Please note: Dim sum is only on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30-3!!
Now for the post:
If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know that Mr Foodie and I are huge fans of Birmingham. As one of my native Alabamian friends likes to say, “you aren’t from here, but you got here as fast as you could.” That pretty much sums it up. This is our adopted home.
But it’s not surprising that people often ask us if we miss living in Philly or Manhattan. Our usual response is that of course, there are things we miss about living in those two cities. And about living in a really big city in general. The thing we probably miss most is the availability of pretty much any kind of food you could ever want.
Now, we’ve done our best to show here, here, here, here, here, and here that Birmingham’s outstanding food scene is way more than BBQ and shrimp and grits (although we have that too). However, we would be lying if we said that there aren’t a few glaring holes in our food scene. Apologies in advance if the following list implies that your favorite [fill-in-the-blank-type-of-restaurant] isn’t our favorite….since we don’t do negative restaurant reviews, this is the closest we get to saying we don’t like something. These are just our opinions. So here it goes, our foodie wish list: A real tapas place. Ethiopian food (although we do have some amazing Kenyan food). An authentic, amazing Thai place (you’ll have to go to Gadsden for that). Solid Vietnamese food (sorry… don’t hate me for saying that, but we briefly lived in Vietnam and have some strong opinions on the matter). Trader Joe’s (which, in an answer to all of my foodie prayers, is on its way to the Summit later this year). Aaaaaand…. dim sum.
We put dim sum last for effect, but at least for me (Ms Foodie), it belongs first. For those of you who haven’t had it, you can read more about it here. Basically, dim sum is a very labor-intensive Cantonese style of cooking that involves small bites of lots of different things – stereotypically dumplings and meat buns but also small plates of meats, veggies, and noodles. Classically, servers come around with metal carts piled high with metal steam containers filled with all of this stuff. They show you what they have, and you point and eat. Sometimes you point on a menu and little plates of goodness appear from the kitchen. The variety is one of the things that makes it fun. And in our opinion, good dim sum is better than almost any other category of food out there. In any place we’ve ever lived, dim sum is the thing to do on weekends-the best places have lines out the door from the time they open.
As you can imagine, dim sum is really, really fun with a group, so that you can try as many things as possible. But since I’ve been so deprived of dim sum in Bham, I’ve been known to eat it alone while traveling. Last year, I went to Chicago by myself. I asked the airport taxi to take me to a pre-selected dim sum place in Chinatown, where I proceeded to eat enough dim sum for a small family. So it can be done.
So you can imagine my reaction when, a few weeks ago, one of my loyal blog fans (hi Dax, I’m talking to you!) emailed me asking if I had heard that Red Bowl was serving dim sum on Saturdays and Sundays. My first reaction was skepticism – real, homemade dim sum? There’s nothing worse than having a dumpling from a factory that’s been heated up from frozen in a microwave. Yes, he assured me. At that point, we did the unthinkable-we took a two week vacation. When he didn’t hear anything else from us, Dax wrote again asking if we had tried it yet. The very same day, blog fan Richard contacted me to say, have you tried the dim sum at Red Bowl? Sometimes it takes a village. We cleared our schedules for the following Saturday, rounded up four more foodie friends, and pointed the GPS to Red Bowl.
Red Bowl (NOT Red Pearl) is the place on Greensprings that is next to Pizza Hut and right by the Salvation Army. For a million years (since some of my friends were kids), the place has been a Korean restaurant with an Asian grocery attached. This fall, it was purchased by a Chinese family and has morphed into a Chinese and Korean place. (The grocery store remains.). To my knowledge, it’s the only place for Kimbap in town. The new owners have also cleaned the place up considerably. Inside, it’s spic and span, and the outside has gotten a facelift too:
We told the man who greeted us that we were there for dim sum, and were quickly seated at a large table with a lazy Susan-critical for efficient sharing. My heart was pounding… was this for real?
And then we spotted this:
The cart!!! Aaaaaaaah!!!!! Our skepticism began to lift.
We sat down and gave our drink orders. Turns out that Red Bowl ALSO has the best bubble tea in town. I recommend the taro (trust me-tastes like sweet purple deliciousness):
We were each given a copy of the menu. Prices are $3.25 for the first group of offerings, $3.50 for the second, and $5.25 for the last group.
Almost immediately, we were in the thick of things. Here’s what happens…they roll up the little cart and start randomly opening those steam containers:
They tell you what each item is, tell you it’s delicious, and ask if you want it, to which you invariably say “YES!!”
At that point, a Chinese gentleman walked by, looked at our lazy Susan (which had filled up with lots of goodies) and said “good!” and walked away. When he returned a few minutes later, we had a chance to chat. He explained that he has lived In Birmingham for 25 years, and that despite a few attempts, Birmingham has never really had a dim sum place. When we asked why, he explained that in his experience, Americans don’t eat dim sum, and the Chinese community here has never been large enough to sustain such a time intensive (and relatively expensive to make) cuisine. We were shocked at first, but then looked around the table. None of us are Chinese, but all of us have spent time in big cities with substantial Chinatowns that have influenced the city’s overall food scene. Dim sum was just a part of our usual weekend routines. Our conclusion: if you’ve never lived in a place that has good dim sum, you might not be compelled to try it.
So my mission here is simple. If you are a dim sum expert, my job is to demonstrate that this place is legit, and as good if not better than anywhere you will eat in NYC, Philly, or Atlanta. If you’ve never had it before, my job is to convince you to clear your lunch schedule this Saturday or Sunday and invite all of your friends to join you at Red Bowl. Here goes:
Our first round:
A closer look:
Delicate, sticky dumplings stuffed with shrimp that explode in your mouth:
Savory, flavorful pork shu Mai:
Shu Mai stuffed with rice and tender bits of steak:
Doughy buns stuffed with sweet pork; a dim sum classic:
Another classic: banana leaf stuffed with seasoned rice and juicy chicken:
Our second round:
A closer look:
Sweet and slightly spicy, juicy chicken drumsticks and wings that had us sucking on the wings and licking the plates to get every last bit of sauce:
Those delicious buns covered in sesame seeds contain shredded radish and meat. I can’t do this justice; trust me that it was a party in my mouth.
In yummy cross-section:
Soft, doughy buns filled with leeks; amazing flavor and texture.
At this point we were starting to get full, and there was some disagreement about how much more food we actually needed. Need and want are two very different things… and hey, it’s for the good of the blog. Those in favor of overeating won out. As the cart sped by we grabbed these scallion pancakes: slightly salty, fried to perfection:
And these hearty pork-stuffed tofu skins:
And this sweet taro filled dessert bun:
We soon depleted that little cart, which probably made at least a dozen least trips back to the kitchen for replenishment to feed the growing crowd of patrons.
Somewhere in there we managed to order a few items that came from the kitchen. Like the BBQ duck, which had a delicious star anise flavor:
Green peppers stuffed with minced shrimp, bursting with flavor:
And our only real veggie: two orders of lettuce sautéed in oyster sauce: slightly bitter, rich, but also a nice, light contrast to the rest of our meal:
At that point, we were beyond stuffed. We were also giddy – EVERYTHING, without exception, was fantastic. We went around the table naming our favorites. Everything was named at least once. The highest ranked dishes were the sautéed lettuce, green pepper shrimp, pork shu Mai, shrimp dumplings, and radish cake.
Then the bill came. We had absolutely no clue how much we had ordered, and no one had kept track of how much we were spending. There was a moment of angst, and then one of my foodie friends was brave enough to peek at the check.
That’s right. For $13/person, we had eaten ourselves silly and had a blast doing it (lunch +entertainment). We’ll be adding this post to our coveted “cheap eats” category.
Somewhere along the line, I decided I had to meet the chef. I typically don’t tell people that I’m going to write about them while I’m still in their restaurant because it tends to get, well, kind of awkward. But I couldn’t contain myself. So I gave a blog card to one of the waiters and asked him to pass it along to the chef.
Moments later, a woman with a smile a mile wide came towards us from the kitchen. Her name is Jessie. Before Red Bowl, she was a dim sum chef in Atlanta and Brooklyn. For a moment, she looked very serious and asked us how we liked the dishes she had prepared. It was clear that Jessie is someone who takes her craft very seriously. We told her how much we loved it, and how glad we are that she’s in Birmingham. She walked around the table, with that smile again, shaking each of our hands.
Then she asked us if we had tried the sesame balls. We told her we had not, but that we were too stuffed to possibly eat anything else (and besides, Mr Foodie and I do our best not to take free food-and occasionally, when we are compelled to, we always disclose it). Her response to us being too full to eat them was to tell us convincingly, “but they’re so good!” We couldn’t resist, and she was right. Filled with red bean paste and just a little gooey, these sweet little treats were a perfect dessert.
As soon as Mr Foodie bit into one, the whole table exclaimed, “take a picture of the middle!” So beautiful.
She also insisted that we try the pork ribs. Juicy, fatty (a good thing), and a little sweet, these really were our dessert.
To sum it up, Red Bowl’s dim sum is a jewel. You won’t find anything else like it in town, that’s for sure. It fills an important void in Birmingham’s food scene, and even more importantly, it’s not just good because it’s the only one of its kind in town. It’s good because it’s truly superb – it would hold up in any Chinatown in the US.
So, as one of my foodie friends put it – we don’t have a Chinatown, but we do have Red Bowl’s dim sum. Eat up, Birminghamsters.