Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh
Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but I wasn’t clear why I kept seeing Rodelio Aglibot, who just opened Yum Cha Dim Sum Parlor, referred to as the “Food Buddha” until I Googled his name. It seems this is a longtime nickname, but I also learned that he briefly had a TLC series of that name in which he would go to a restaurant and order one of every single dish.
“I’ve been ordering like this for years,” he said in a snippet I watched on TLC.com. “I don’t want to miss anything.”
This is not a tactic I’d suggest for Yum Cha. First of all, the menu is so large it’s impossible. And second, there are many things I ate that I wish I had missed.
Aglibot, formerly of Sunda, also helms E+O Food and Drink in Mount Prospect. The E+O restaurateurs opened it in the former Maison space in Lakeshore East in a partnership with Chinatown’s Phoenix Restaurant, which was smart. I haven’t been to E+O, so I can’t comment on its food, but Sunda’s gimmicks and scene make it not my first choice for Asian food. Meanwhile, Phoenix is a much-lauded spot for dim sum, bringing some cred to the partnership.
At Yum Cha Dim Sum, as the name would suggest, there’s a fair amount of dim sum, which you can order from carts on the weekends or from a photo menu at dinner. The dim sum should be divided into two categories: traditional and gimmicky (think foie gras egg tarts and truffled dumplings), and there are also noodles, rice and larger entrees like fish and chicken dishes. That adds up to an overwhelming amount to choose from, and, as a result, Yum Cha is very hit or miss. While the hits make me want to return immediately, other dishes were so flavorless and boring that we left them mostly uneaten.
We’ll start with the hits: I’m always nervous about ordering xiao long bao, soup-filled dumplings, which are hard to make well. Yum Cha’s are excellent, with richly flavored pork and a thin wrapper that releases a flood of broth when you bite into them. The soft, light char siu bao are wrapped around barbecue pork. The crispy cauliflower, which our server encouraged us to order, packed a lot of heat into the fried florets. “Yum Cha” means “drink tea,” and tea is used in many of the cocktails. Like the food, the drinks, which range from $10-$14, aren’t challenging, but they’re suited to the cuisine. Wei Xian uses Hendrick’s gin, muddled cucumbers and Fentiman’s rose lemonade, and it’s an easy, refreshing sipper. Start or end with the Hennessy-spiked Emperor’s Tea, which tastes of honey and citrus—it's too strong to have with food, but too good not to get.
Those high points were offset by the bizarre-looking translucent blue kale and butternut squash dumplings, which had a thick, dry filling, and the chicken and mushroom sui mai, which was overcooked. The steamed fish with ginger offered not even a trace of the promised XO sauce, while the oxtail and leek fried rice offered nubs of dry meat and, alarmingly, a piece of bone.
Service also falls under the category of low points: Upon arrival, our host sprinted into the dining room ahead of us, then later apologized for it. Dim sum arrived without any napkins or chopsticks on the table. Servers hovered over us for the first half of dinner, then were MIA for the last half, which was strange, given that the dining room wasn’t even half full.
Yum Cha has some work to do, but given the dearth of Chinese restaurants in the Loop and the few really excellent dishes, I hope that soon everything will be as high as its high points.