Dim sum brunch may be the most fun your mouth can have before 3 pm, and Portland is favored with several excellent places to enjoy it, including Legin, House of Louie, Fong Chong, and newcomer Lum Yuen. Although Lum Yuen seems the clear favorite of Portland's Chinese community, to the uninitiated Western eye and palate all these restaurants offer much the same culinary experience. Upon entering their dimly lit lobbies, you will see murky tanks prominently displaying sea-creature death row. Once seated, you will experience vinyl in a range of vintages, from the kitschy 1950s brown of Fong Chong to the valley-girl 1980s pink of Legin. Your table will come equipped with soy sauce, hot-pepper oil, napkins and tea cups. Often, the host will rush to provide you with a fork just in case you are not up to the chopstick challenge.

Once you are seated, a steaming pot of tea arrives--perhaps bo lei, distinguished by its dark brown hue and spicy aroma, or maybe the golden, mellow hung pin jasmine tea. Once you have had a sip or two, it's time to get your plate ready for its big day. Pour a little soy sauce on it, mix in as much hot-pepper oil as you dare, and pretty soon the carts will start to roll your way. Now comes the hard part: identifying the wonderful from the just plain scary.

Wonderful is a relative concept, but scary is a little more universal: For many people, chicken feet are scary, even when they are prepared in a black-bean garlic sauce. A stew of assorted organ meat is scary. Boiled beef tripe is scary. It can be daunting to stray from the familiar path, but variety is a big part of the fun; in fact, the Cantonese phrase "dim sum" means "a little bit of everything." So we've put together some suggestions to help expand your dim sum comfort zone.

Steamed dishes come in towers of stackable metal cylinders. It's a good idea to ask to see below the top-level cylinders, in case something really special is hiding below. You will be offered the reliably tasty ha gow dumpling stuffed with shrimp, and pork siu mai (pronounced like "shoe my"), a succulent ball of pork, shrimp and mushrooms. For more adventure, try the transcendentally yummy crescent-shaped fan go dumpling, stuffed with diced shrimp or pork, bamboo shoots and cilantro. Or the soft, chewy, sticky steamed rice-noodle rolls filled with chicken, woodear mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Also good are the square packages of normi gai, containing sticky rice and Chinese sausage wrapped in a banana or lotus leaf. The rice acquires a sultry smokiness from being steamed in the leaf, and the occasional piece of sausage is moist and pleasingly salty. Also give the chicken bao (rhymes with "wow") a chance: Its fluffy, steamed shell blends perfectly with the juicy ginger, chicken, bamboo shoot filling.

Watch out for dumplings containing fish, as they tend to have lots of concentrated, fish-flavored juice. Also skip the beige steamed pork dumplings; the stuffing is bland. Another danger sign is opaque rice-noodle dumplings: an indication that the too-thick noodle case will overpower those delicate flavors inside.

Baked and deep-fried dishes are usually served at room temperature. They circulate on carts with open shelves so you can see everything without having to ask. Some interesting choices are lobster pie (without the proffered ranch dressing) and fried shrimp balls skewered on sugarcane. Blurring the line between entree and dessert are hom sui gok, a sweet, hollow deep-fried pastry stuffed with a little ground pork and gravy, and the light, flaky curry pie filled with a sweet mixture of meat, onions, and tumeric. Also occupying the dinner/dessert cusp is the very best dim sum dish of all time (drum roll): Fong Chong's onion bun, an ineffably light spiral of bread dotted with caramelized scallions and sesame seeds.

If you still have any stamina left for a full-fledged dessert, try the blocks of coconut gelatin, whose mild buttery flavor soothes the palate after a wild morning of exotic indulgences. Other tasty options include the rich egg-custard tart, resembling a crème caramel plopped in a mini pie crust, and the yeasty sweet rolls filled with coconut butter.

At dim sum, the selection seems infinite and the prices infinitesimal (most options are between two and three dollars), tempting you to order a lot more than you can eat. The best plan is to explore dim sum with family and friends--then you all can try a little bit of everything.

Fong Chong & Co

301 NW 4th Ave. 223-1777 Dim sum 10:30 am­3 pm daily Inexpensive

House of Louie

331 NW Davis St. 228-9898 Dim sum 10:30 am­3 pm daily Inexpensive

Legin Restaurant

8001 SE Division St. 777-2828 Dim sum 10 am­ 3 pm daily Inexpensive

Lum Yuen

28 NW 4th Ave. 229-1888 Dim sum 11 am­ 3 pm daily Inexpensive

Picks: siu mai, shrimp fan go, chicken bao, normi gai, onion bun, lobster pie (w/o sauce), curry pie, hom sui gok, Chinese doughnut