Boston’s Chinatown has always held a level of mystique for me. Growing up around Boston, I passed its landmark white-and-green arches many times, and wondered about the cultural icon that seemed so unique among the other tall, industrial buildings. Peering through my car window over the years, I noted the brightly colored signs, flapping flags, and swaying paper lanterns that gave the area a vibrancy begging to be explored. As I grew older and began to expand my food palate, Asian food became my cuisinal addiction. While I had eaten the Americanized Chinese food classics at a local restaurant where my family regularly ordered takeout, I had never explored authentic Asian spices and sauces. They were so different from the Western and European flavors that I was used to.
Deep within the Youtube food world, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a genre of videos depicting Youtube travel vloggers who visited different countries and indulged in their cultural cuisine. I virtually devoured foods that I never could have conceived of–Japanese takoyaki, Korean tteokbokki, Thai mango sticky rice, and many other combinations and flavors that were incredibly foreign to me. One of my favorite eating experiences to watch was Chinese dim sum, a meal composed of many small plates of varying items–the Chinese version of Spanish tapas. My favorite Youtubers would order stacks of steaming bamboo boxes, full of buns, dumplings, sticky rice, chicken feet, bao, and hundreds of other variations of traditional Chinese cuisine. Because there were only a few small items per plate, each table was able to try 10-15 different dishes. This style of eating was very very enticing to me.
Knowing that I had built up dim sum to a Michelin-star level of foodie heaven, I was committed to visiting a high-quality dim sum restaurant to ensure that the meal lived up to my high expectations. Researching dim sum in the Boston area, I found that the Winsor Dim Sum Cafe in Chinatown kept popping up as the “Best Rated.” My family and boyfriend were planning on visiting, so I thought that would be the best opportunity to plan an excursion to Winsor and order as many different things as possible. Without really giving them a choice, I told everyone our dinner destination and immediately began to plan everything that I was going to order by stalking the online menu. Modern technology has really fueled my addiction.
My family and my boyfriend, Dan, came to visit on a Saturday, so we were forced to take the T rather than try our luck parking in Boston. The 45-minute ride tested us all, and by the time we got off at Boylston station we were fairly hangry and ready to indulge ourselves in a big meal. Even though we rushed through Chinatown in our haste to eat, I still noticed the stark differences between the shops there versus the rest of Boston. Most of the storefronts were tiny restaurants, and brightly colored advertisements paired with scrumptious scents beckoned us to enter every doorway. Compared to the reserved cityscape of the financial district–to which I had grown accustomed while working over the summer–Chinatown was not cold and professional, but brilliantly colored and compact. The area was bustling, so we meandered our way through the busy area with the help of trusty Google maps and quickly found our way to the yellow awning that declared the entrance to Winsor Dim Sum Cafe. The restaurant was unassuming from the outside, but I would soon be privy to the savory wonderland waiting within.
Our party of six crowded into the small, packed restaurant, which housed only a few tables. Even though it was four o’clock, an in-between time for meals, we had to wait a few minutes before being seated at a round table equipped with a pot of tea, vinegar, soy sauce, hot chili oil, and salt and pepper. Our waitress was an angry old Chinese woman who refused to get us cups of water and who yelled at customers who sat down at dirty tables or tried to put their order in before the servers were ready. While my mother was flabbergasted, I took it in stride as part of the experience.
Due to my rigorous research before we had arrived, I already knew what to order. Given some small white sheets with the numbered menu items, I checked off the boxes next to steamed pork buns, egg custard buns, steamed beef rice noodles, stuffed sticky rice in a lotus leaf, shrimp and beef sui mai, pan fried pork dumplings, scallion pancakes, crab rangoon, steamed crab dumplings, and fried sesame balls. Starting off our dim sum experience, this was a welcome mix of familiar and novel dishes.
The food was all made to order, and dishes came out as soon as they were prepared, allowing for a distributed eating experience as the plates arrived at different times. Our table became a flurry of grabbing hands, pouring sauces, and food-claiming yells as each item was divided and dispersed among the group. As a lover of heat and spice, I doused all of my food items in hot chili oil while most of the others went for the classic soy sauce. Personally, I enjoyed everything apart from the stuffed sticky rice in the lotus leaf. The rice could hardly be removed from its wrapper because of how sticky and glutinous it had become, and the inner filling was flavored with licorice root which, for me, was off-putting and seemed out of place (though other members of my party enjoyed it).
The dumplings, scallion pancakes, and crab rangoons were all items that I had tried iterations of before, but never had they tasted this flavorful. The dumplings had a thin wrapping which was steamed perfectly to make a chewy outer layer, hiding a juicy and umami-rich filling of either pork, beef, or shrimp. The dough concealed boiling hot centers from which we all risked being burned, as we impatiently sampled from the plate. Both the scallion pancake and the crab rangoons were perfectly crisp but not oil-heavy, resulting in a light and crunchy coating of fried, doughy texture with a soft interior.
These dishes can sometimes be bland, or rely more on their fried nature than on the seasonings and flavors within, but that was not the case for the Winsor-prepared versions. A family favorite for us was the steamed pork bun, something that was new for all of us. The bun itself was unique, a pillowy hybrid of a dumpling wrapper and Wonderbread. After splitting the bun in half, a deep burgundy filling of barbecued pork chunks and tangy sauce oozed from within the steamed morsel. The balance of the soft bun with the smaller chunks of flavored pork inside the sweet-and-savory sauce made for the perfect bite, elevated by the bite of the hot chili oil which cut through the sweetness for an additional layer of flavor.
Unbeknownst to us, the custard bun and fried sesame balls were more on the sweet side and could be considered dessert items. The egg custard within the bun was deeply yellow and slightly congealed, not runny but creamy and lightly sweetened. The fried sesame balls had a crisp outer layer and were made with rice flour, creating a chewy mochi-like texture on the inside that was slightly melted when fresh. The interior of the sesame balls had a red bean filling made by boiling beans and mashing them into a paste which was then sweetened with sugar. While “dessert beans” might seem bizarre compared to our Western conception of food, the flavor was reminiscent of sweet potato filling which is often prepared in the US both as a dessert and a savory delicacy. Saving these sweeter options for last, our taste buds were presented with a variety of flavor profiles.
When we got the bill we were alarmed at how cheap it was–all of the plates totaled to be less than $50 worth of food! We left with full pockets and happy stomachs, filled to the brim with a delicious (and affordable) meal. Though I had declared dim sum to be at the highest of cuisinal standards before even trying it, I still left feeling satisfied and excited to return and try more unique dishes. Next time I’ll just have to find someone brave enough to order chicken feet with me.
Header image: Top Row (from left): shrimp and beef sui mai, crab dumpling, fried sesame ball; Bottom Row: egg custard bun, cup of tea