RESTAURANT REVIEW/Opinion

Red Bowl restaurant in Little Rock fills vacant niche with dependable dim sum

Doughy barbecue pork buns are among the 33 dim sum items on the menu at Red Bowl Noodle & Dim Sum.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)
Doughy barbecue pork buns are among the 33 dim sum items on the menu at Red Bowl Noodle & Dim Sum. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)


Red Bowl Noodle & Dim Sum

  • Address: Galleria Shopping Center, 9700 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
  • Cuisine: Dim sum, ramen bowls and chow fun noodles
  • Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
  • Alcoholic beverages: Not yet — permit applied for
  • Wheelchair access: Yes
  • (501) 319-7755

We've missed dim sum.

The southern Chinese small-plate mix of dumplings, rolls, wraps, soups and concoctions was available for a while at the original Chi's, atop a bluff at the intersection of West Markham Street and Shackleford Road, where on weekends the wait staff rolled carts between tables crowded with customers.

When Chi's closed, the dim sum service moved for a time to its subsidiary Chi's Chinese Cuisine on Chenal Parkway, but often it wasn't available, and some time ago, it ceased altogether.

Now it's back in town, via a chain-franchise operation called Red Bowl Noodle & Dim Sum, in the Galleria Shopping Center on Little Rock's North Rodney Parham Road. (The revolving door space most recently, and perhaps for the longest tenure, housed Homer's West prior to its move and renaming as Homer's Kitchen Table, up the street in what had been Franke's Cafeteria). Chi's former dim sum chef, we're told, is the guy in charge.

We didn't see any actual red bowls at Red Bowl -- the tableware is black, with a sort of redwood-like rim. The only thing that's actually red is the paint on the building's exterior.

Tables in the L-shaped dining area are mostly four-tops, with some larger, round tables for groups (one of which sports a Lazy Susan, which is pretty much how you'll find things in dim sum restaurants in bigger cities) plus a separated party room with one large rectangular table for a bigger gathering. The tables are decently spaced, and leaving room not only between them but at the margins. Five large-screen TVs, two at the bar, three in the dining room, show mostly sports programming.

DIM SUM GALORE

Red Bowl serves exactly 33 types of dim sum -- some of it fried, some of it only available on weekends. The noodle part of the menu is five varieties of ramen bowls, plus chow fun and lo mein. The menu also offers eight pan-Asian appetizers, from egg rolls and spring rolls to edamame and fried calamari. Oh, and if you just can't find an option on the menu, there's fried rice.

It's disappointing that you can't get dim sum from carts, but only off the menu. On the other hand, that solves any portion control problems -- no throwing away uneaten dumplings at the end of the shift.

There are a few dim sum items on the risky edge -- for example, Beef Tripe With Ginger and Onion ($6.95); Beef Stomach With Sha-Cha Sauce ($7.95); and chicken feet in sauce ($5.95 -- we've tried this elsewhere, pretty much just to be able to say we did it, and feel no compulsion to try this again here or anywhere else).

But in part because the chain folks control how the menu is built, most of the dim sum offerings are dependable and middle-of-the-road. Dependable is, on the whole, something to be wished, but we also got no surprises, pleasant or otherwise.

As is the case with most small-plate items you will find in restaurants (tapas, for example), dim sum appears to be inexpensive at first glance, but most of the time, because it takes two or three small plates to equal the filling power of most entrees, you end up paying as much, or more, than you would to order an entree.

Thus it is here. The price range for dim sum is $5.95 to $7.95, and most are set up to share. Three dishes made it possible for one person to feel full by the end of the meal, so the check, absent beverage and gratuity, came to roughly $21-$25 per person. That's pretty hefty for Chinese food.

Which is one reason to order the meat-filled Sticky Rice, wrapped in a massive lotus leaf ($7.95), which was so filling we nearly left some behind. Red Bowl's is at least as good as we've had it; the filling is primarily chicken, in a slightly rich brown sauce. We've had versions that had bits of various other meats (including sausage) buried in the rice, which is indeed sticky so that it holds together as a lump and is therefore easy to eat with fork, chop sticks or the supplied massive spoon.

Other recommendations:

The Chinese BBQ Pork Buns (three for $5.95), large dough lumps filled with shredded pork in a vivid, sweet-ish red barbecue sauce.

The Jade Shrimp Dumplings (four for $6.95), small shrimp wrapped in a thin rice-pasta shell. They were kind of bland until we remembered that it's incumbent upon diners to concoct their own dip, out of the soy sauce and a container of hot-pepper oil present on the table. That made them considerably more fun. See also the Seafood Dumplings (four for $6.95), though not exactly sure what kind of seafood they're filled with, and the dumpling-like shumai ($5.95), on the appetizer list and not the dim sum menu, and which are specifically labeled as "homemade" (but does that mean that the other dim sum items aren't?).

The Shrimp Rice Roll ($7.95), more small shrimp surrounded in a rice-based pasta wrapper slightly swimming on the plate in a soy-based sauce.

Baked Egg in Milk Bun ($5.95), a weekend-only, dessert-type item, three rounded buns with egg filling and topped with a yellow sugar glaze that flakes off as you bite into the bun.

The fried sesame balls (three for $5.95), big round sesame-seed-crusted concoctions filled with a slightly sweet mochi (bean) paste, also probably best suited for dessert.

Our Chicken Chow Fun ($12.95), wide rice noodles stir-fried in a sauce with onions, scallions, bean sprouts and plentiful bits of chicken of various sizes, had a full, rich flavor when we first dug into it, but, as is often the case we've encountered with Chinese stir-fried items, while the flavor didn't fade, we began to lose interest long before we ran out of dish.

The real prize at Red Bowl was the Tonkotsu ramen with pork ($12.95 for the base, which in this case is made from pork bones; $1.99 extra for a couple of slices of roasted pork). The rich, somewhat oily broth surrounded plentiful, firm ramen noodles, half a soft-boiled egg, a small slice of swirled surimi (quasi-crab) and some slightly smoky bamboo shoots. It was tasty, held our interest throughout and was excellently filling. It's also available as "spicy Tonkatsu." (Other ramen options: Miso or spicy Miso; tomato; vegetarian tomato; and soy-sauce-based Shoyu. Other protein options are shrimp, beef, chicken, shrimp, tofu or vegetable.)

We also dipped into the appetizer list for edamame, boiled/steamed soybeans in the pod, and got a decent portion for $5.50, just lightly kissed with a little salt.

BEVERAGE OPTIONS

Red Bowl has applied for a wine-and-beer license but hasn't obtained it yet, so the bartender spends most of his time compiling bubble teas -- milk or fruit; smoothies; or something called Zang Zang Milk, with topping options that include tapioca pearls and herb, strawberry, mango or lychee jelly. We stuck to the Thai Tea, without pearls or toppings, a little pricey at $4 for a small cup.

Though a host seats you at entrance, and you supposedly get a server for your table, service is generally in tandem -- the person who brings your food is not necessarily the one who took your order, or the one who brings your check, or the one who collects your check. So if you need something, it's best to appeal to whomever you can catch.

The English proficiency of the folks on the floor is variable, which could lead to misunderstandings -- perhaps one of the reasons why the dim sum items on the printed menu are both pictured and numbered -- and we found attempts at humor were mostly met by blank stares.

  photo  The Tonkatsu ramen with pork was the prize out of several visits to Red Bowl. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)  
  photo  Chicken Chow Fun consists of wide rice noodles stir-fried with onions, scallions and bits of chicken. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)  
  photo  The Shrimp Rice Roll enfolds small shrimp in a rice "pasta" wrapper. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)  
  photo  The Sticky Rice comes wrapped in a lotus leaf; unwrapped, it's a lump of rice containing bits of chicken in a brown sauce. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)  
  photo  The Sticky Rice comes wrapped in a lotus leaf; unwrapped, it's a lump of rice containing bits of chicken in a brown sauce. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)  
  photo  Red Bowl offers a decent-sized portion of edamame among its appetizers. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)  
  photo  The dining room at Red Bowl fills up on weekends with a predominantly Asian customer base. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)  
  photo  Adding a soy sauce-hot pepper oil dipping sauce provided a kick for our Jade Shrimp Dumplings. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)