Dim Sum Done Right at Tropical Chinese
by arielle castillo
Miami is the rare American big city without a proper Chinatown, or even much in the way of any condensed Asian neighborhoods at all. Luckily, though, that doesn’t mean we have to miss out on one of the best Chinese food traditions: dim sum. Over the years, a few scattered restaurants throughout Miami have quietly kept it up. Each local spot boasts its own crowd of fanatics, but southwest of I-95, one long-running venue trumps the competition: Tropical Chinese.
The restaurant opened in 1984 in an otherwise nondescript strip mall across from Tropical Park in Westchester, and has made minimal strides toward overt hipness since then. Yet visit Tropical Chinese during its daily dim sum hours—particularly its Sunday afternoon peak—to find a wide cross-section of Miami’s population. Yes, you’ll see large Chinese families gathered around massive circular tables, sharing dishes by spinning the lazy Susans set atop them. But there are also suburbanites lugging babies, college students eating off hangovers, and couples pulling up in Porsches.
“I like that something so authentically Chinese lives in the middle of a Cuban-American suburb,” says Christian Cipriani, a senior copywriter for Zumba Fitness who makes the trek from his home in downtown Miami. “It’s kind of a novelty.”
At its most basic level, dim sum refers to small, shareable dishes, usually served in steamer baskets or on small plates, and meant to go with tea. Think steamed buns, a cornucopia of dumpling varieties, or the occasional fried octopus nugget. Dim sum is less about inhaling a main meal and more a vehicle toward conversation. “In Asia, it’s a weekly tradition for families to meet and enjoy dim sum,” says Eleanor Hoh, a Miami-based cooking teacher. “It’s Eastern tapas.”
In its most involved form, the serving of the food is just as much of a ritual. Instead of asking a waiter for selections, you flag down servers pushing carts full of already cooked choices, picking out what looks good and keeping a tally as you go. Tropical Chinese is one of the few dim sum restaurants in Miami offering this full experience. At nearby Kon Chau Restaurant, for instance, diners just select from an illustrated card, and at the also-close Canton Palace, guests have to request a special dim sum menu.
At Tropical Chinese, dim sum by cart is the only thing going at the restaurant during lunch hours; the closest competitors with similar dedication, like Chef Philip Ho, are in North Miami Beach. This makes Tropical Chinese the official stop for dim sum fans across a wide swath of the city. “I’ve been going continued from page 114 The Dim Sum Deal The restaurant continues a southern Chinese tradition. Dim sum, as it’s served at Tropical Chinese, derives from a long-standing practice known in Cantonese as yum cha. That translates as “drinking tea,” and the words “dim sum” themselves refer to the actual dishes served. This flourished in southern China, including what is now Hong Kong, and Tropical Chinese’s steamed dumplings in rice-flour wrappers are not to be confused with more common, northern Chinese jiaozi, or pot-stickers. there since the early ’90s, and any occasion to go there is special,” says Woody Graber, president of Woody Graber & Associates Public Relations.
Tropical Chinese’s list of accolades reads like a local foodie’s required list of references. Miami New Times has dubbed it both the city’s best Chinese restaurant (2003 and 2006) and “best place for a first date” (2002), while the Zagat guide rates the food 26 out of a possible 30 points. It even featured on the Food Network’s Meat & Potatoes show, discussing the secret to its pork dumplings.
Luckily, the restaurant does dim sum proper justice. First, there’s the extensive range of selections. Over the span of one service, diners can select from some 56 different dishes; savory, familiar standbys include steamed chicken bao (steamed buns), fried shrimp wontons, and deep-fried stuffed balls of taro, a starchy Asian tuber.
There are also selections aplenty for the slightly more adventurous eater, from chicken feet to ginger scallion tripe. “It was the first time I ever had salt- and-pepper squid, which changed my life,” says Jarrett Hann, the cook behind the experimental food blog Gastronaut Jones, of his first visit to Tropical Chinese. “The squid is still worth hustling through the bustle on a Sunday afternoon.”
In recent years, the restaurant has made a few nods toward its increasingly clued-in, cross-county crowd. A new remodel has warmed up the place with a slightly sexy vibe. Dark, lacquered wood surfaces glow softly under huge red lanterns, a quick-handed bartender mans a full bar on one side, and mod containers of tall glass create privacy between seating areas.
But the most important aspects remain—in the main dining room, a small battalion of cooks still sweat out peak hours behind the floor-to-ceiling glass of an open kitchen. And they crank out basket after basket of bites that remain addictive—so much so, in fact, supplies of more popular items don’t always last. “Don’t be afraid to flag people down and make sure you get what you want, and go early,” says Elisa Melendez, a PhD student at FIU. “Many a heart has been broken after the egg-custard buns have run out.” 7991 SW 40th St., Miami, 305-262-7576
photography by andrew meade
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.