Dim sum virgin no more

Dear Diary: Today’s the day I lost my dim sum virginity.

A co-worker (Hi, Karen!) had invited me several times out to join her at Empress Pavilion in L.A.’s Chinatown, but it never came to fruition.
Until today.
Despite having worked until 1 a.m., I dragged myself out of bed and was on the way to the Sierra Madre Gold Line station in Pasadena at 8:15 a.m.
I arrived in about an hour, parked the car, climbed up the stairs and crossed over the freeway, caught the rail line to Chinatown and met her and her husband and two of their grandchildren at the restaurant shortly after 10 a.m.


The restaurant at this point was about one-quarter full (they open at 9 a.m. on Saturday). It wouldn’t stay that empty for long.

If you’ve never had dim sum, it’s certainly a unique experience.
It’s similar in some ways to eating tapas at a Spanish restaurant in that nearly all of the dishes are small portions, such as dumplings or meat buns.
It also reminded me a little of eating at the Cuban Porto’s Bakery in Glendale, with their assortment of meat pies.
It’s also kind of like eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet, except that you pay for what you take and, instead of you going to the food, the food comes to you.
In a nutshell, you are seated and are served a pot of tea. From thenceforth, you eat. Servers criss-cross the dining room with carts loaded with different dishes — some sweet, some savory, some hot, some room-temperature. You take what you want and let the other carts go by. As you take your items, your order card is stamped for the items you took.
I was glad to have someone experienced in ordering dim sum, because without her I would’ve been quite lost.
We dined on a wide variety of items from dumplings (rice, pork and shrimp, both steamed and fried) to pork buns to rice porridge to mango pudding to egg custard tarts.
Some items were delicious. Others were good, but I’m not sure I would order them again. I didn’t have anything which I didn’t like.
I ate things I never ate before — bits of a thousand-year egg in the rice porridge and a pan-fried taro cake. (I think I would put both of those into the good, but once-was-enough category.)
Some carts we got several items from and some — beef tripe, anyone? — we let pass us by.
Some never got to us by the time we left. (Gee, Karen, it’s really a shame we didn’t get to try the jellyfish!)
A bonus: At Empress Pavilion, after 11 a.m. (and not a minute before!), you can order noodles. The ones we ordered were delicious! Thin, fried, egg noodles with chicken, bok choy, carrots and a succulent gravy. Yum!
A surprise: Because it was Chinese New Year, a lion dance troupe paraded through the restaurant, loudly banging drums and cymbals. Wow…what a great spectacle!
I would highly encourage anyone to try dim sum. It’s a great way to experience different kinds of Chinese food for relatively little money. However, here’s a few tips:
  • Go early: The restaurant was packed within about a half an hour of our arrival. When we left, there were dozens of people waiting outside.
  • Go with a large group: Each order usually has three or four items in it. Get a couple of orders and there’s enough for everyone to try.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things: After all, it’s only a couple of bucks per order, and there might be someone in your party who likes the things you don’t, and vice versa. If you’re not sure about an item, just get one order and ask if the server can cut the items in half.
  • Go with someone who’s had dim sum before: Sometimes the servers aren’t as helpful as you’d like them to be. If you go with someone who’s experienced, you can steer clear of the things you probably wouldn’t like. (Jellyfish, for instance.)
  • Subtle hint: When your teapot is empty, take the lid and place it at an angle in the opening. They’ll replace it.
OK, so Empress Pavilion is not in the Inland Empire, but I guess it just goes to show that sometimes you have to seek out interesting dining experiences wherever they are.
Empress Pavilion is at 988 N. Hill Street in Los Angeles.
  • ali b

    2 questions:
    1) what about parking? this is Chinatown, so, any inside tips on finding free or cheap parking??

    2) are the menus not in English?

  • http://blogs.dailybulletin.com/rcnow Wendy Leung

    You seemed to have enjoyed your dim sum experience, John, that’s awesome. It’s too bad there’s no dim sum in the 909, at least not any that I know of. SGV and Rowland Heights might be the closest.

    The Empress Pavilion has a parking lot that is free or almost free with validation, Ali B. And no, the menus are not in English because there are no menus. The dim sum ladies usually speak a little English but if communication is not happening, you can just look and point. Some dim sum restaurants do not have the push carts; you have to order from the menu. In that case, the menu is in English. Elite in Monterey Park and Mission 261 in San Gabe are menu-driven dim sum joints.

    And by the way, don’t knock jellyfish!

  • John Plessel

    Ali B, here’s some answers:

    1) As you read, I didn’t drive there, so I didn’t park. But as Wendy notes, and from what I’ve read online, the seen-better-days mall that they’re in (Bamboo Plaza) has a 400 car parking garage. If you remember to validate, it’s under a buck for an hour or two (really, who charges 68 for parking??!?!). Far cheaper than the $7 for all-day lot I saw on the way there. Of course, if you’re up for a small amount of walking, parking is free at the Sierra Madre Gold Line station in Pasadena, and it’s only $1.25 for a one-way, 26-minute trip to the Chinatown station. From the station, it’s just a few short blocks to Empress Pavilion.

    2) Also as Wendy pointed out, there aren’t menus. Well, technically, there are menus (and you can view them here and here), but you don’t really need them. You just stop the cart servers as they go by if you see something on the cart that interests you. Don’t feel too intimidated. Probably half of the items will be familiar if you’ve ever been to a Chinese buffet restaurant. We’re talking about your typical dumplings and pot stickers and rolls and buns here. Empress Pavilion has pictures of some of the offerings on their Web site here. I’m sure you’ll recognize many of them. There’s also a pretty good guide to dim sum at Wikipedia here. If you’re unsure, just ask the servers. The servers we spoke to understood English. Judging from the crowd on Saturday I was definitely not the only non-Asian there they wouldn’t be getting their business if the servers only spoke Chinese.

    Hope this helps!

  • John Plessel

    Wendy:

    I hear House of Louie in West Covina (we used to live within walking distance) is pretty good. I’ve also heard there’s a place off Fullerton Road in Rowland Heights that is good. But of course, neither West Covina nor Rowland Heights are in the Inland Empire.