Have you ever found yourself ravenous and hankering for a sit-down meal at a restaurant, but without a reservation and with a need for food now? Like, right now?
The perfect answer to that when you're starving, impatient, and preferably not allergic to anything is a meal at one of Brisbane's many excellent yum cha restaurants.
Put simply, yum cha is a fast and fun way to try a wide variety of different Asian foods, and usually at a very reasonable price. "Yum cha" is Cantonese for "drink tea", but the experience offers a lot more than that.
If you've never tried it, at most yum cha restaurants there is a general procedure involved. First you are ushered to a table in a usually large and busy dining room and given a paper invoice. You sit down, have some tea poured for you, and wait for the food trolley. When it arrives, the trolley girl will show you a variety of different small dishes, or dim sum, which are often nestled away in bamboo steaming baskets. You choose what you want to eat and the girl marks it down on your invoice. You then open your baskets and enjoy the delights within. There are usually numerous trolleys, and each trolley will usually have different dim sum, so as you finish your first round, the trolley girls will offer you other dishes and collect your empty baskets. When you are finished, you take your invoice to the counter to pay.
At most yum cha restaurants, you can expect to see steamed and fried dumplings with a variety of fillings, spring rolls, steamed buns, fried seafood, Asian greens, Chinese barbecued meats, and desserts. More authentic restaurants will also serve dishes less common to the Western palate, such as chicken feet and tripe. The dim sum usually come in plates of 3 or 4 portions, so everyone at the table can pick and choose. Depending on where you go and what you choose, the dishes can cost as little as $3. When you go with a group and everything gets eaten, it's possible to leave the restaurant with a full belly for $12 each.
If you want a place close to the city, try Beijing House, which is innocuously located atop a flight of stairs at the upper end of Queen Street Mall. There is a wide variety of dim sum (the prawn and coriander dumplings are fantastic), and the restaurant has crisp white tablecloths and beer on tap. You can also order a fish or crab from the tank, or other a la carte items. Another popular restarant is King of Kings in Fortitude Valley's Chinatown. This restaurant is loud and busy, with lots of trolleys trundling along and a great variety of inexpensive authentic food. As well as the mainstays, there's dishes like tentacles in sweet doughnut-like batter (delicious and complete with suckers), excellent Chinese barbecued meats, and superb custard tarts. And you don't have to venture to the inner city - there are yum cha restaurants all over the place.
Go to a busy restaurant (11 o'clock is about the best time for lunch). If it's not busy, the food may be sub-standard due to slower turnover. If you arrive and you're the only ones there, see if the restaurant offers yum cha a la carte - it's not the same as choosing from the trolley, but it should be fresher.
Go with friends. Yum cha is great for groups because you can try a variety of foods, and having a few people means you'll get to try lots and nothing will go to waste. But don't bring friends who are fussy with food - they will probably be annoying and only eat spring rolls.
Don't expect exceptional service. Good yum cha places are loud and hectic, and busy wait staff don't have time to spare. Don't expect to have every whimsy catered for; brusque and minimal service complete with unintentional rudeness is part of the experience. You get what you pay for, and you're not paying for service.
If you have allergies and don't speak Cantonese, yum cha probably isn't for you. The wait staff often won't know every ingredient in every dumpling and sometimes don't speak much English.
Drink lots. Dim sum is often very salty, and drinking tea is an integral part of the experience.
Insist on sitting somewhere easily accessible by trolleys. If you're off in a corner somewhere, you will most likely be neglected.
Overall, be adventurous and soak up the atmosphere; yum cha is all about trying new things. Soak up the crowd, the noise, the chintzy decor, and the high-energy pace. And don't tap the glass of the fish tanks - the poor souls inside are worried enough.