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Until recently, if you wanted dim sum, it was off to San Francisco to either Hang Ah in the Chinatown section of Nob Hill, or Ton Kiang in the Richmond District. Hang Ah is a San Francisco institution, dating from the 1920s, which bills itself as the city?s first dim sum joint. Ton Kiang serves the best dim sum in town, but its success often means long lines waiting to get in.

Well, now the folks at Hang Ah have started a spin-off venture in Santa Rosa called Hang Ah Dim Sum in what was once an A&W root beer and hamburger stand on Armory Drive. Crook your arm at the elbow, make a fist, and jerk your arm backwards as you say, ?Yessss!?

Dim sum translates literally to English as ?heart?s delight? (or as ?little heart? or ?light of heart,? depending on whom you believe) but it has come to mean ?snack? in Chinese as well as English. At many dim sum restaurants, tidbits ? up to 80 to 100 different kinds ? are carried among the tables by the staff and offered to diners from a tray. The diner either accepts an item or declines. At the end of the meal, the finished plates are toted up, or a card on the table marked with the chosen items is tallied.

At Hang Ah in Santa Rosa, its 48 dim sum items are offered another way. You are given a menu with the items shown in color photos, along with a monochrome paper menu showing the same items. You circle the ones you want on the paper copy, and these come out of the kitchen as soon as they have them prepared. Then your bill is figured from the items you circled.

Most of the dim sum can be ordered as a small portion for $2.50, a medium portion for $3.50, or large for $4.50. This accommodates parties of any size.

Besides dim sum, Hang Ah has a full menu of Chinese dishes, including favorites like Kung Pao Chicken, General Tsou?s Chicken, and Peking Duck. Mandarin and Szechuan dinners at $15.95 and $16.95 per person respectively, along with a Hang Ah Banquet at $30 per person, are also available. But it?s the dim sum that?s most interesting.

You?re offered tea as soon as you?re seated, a tradition that goes back to the ancient Silk Road that carried silk from the Chinese factories to the Middle East and Rome. Travelers needed places to rest, and so tea houses sprang up along the Chinese end of the road. While travelers rested, snacks were made available and these became what today we call dim sum.

Hang Ah serves jasmine tea, but you can also choose among Tsing Tao beer, soft drinks and a small wine list. Service at Hang Ah is snappy, and you?ll soon find yourself amid a welter of dishes as your orders are brought forth.

The menu lists four kinds of dim sum: Northern China, also called Hakka after this northern culture that moved south and assimilated into Han culture. Then there are four items listed under Chef?s Pick, and five items under Chow Fun and Noodle Plates. The rest of the items are Cantonese in style, and priced as small, medium and large, as noted before. The different categories are indistinguishable in style to me, but probably not to someone acutely sensitive to the differences in Chinese regional or cultural cuisines.

As for the dim sum itself, it varies from very good to not very good at all. And yet, the experience of eating at Hang Ah is fun. The only rule would be to order what sounds good to you. And let the kids pick something they think they?d like.

Our table ordered small, $2.50 portions of the regular Cantonese items and still, by the end of the meal, there was plenty to take home.

The parade of dishes started with Baked Barbecued Pork Buns (**?). Three buns about the size of sliders are browned and coated with a sticky glaze. A bite reveals an interior of barbecued pork in a tangy red sauce. As typical with pork buns, the dough is white, dense, and chewy. Then came Crispy Barbecued Pork Roll (**). Phyllo dough is wrapped around a filling of chopped pork and given a sweet glaze. They?re served cold, although the waiter offered to heat them for us. The three rolls are more like a sweet dessert than savory entr?.

Satay Beef Chow Fun ($12 *?) is one of the special noodle plates, and it?s a big, heaping portion ? not dim sum at all. It consists of wide, flat rice noodles, bean sprouts and tender strips of beef, like those you?d find on satay sticks, given a tasteless, greasy brown sauce. With a better sauce, this dish would be a winner.

Bean Curd Skin Rolls in Broth (**?) revived hope for the dim sum at Hang Ah. Bean curd skins wrapped up a mixture of mushrooms and shrimp. Three rolls were set into a light, savory chicken broth. Crispy Shrimp Balls (***) were the hit of the evening. Minced shrimp balls are rolled in thin egg noodles and dropped into hot frying oil. They emerge looking like sea urchins having a bad hair day, and are served with a gooey, sweet, red dip, and the combination of the crunchy noodles and good shrimp is delightful.

Shiu Mai (**?) is a famous dim sum dish ? little packets ordinarily made with meat, citrus zest, minced ginger, water chestnuts, and spring onion, pureed and used to fill a dough made of wheat starch, then steamed. The anomalous shiu mai served at Hang Ah were four packets of shrimp and pork wrapped in rice noodle and served with diced mushrooms.

Pan Fried Chive Dumplings (**?) taste great, even if they look weird. Greens and shrimp fill a translucent, gelatinous substance that glows with an internal green light. Yum! Shrimp in Crispy Tofu Wrap (**?) were at once crispy, crunchy, and chewy and filled with greens and shrimp. By this point in the dinner, there were many different dips on the table, and we started mixing and matching this dim sum with that dip, without much regard for what was supposed to go with what. It was fun and the dips really picked up the sometimes bland flavor of the dim sum.

And then came the Bee?s Nest Taro Puff (**), three egg-shaped rolls made of fine strands of deep fried noodles stuffed with taro and pork and served in a savory brown sauce. The taste was all right, but the fun part was the sizzling crunchiness as the fine threads of crispy noodles collapsed under the pressure of your molars. The Roast Duck ($6.50 **) had good flavor, but by the time you pry off the layer of fat and discard the bones, there?s precious little duck to be had.

To sum up: Sonoma County finally gets its own dim sum restaurant and it?s pretty good ? but with more attention to sauces and other details, it could be even better.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for A&E. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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