Monday, September 27, 2010

Dim Sum Charlie's is open... and they will love me long time

Thursday, September 23, 2010: NBC Thursday's season premieres of Community, The Office, and new show Outsourced; and, just as exciting to Napa residents (if not more), the night Dim Sum Charlie's opened its serving window to the public.

In case you missed my earlier post about this awesome place, Dim Sum Charlie's is Napa Valley's first Asian food truck.  It's also Napa's first dim sum eatery.  And Napa's first food truck that's actually an Airstream trailer. 

This 22-foot, classic 1958 Airstream has tortured dim sum loving locals like myself since it was spotted parked next to the railroad tracks at 728 First Street near the Oxbow Public Market.  Who is Charlie? Why is he never there when I stop by at lunchtime? When will he start doling out the dim sum and loving us long time?

Some of these questions remain unanswered, but the guys behind Charlie are Andrew Siegal and Clayton Lewis.  The idea for the late-night dim sum social scene was hatched on one of Andrew's trips to London, when he visited a rockin nightlife hotspot called Ping Pong Dim Sum, a place people gathered to socialize, drink, and snack on dim sum late into the night.

Andrew, the finance guy, hatched a plan to create what he describes as a "Route 66 meets Bladerunner" dim sum operation for downtown Napa, which until very recently has been utterly devoid of nightlife activities outside private homes.  He procured the battered Airstream and found the perfect property near the Oxbow Public Market on which to park it.  The Airstream and the dining area are set back off of First Street, and conveniently just east of the intersection with Soscol.  Yes, that is right next to the ongoing construction, which is currently limiting them to serving only after 6pm on weekdays (they open at noon on Saturday and Sunday, however, for your dim sum brunch needs). Stylin sail shades protect the long row of picnic tables from the sun, and decorative light strings and an outdoor fireplace keep things lit up after dark.  The location is entirely visible from the street, but feels delightfully secluded. 

Clayton Lewis is the funky glasses, chef-side of the Dim Sum Charlie's equation who helped Andrew restore and remodel the trailer into a shiny and fabulous dim sum steaming machine, and who now controls the kitchen operations day to day.  The entire menu is steamed to order (so all you fried lotus ball lovers like my mom are SOL), and uses  100% organic ingredients.  To ensure top-notch dim sum quality, they've partnered with one of SF's dim sum house elite--which shall remain nameless--and also plan to start collaborating with Napa rockstars like Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller of Fatted Calf.

In the four days they have been open to the public, I've been twice, and others have been there daily. Obviously, it's an instant addiction.  Tender rice flour coatings are neither too thick nor too thin, with just the right amount of chew and transluscency to please the eyes and the mouth.   Seafood, veggie, and meat fillings are pristinely fresh, perfectly seasoned, juicy, and truly delicious even without the standard condiment accompaniments (which are of course available on every table).  And, delightfully, the menu changes frequently to keep you coming back for more.

Clockwise from top left: scallop-garlic, shrimp-pea sprout, and lobster-sea bass-shrimp
 Some of my favorite things--so far--are the Country-style Shrimp Almighty dumplings, the Scallop and Garlic dumplings, the White Fluffy BBQ Pork Bun, and the mysteriously named Barbecue Pork Rice Noodle "Snotty."  I can only guess at the origin of the Snotty's name, but I will say that the slippery, goobery texture of this layered noodle item is deeply satisfying.  And the barbecued pork has just enough naturally caramelized sweetness to carry the dish without requiring an off dry wine as a beverage choice.

BBQ pork bun says, "We love you long time!"

Speaking of which, what wine DO you drink with dim sum?  The Napa Twitter community certainly had a lot of pairing ideas this past week, and will be putting those ideas to the test this Thursday night (September 30th) for a Dim Sum Charlie's tweetup party coordinated by the Tweetup Queen herself, @CordairGallery---a.k.a. Linda Cordair of the Quent Cordair Fine Art gallery in downtown Napa.  I'm inclined to bring a dry Riesling or new world sparkler, but I may just grab a bottle of Mahoney Albarino from the neighboring Taste at Oxbow wine bar for something a little different... or maybe I'll just bring a six-pack of Tsingtao. 

Definitely RSVP here if you plan to attend this Thursday's tweetup, though, because the dim sum has been selling out every night since they opened, and is sure to vanish in a flash unless you let Andrew and Clayton know in advance how much food to prepare.  So RSVP, now.  And don't fret if you can't come after you've said you would, because I will eat your share for you.

For the time being, Dim Sum Charlie's is BYO with no corkage, and they sell waters and a couple of sodas--including Jarritos Tamarindo.  No bubble tea in sight, though.

If you can't make Thursday's tweetup, Friday October 1st is the Grand Opening party, and I'm sure much delicious merriment will be had that night as well.

The Airstream opens for business at 6pm WEDNESDAY through Friday, and at noon on Saturdays and Sundays (closed Mon-Tues) for now.  Follow @DimSumCharlies on Twitter for more updates, and to stoke the fires of dim sum lust until your time to get some arrives.


  1. I love small locally-owned businesses, and this one has a great idea of pairing two things I love--dim sum and airstreams. The food was fairly tasty; I would rate it on food alone to be about a 3. I grew up in the Chinese restaurant business so I can make most of the items on the menu myself, and I live in the Bay Area, so we have a plethora of choices for dim sum. Though pricey (about 8 times more than the cheapest hole-in-the-wall dim sum you can find, and on par with the fancy dim sum restaurants that have beautiful décor and impeccable service), the items were fresh and light, and not outrageously priced considering it is near downtown Napa.

    Now onto why I'll probably never go there again. The first thing I noticed was the restaurant's slogan on the back of a worker's t-shirt: "We love you long time." This phrase was used by Vietnamese prostitutes to solicit American soldiers during the Vietnam War and depicted in the movie Full Metal Jacket. The movie was adapted from a book written by a Vietnam vet, and variants of the phrase were common in this period and earlier periods of US occupation in the Asia Pacific region.

    When I asked the cashier whether he knew the reference to their slogan, he replied "Yep," with a smirk. "That's pretty offensive," I said. At this time, another guy popped his head out from the window of the airstream. He questioned whether I knew the exact sentence, telling me the phrase is actually, "I love you long time." When I asked his slogan alluded to the original phrase, he said not at all and that it meant he loves his customers and there is love in his dumplings; he added that he trademarked their slogan. He made no attempt to apologize that he offended a customer.

    The expression is not "I love you long time" as he stated, but "Me love you long time." The restaurant is changing one pronoun--from "me" to "we"--in which one rhymes with the other. It's clearly a reference to the expression. The business name is probably another reference as no one who owns this business is names Charlie; "Charlie" referred to communist forces in general, both Vietcong and North Vietnamese. To boot, the menu includes an item called "ten dolla make you holla." The offensiveness of making a joke of the phrase goes beyond the idea of Asian prostitution. America invaded Vietnam, and much of the fighting was guerilla warfare that resulted in a huge number of civilian causalities. Many of the women were peasants forced into prostitution as a result of the war. On a political level, it's offensive for an American to make light of a US invasion of a poor Asian country. On a cultural level, it's offensive for a white male to serve Asian cuisine, while mocking a very sad moment in its history.

    I hope he considers changing his slogan as he seemed like a nice guy with a cute business idea. For someone who is running a restaurant in one of the culinary capitals of America, you'd think he would want to present himself as more refined than the likes of 2livecrew. Even though the dumplings were overpriced, I would have probably gone again if it hadn't been for this incident. As an Asian American woman, this event was as absurd to me as a white American serving soul food while hanging a confederate flag out his window.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.