My pal Stacey and I are seated at The Carriage House for just minutes when a smiling server rolls up with a cart (which we later learn from owner/chef Janos Wilder was pre-owned, purchased from an airline).
This is the beverage cart and he’s ready to make mimosas or bloody Marys or iced tea to kick off our culinary experience.
We banter. It’s summer and it’s hot and we plan to stay a spell, so we both opt for cocktails. We’re at Dim Sum Then Some Brunch, which happens every Sunday from 10:00am to 2:00pm.
“You’re a pusher,” I say playfully to the server. “I like it.”
He gets the double entrendre, of course. He grins as he dresses my spicy Bloody with all manner of vegetal garnishes and presents it with a flourish and a salutation.
The space is airy, open and lovely: exposed wooden beams, whitewashed brick, cut glass chandeliers, white tablecloths, heavy silverware, china plates. Artwork is at a minimum. The place is full, yet somehow serene.
The setting allows the food to be the star.
Stacey has never been to dim sum, but she’s game. I’ve enjoyed dim sum in Atlanta, Hong Kong, Manhattan and Washington, and D.C., but my favorite place in the U.S. is Yank Sing in San Francisco. Oh, the adventure and joy of little dishes of deliciousness wheeled directly to your table, one after another. You let your eyes guide you, pointing to what looks good and sharing with your companions. The server tallies each pick on a piece of paper until you surrender with an upturned “stop” hand to say that you’ve had your fill.
At The Carriage House, a card is stamped with each selection. As is tradition, there are hot, cold, and dumpling carts, each brimming with savory choices.
I detect a southern accent and we bond with one of our servers, Claudia, who’s from Amarillo. Stacey is from Alabama; I’m from Atlanta and Pensacola, so we swap Southernalities, agreeing that Tucson has some of the languid traits from that region.
Claudia recommends the Dr. Pepper-marinated pork atop plump buttermilk biscuits. That’s the “Then Some” reference. Wilder calls his dim sum “globally inspired,” with traditional Asian offerings. But there are also dishes like this New South creation, along with African, European, Mexican and Middle Eastern twists. There are about 25 items; 80 percent of which carry over from week to week and 20 percent which are new, giving you ample reason to return. And if dim sum isn’t your thing, the accommodating kitchen will gladly whip up Eggs Benedict or French Toast.
Stacey and I point, confer with the servers, consult with each other on every selection. Soon enough, our table is covered in plates.
The red cabbage and jicama salad (which I learn from Wilder is a dish from my beloved Yank Sing!) is a refreshing toss of crunchy, shredded and julienned vegetables enlivened with finely chopped coriander and a lime juice, fish sauce and sesame oil vinaigrette, topped with candied walnuts.
“It’s like a palate cleanser,” Stacey observes.
I nod between bites; she’s right.
We both adore the Lo Mai Gai, a bundle of sticky rice studded with Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, chicken, onions, peppers, ginger, cabbage, celery and carrots steamed in a lotus leaf. Ditto the delicate sea bass ceviche with ginger, cilantro, jicama and red onion.
We also gobbled up the Bang Bang Chicken and Cucumber Salad, a piquant, crispy and summery blend of shredded meat in a sauce of sesame paste, peppercorns, garlic, black rice vinegar, soy sauce and chili oil, dressed with peanuts.
Stacey is less fond of the Har Gow, thin-skinned wrappers of pink shrimp, but then she reveals that shrimp isn’t her thing. So I polish those off. But we evenly split the Xiao Long Bao. These purse-shaped soup dumplings are filled with minced pork, crab, ginger, and stock. We pop these heavenly morsels into our mouths in a single bite.
The knockout dish for both of us is Ma Po Tofu. A Sichuan specialty, it features stir-fried bean curd with ground pork, fermented black beans, chiles, ginger, scallions and crawfish. Our chopsticks click as we mock-fight over every fragment, cleaning the plate.
The carts come with regularity to our table, but these are generous portions and we are reaching saturation point. The pork buns, duck spring rolls, goat stew and eggplant will have to wait for another Sunday. We’re not quite in a food coma, but we’re close.
Claudia commends us on a job well done. Wilder, who circles the room, checking in with diners, greeting regulars, introduces himself. He hails from San Francisco and remembers eating in Chinatown as a kid, elbowing through the crowd, fascinated with the food.
I tell him I’m deeply happy he’s done this for Tucson. A gracious, community-minded restaurateur, he’s happy we’re happy.
Long after Stacey and I have ceased eating, we linger, enjoying the kind of wonderful catch-up conversation between friends that is enhanced by delectable food in a convivial setting. Two and a half hours will have passed when we finally depart.
We’ll be back, for sure. But we’ll have a better strategy: enlisting more friends so we can sample more food.
Images courtesy of The Carriage House. Used with permission.