Uncle John's No. 1: Real Dim Sum, Albeit Cramped

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Uncle John's No. 1 Chinese Restaurant
267 Grover Cleveland Hwy., Amherst NY 14226
Phone: 716.836.0826
Rating:    [learn more]
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"If you can get past the shabby looks and lack of cart service at this dim sum parlor wannabe, you'll find that the menu offerings are tasty enough to return for more."

The elegant and widely beloved Chinese brunch of small dishes known as dim sum, we believe, was not meant to be served in the small, unkempt corner of a tiny takeout restaurant. Every memory and instinct we have leads us to seek out large venues, where the many dim sum menu options can be wheeled around by smartly dressed, middle-aged Chinese, who seem only vaguely interested in whether or not you want one of the two or three dozen steaming dishes they have on offer. But in Western New York, the true dim sum experience is all but dead, a science lost when its greatest local proponents - Rita's Crystal Palace on Transit, and New York N.Y. on Niagara Falls Boulevard - shut their doors years ago. So, when we heard that the former brain behind New York N.Y. had opened up Uncle John's No. 1, a much smaller shop in Amherst, we had to stop in. What we found was a half-surprise: good dim sum in a setting that we would have described as unimaginable ten years ago.

The Story: There's a typical size for the seating area at a takeout Chinese restaurant; picture that space and then cut it down by about half, and that's what Uncle John's No. 1 looks like. Almost all of the floor space is dedicated to a cooking area, and the few dine-in patrons are cramped into several small tables near a counter at the front. The sense one gets is that despite the offering of weekend dim sum, Uncle John really doesn't get excited about the idea of people hanging out in his restaurant; the floor and tables are anything but pristine, and you'd probably have to retrieve everything from the counter yourself, but for the fact that the kitchen is physically right next to the patrons.

Yet there are signs that this small place is not your ordinary Western New York Chinese restaurant. Take the two menus, for example: one is explicitly, unapologetically labelled "the menu for authentic Chinese food," typeset in a serifed font and laden with dishes that you'd only find in the next closest city - Hong Kong style roasted pork or shrimp, Taiwanese chicken, spicy cold beef tripe, yellow croaker, and so on. References to weights in grams make one think that the menu is of Canadian origin, but no matter: it's the back page that we're concerned with.

Highs: On that back page, which we should note up front is not identical to the old New York N.Y. version, you'll find a list of 21 different small ($2.25) plates of dim sum - most of the best classics - along with 2 medium ones ($2.50), and 1 large ($4). We're going to entirely skip the medium ones, soggy, greasy rice tubes called Chong Fun, filled with either shrimp or roasted pork, because we never really like them anywhere. The large one, Sweet Rice in Lotus Leaf, is a sticky ball of rice with pieces of meat inside, and though lots of people really like its mild, chicken-infused flavor, we generally pass on it too.

All of our favorites are on the $2.25 menu. Shrimp dumplings called Har Gow are a set of four pieces of steamed shrimp inside translucent rice dumpling wrappers. While they mightn't be the freshest we've ever had, and don't taste as if they were made on the spot, they're better at Uncle John's than at any of the other Buffalo places currently serving dim sum.

Beef tripe is the sort of item that scares off most people - it shouldn't. Fans of calamari will understand the texture, but the flavor of the meat is unusually mild, heavily absorbing the flavors of ginger and scallions that it has been soaked in. Despite how unusual it may look, the taste is unforgettably good, and keeps drawing us back - Uncle John's rendition is very good.

Next up is the Siu Mai, also known as shu mai or pork dumplings, ground pork and vegetables wrapped in wanton skins - it is impossible to do wrong, in our experience, but rarely great; here, it follows tradition. Sesame Balls, which as the name suggests are balls covered in sesame seeds, reveal soft dough and red bean paste beneath their deep fried exteriors; John's take is exactly as they should be - hints of the sweetness inside can be smelled and just barely tasted before you bite in and get to them.

There are many other items, such as the white half moon Fun Gar (actually, Fun Gor) dumplings, filled with shrimp or a Chiu Chow mix of pork, peanuts, shrimp and vegetables, chicken feet, and little cakes made with odd roots such as turnips or taro, but they're not as tasty as the basics above, and some would likely scare people away. Stick with the prior ones, as well as items such as the roasted pork bun, stuffed mushrooms, or egg custard buns, and you'll be safe - and highly satisfied.

We also tried a couple of the non-dim sum items, including our standard "everyone likes them" test items: General Tso's Chicken and Hot and Sour Soup. Both were good and inoffensive, not memorable or worth additional words.

Lows: Some items, such as the Chinese Sausage Bun - think a sweet mini hot dog in a steamed roll - weren't available when we visited. And though the dim sum menu covers the basics and favorites, it misses many of the items we either love or find fun now and again, such as scallop and shrimp dumplings, egg custard tarts, stuffed eggplant, and curried cuttlefish. Some of the items once found at New York N.Y., such as the roast pork pie and beef balls, are nowhere to be found, either. This clearly isn't a replacement for a full-service dim sum parlor.

That last sentence is a profound understatement. Some people would find the setting, which might as well be a purely takeout restaurant, so inappropriate for a Saturday or Sunday brunch that they wouldn't go once, or after going, might not return again. It's obvious from both the dim sum and the "authentic" menu that Uncle John's ambitions are much larger than the square footage of this place, and that the staff here should really have a bigger, better venue to operate in. The risk of writing about a place such as this is that it will prove impossible to revisit without a line once known about, but the upside is obvious: perhaps greater traffic will motivate Uncle John to explore better locations.

The Verdict: If you can get past the shabby looks and lack of cart service at this dim sum parlor wannabe - a dining experience that you mightn't remember fondly in terms of comfort - you'll find that the menu offerings are tasty enough to return for more. We consider Uncle John's No. 1 to be a diamond in the rough, capable of being polished to a level that would merit a re-review and literally weekly visits. Should that happen, and we hope that it does, expect to see us there with great frequency.

Updated Second Bite, August 9, 2008: On a return visit to Uncle John's, we sampled a few items off of the restaurant's non-dim sum menus, including Hong Kong Style Shrimp and Salt and Pepper Squid, now shown here. Though we went through an agonizing process of trying to find items from the "authentic" Chinese menu that were actually available - we were told repeatedly, and somewhat brusquely, that all of our initial picks were no longer being offered, a problem we again faced with certain items from the dim sum menu - the items we did get were quite good. Dim Sum picks were roughly the same as on our prior visit. We also found the restaurant somewhat cleaner than it had been on our prior visit, though not by enough to win over the masses.

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