It takes a while to narrow down your choices at Dim Sum Inn. There are dumplings, but do you want them steamed, fried or floating in broth? How about buns that release flowing egg yolk or ones wrapped around pork belly? Vague descriptions – stuffed mushroom, Malaysia cake, Chinese tamale – only contribute to the back and forth.
There are 70 options on the dim sum menu. And instead of picking small, shared plates from a cart winding through the dining room, you are given a sheet with suggestive photos and a marker. Bring a “yeah, let’s try that” attitude to the table, and there are some rewarding surprises in store.
Take the coffee spare ribs, for instance. Their arrival at the table sparks nothing more than a shrug – four drab pieces, artlessly plated in a pale beige sauce. And then you take that first bite.
While the meat is exceedingly tender, easing from the bone and surrendering on the palate, it’s that unpretentious dressing that causes you to sit up. The sauce proves elusive, showing flashes of toffee, maybe caramel, some bracing tartness, a hint of spice that drifts between earthy and sweet that always flits just outside of your reach. As you vainly try to decode the mystery, it slips away into a tangy finish.
It must take 30 or 40 spices to prepare such a mesmerizing sauce, right? No, just coffee, vinegar and sugar. At least that’s as much as the kitchen will reveal. Perhaps the restaurant doesn’t want to give away secrets. Or it could be just that simple.
They pair delicate steamed onion buns with a dip involving condensed milk, vinegar, orange and enough chili to underscore the cheerful vamp with a husky bite. It’s a combination that suits the soft hiss of green onions lacing the airy dough.
There is also a regular menu, but Dim Sum allows you to dabble. Most plates are $5, so it’s easy to pick seven or eight options. And if something disappoints – the limp and sodden chicken feet, over-breaded and drenched in a wan gravy – there’s another round on the way.
Pork belly bao takes an “opposites attract” approach, setting hefty slices of meat on a fluffy pillow. While the pork plays a low and booming note, seeping a pungent dressing, the bun hums quietly. From this, cilantro brings a brazen, citrus chime. On the other hand, the crispy onion cake rice noodle roll plays on subtle variations of maltiness and creaminess, letting the textural contrast stand out.
Keep in mind that these are not artisanal, crafty plates. Dim sum is generally comfort fare – balls of meat or seafood, egg rolls, thick cakes, friendly egg tarts and those pasty, rarified buns. Hulking in appearance, they are feathery to the bite, offering little resistance to filling or sauce.
A simple pork bun forms a delicate blanket over meat coated in an earthy sauce. In this case, however, the covering is so thick it almost smothers the pork.
It’s hardly a misstep. The portion simply leaves you wanting more of one, less of the other. No matter, the wontons – or whatever you happened to order – are up next.
DIM SUM INN 1938 N. Main St., Salinas. Daily 10am-9pm. 998-8690, dimsuminn.com