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Mmm ... Steamed Dumplings

San Francisco's Best Dim Sum Restaurants

On Sunday mornings, we wake up famished, cranky and dying for hot little portions of dim sum, a Cantonese term meaning "a little bit of heart." Steamed buns, I whisper, steamed bun stuffed with shrimp... It never fails to rouse my otherwise-recalcitrant partner, who would lie in bed until four o'clock if he had his druthers.

So where do you get the best dumplings? Almost anywhere in San Francisco, really: we are a fortunate city, blessed with good weather, an artistic temperament and a bountiful measure of dim sum. Wander through Chinatown or down Clement Street, and you'll find countless storefronts hawking these tasty little Chinese dainties. It's all good, from baked buns filled with pork and vegetables to richly fried shrimp-stuffed crab claws. During the week, schoolchildren snap them up on their way home, harried secretaries pick up cartons en masse for grumpy executives, and blissful freelancers stroll down the street with their mouths stuffed with barbecued pork buns. On the weekend, everyone from tourists to transvestites converges on these tiny cafes, waiting in groups until they, too, can get their dim sum fix.

Long a breakfast staple in China, Americans devour dim sum for breakfast and lunch--even for dinner, when they can find it. Most dim sum consists of thin dough wrapped around tasty bits of shrimp, scallops, pork, vegetables or tofu, then steamed in a bamboo steamer. Other plates include small portions of fried or sautéed seafood, stuffed mushrooms, minced squab served on lettuce leaves, Peking duck, eggroll and potstickers. Dim sum is best eaten with chopsticks, but fingers and forks will also suffice. Eat your dumplings bare or season them with soy sauce, hot mustard, green chili sauce or fiery red pepper sauce. Make sure to sample the steaming hot jasmine green tea that will surely grace your table.

While we love the notion of standing in line for quick cartons of takeout, sometimes we want to dine at leisure. On those sleepy afternoons, we head to one of the many dim sum restaurants San Francisco offers. We wait patiently to be seated, then proceed to stuff ourselves silly. Most restaurants serve dim sum on rolling carts, from which diners can eyeball and select whatever their hearts desire; when something catches your fancy, all you have to do is point and nod. A few places serve dim sum on server-held trays, which used to offend us, but now suits us just fine: we'll take it any way we can get it. Following are our very favorite dim sum restaurants ... and one notable takeout joint. Enjoy.

Ton Kiang
Ton Kiang is unsurpassed - it's as simple as that. Whether you visit in the evening and order off the menu, or go during the breakfast or lunch hours for dim sum, you're going to sample the freshest, most delicious Hakka cuisine in San Francisco - at a very nice price. Dim sum favorites include fried chive and shrimp buns, shrimp and scallop dumplings, pork siu mai, fried oysters and marinated asparagus. Don't be put off by the hordes of people waiting to be seated; like most dim sum restaurants, the tables turn quickly, so you'll probably be seated in no time. Good for banquets.

Yank Sing
Once the best dim sum joint in the city, Yank Sing has fallen off a tiny bit since its move from the Financial District. The food is still wonderful, but you'll pay dearly for it, with the bill topping $75 for a lunch for two. If you can afford to eat there, make sure to get the sliced Peking duck, served with plum sauce and scallions on a steamed bun. Don't miss the fried crab claw, minced squab, stuffed mushrooms or snow pea dumplings--and try to visit at the beginning of the month, when the chef tries out new delicacies on an eager crown. A great place to take clients, coworkers or your mom, Yank Sing excels at offering exquisite little plates in an elegant setting. Good for weddings and banquets. Takeout counter available for to-go orders.

Canton Seafood & Dim Sum House
This two-story Cantonese restaurant on the border of Multimedia Gulch features a full lunch and dinner menu, plus dim sum served the traditional way--from rolling carts. While the seating procedure is a bit erratic (our hostess kept shouting out what size tables were available, leaving it to the queued-up guests to fight it out), once you're at your table, you'll enjoy the interesting decor, which includes gilt dragon screens and wall plaques, an enormous live seafood tank and an abundance of silk roses. The dim sum--while a little doughy--is quite tasty and inexpensive. Favorites were the fried shrimp balls and steamed vegetable dumplings with shiitake mushrooms. A great place for weddings and banquets. Canton Deli available for to-go orders.

Far East Cafe
By far the fanciest Chinese restaurant we've ever seen, the Far East Cafe is deceptively inexpensive; although you'll dine in a mahogany-panelled room draped with red velvet curtains, you'll pay a pittance for some really yummy food. The dim sum is uninspired--you won't find anything exotic on the menu--but quite tasty. Our favorites included some solid standbys: fried crab claw, pork siu mai, steamed barbecue pork buns and roasted chicken feet. We found the service a little grim, but who can complain? While seated in that opulent, royal room, we felt like little princesses. A great place for weddings and banquets.

Good Luck Dim Sum
This delicious little dumpling cafeteria counter is as authentic as you can get: loud, cranky Chinese ladies serve up steamed dumplings, buns, potstickers and the occasional bowl of noodles. You can eat there (although we don't recommend it) or get your yummies to go. Caution: the line may stretch to the back of the room, but it's well worth the wait. Where else can you stuff yourself on dim sum for $5?