The Brunch Dish: First-Rate Dim Sum at Cai
Instead of debating the merits of dim sum as brunch or not, let's just suffice to say that it's a pertinent weekend tradition and just because there aren't any Bloody Marys involved, there are still just as many eggs, carbs, screaming toddlers, and long lines, so it's fine. Bottom line is that if you're hankering for a Sunday morning meal, and you just can't stomach the notion of syrup-soaked griddle cakes, dim sum is the way to go, and in Chicago it doesn't get much better than Cai. I still haven't recovered from the loss of my dearly departed Shui Wah, the restaurant I routinely accidentally entered through the back kitchen (Chinatown Square is confusing sometimes), but Cai is a contender for my new go-to.
Cai captures the traditional, sprawling dim sum experience in every sense. Not only is the ballroom-sized space cluttered with cramped tables and loud customers, but servers weave their way through the labyrinthine table scape with ease, dropping off plate upon plate of steaming dim sum. Dishes range from small to extra large, and they're not kidding around with that moniker either. An extra large could feed a family for at least a few days. Take the pumpkin congee with seafood ($4.99) for example. This porridge-like potpourri arrives in a tub-sized bowl brimming with seafood and more pumpkin spice than a dozen lattes. It's sweeter than expected, save for the occasional nob of shrimp and sliver of onion. The rice begets a pleasant soft chew, soaking up all of that toasty pumpkin flavor, earning this dish the title of the most unique pumpkin thing I've eaten all season.
My favorite dish of the day was the baked creamy egg yolk buns ($3.60), that is until the heinous richness of the buns caught up to me and absolutely knocked me on my ass. These doughy bao-like dumplings come stuffed with sweet, pudding-like egg yolk custard. It's almost like a Boston cream doughnut, sans chocolate, and with a far superior bun. Although small, they are quite heavy, so eat with caution. I had two and I was reeling.
A gentler bun option is the BBQ pork buns with abalone sauce ($2.99). Pork buns are nothing novel, but the abalone sauce sounds a little wonky. Rest assured it's barely detectable and the buns are pretty generic. Although generic BBQ pork buns are still better than most foods in existence. They're fluffy and pillow-soft, rife with nooks and crannies that make them look like pale little monkey breads. The porky innards are tender, succulent, and redolent with spicy barbecue sauce. Abalone sauce is woven in there somewhere, providing a mildly creamy, saline backbone.
Nothing says "dessert" quite like red bean cake with coconut ($2.99). Right? Since it sounded like a dessert version of my favorite bubble tea, this seemed like an obvious choice. Not my favorite. It was essentially an under-sweetened Jell-O studded with overly al dente red beans. The coconut flavor of the jiggly custard was fine, lending that pleasant sunscreen flavor we all know and love. But I was looking for a little more of that rich, chocolate-y sweetness that red beans can possess.
Dim sum at Cai is an apt brunch adventure for the jaded Chicago bruncher. The restaurant transports guests out of Chicago and into a wonderland of doughy, porky, jiggly delights. The massive menu can be hard to navigate, and a few land mines are inevitable, but that's half the fun.