If you enjoy meals with a variety of foods but don't enjoy the buffet experience, there is another way — that doesn't involve a sneeze guard. That way has a name, and it is dim sum.
Dim sum can be found at Grand House China Bistro, 2701 N Classen, and Fung's Kitchen, 3231 N Classen, in the Asian District every weekend.
Dim sum is traditional Cantonese cuisine, akin to Spanish tapas. Small dishes with a wide variety of fillings are offered by servers pushing carts and carrying trays. Traditional ordering is cast aside as diners choose foods as they roll or walk by. Thai and Kathy Tien's Grand House China Bistro offers more than 50 assorted dishes that come in small, medium, large and extra large. Prices start around $3 per plate.
When you're seated, the hostess will leave what looks like a scorecard on your table. Servers push carts or tote trays of food directly to your table, give a description and await a go-ahead to leave a plate or two or three with you. If you take one, they stamp your scorecard and move along. By the time your small plate, perhaps a dumpling or a couple of steamed pork buns, is finished, another server will appear with different choices. The options will be presented early and often, but there is no obligation to take a dish each time one is offered. If you did, your meal would be over in about 10 minutes.
"This is a part of Chinese culture," Thai said. "Large groups or families gather together for dim sum. It's very traditional."
The experience can be a drag race or a tiptoe through the turnip cakes. Like the buffet, diners can try a variety of foods. Unlike it, that sense of urgency that creeps into us all as we see people crowd around the feeding trough is alleviated because not only does the food come to you, it's being made fresh in the kitchen constantly. The servers parade out of the kitchen to the tables until their foods are gone, then return to the kitchen for reinforcements.
"Dim sum is served every day in China," Kathy said.
After going for dim sum, it's easy to see why that's the case and has been for perhaps 1,000 years. Thai said the tradition dates to the Tang Dynasty, which was from the 600s to 900s.
The Tien Dynasty began in Oklahoma City when Thai and Kathy opened Grand House as the disco era was in its death throes.
Thai came to Oklahoma City by way of Boston in 1980, where he lived for four years after his initial immigration from Hong Kong. Kathy's parents left Hong Kong the 1950s, first moving to Vietnam, where she was born. They then moved to France and from there to the United States.
"We moved here in 1982," she said. "We had a friend who owned a restaurant here. She told us to come to Oklahoma City because it was cheaper to live here and had few Chinese restaurants."
The first incarnation of Grand House was at NW 23 and Classen, where a CVS drugstore now stands. The old place was across the street and a little southeast of an all-night Village Inn Pancake House.
"Sometimes, when we got off work, we would go there because it was the only place open late," Kathy said.
At that time, Grand House was serving the Westernized Chinese fare still common on buffets across the country.
When the spacious building became available after the pancake house's demise in 1994, the Tiens jumped at the opportunity to grow in space and cuisine.
"We want to represent all the Asian cultures that live here," Thai said.
That's when they went from Chinese restaurant to China bistro. A menu once populated by kung paos, chop sueys and fried rices has added Vietnamese noodle bowls, Peking duck, sushi and pad Thai plus a second menu of traditional Chinese preparations.
And one would be hard-pressed to find any remaining signs that flapjacks were ever flipped in what is now an elegant, upscale restaurant with live fish tanks, original glass sculpture, avant-garde light fixtures and a dance floor to accompany the jazz trio that plays each Friday night.
Dim sum allows not only a leisurely dining experience but also a chance to taste something truly authentic whether in dumpling form, in a small steam basket or in a bun. For those looking to stretch their palates, try the fried chicken feet. The meat is akin to that you'll find in wings, but with a little more effort and, um, crunch. (Don't be afraid to spit out the tiny bones!)
But if you don't have a fetish about consuming the feet of any creature, less "Fear Factor"-worthy dishes abound: shrimp, cabbage dumplings, spare ribs, barbecue pork buns, creamy steamed buns, steamed oysters, roasted duck, roasted chicken, fried oysters, honey roasted pork, crispy roasted pork, hot and spicy shrimp, lobster dumplings, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, scallop dumplings and pot stickers.
Grand House also has a well-stocked dessert case at the front of the restaurant featuring mouse-shaped cakes, tiramisu, cheesecake and fried banana rolls.
No wonder this is one of the most popular ways of eating in southern China. And seeing how Oklahoma City's Asian district is one of the most vibrant in the country, it's no surprise that Grand House and Fung's Kitchen are able to offer it locally.
"We only do it Saturday and Sunday here because we don't have enough demand yet," Kathy said.
I blame the sneeze-guard lobby.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday
9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday
9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday