Miami's dim sum loyalties run deep. Tropical Chinese devotees swear by the Bird Road establishment, while others stick with nearby Kon Chau. Some make the pilgrimage north for Broward favorites such as Pine Court Chinese Bistro and China Pavilion.
But South Garden Chinese Restaurant (10855 Sunset Dr., Miami; 305-274-9099) on Kendall's northern edge seems forgotten.
It's a sprawling space guarded by an oversize fish tank filled with koi. Tables covered with pink cloths and glass tops are surrounded by Chinese medallions, scrolls, and lacquers covered by metallic figures. The place has been plying traditional and Americanized Chinese food in Miami's hinterland since 1985.
It's current owner, 36-year-old Kung Zeng, handled businesses' IT work before ditching the cubicle in 2007 to buy the restaurant with relatives. They installed his father, 64-year-old Kang Zeng, in the kitchen, where he turns out an array of Cantonese dim sum favorites.
It makes sense. The family came to America in 1984 from Guangzhou, a sprawling metropolis in China's Pearl River Delta believed to be one of dim sum's birthplaces. Zeng puts out a fine rendition of congee, a starchy rice porridge cooked until the grains begin to disintegrate into a thick, milky white gruel.
South Garden's version is filled with sliced pork, shiitake mushrooms, and hunks of century eggs, preserved in salt and ash until they take on an eerie gray-green hue. The only thing this dish needs to be the perfect hangover cure, along with a splash of chili oil, are the ubiquitous cylindrical doughnuts Hong Kongers gorge on in the early-morning hours.
A steamer dish of scallop dumplings offers a light, fresh filling with meaty bits of bamboo shoots, but the dough is too metallic-tasting thanks to an overeager hand with the tapioca starch that helps give them and har gow their translucent, snowy skins.
Instead, opt for rarer finds, such as hollowed-out bitter melon packed full of ground pork that's steamed and drizzled in a salty, savory black bean sauce. Shrimp-stuffed mushrooms are more like a seafood version of the ubiquitous beef balls, whose pale-beige skin and rubbery texture unnerve some diners; these bites are like unsheathed shrimp dumplings perched atop rehydrated shiitake mushrooms. Roll 'em in chili oil and you're good to go.
Sure, it might be a trek to get here. But if you live out west, it's no farther than your other standbys. If you're driving from the east, it's not much extra time in the car. Or you could just go on eating the same six stale plates until the end of time.