Dim Sum. Delectable little morsels of steamed, fried, and baked goodness. Dim Sum started as a custom in Chinese tea houses and has spread around the world. Now usually served for lunch or brunch, it can be as much of an experience as a meal. There are a variety of styles and regional specialities available at hundreds of Los Angeles area eateries. Traditional Cantonese Hong Kong style, juicy Xiao Long Bao, spicy Schezuan; there are endless variations and unique flavors. One of the best known dim sum palaces in Los Angeles was the Empress Pavilion. It stood at the northern end of Chinatown for nearly 25 years.
We have been going to Empress for many years. It is a cavernous room which on busy days was always packed with diners. On weekends, throngs of people choked the lobby and spilled out onto the terrace, waiting for their numbers to be called. Like a demented bingo game, we clutched our tiny slips of paper handed out by the implacable receptionist and listened for the amplified sing-song voice: B 23, B 23 … B 25, B 25 … C 16, C16. When your number was finally called you pushed your way through the crowd in a surge of victory and surrendered your square of paper, only to be led into the melée that was the dining room.
Dozens of ladies wearing brocaded red coats pushed steaming carts laden with gleaming towers of small circular steamers, plates of baked buns, vats of rice porridge, and barbecued meats between the white clothed tables. You flag down one of the ladies, and one by one she reveals the contents of the steamers filled with glistening, translucent dumplings stuffed with shrimp, meats, or vegetables. She deftly separates one of the battered steamers, plops it down on the table and stamps a card with a little round stamp signifying one of various price points. You could get sizzling pot stickers, steamed broccoli, and fried taro cakes prepared right at your table. Sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, wide rice noodles stuffed with meat or shrimp, little chunks of spare ribs in black bean sauce, and the ubiquitous chicken feet wheel by in procession. Egg rolls, tiny custard tarts, deep-fried taro balls, baked buns live on a cart with shelves encased in plexiglass doors. Brightly colored gelatinous desserts wobble merrily as they pass by. The food was always delicious, inexpensive, and the challenge of tracking down the cart with your favorite dish was part of the adventure.
This venerable institution closed last year because of economic reasons; high overhead, increased food and labor costs, and declining business in the rundown shopping center it occupied. We were heartbroken. Empress made several varieties that we couldn’t find anywhere else. Rice noodle with fish. Baked sweet chicken pies. Steamed chicken dumplings with pine nuts. Roasted chicken and black mushroom atop steamed rice in little covered bowls. What now? Thus began the great Dim Sum Quest.
We tried several places in Chinatown, but none could compare. There is another area for Chinese food about 10 minutes east of downtown L.A., the San Gabriel Valley which boasts many well-reviewed dim sum places. We tried dozens of them. One of the main challenges for us is that we no longer eat pork, and my wife doesn’t eat seafood. In traditional dim sum restaurants, pork and seafood comprise about 80-90 percent of the offerings. So we looked for a place that went beyond the usual suspects of Har Gow (steamed shrimp) Char Siu (sweet barbecue pork) Siu Mai (ground pork and shrimp dumplings), and Pot Stickers (pan-fried dumplings). Ocean Seafood in Chinatown does the regular panoply of dim sum plus a wider variety of chicken and vegetable dishes than any of the places we tried. Steamed spinach and vegetable dumplings. Chicken pot stickers. Pan-fried Baked chicken pies. Plus some interesting seafood items that I indulge in once in a while. One, a seafood soup encased in a giant won ton is delicious. Ocean Seafood became our go-to place.
Imagine our surprise several months ago when we made the sweeping turn off the 110 freeway Chinatown exit onto Hill Street and as we passed the hulking Bamboo Plaza, former home of the Empress, we saw a banner on the side of the 4 story behemoth that proclaimed “Empress Pavilion Coming Soon”. Today as we wheeled past the building on our way to Ocean Seafood and Wing Hop Fung market to buy our favorite Phoenix Honey Orchid Oolong tea, we saw it. “Empress Pavilion Grand Opening”. Terry slammed on the brakes and we sped around the block to the entrance of the elevated parking structure. After one of the slowest elevator rides in Los Angeles, we walked into the newly remodeled Empress. It looked refreshed.
Tall new doors framed in black anodized aluminum replaced the simple glass doors of the original. In one corner of the enormous dining room a gleaming command center with glowing computer screens and marble counters stood where there once were tables. The cart ladies had swapped their brocade for starched white blouses sporting a new embroidered Empress Pavilion logo, little plastic mouth shields, and two-way radios complete with earpieces. The gigantic dining room was about a quarter full, not unsurprising on a Tuesday afternoon, but it lacked the customary bustle of the brisk, efficient service that marks the best dim sum places. We were seated by the window trying desperately not to harbor unrealistic expectations. Previously, within 20 seconds of being seated, a hot pot of tea and little dishes filled with chili oil and yellow Chinese mustard miraculously appeared. Within a minute a parade of carts would commence and within two minutes your table was usually laden with the first round many dishes to come.
Today, we had to ask for tea and mustard. We sat for more than five minutes before the first cart limped by. The cart lady revealed the contents of the shining silver steamers, nothing more than the usual suspects, har gow, sui mai, char siu bao. There was a steamed vegetable dumpling and the traditional gai bao (steamed chicken bun) which we asked for. They were both unremarkable. The vegetable was lacking in flavor and the wrapper thick and tough. The chicken bun was okay, the filling flavorful, but densely compacted and the snowy white bun heavy and gluey. In most dim sum restaurants there is a card on the table with a list of available offerings and in many, you can order off the card if your favorite variety doesn’t wheel by.
We asked a waiter for a couple of varieties and he told us they weren’t available, or would come out “later.” We asked for a baked yam bun, only to have a fried yam ball delivered. We pointed to the menu, and the line that read “Baked Yam Bun”, and asked if this is what we had. “Yes, yes”, came the reply. “But it is fried right?”, we queried. “Yes, fried”. “And it is a yam ball, not a bun, right?” “Yes, yam ball”. We pointed to the “Baked Yam Bun” on the menu and our waiter nodded and repeated, “Baked Yam Bun”. That was more than we could take. We were crestfallen, mortally disheartened. This place was Empress Pavilion in name only. After the first two dishes of lackluster food and the abstract service, we looked at each other and said simply, “Ocean Seafood.” It took an inordinately long time for the lonely cashier to process our check and return our credit card. In the old days, that would have taken less than ninety seconds.
We paid our check and headed the three blocks to Ocean. Once inside, a smiling hostess led us to a table and a parade of carts followed us. We didn’t even get a chance to sit down before the carts surrounded us. We stood by our table as the mysteries of the steamers were revealed. We pointed to the steamed spinach and vegetable dumplings, shrimp and bok choy dumplings, and asked about the pot stickers. A cart lady materialized behind me and asked “pot stickers?” I nodded. They showed up almost instantaneously. The dishes landed on our table as we sat. Tea, mustard, and hot chili followed within seconds. Baked chicken buns and bean paper with mushrooms completed our lunch. Sadly, we had already eaten up the street or I would have gone for the giant seafood won ton. Maybe next time. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Everything was tasty as always, and as we devoured the last of the chicken buns, we shed a metaphorical tear for the now dethroned Empress.
Sadly we write the epitaph of a once great institution. The real Empress Pavilion is no more. Perhaps in months to come they will work out the abysmal service and begin to offer different varieties, but the dishes and the ambience that made it special for us have drifted along the way of so many great restaurants that have come and gone and tried to come back. Bye bye, Empress. We will miss you.