A sure sign that a city is worth living in is the presence of Chinese dim sum at local restaurants. Champaign-Urbana now has two dim sum restaurants: Eastern Taste and Mandarin Wok – both owned by the Yang family.
Dim sum is Chinese-style tapas, small plates of appetizers usually served with tea for breakfast. In the United States, dim sum (loosely translated as “a touch of the heart”) is more often served as weekend brunch at bustling Chinatown palaces where hundreds of varieties may be available on given day. Traditionally served on rolling steam table carts pushed by female servers who often don’t speak any English, one only needs to point to an item to have it instantly appear on your table, ready to gobble up.
Dim sum can be a noisy but festive experience as some dining rooms can hold hundreds of diners plus a gaggle of servers competitively calling out what each cart has to offer in a sing-song Cantonese dialect. Chicago’s Three Happinesses is one such palace. Happy Chef Dim Sum is a much smaller, more manageable room, but you’ll have to fill out a form to order from the kitchen. When in Chicago, it’s hard to resist the call of dim sum and we somehow always end up in Chinatown at one of these places.
Now we no longer have to drive three hours to get our dim sum fix. Instead, we head over to Eastern Taste in Savoy to be instantly gratified. At first glance, Eastern Taste seems just like one of the typical Chinese buffet restaurants that’s been popping up all over town. But take a closer look at what’s on those steam tables and you’ll start to drool. We’ve tried Eastern Taste’s dim sum brunch three times, and every time they’ve managed to surprise us with something new and different. Okay, so they don’t have those carts like in Chicago, but dim sum is steam table food after all, isn’t it? This is an all-you-can-eat buffet, so we often make seven or eight trips before our bellies scream, “Please, no more.”
Most dim sum dishes we see in Chicago are available at Eastern Taste: steamed dumplings, fried dumplings, tripe with ginger and onion, spare ribs with black bean sauce, curried baby octopus, water chestnut cake, sesame balls, egg custard, and more. I was surprised by some of the rarer dishes we don’t see so often in the bigger cities appeared right here in Savoy. One such dish was baby clams in oyster sauce, cooked in the shell and doused with a salty sauce that’s laced with onions and scallions. Eating this dish requires sucking the clams off the shell and getting a heady dose of sauce in the process. Then there’s salt & pepper shrimp, lightly battered and fried, complete with the head and shell still on. Because the seasoning is on the outside of the shell, the best way to eat this dish is to put the entire shrimp in your mouth and use your tongue skills to manipulate the shrimp meat out. When the shrimp is spent, you spit what’s left of the shell and the head back on the plate. It makes a mess, but then again, so does good sex.
One of my favorite dim sum delicacies is chicken feet (politely labeled “chicken fingers” on the steam table). I know there’s a stigma associated with eating innards and strange body parts in the West. But seriously, the feet have been washed before they’re cooked and the nails have been removed, so what’s the big deal? What’s great about chicken feet is the texture. Deep fried first, then steamed and marinated in a black bean sauce, it’s a heavenly combination of crunch and melt-in-your mouth silkiness. Since there’s not much meat down there, what we’re talking about here is sucking the tender skin right off the bone while getting some of the chewy gristle in the process. I admit that my words may not do this dish justice, but I guarantee that if you try it, you’ll love it.
Another amazing discovery at Eastern Taste is sliced chicken legs with ginger and scallions. A variation on the “hacked chicken” dish that can be found in some Chinese restaurants, these steamed chicken legs are sliced cross-wise, right through the bone, doused with lots and lots of garlic, ginger and scallions, then served chilled. What’s missing from Eastern Taste are some of the more exotic dumplings, barbecue pork buns, rice crepes, and sticky rice in lotus leaf. But these can be ordered from the dim sum menu at Eastern Taste’s sister restaurant, Mandarin Wok (403 E. Green St., Champaign). The environment at Mandarin Wok is not as pleasant as at Eastern Taste, and for an unknown reason some of the same dishes don’t quite taste as good. When we asked who the dim sum chef was, we were told that the father of the family is the chef at Eastern Taste, and one of the sons takes the helm at Mandarin Wok. We can definitely taste the years of experience the father has.
Beside dim sum dishes (which are available all day), Eastern Taste also has typical Chinese dishes on their buffet and take-out menu. Perhaps one day, we’ll return for dinner.
1333 Savoy Plaza Lane
Savoy, IL 61874
Buffet: $6.95 to 10.95 (includes beverage)