I joined 16 other Chowhounds today for dim sum at Fu Lam Moon in Milpitas. It was my first Chowhound event, and I write this report both to describe what we ate and also to describe the experience of going to a Chowhound event for the first time. Hopefully this will encourage board readers who've never been to an event -- and those who imagine that the experience might be a bit intimidating -- to sign up in the future.
Fu Lam Moon is in a strip mall just off 880 in Milpitas. We met at 10, and four or five of our group arrived before I did. They were easy to spot -- being the only ones eager enough to be waiting outside the restaurant before it opened -- and immediately identified me as a new part of the group. After warm introductions and other arrivals, we went in and sat down, the seventeen of us at two adjoining round tables. In our group were six official dim sum judges (three from the North, three from the South), several other Chowevent regulars, and a handful of newcomers like me. The regulars made a point of spreading themselves out among the newbies, and I found myself seated next to Chowhound luminaries Melanie Wong, Ruth Lafler and Yimster (in this report I'm using the names under which people post). Clearly I was going to do a lot of learning from people who take dim sum seriously. Ruth whipped out her own tongs and a knife, which proved essential for cutting and serving the more slippery dishes, and Melanie gave me a brief lesson in Chinese table manners. But they made everyone feel like family: at one point, I had missed a taste of a dish that went around, and Melanie stopped mid-bite and offered me the rest of hers.
On to the food. While the judges will come out with their official rankings, here's an amateur's take on the meal, influenced heavily by the four or so Chowhounders sitting closest to me:
we began with three bite-sized dumplings: har gao (shrimp dumplings), siu mei (open-top ground pork dumplings), and xiao long bao (wrapped pork dumplings with a slightly thicker dough). Of these, the siu mei were the clear winner. The har gao were pasty and lacked flavor, and the xiao long bao were insufficiently juicy -- too much starch in the meat -- giving them a meatball texture. Later, we had siu mei again, this time topped with crab roe and shark's fin -- a nice touch, but the filling had that same starchy meatball texture.
The next two dishes -- turnip cake and gai choi gao (two-bite-sized chive dumpling) -- were both stingy on the ingredients. The turnip cake was low on turnips, and the gai choi gao skimped on the shrimp (though one of us had FOUR shrimp while others had none). The turnip cake got low reviews for being mushy, but most of us liked the garlicky gai choi gao. It was plump with chives, and the wrapping was springy and browned.
A low point was the noodle crepes. We had both shrimp and beef. The fillings were tasteless, and the noodle texture was poor, almost watery. They got points for having slightly different sauces, with the beef in a stronger-flavored one, but we were unimpressed enough that we actually left some on the plate.
The biggest disappointment was the vegetarian goose. Made of tightly rolled, seasoned tofu skin, it had clearly been made the night before and served to us as leftovers. It was refrigerator-cold, and the outer layer lacked the crispiness that a fresh version would have had. On previous visits, some of us loved this dish, but I guess today we had bad luck in the game of restaurant roulette.
Meat dishes did well. The chicken feet and spare ribs had good flavor and texture. The jellyfish was well spiced and came atop slices of processed meat. We had a spirited discussion over what to call it -- the most compelling name I heard was "Chinese salami." Another winner was the Chiu-Chow style steamed dumplings, thick wrappers stuffed with dried shrimp, mushroom, and peanuts. The saltiness of the shrimp was tempered by the doughiness of the wrapper. And several thought the best dish of the day was the "stuffed" tofu -- not stuffed, in fact, but lightly deep-fried (like Japanese agedashidofu), topped with nuts, and sitting in a peppery lemon sauce. Crispy outside, creamy inside, sweet, and spicy, it stood out as unusual and delicious.
The meal ended on a high note, with a rich and just-sweet-enough egg custard tart and a moist "egg bomb" pastry. The black sesame balls in glutinous rice would have been excellent, too, has the peanut powder dusted on the outside not had a rancid smell and taste.
A couple of shortcomings were consistent throughout the meal. Several dishes had too much MSG, especially the salt & pepper (battered & fried) squid. Also, the fried dishes -- not just the squid but also the taro dumpling -- were a bit grease-logged, suggesting that they were fried at too low a temperature.
A cockroach or two joined us at the end of the meal. Some of us were more scandalized by this than others, but safe to say it was a good thing those bugs waited as long as they did to appear. Whether roaches would be as prevalent in a more upscale dim sum house is tough to know, but most of us seemed to accept those critters as part of the price of eating at a more inexpensive place. Dishes ranged from around $1.50 to $4.00 -- cheap enough to allow us to sample their high-end dishes without hesitation.
Again, the official judgement from the experts is forthcoming. I doubt it was the best dim sum any of us ever had, but, for me, it was certainly the best dim sum experience. I'll never look at a dumpling casually again. Thanks to Tanspace for organizing and hosting, and my table's experts for their opinions. And for the majority of you who've never been to a Chowhound event -- the time is now!