When it comes to dim sum, I admit that I rely on the wisdom of friends who know more than I do about Chinese food. And for years they’ve been sending me to places like Phoenix, MingHin, and Triple Crown. As a result, here’s what I’ve come to expect from dim sum: gelatinous rice paper wrappers filled with chewy beef; rice so sticky you can’t shake it off your chopsticks; steamed dumplings and puffy buns stuffed with greasy pork and Lord knows what else; and a pot of scorching-hot tea. Service? Strictly the roll-it-out, slam-it-down, mark-it-off brand of hospitality. Everything arrives fast and I eat it fast, until my plate overflows with soy sauce and more than a little regret. I need a new restaurant or new friends.
My friends are safe. Dolo, a two-year-old Cantonese spot just off Chinatown’s main drag, has created a kind of boutique dim sum that’s changed everything for me. Instead of churning out dish after dish in a factory-like commissary, Ming Chen makes everything to order in a small kitchen and carefully curates the menu, narrowing it to a manageable number of standouts—unlike so many other Chinatown chefs. Food arrives when ready, not on pushcarts stacked with damp steamer baskets. And yet Dolo has elevated dim sum without ruining what makes the ritual so irresistible to begin with.
I’d describe the pleasant environs as “eclectic modern, plus televisions.” On one visit, I was installed in a cushy pleather booth; on another, I was seated under a sleek, dangling light fixture that looked like an artichoke. Both times, a flat-screen TV in the corner looped an endless slide show of Dolo’s food. The exposed airplane-hangar ceiling, a striking golden-hued wall, and a bar underlit in neon purple feel especially un-Chinatown. During the daily dim sum service, the place overflows with a crowd slightly hipper than the ones you’ll find cramming into other dim sum palaces for gut-busting family meals.
The first thing to hit my table: pan-fried dumplings filled with shrimp and corn, a delicate take on siu mai that gets its texture from a golden exterior far superior to that of the typical won ton wrapper—an outstanding rendition. And I’m still trying to make sense of the strange but undeniable appeal of the dish that came after: the rice crêpe. A rice noodle enfolds a layer of crunchy rice, scallions, and a housemade soy sauce. It’s like a double-decker taco by way of Guangdong.
Then you’ve got the Hong Kong–style scallion pancakes, which Chen’s crew shapes into pinwheels and lightly deep-fries until the shell is crisp, transforming the dish into something akin to savory elephant ears. Brilliant. And addictive. More straightforward, and equally satisfying, are the pillowy barbecued pork buns and light Chiu Chow–style dumplings (made primarily from rice flour with wheat and tapioca starch): glistening, see-through steamed packages of ground pork, peanuts, corn, and scallions. Somehow, I always manage to burn myself with Shanghai soup dumplings (xiao long bao). But in Dolo’s version, paper-thin dough encases a fatty pork meatball swimming in just enough gingery broth that I escaped without incident.
Even some of the more ambitious concoctions, such as large chunks of baby octopus braised into tender submission in a soup-like, orange-tinted curry, hit the mark. Others, though, will likely go straight from the leftover box to the garbage. The “olive vegetable spare ribs rice noodle roll” is as unappealingly messy as its name: bony pork meat, black mushrooms, and scallions atop empty noodle rolls that turn into soppy pariahs in a lake of emerald-green olive oil.
The stereotype that Chinese restaurants are indifferent to, or simply bad at, desserts does not hold true for Dolo’s dim sum menu. The durian crêpes, a trio of excellent puff pastries filled with creamy, almond-tinged durian custard—miraculously free of the tropical fruit’s notorious odor—hinted at greatness, and the bulbous sesame balls stuffed with fresh red bean paste achieved it. By this point, the sharp and clean flavors no longer surprised me. Instead, they made me reevaluate every uninspired Chinatown dim sum I’d been conditioned to accept in the past.
I returned to Dolo for dinner, hoping to find a similar mastery of larger Cantonese dishes. I almost did. While the offerings didn’t reach the same heights as the dim sum, they did rise above those at the mass of dutiful Chinatown restaurants I’ve tried.
You know how some servers tell you, “Everything on the menu is good!”? It’s the least helpful advice imaginable. Dolo’s likable and talkative manager, Jason Moy, who has a habit of sitting down at customers’ tables, goes in a different direction. He’s got a loud and clear opinion about everything. “You will get the lobster. … The sea cucumber? No, no, no, no. Just don’t.” And he rarely steered my party wrong.
Moy called the beef shank in spicy oil Dolo’s best appetizer, and I agree. Fifteen or so slivers of tender beef get sliced from a deboned shank, braised in soy sauce, steamed, and fanned out on a plate. The final touch is a pour-over of chili oil—a zap of pure flavor. Fifteen zaps, actually. The gleaming “chicken with vegetables” looks like a typical takeout MSG bomb, but it’s so much more. Instead of serving the dish in a traditional banana leaf, Dolo fills a hot plate with chicken hacked into pieces and caramelized in a mild sauce with mushrooms, roasted peppers, garlic cloves, ginger, and scallions. The deep-fried soft-shell crab, a big plate of crisp, unadorned crab parts, starts similarly strong but, alas, leaves a filmy aftertaste on the roof of the mouth. Your mouth deserves better.
It deserves Dolo’s showstopping lobster. Bite-sized hunks of tail and claw—which belonged to a live crustacean plucked minutes earlier from a five-gallon tank near the bar—are flash-fried and served on fried garlic slices with green peppers and red chilies that lend heat without damning your taste buds to eternal hellfire. The moist and rich meat is well worth the labor of digging and cracking. And the $19.
Some of Dolo’s gimmicky dinner excursions aren’t half as clever as the kitchen imagines them to be. A short rib doused with rum and set afire alongside a massive cow bone and a diminutive corncob gets undone by gloppy barbecue sauce. I was way more into the minced pork and eggplant dish, which Moy described (tongue-in-cheek, I presume) as a “vegetable side.” Spicy ground pork and scallions blanket long strips of Chinese eggplant in a chili sauce. No matter what you call it, the flavors pop. And though wine is obviously not a focus at Dolo, a light and floral 2014 Seifried Nelson Grüner Veltliner from New Zealand served admirably as the anchor in a storm of rich flavors.
The desserts—which lean toward perfunctory mango and Jell-O-like orange-lychee puddings, served with plastic spoons—don’t evince half the effort that their dim sum counterparts do. I have always dreaded people asking me for Chinatown suggestions. Now, with Dolo, I’ve finally got a recommendation I can stand behind.