- Melissa Pasanen
- Chef/co-owner Sam Lai of Cafe Dim Sum
Longtime Burlington restaurateur Sam Lai and his wife, Li Lin, opened Café Dim Sum at 95 St. Paul Street on October 15. The 20-seat restaurant occupies the former location of HJ House and offers a traditional Chinese dim sum menu of small plates with pots of tea. Everything is made from scratch, designed for sharing and priced under $10, Lai said. Dishes include assorted dumplings, fried turnip cake, sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves, and ginger beef tripe.
Lai, 44, whose father opened China Express on Shelburne Road in 1999, has worked in the restaurant business since he was in his teens. He opened China Express 2 on North Street in 2006. (Both China Express locations have since been sold.) Over the years, Lai opened and closed two more Burlington restaurants: ONE Pepper Grill and New Ethic Café.
"Originally, I didn't like cooking, but I think it's in my blood now," he said.
In late 2019, Lai and a business partner opened Far East Buffet in Plattsburgh, N.Y. The pandemic closed it down. "During COVID, I was so bored stuck at home," Lai said. He started working on his next project — filling a gap he saw in the local food scene.
"I've lived in Burlington for more than 20 years," Lai said, "and every time we want dim sum, we have to travel to Montréal, Boston or Chinatown in New York City. It doesn't make sense."
With recipes from a friend who works in a NYC dim sum restaurant, Lai started experimenting in his home kitchen and feeding his neighbors in exchange for their feedback. "I want people to enjoy what I cook, because it is what I like to eat," he said.
So far, the restaurant's clientele has been broader than Lai expected. "I didn't know that American people would eat honeycomb tripe and chicken feet," he said with a laugh. "I thought putting those on the menu would scare people."
Café Dim Sum is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday for dine-in and walk-in takeout orders. Lai said the restaurant is too busy to accept phone orders.