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After the pandemic left them empty, dim sum restaurants are bustling once again

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For many Chinese American families, dim sum isn't just a delicious meal. The small plates of aromatic shrimp dumplings and pork buns washed down with hot tea are also a way to build community, a means of staying connected. During the pandemic, that tradition was put on pause. Daniel Lam has this audio postcard from a restaurant in New York City's Chinatown neighborhood that is once again welcoming diners.

DANIEL LAM, BYLINE: At Mee Sum cafe, the regulars are finally back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my God. There's Lilian.

LILIAN TING: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hi.

LAM: The chorus of hellos Lilian Ting receives when she walks into Mee Sum isn't unusual. Ting's been coming to the cafe for decades. For over 50 years, Mee Sum has used the same handmade recipes and antique cash register. At larger restaurants, little dishes of dumplings and bao buns are served on carts pushed around the dining room. But at Mee Sum, all you need to do is take a seat at the counter. When the pandemic shut down indoor dining, Ting says she experienced dim sum withdrawal.

TING: You know, it's something that's tangible. And then all of a sudden, to have it taken away you - and it's like, oh, hello, I lost it, you know? Like, that was...

LAM: Dim sum is more than food. It's a time to catch up, gossip, even conduct business. It's about being with friends and family. Ting calls dim sum Chinese church and Chinese Cheers, referring to the sitcom bar where everybody knows your name. With dim sum, even strangers become fast friends.

TING: You would see them on the street. And, you know, you would stop and go, hi, how are you? You know, you look good. You know, they were like, yeah, you know - I said, where do you go for tea now? That's the big thing. Where do you go for tea?

LAM: Another name for dim sum is yum cha, which means to drink tea. Dim sum means to touch the heart.

GRACE YOUNG: It's about pulling off the lid of the steamer and seeing the steam come up and the dumplings absolutely glistening. And you just don't get that experience when you get it for takeout.

LAM: That's food writer Grace Young. She believes that for dim sum to truly touch a diner's heart, it must be consumed at the restaurant with friends and family. She says that the other experience you don't get with takeout is spontaneity, another feature of life the pandemic put on hold.

YOUNG: The waitress is pushing the carts around, and you're in the mood for har gow, the shrimp dumplings. But is that cart coming? Oh, no. Instead comes a big steamer full of chive dumplings or snow pea shoot dumplings.

LAM: Unlike many restaurants, Mee Sum never closed during the pandemic and hasn't raised prices. Joyce Gong is the owner's niece and a regular. She says that some staff were reluctant to come in.

JOYCE GONG: I helped here. I volunteered during the pandemic. I stayed for, like, three weeks. I was up here for, like, three or four weeks.

LAM: She tells Grace Young that she recalls hearing cries for help echo around the close-knit neighborhood.

GONG: Yeah, (non-English language spoken). The older generation (non-English language spoken).

YOUNG: Which means no rice to eat.

GONG: No rice to eat.

LAM: It wasn't just rice. Basic goods were sold out in many stores. So Mee Sum distributed meat, coffee and other supplies. They still partner with a local organization to provide culturally appropriate meals to Chinatown seniors. Lilian Ting and Joyce Gong say they're not surprised at how this humble dim sum shop stepped up in a time of need.

TING: That's what Chinatown is. This is old-school Chinatown.

GONG: We stick together.

TING: Yeah.

GONG: We stick together.

LAM: The regulars say the pandemic has proved nothing will prevent Mee Sum from serving the community. Now they're just glad to be back at their favorite neighborhood spot, enjoying dumplings and tea with friends old and new.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Lam in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.