The Sum of its Parts

After the closure of Empress Seafood in Monterey Park, a writer goes in search of the dishes from her childhood in a pre-pandemic Los Angeles

Art by Jessica Flemming

When I think of my childhood, I think of sticky summers spent in a damp basement apartment in Kowloon, air thick with typhoon season, a shared bed with my mother, our bodies ripe for mosquito feasting. I taste the cold AC in the building’s mailroom, the heat lifting from my skin, the weight of humidity. 

I am always sweating. I am always happy. I am always hungry, and I am always full: a lazy Susan at every table, overflowing, soup and fruit at the end of every meal. I am learning math through time difference, 16 hours ahead of home — Los Angeles. I am the only foreigner, the only gui mui zai, not just because I’m the only American, but because I’m also the only one who is mixed race. I am not from Hong Kong, but my mother is, and when you’re raised by a single parent, their home counts for twice as much. Most of my family is still there. Only my mom and her two sisters came to the States, originally for college, then again when my family bought a small apartment building in Monterey Park in the 1980s — our sliver of the American Dream. (Even today, an overwhelming majority of Monterey Park’s population is Asian, a majority of which is Chinese.) My mom settled down in Northridge. I was born. She built a life for us. 

When my grandparents were still alive, we would go back to Hong Kong to visit them every summer. They would visit us, too, before they became too sick for the long flight, and with my aunties and uncles and cousins, we would gather over dim sum in Monterey Park in search of something like home. 

I spent a lot of weekends eating dim sum as a kid — always surrounded by family, and if not in Hong Kong, then in Monterey Park. Most often, we would go to Empress Harbor Seafood in the Atlantic Place Shopping Center. But slowly, over the years, we stopped going. I think maybe after my gung gung and po po died, there was less of a reason to go back. 

My family started to drift. 

My cousin went to boarding school, then moved to Oregon. My uncle died. My aunt became estranged, her children along with her. Other family members grew older, more impatient, no longer willing to make the drive from one end of the city to the other. (Northridge is a long way from Monterey Park, after all. Hong Kong is even further.) Empress Harbor Seafood closed in April 2019. It was one of several popular dim sum eateries — Ocean Star Seafood, Embassy Kitchen, and Lincoln Seafood among them — that shuttered last year in the San Gabriel Valley alone. 

Now, in the midst of a raging pandemic that took a toll on Chinese restaurants even before the official stay-at-home orders made dining out a thing of the past, many more dim sum places are sure to close their doors indefinitely. But, truthfully, I can’t remember the last time I’d gone to Empress Harbor Seafood. 

I think it’s in part because dim sum was so formative to my youth — to my idea of family — that it’s almost as if I’ve been scared to fuck it up and tarnish my memories of it. As a child, dim sum brought me closer to my culture, to my family, to Hong Kong. As an adult, however, I’ve lost that security. As someone who is mixed race, and frequently told I don’t look how I “should,” that I don’t “belong,” I didn’t want to be robbed of something I remembered as precious. 

But just a few months ago — it feels like a lifetime ago now — I had a craving I wasn’t able to silence: not only for dim sum itself, but for all the things that come with it. After all, the best dim sum is family style, with as many people squeezed around a large circular table as possible. 

There is a chaotic grace to dim sum, as if a dozen of the best food carts in the neighborhood all wandered into the same tacky banquet hall. It’s communal and loud. It’s comforting. It’s delicious. It’s impossible to leave hungry. To me, it’s a singular dining experience unlike anything else. Finding good dim sum is a word-of-mouth game. When I first embarked on this quest, I asked my mom where I should go, but she insisted she didn’t know anymore. So I reached out to my friends for recommendations, who in turn asked their parents. I made lists and mapped out the restaurants. 

I wrote this piece and conducted this experiment “before.” Before close proximity to others felt dangerous rather than communal. Before China — and, therefore, Chinese people — became the scapegoat for our country’s response to this pandemic. Before the fate of most restaurants (and certainly most Chinese restaurants) seemed tenuous at best. Before I was afraid for my mom to even go to the grocery store by herself. 

It is surreal; a fossil trapped in amber, a time I struggle to imagine us ever returning to. I don’t know when I’ll next be able to go back to Hong Kong. I don’t even know when I’ll even be able to share a meal with other people at a restaurant again. But I am hopeful because I have to be: hopeful that we, collectively, will make it through this, hopeful that we will be able to recover, and hopeful that these restaurants will survive. I hope we’ll all be able to enjoy each and every one of them again soon. 


CAPITAL SEAFOOD RESTAURANT 

755 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, CA 91754 

I’m deeply ashamed that I can’t speak Cantonese. It isn’t my fault, exactly. I expressed an interest in learning the language from a young age, but my mom insisted that I learn Mandarin instead. Despite years of Saturday school and language immersion camp, however, it never really stuck: Over 20 years later, I probably know about as much Mandarin as a first-grader. This shame comes out most strongly when I am moving through spaces in which Cantonese is the predominant language. This includes the entirety of Hong Kong, the majority of Chinatowns, a large swath of Monterey Park, and pretty much every family meal I’ve ever attended in my life. My shame is most potent in these situations, I think, because as I’ve been told for my entire life, by strangers and family alike, I do not pass for Chinese — and without language, I have little else to prove I belong. 

I am ruminating over this shame when my friend and I make the trek to Monterey Park to try Capital Seafood, where I expect everything to be in Cantonese. My worrying turns out to be in vain, though: The hostess greets us in English, and the servers lift up their wares for us to see, in case we don’t understand what they’re offering. Even though the servers at Capital Seafood speak a fair amount of English — I judge a dim sum restaurant by the amount of Cantonese/Mandarin spoken; more is always better — it still easily passes my own personal “authenticity” test. The decor is opulent and a little gaudy (perfect), there’s an entire wall of lobster and fish tanks (a requirement), and the majority of the patrons are Chinese families enjoying a weekend meal (always a good sign). We are given the quintessential stamp card. There is no shortage of food carts, and a good variety of dishes. 

The lap cheung bao instantly reminds me of my childhood, the siu mai is moist and flavorful, and the har cheung has a decent amount of shrimp (although the “seasoned” soy sauce was a bit plain). The flow of food is constant but not overwhelming. It’s the dan tat that easily steals the show. Still warm, the pastry is light and flaky, the custard perfectly set. Apparently other diners think so, too: The dish is quickly snatched up almost as soon as it’s brought out. 

I leave Capital Seafood feeling newly invigorated about my dim sum journey. On the way out, I notice that, by chance, we are across the street from the Atlantic Place Shopping Center, where Empress Harbor Seafood used to be. The sign is sun-faded and visibly worn, but still standing tall. Surely, I thought, this was a sign: I decide to get dim sum with my mom next. 


All illustrations by Jessica Flemming

LUNASIA DIM SUM HOUSE

239 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91101 

Before we’ve even walked into Lunasia, I realized I’ve made a mistake. It’s too shiny, too commercial, too new. Everyone waiting for a table is speaking English. “Well, what did you expect?” my mom says. “We’re in Pasadena.” 

I later learn that Lunasia has two locations, and that the more “traditional” one is in Alhambra — which is probably the one my friend’s dad had in mind when he recommended it. My mom and I decide to give the Pasadena Lunasia the benefit of the doubt, and add our names to their Yelp waitlist. We’re seated relatively quickly, and given menus to check off what we’d like. The first listed item is “jumbo shrimp har gow”— which technically translates to “jumbo shrimp shrimp dumpling.” We check it off anyway. 

We also get ham sui gok (my mom’s favorite), xiao long bao, and pai guat, as well as dan tat and mango pudding for dessert. After we order, I can’t help but bemoan the fact that I’ve made my mom drive all the way from Northridge to Pasadena for a place that so obviously caters to white people. She asks me why it matters. I explain that I’m trying to channel the dim sum trips of my youth, that I’m chasing a memory — an “idea” of dim sum as I remember it. “Oh, OK,” she says, rather generously. “I’ll talk in Cantonese for the rest of the meal.” She delivers on this promise (although I understand very little of what she’s saying). After unwrapping a noh mai gai and deeming it “pretty good,” she flags down a waiter to bulk order a bunch to take home and put in the freezer for emergency dinners. 

When I ask my mom how she judges a dim sum place, she points her chopsticks at a basket of har gow. “I judge how big and fresh the shrimp is, and how thin the skin is,” she says. The har gow at Lunasia is, indeed, jumbo, and in my mom’s words, “not bad.” (The skin is decently thin — but not perfect.) While the pastry on the ham sui gok is a little thick, the flavor is well-balanced between its slightly sweet exterior and savory filling. The xiao long bao is juicy, and the shrimp in the har cheung is just as jumbo as it was in the har gow. The mango pudding is a little stiff, but the dan tat perfectly good. 

I leave satiated but not satisfied: If you’re looking for the old school, carts-and-lazy-Susans dim sum experience, Lunasia Dim Sum House isn’t it. But the food is good — good enough that my mom and I both ordered food to go after our sit-down meal — so it’s a great option if you’re looking for a more approachable entry point into dim sum. (Plus, it makes for good leftovers.) 


OCEAN SEAFOOD RESTAURANT 

750 N. Hill St., Los Angeles, CA 90012 

After repeatedly insisting she has no idea where to find good dim sum anymore, my mom casually informs me I don’t need to keep driving over a half hour to the San Gabriel Valley. In fact, she says, there is perfectly good dim sum in Chinatown, just a couple of miles away from my Echo Park apartment. 

While I’m inclined to trust her, I’m skeptical. My skepticism only grows when I Google her recommendation, Ocean Seafood, and discover that they deliver on Postmates, Uber Eats, and Grubhub. (This is a huge fail on my authenticity test.) Nonetheless, my friend and I decide to give it a try. Once inside, a floor-to ceiling mirrored wall greets us as we ascend the stairs to a variety of crustacean tanks on the second floor. The decor is promising, I think. The meal, it turns out, not so much. 

After being seated, my friend and I watch as servers pushing the same two carts circle the large room on repeat, desperately trying to tempt diners with dishes they’d already rejected. I’m used to, and in fact prefer, an aggressive server driving my dim sum carts — but it is clear that this is more a matter of getting rid of unwanted stock. Finally, when a woman holding a tray of gai lan approaches our table for the third time in five minutes, I become guilted into ordering my first real vegetable of this whole excursion. The dark leafy green, paired with oyster sauce, is bitter and comforting. For the next few minutes, it is also the only dish on our table. 

Of all the restaurants, we try the fewest dishes at this one — not because we aren’t hungry, but because they don’t seem to have as much to offer us. It’s after the lunch rush, and they’ve already sold out of staples like xiao long bao, siu mai, and char siu bao. It is entirely possible we simply came at an off time, on an off day. But later, my friend and I agree that of the places we went to together, this is probably the one we wouldn’t return to. 

I text my mom after to tell her it wasn’t anything special. “Well, I haven’t been in 10 years,” she writes back. “It might have gone down the drain.” 


All illustrations by Jessica Flemming

ATLANTIC SEAFOOD & DIM SUM RESTAURANT

500 N. Atlantic Blvd. Suite 200, Monterey Park, CA 91754 

A widely accepted truth about dim sum is that the best places often have a wait. So, when my dim sum buddy, his friend, and I are asked to grab a number at Atlantic Seafood, back in the Monterey Park strip malls of my youth, I am hopeful. When the hostess calls out numbers in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, in that order, my hope expands. 

Of everywhere on my list, Atlantic Seafood is by far the most crowded, and the loudest —  which, to me, is a positive. It also has the greatest variety of food available on carts traveling at the best pace: There is never a moment in which a cart isn’t passing by our table, but unlike at Ocean Seafood, there are a diverse mix of dishes on each. We get all the classics — har gow, ham sui gok, xiao long bao, siu mai, gai lan, char siu bao — plus a couple other favorites, like zha leung with hoisin and sesame paste. My friend’s friend is hungrier than we are, and long after we tap out, continues accepting plates from various carts. I accept a bite of the loh bak gou, which I haven’t had in years. It’s as good as I’d remembered. 

At one point, my friend’s friend waves down the owner — a middle-aged man in a blue suit and gold tie with red-brown dyed hair. “Uncle Paul,” he says. (In Chinese culture, you call pretty much anyone older than you Auntie or Uncle as a sign of respect.) After an elated response, they go back and forth and eventually conclude that he will call this week to figure out a time to have dinner. “Uncle Paul” sends over a plate of their specialty dessert—which looks a bit like bo luo bao but with an apricot-colored liquid filling. “Do you know what this is?” I text my mom. “No idea,” she says. I eat it anyway.

When the check arrives, I fight over the bill with my friend’s friend. This goes on for a while. “Respect your elders,” I eventually say. After more arguing, he relents. For this interaction alone, it’s the most “authentic” meal I’ve had. After I put down my card, I realize it’s also the cheapest. 


A & W SEAFOOD

9306 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, CA 91324 

The best thing about the Valley is the ease and abundance of parking. So color me surprised when I see that the parking lot at A&W Seafood, near my childhood home, deep in the San Fernando Valley, is completely full at 10:30 am on a Saturday. My mom nearly shoves me out the car door to get us a table while she goes to find a spot. I luck out and get a seat immediately. A line begins to form in my wake. 

After a few minutes, my mom sneaks into the restaurant looking exasperated and guilty. She’s parked at the strip mall next door. “As long as the guard didn’t see me, it should be OK,” she says. I pray her car doesn’t get towed. 

Shortly after we accept our first dish (har gow, of course), I register that a couple of carts have snubbed our table, skipping over us for the Mandarin-and-Cantonese-speaking groups to our right and left. My mom calls out to a waitress. For a moment, the waitress almost seems exasperated to learn that my mom can speak Cantonese. It’s a familiar scene — people are often surprised by this when she’s with me. It is apparently so unfathomable to some people that I could be Chinese that it rubs off on my mother, too. 

As a kid, I used to love this party trick. When we’d visit Hong Kong, we’d go shop at Niu Yun Gai on Tung Choi Street in Kowloon, walking down the stalls and picking out knickknacks to take home. I don’t know many words in Cantonese, but I do know one: gui mui — foreigner, ghost. I’d hear it a lot. And whenever I did, I’d tell my mom to ask a question in Cantonese, to make a remark. The look of horror was always worth the sting of the initial insult. 

Of the places I went on this excursion, A&W Seafood was perhaps the least remarkable, but in some ways, the most comfortable — the most intimate. My mom gets us a plate of fung zhao, because she thinks it’ll make my article more interesting, but it, too, is unremarkable: an “exotic” dish isn’t exotic if you’ve had it your whole life. 


As I write this, my mother’s home is unravelling. At least, this is how it feels to me when I read the news, when I turn on the television. For months, I’ve watched it from a distance, seen demonstrators clash with police, watched as these protestors fight for freedom, for the things that make Hong Kong special. I worry about how my family is coping with COVID-19, about my immunocompromised uncle, about my many older relatives, about everyone at risk — both there and elsewhere. (Although, it should be said, that Hong Kong is now faring far better than we are.)

It’s impossible not to feel helpless. I haven’t been back to Hong Kong in years, but it’s still my mother’s home, still half my family’s home, and still, just a tiny bit, my home, too. And while I’ve never felt further away, I’ve also rarely felt closer to who I am and where I come from. Food, of course, is a part of that. Food with my family, perhaps even more so. 

When we leave, we run into the security guard at the strip mall next door, who scolds us for parking in a private lot. My mom has never looked guiltier, but I can’t help feeling as though I’ve gotten away with something much bigger. I’m happy and full. I’m home. I’ve found what I had been looking for.