For about a year there were two problems with eating at the Pembina branch of Dim Sum Garden. The first was finding it in the first place; the second was getting any dim sum. Despite its name, there weren't any. There are now. More about this later.
It's one of those Pembina Highway nightmares, where most of the addresses can't be seen from the road, and finding this one was even harder than usual since both the building and the roadside signs are dark. So make a note of the fact that it is south of Chancellor Drive, and look for the brighter Pizza Pizza sign of its neighbour.
Another challenge is a pleasant one -- trying to make choices from 235 items, many of which I haven't seen on any other menus, not even on Pembina. And that's not counting the separate page with another 20 dishes, one you may or may not have to ask for (one waitress didn't seem to know it existed).
Which brings me to the difficulties in communication. On one visit it took three servers to help us know what to choose from that massive and fascinating selection -- one who spoke almost no English, another who spoke it well but who had just started to work there and wasn't familiar with the menu, and a third to co-ordinate the other two. Patience may be needed, but it will be worth it for food that is often exceptional, rarely less than good, and frequently rare and interesting.
In other words, here's another Chinese winner on Pembina -- in this case a more than usually attractive one. It's bright and spacious, with a simple but smart decor of white walls divided horizontally by a strip of black and white tiles, and adorned sparingly by some beautiful photographs.
On that massive menu there's something for both the timid and the I'll-eat-anything types -- I'm one of the latter but I admit I wasn't ready for the mao xue wong, which Google translated for me as "bubbling blood." Not to worry, though. Most of even the less familiar dishes will have familiar flavours. The first 10 pages is where you'll find the most intriguing specials; the following five list the more usual suspects. The servings are very generous, particularly for the modest prices, which range mostly from $9.95 to $14.95.
Among the top dishes are the noodle-like strips of pork in a thick, sweetish Beijing style sauce, to be folded into pancakes that are fresh and tender, if a tad too small. Another is the Dong Ho pork hock, slightly sweet but with a definite nip of chili in a sauce that contains onions, carrots and a sprinkling of cilantro -- an enormous meaty portion that shouldn't be attempted by fewer than four, unless you're particularly fond of Chinese leftovers.
Big, juicy shrimp were marvellous in a lightly creamy sauce topped with tobiko roe, as well as in a combo with tender scallops, scrolls of squid (too chewy) and gai lan greens. Minced pork turns up among silken slices of eggplant in a spicy and quite marvellous hot pot. Gingery squiggles of lamb are tossed with thinly sliced onions, and for those who like it hot -- very hot -- there's a near-incendiary dish of lamb fried with cumin -- to partner it perfectly, order the shredded potatoes in a vinegar sauce. I also liked the sliced beef with pickled cabbage and celery, and they do a good crispy chicken -- not quite as crispy as some but more flavourful than most.
Other sampled dishes, while usually acceptable, didn't reach the same level. Shanghai chow mein with strips of pork and cabbage and curried Singapore vermicelli with shrimp were both nice but under-flavoured. However I wouldn't recommend the hot pot of shrimp with goose liver sauce -- not terrible, but the head- and shell-on shrimp were flabby, and the sauce, which didn't taste livery, did taste rather oddly earthy. I'd also skip the beef brisket in abalone sauce, garnished with broccoli -- the meat slightly tough with not much flavour, the sauce pale and thin, with no flavour at all.
Still, I'd like to go back some day to try a few of the other tantalizing dishes -- the steamed scallops with garlic sauce in little scallop shells, for instance, which looked so good on a nearby table. Or the lamb with pickled cabbage rolls that they were out of on my visits. Or the spicy beef with a Chinese doughnut and vegetables, just because it sounds so good.
The now available dim sum are served from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily, most priced at $2.90 small, $3.80 medium and $4 large. They are made to order, and ordering is facilitated by a menu that shows photographs of all the dishes.
There are the usual, familiar choices -- shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, shrimp with pork dumplings, and variations thereof -- plus a few less familiar ones All the ingredients were good, and the wrappings sheer and light, their only problem under-seasoning. Oddly enough, the relatively rare chicken dumplings -- made with that dullest of white meats -- turned out to be more flavourful than most, and the eggplant slices topped by whole shrimp were one of the town's better versions.
Among the others, however, pan-fried shrimp cakes, which had a terrific texture, needed a boost of oomph, and the bits of pork in the lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice even more so. There was plenty of flavour in the skewers of honey spicy chicken, and they were good but, in essence, they were just superior nuggets of your basic, and not so spicy, sweet and sour chicken. For dessert, though, there's a yummy egg tart.
Service, apart from the communication difficulties, was warm, attentive and efficient.
Dim Sum Garden
- 2677 Pembina Hwy., 269-7799
- Wheelchair access
- Four stars out of five
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.