I stand patiently behind a bald gentleman as he spits the last bones of his steamed chicken on the filthy table. Next to the bones there are puddles of tea, puddles of juice from the chicken, piles of gristle, and dirty balls of tissue. Despite this, I’m making involuntary happy little food noises at the sight of the stainless steel hospital style dimsum trolleys, piled high with steamer baskets, being pushed between the crowded tables by the aged waitresses. Dressed in blue with crisp white aprons, they remind me of nurses doing their pill rounds, but today their charges are dozens of hungry diners at the Lin Heung Tea House in Hong Kong.
There are no spare tables of course. It’s only 11am and lunch service has barely begun but the long high-ceilinged room, up a few stairs from the street, is packed to capacity and then some. I’ve given up on getting a whole table for our group of five, and now I’m concentrating on just snaring a single spare seat, from which seated vantage point I can angle for a couple more. This is why I’m hovering directly behind the man with the pile of chicken bones, hoping he won’t refill his tea pot and start reading the South China Morning Post.
A waiter in a grubby white coat walks past with a grey-coloured cloth in his hand. In one efficient sweep he gathers the bones, gristle, and various liquids into the cloth, leaving greasy streaks on the tabletop and the tissues fall to the floor. At this sign, the bald man stands, appears to notice our small group for the first time, smiles, and offers his seat.
At Lin Heung, make no mistake, the dim sum is good. We start with a steamer basket full of frilled dumplings in a translucent yellow skin. They look like a set of four chrysanthemums sitting daintily in the basket. Inside are pork, and shrimp, and ginger. Delightful. The next basket I open contains what turns out to be a lotus-leaf wrapped parcel of sticky rice flavoured with small cubes of pork belly and dried fruits. The waiter circles again, this time with our pot of Long Jin tea. The first pour goes into a floral dish in the centre of our table so we can rinse our tea cups and chopsticks in the boiling water.
When a new trolley leaves the kitchen, the hungriest diners leap from their seats and follow the waitress around the restaurant until she comes to her designated stop, frequently right next to our table. This is very convenient because I can leap up too, point to the ones I want, and have her stamp a tiny red stamp on one of the squares on my dim sum card as she hands the baskets over. There is fierce competition for the best dishes, so I figure I’ll try those too while I’ve got the chance.
This method uncovers some amazing discoveries, like these ‘eggs’ made of rice flour dough, filled with a savoury mixture of pork and vegetables in a glossy sauce, and then deep fried briefly to give a crisp shell. They are superb and very clever. Then there are the ‘other’ discoveries, like a plate of chicken gristle sitting on a layer of spongy pig skin, and a pair of webbed duck’s feet, slow braised and wrapped in bean curd skin, nestled on a bed of glutinous rice. Thankfully the duck’s toenails have been clipped, and they taste of soy and five spice, surprisingly good. I spit the bones on the table where they join a growing pile of detritus.
It’s a great meal, with many other dumpling courses – translucent gelatinous shrimp-filled parcels, slabs of steamed ginger sponge cake, sheets of folded rice noodles. Like good Chinese restaurants everywhere Lin Heung feeds an extraordinary number of people each and every day, many of whom look like they spend every morning there drinking tea, eating dim sum and reading the newsapaper. It certainly has a convivial neighbourhood feel as you share a table with three old men and a local family of four.
And still the trolleys come trundling out of the kitchen, with very little sign that the lunch rush is abating even two hours after we arrive. When dim sum is this good there is no time when it isn’t a perfect time to eat it. As we stand to leave a group of six, who have been standing behind us for some time now, swoop into our seats. On the way out I visit the ladies, doubling as the staff locker-room and restaurant laundry. There are various bits of kitchen equipment piled in corners, and slumped between two stacks of spare seamer baskets is the aged washroom attendant, approximately ninety years young, fast asleep.
Lin Heung Tea House
160-164 Wellington St
Open daily for breakfast and lunch from 6am