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Big Plates Small Dreams

Spice ā€™nā€™ Steam and dim sum
Photo by Todd Cooper
Photo by Todd Cooper

John Li, founder of Spice ’n’ Steam, Eugene’s brand new dim sum-style restaurant, visits his native Guangdong (Canton) every few years. He says the southern Chinese province has changed a lot since his childhood, but more than anything, returning home shows him how much living in America changed him. Just opened in January, Spice ’n’ Steam is Eugene’s only authentic dim sum-style restaurant. 

“In America, you have: problem, solution,” Li says, picking two points on the table we’re seated at in his downtown restaurant. Li, 25, draws a hard, straight line between the two points with his index finger, illustrating the Western approach to problem solving. He chooses two new points. “In China,” he says, allowing his hand to meander on its journey from point A to point B, like a lazy goldfish in a brook.

Li says while he's not a commercial chef, he’s “always had a passion for cooking,” calling his decision to start Spice ’n’ Steam “kind of like a brainstorm. What if I get into this business? What would I do?” Spice ’n’ Steam serves dim sum every day until 6 pm, continuing after with a traditional Chinese dinner menu. Li says his concept blends authentic northern and southern Chinese cuisines alongside American sensibilities. 

Dim sum is comprised of small plates, usually served with tea. Think a Chinese equivalent to brunch. Spice ’n’ Steam features usual dim sum staples like dumplings and buns but also more exotic options for Western tastes, like chicken feet. Li explains the Chinese believe eating certain parts of an animal’s body can aid your own health issues or injuries. For example, injured ankle? Eat chicken feet. And the best way to eat chicken feet, Li continues, is to pop the whole thing in your mouth, sucking off the tender saucy meat and spitting out the small bones, which, he says, add to the flavor. 

Launching any restaurant is difficult, but Li found opening a dim sum place in Oregon posed its own unique challenge: finding chefs experienced in that style of cuisine. Li says traditionally dim sum chefs start as young as 14, and to staff Spice ’n’ Steam he had to import chefs from places like Los Angeles and Denver as well as quality ingredients from Southern California. But Li is confident his venture will be a success in Eugene’s growing Asian community. “When I see people eat the food, I’m happy,” Li says.

Spice ’n’ Steam is located at 165 W. 11th Avenue. It’s open everyday 10 am to 10 pm. For more information check out Spice ’n’ Steam on Facebook.