Dim Sum: Bowl of Guts. Enter the Deep End. Empress Pavilion. Chinatown, LA.
Empress Pavilion. Chinatown, LA. (Triad of Guts)
If you’re a Deep End Diner like me, then going to a revered and phenomenally popular Chinese restaurant for its widely celebrated dim sum is like being in Bruce Lee’s final film “Game of Death”. In the famous third act of the film, Bruce Lee and his crew venture into the Tower of Death to challenge various fighters each with different fighting styles and progressively greater combat skills. The higher in the pagoda the fighter is, the more formidable a foe he is. Eating dim sum at the Empress Pavilion is no different…except for the death part. Hurry! No time to waste. Your master must be avenged.
Next to the entrance of the 110 North freeway, representing Chinatown’s final outpost for high quality Chinese cuisine, and firmly perched on the second level of the Bamboo Plaza is the famed Empress Pavilion. To most LA dim sum aficionados the Empress Pavilion is…well…the empress of all dim sum restaurants. And over the years, this establishment has gained such notoriety that it has become a destination restaurant where you really have to plan ahead to dine there. Furthermore, due to its tremendous popularity, actually dining at the Empress Pavilion has turned into somewhat of a…da da dum…“Game of Death”!!! Alright, so I’m exaggerating a little… okay, A LOT. But seriously, just trying to get a table at the Empress Pavilion on a weekend during dim sum hours has turned into a feat where it would help to have some kind of martial arts ability. I don’t mean by beating the hostess senseless with nun chuks and then removing by force that family of ten from their table. I mean, like, if you were Jackie Chan, you wouldn’t have to wait upwards of two hours for a table. Of course, this is assuming that you already scored yourself a parking spot. You’ll pay for parking, you say? The last time I checked that “Lot Full” sign was still in full effect. Even before you begin to look for parking, however, drop off someone you trust at the restaurant to snag that all important spot in line.
Act One of the Empress Pavilion’s “Game of Death” begins with making your way to the hostess in order to secure a place in the queue. Even this part is not easy. As you ride the escalator up to the second floor of the Bamboo Plaza, you gradually get a sense that there are going to be lots of impatient, hungry people just like you. But you’ll never be prepared for the amount of people, the overwhelming sea of humanity. Too bad. Be prepared. Bring a life vest because now you have to fight your way through this wall of bipeds just to get a tiny slip of paper with a letter and a number on it. Mine was C-49. The hostess was currently calling A-48. Whatever you do, don’t lose it. No ticket, no entrance to dim sum heaven. Now the battle begins in earnest.
Act Two involves lots of fighting. That is, fighting…your hunger. You probably have been standing for a half hour now in the restaurant’s lobby, trying hard to appear pleasant but your stomach is going “Grrr. Grrrrrrrr! Goddammit, GRRRRRRRR!!!” Ignore it. Fight all urges to go downstairs for the extra large boba drink. Tapioca pearls are empty calories, girlfriend. You don’t want to lose your appetite. Suck it up.
Act Three also has to do with fighting. At the one hour mark you will cease looking at your ticket every time a number is called and hoping against all hope that your number will magically change into the number that is being called. Unless Harry Potter is in your party, it’s not going to happen. Now your frustrations, hunger and anger will be finely focused on the hostesses calling out the numbers. It gets worse because there will be a point when the numbers will come close to yours, dance around it a bit and then, omigod, pass yours up!! "What the hell?!" you shriek. You plow your way to the hostess, ticket tightly clenched in your fist to the point of making it confetti. You plead your case and she tells you that the numbers above yours are held by very large parties. You only have three people. None of the small tables have opened up yet. Sorry.
Now your rage is redirected at all those super slow diners occupying the small tables – leisurely they nibble their siu my, chew it twenty-five times, laugh at their friend’s joke, take a sip of the flower tea then FINALLY swallow. At this point your body is feeding on itself (it’s a good thing you have a bountiful fat reserve). At this point you are also defeating yourself.
Little Dragon Bruce Lee taught us that you must use your opponent's energy against him without wasting your own. So just relax and read the dusty, decade old “Gourmet” review of the Empress Pavilion on the wall. Sample some of the bar’s condiments, check out the bathroom, help the bussers clear tables, etc. And before you know it…
Your number is called. Hallelujah, thank you, Jesus!!! In all seriousness, this can take literally two hours to happen. Now, pray that there’s still some good dim sum truckin’ around or else there’ll be hell to pay. Get ready to rumble.
Level One: It took nearly two hours of your life just to nab a table at the Empress Pavilion, are you just having har gow (shrimp dumpling) and siu my (pork dumpling)? Har gow and siu my, arguably the two most popular dim sum dishes, are considered Level One challengers in this “Game of Death” scenario, as are most dumplings and rice rolls. These dishes, however, represent but a few specks of this pointillist dim sum painting. They’re significant but there’s so much more. It's also like eating "my first dim sum" all the time. What are you a baby?
Level Two: Even at this early level, many diners drop out. Here we have daring fare such as squid, deep fried tentacles or fried shrimp (heads still intact). Snappy, crispy, crunchy. Easy to eat and delicious. Next…
Level Three: This is when we really begin to weed out the casually bold from the hard core. Pig’s blood cubes, thousand year-old egg in pork congee, soy sauce duck feet and, of course, chicken feet. Most would argue that the infamous chicken feet should be in the final level of this dim sum challenge hierarchy. Not even close. Chicken feet are fairly popular dishes and common. Most patrons are somewhat familiar with them as well. However, there are some things that are supremely outlandish and we would rather not come face to face with, let alone put in our mouths. Level Four is where you’ll find these bad boys.
Level Four, the final floor: Welcome to Dante’s dim sum hell. Do you dare partake in one of these nightmarish delights? C’mon, they don’t look that grotesque, do they? But before you get your mad dog on, you have to locate these tantalizingly twisted tidbits and that’s not easy to do. As you might imagine, these Dali-esque plates are not in high demand even among dim sum loyalists. This makes it more difficult to flag down a dim sum dame who’s carting these goodies around. When I say “goodies" I mean selections like marinated beef tripe (omasum tripe) and, in phonetic Mandarin, "nyoh doo" also known as “bowl of guts” (rumen tripe, honeycomb tripe, pancreas and sometimes intestines). You’ve come a long way. It’s on the table. Don’t stop here. Have a taste.
Enter the Deep End.
People often confess that the things that scare them most, the “bogeymen” of their lives, are only scary because they never confront them. The same thing can be said of “strange food”. Typically people have phobias of certain foods because of texture or because it’s either an unfamiliar or too familiar anatomical part and/or animal. If that’s the case, then there’s a lot to be freaked out about with the “bowl of guts”. Starting off with tripe, (as if one kind wasn’t enough) there are two varieties here: honeycomb and rumen. Honeycomb tripe is weird if you’ve never had it. It looks like honeycomb and is wavy and rubbery and very chewy. Rumen tripe is even weirder. It’s rubbery and…(gag)…furry. There is no actual fur but it feels furry. And see that thing that looks like chocolate cake? You’re right, it’s not chocolate cake. It’s pancreas, the organ in your body that produces insulin. This one’s from a cow, though. Beef pancreas is dense but soft and slightly creamy – sort of like a chunky pâté.
This intestinal grab bag is probably enough to make you lose your bbq pork buns. The truth is though “bowl of guts” is really good. This hodgepodge of innards is patiently braised with ginger, star anise, soy sauce, and rice wine until all the sinew melts into a delicious and gelatinous joy ride of entrails. Sweet is the lead vocals in this funky flavor band. A savory saltiness, a licoricy lilt and a minutia of muskiness backs up the sweetness with such bliss you forget, albeit for a nanosecond, you are chewing on bovine stomach lining. You’ll enjoy it much more if you don’t think about it. And if you can’t help thinking about it, just remember it’s simply another part of a cow. Nose to tail. The Final Level is complete. Master has been avenged. Burp.
Epilogue: Did you know “dim sum” literally translated means “to light up the heart or to touch the heart”? Dim – "to touch or light". Sum – "heart". Special, isn’t it? After experiencing Deep End dim sum, however, there'll be a new translation i.e. “to reach into a chest and pull out a still beating heart and dipping it into soy sauce with hot mustard and enjoying every bite”. Not quite as poetic as the original. Maybe something was lost in the translation. I’ll work on it. Hey, anyone for more chicken feet?