff of fresh Johnnycake… the first flaky bite of tortiere on Christmas Eve… the scent of fresh-from-the-fryer poutine…. That’s how I’d feel about dim sum at Loon Wah, if I were Chinese.
I’m not. I’m Canadian, so for those less fortunate, the above food items translate into cornbread, spiced ground pork pie, and french fries covered in gravy and fresh cheese curds. But I do know the taste of someone else’s home when I encounter it. Don’t ask how: it’s a gift, and so is Loon Wah.
I should know, since I have eaten Saturday lunch there almost every week I’ve been in the SF Bay area for the past nine years. And I’m the one who bores quickly, remember? However, I never tire of the ballet.
Daniel, Peter, Cathy, Mei and the rest of the crew move through the modest space like koi in a crowded pond, swooping smoothly from table to table with fresh place settings, bottles of ice cold beer, glass tubs of hot chili oil, the occasional fork, and steaming wicker baskets of non-MSG’ed goodness.
The cart servers fly in from the shadows, and flit away with empty plates. Whatever it is that keeps fish from crashing into one another is in these waters as well. There’s an open, unpretentious friendliness not just toward the customers, but between the staff. That kind of energy translates easily across cultures, no matter what’s on the menu.
There are a few selections requiring a tad more gustatorial courage to broach than others, best introduced to your more intrepid dining partners (unless you think Aunt Tillie from Tuscon would like chicken feet, straight up). But even people who would prefer eating at the McDonald’s next door will find plenty to delight their delicate palates.
Unwrap a steamed lotus leaf and discover the piping-hot niceness of sticky rice waiting inside. Drizzle rice vinegar on a pot sticker tinted lightly with chili oil and wash it down with a hit of Tsingtao. Wrap your dimples around the dumplings known as “chiu chow.” Before you know it, you’ll be asking yourself, “How come Mom never made dumplings stuffed with peanuts, chives, and tiny bits of pork in a slightly sweet sauce when I was a little kid? Why didn’t she give me beer? Why don’t we have a tuba?”
You’ll ask the question because you’ll start feeling at home.
“Dim sum” translates literally to “touch heart,” and I guess that’s why we keep going back. I’d rather eat at a place that serves “touch heart” than one that only delivers “fill belly,” any day.