The glory days in this Chinatown restaurant were memorable. The Empress was the landmark place for dim sum in Los Angeles and always so crowded that you had to wait for a table. Cart after cart would roll by, laden with an extensive selection that changed with the seasons.
But now there are new owners, and this is a different operation. It was impossible to judge it fairly, eating when it had only been open for a day. Service was a little creaky as the staff gamely tried to get things together, playing new and unfamiliar roles.
The room was almost two-thirds empty, because few knew they could get in. We were warned that the selection of food would be limited, but my table of 11 had plenty to eat. There weren't many rolling carts--I noticed just three--but this will undoubtedly change.
How was the dim sum? It varied. Most of it was pretty standard, but a couple of things stood out, at least for me.
The egg tarts were, quite simply, fabulous, so fresh and hot that the filling was still wiggling as they came to the table. The flaky crust was so tender that I thought my tart would collapse when I picked it out of its little tin. Somehow, I got it from tin to mouth. From then on, it was pure rapture.
The other standout was chow fun, stir-fried beef with noodles and bean sprouts (above). The sheets of dough were rolled up, then sliced crosswise in short sections so that each piece was a swirl of layers. Even better, the entire dish had the delicious char taste that comes from a super hot wok.
We ordered many more things--duck, soy sauce chicken, potstickers, chicken feet, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves and two vegetable dishes--baby bok choy and Chinese broccoli, separated into stems and leaves (above). In their bare simplicity, the stems were very good. The texture was perfect, crisp yet tender.
Empress Pavilion is too new for serious eating. Give it a few weeks, then go. For now, the top dim sum places are still in the San Gabriel Valley.
Empress Pavilion, 988 N. Hill St., Los Angeles, CA 90012 (in Bamboo Plaza in Chinatown). Validated parking for 1 hour in the Bamboo Plaza garage. Tel: (213) 617-9898.