This story starts a long time ago.
In April of 2015, loyal blog fan Dax sent us a hot tip: Red Bowl on Greensprings was doing dim sum on the weekends. Until that point, dim sum was both unavailable and highly coveted in Birmingham. One of the most common questions we would get on the blog, especially from newcomers to town, was where to get it. For those unfamiliar, dim sum is a style of cooking, often Cantonese in origin, that consists of small plates of bite-sized food delivered to your table on a metal cart and meant for sharing. Our post (entitled “Dim sum – yes, you read that right – at Red Bowl ) was shared over 3,000 times on social media, making it the most popular post we’d ever had. This led to dim sum mayhem – long lines and general frenzy over dumplings and buns. For a city that had previously lacked the cuisine, Birmingham couldn’t get enough.
We’ve enjoyed Red Bowl for the past two years, and were dismayed to hear from friend and loyal blog fan Ela that it had closed. To confirm, and for old time sake, we went by to check it out:
Yep. Closed. Attached Asian grocery store that’s been there since the 1990s or before? Also closed. RIP.
Within a few days, friends and loyal blog fans Jo and Leight had heard from a friend that Black Pearl on State Farm Parkway was serving it. Recall from our earlier post that Black Pearl has some unbelievable Hot Pot, and is the only place in town to do it. We figured if any place could pull off dim sum, it would be Black Pearl. We made immediate plans to go.
Of course, we had to round up a small crowd for our visit. First of all, dim sum is typically eaten in the late morning/early afternoon (although at Black Pearl, it is served during all operating hours), a great time for weekend group gatherings. But even more importantly, dim sum is meant to be shared. Often, the food comes in threes or fours of the same item, so to experience the most variety, a crowd is key.
We arrived on a Sunday morning at 11am with a hungry 10 person posse. Some knew each other, some didn’t, some were dim sum experts, others were novices. Within minutes, everyone was making collaborative food decisions, chowing down, and making new friends.
First of all, they’ll give you a menu. Definitely a reasonable place to start.
But here’s a better place to start:
The iconic dim sum cart. Point and ask what’s in it if you even care – better yet just point and eat, like so:
Here’s what we ate:
Pork shumai. A classic, delicious.
Chicken feet. Not for everyone, but I was told they were on point.
Another classic-the slightly sweet pork bun.
A look inside:
A big noodle with shrimp inside. Yes please.
Fried dough covered in a rice noodle.
After all of that savory yumminess, it was time for some dessert. Thankfully there is a dedicated dessert cart. While Birmingham doesn’t have an Asian bakery, this is a pretty great substitute.
Sesame balls. There’s sweet red bean inside. My personal fave.
Coconut and red bean cake. If you are a fan of those two ingredients, you’ll love it.
Mango custard. A bit of a mix between gelatin and custard. A new texture for me, but refreshing after a heavy meal.
Everything was delicious, and clearly made fresh. I asked our server for more information: how did Black Pearl suddenly begin making dim sum? I was told that there was a woman in the back who was single-handedly behind the whole operation. Based on what I learned from my last dim sum post, making dim sum is a laborious process, and the quality and variety were outstanding – indicating to us that the person behind this must really know what she’s doing. By that point, we were stuffed and entering a food coma – we knew I’d have to come back to investigate.
The next weekend, I returned with friends and loyal blog fans Jo and Leight. It was just the three of us, but we managed to pack it away. We even noted a few new items (note these pics were taken by me, not Mr. Foodie, so we apologize for the iffy quality):
Buns with a sweet inside:
I asked one of the cart-pushing servers if it would be possible for us to talk to the chef.
We hit a roadblock – the chef communicates best in Cantonese. A few minutes later, we noticed a man with a video camera recording in the restaurant. We struck up a conversation – turns out he is a friend of the owner and is doing some marketing work for her. I then made a split-second decision- I rarely disclose that I’m from What to Eat in Birmingham, so as not to receive any special treatment, but I knew it might help me find a way to speak to the chef.
He told me that he would introduce us to the owner, Michelle, and ran off to find her. She came immediately to our table and struck up a conversation. Michelle explained to us that she is from Canton, and wanted to bring this special style of food to Birmingham. This led her to launch a nationwide search for the perfect dim sum chef. She traveled to 5 cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Las Vegas. She explained that she was very choosy- she didn’t want to bring a chef all the way to Birmingham to make dim sum if they weren’t great. So she approached a chef she met at, of all places, Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. This chef worked at Beijing Noodle Number 9, a restaurant that still exists (we Googled it and verified our findings with Michelle – here’s their website), and serves a variety of authentic Chinese food including dim sum. She said that over a period of follow-up phone meetings, Michelle convinced the Beijing Noodle Number 9 dim sum chef to move to Birmingham to make dim sum.
Left, Michelle; Right, He.
Chef He told us her life story, with Michelle translating. (I also give major credit to Jo and Leight, who are conversational in both Mandarin and Cantonese, for lending additional translation assistance.) Like Michelle, Chef He is originally from the Canton area of China. When she graduated from college, Chef He was matched to work at a Hotel in Guang Zhou, where she worked for an astounding 30 years. This is where she learned the art of making dim sum, and perfected her craft. She became well-known in the region for her dim sum, and a result, she was invited to the US to do a food show. It was at this food show that the Caesar’s people noticed her talent and invited her to work at their casino. She spent 8 years at Caesar’s before Michelle found her.
When I asked Chef He why she decided to move from Las Vegas to Birmingham, she said simply, “because the boss asked me to!” Michelle explained that they are both from Canton, from neighboring towns (“like Birmingham and Shelby County”). In Las Vegas, Chef He served both Chinese and American customers. Here at Black Pearl, so far, the word has mainly gotten out in the Chinese community. In the last few weeks since dim sum service started, it has become very popular. They are excited to spread the word throughout Birmingham.
I told her I thought I could help with that. Give it a try, invite a friend, and pass it on.
Note: Dim sum is only served at the Black Pearl location on State Farm Parkway. It is served 7 days a week, during all of the restaurant’s hours (not just at lunch). Enjoy!