Get a taste of Chinese tradition at Gee’s and China Phoenix
by Lucas Gibson-Rush
Maybe you are aware of dim sum and the rickety carts, heaped with steaming dumplings. I grew up with the stuff – porcelain cups brimming with hot tea, the perfect balance between savory and sweet. Tucson may not have a Chinatown, but there are places to sit down for a bowl of hot congee and a plate of pork buns.
Dim sum, which translates to “touch heart,” is a Cantonese tradition that originated in the Guangzhou province in China. It refers to the large assortment of dishes served a la carte and intended to accompany green tea.
Two Tucson restaurants serve weekend dim sum – Gee’s Garden and China Phoenix. Gee’s Garden, located south of Speedway Boulevard and Alvernon Way, is spacious. Bright chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. The room is trimmed in brilliant shades of red and green. Heavy maroon curtains frame the entrance and a golden lucky cat waves from the bar.
Dim sum at Gee’s is served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It is served from carts that weave between tables. You choose what you want. When the carts run out of items, they restock and resume their rounds.
The staggering variety at a real Chinese dim sum can be overwhelming and Gee’s is no exception. Relax and take time to see what’s available before ordering. There are mainstay classics that should not be missed. Har gow is a small, delicately crimped dumpling filled with shrimp and sometimes chives. The wrapper is nearly translucent and they are delicious dipped in soy sauce or hot chili oil. Cheung fun is a personal favorite – flat, long rice noodles filled with either pork or shrimp, dressed with scallions and basted with sweet soy sauce. Ask for the steamers on the bottom of the carts, they’ll be hotter.
Probably the most recognizable dim sum specialty is the char siu bao or steamed pork buns. They’re filled with meaty bits of sticky barbecued pork. I can’t leave dim sum without ordering sesame balls – crispy golden spheres stuffed with a winning combination of sweet bean paste and glutinous rice. These were fresh from the fryer and absolutely delicious.
Feeling overwhelmed? Gee’s offers a small but detailed dim sum menu that features identifiable pictures of the dishes. Unfortunately, Gee’s does not offer many vegetarian options. Most items contain pork or shrimp. The vegetarian offerings are often sweet plates such as egg tarts, or custard buns.
Plates usually range between $3 and $7. Expect to eat a lot of plates.
China Phoenix is the other option for dim sum. The restaurant is in a nondescript shopping center at the intersection of Ina and Oracle roads. It’s tucked away and easy to miss. The interior is humble and unadorned. The food has always been good. The service is friendly and direct – never rude. Some of the staff have been around since I was a kid and remember a familiar face. The dim sum at China Phoenix is less varied than Gee’s. There are fewer carts, dishes and people. Don’t let that deter you. It’s a great place to try new things.
The quality at China Phoenix is on point and the classics are well done. The shrimp in the har gow and cheung fun was fresh, the pork buns were sublime and an ample side order of Chinese broccoli arrived in the blink of an eye. The sesame balls are fantastic at China Phoenix – the filling is rich and dark. They paired well with the fragrant chrysanthemum tea.
I struck out into unfamiliar territory and ordered a new dish – steamed chicken dumplings flavored with generous amounts of fresh cilantro and fish roe. It was delicious. Manager Allen Wong says dim sum is hard work. “Most of the dishes take several hours,” he says.
All those delicate little pastries are painstakingly hand formed and then devoured. When asked about his clientele, Wong says, “Mostly Americans eat dim sum here.” I don’t think that is a reflection on the authenticity of China Phoenix. Instead, it speaks to the universal appeal of dim sum. The diversity of flavor and the wild assortment of items, familiar or strange, is what’s ultimately satisfying about dim sum.
1145 N. Alvernon Way
China Phoenix Restaurant
7090 N. Oracle Road