Whenever I arrive at the misery that is LAX, after boarding a 6 a.m. flight out of an equally miserable JFK, I can always count on seeing my dad waiting for me at baggage claim as I make my escape. I scan the crowd for my dad, a man with a concerned look on his face, who’s always wearing a well-worn baseball T-shirt and jeans with a fanny pack slung around his waist. Once I spot him, we’ll give each other a big hug and then we’ll walk briskly toward the car in the parking garage. Mom will be waiting for us in the passenger seat, and without fail, she’ll ask, in earnest: “So, what are we eating?”
The question is a mere formality. The truth is the three of us already know the answer. We’re headed straight to dim sum, to carry out our little tradition that started a decade ago, when I first moved out to New York.
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We’ve barely sat down at the table, before a waiter already has a hefty pot of chrysanthemum or pu-erh tea ready for us, and the cart ladies are joking with my mom in Toisanese. We always return to the same place — Sea Empress in Gardena — because of its proximity on the way home from LAX, but also because it has the best dim sum in the South Bay now that PV Palace is closed. It’s where we celebrated my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and where we often had dim sum with relatives over the years. It feels like home. And within seconds of arriving, our table is already filled.
There are the requisite classics like har gow and shu mai. There’s the chicken feet (phoenix claws, if you wanna be fancy about it) lacquered in a black bean sauce and perfectly chewy — my mom’s absolute favorite. We always order more to take home for my brother. We never resist the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, no matter how much my parents tell me they’re “trying to go low carb.” Dad always indulges in a steamy bowl of congee, topped with scallions, century egg, and wonton crisps, always asking for extra bowls and spoons to share it with us. Our order of lo bak go (turnip cakes) sizzles as it cooks on the cart with the flattop, while we dig into a bowl of braised tripe and daikon with chile crisp. And even though we’re all starving in anticipation of our feast, my parents encourage me to document the meal with photos — with both of them acting as assistant food stylists.
Over towers of empty steamers and plates, we catch up. Mom fills me in on all the latest gossip about our relatives. Dad will inevitably reminisce about having dim sum in Manhattan Chinatown, back when he was a young boy living in Princeton, N.J., and my grandpa drove the whole family into the city for special occasions.
It’s just perfect — and it’s just one of many reminders, for me at least, that dim sum is the best brunch, period. And nothing — at least for me — will ever change that opinion.
It could be argued that dim sum is the OG brunch — or at least one of them. Its history stretches back to the 10th century, when travelers would stop into teahouses in Guangzhou, China, looking for some respite, and something delicious to pair with their tea. Dim sum made its way stateside in 1920, when spots like San Francisco’s Hang Ah Tearoom and New York’s Nom Wah Tea Parlor opened, and it’s been a fixture here in America ever since.
What really makes dim sum the best brunch, even more than its longevity, is its variety. Sure, you could have pancakes or waffles, Grand Slams (I myself am partial to the Moons Over My Hammy), avocado toast, or bottomless mimosas for brunch, but can anything beat the spread you can have with dim sum? I think not.
Dim sum contains multitudes. The bounty of dim sum knows few boundaries. It encompasses all the major food groups. Dessert is included. The list of ingredients in dim sum is nearly infinite. Dim sum can be dumplings, but it can also be pork buns, rice noodles, deep-fried shrimp balls, taro puffs, stuffed eggplant, marinated jellyfish strands, and sesame balls.
And while you’ve got your traditional dim sum mainstays, some dim sum parlors are also starting to embrace new twists, too, which explains the piggy pork buns and crustacean-shaped dumplings that some now offer, too. No matter how many times you’ve had dim sum, there’s always a new dish or ingredient to discover.
Because there’s just so much to choose from, there’s always something for everyone, truly. No matter how particular your tastes are, there’s bound to be at least one dim sum dish that speaks to you — if not a dozen.
Dim sum contains multitudes. The bounty of dim sum knows few boundaries. It encompasses all the major food groups. Dessert is included.
It’s also the kind of brunch you could, theoretically, have every day. While there’s nothing better than gathering around a Lazy Susan and sharing a dim sum feast with your friends and family, there’s also something special about having dim sum, just for yourself, too. Walk into any dim sum parlor on any day and you’re bound to find older Chinese Americans sitting by themselves, enjoying their dim sum while they read the paper and sip on their tea.
Over the years, I’ve loved having dim sum by myself, as well as with friends here in New York. I especially love introducing dim sum to friends who’ve never had it before: I love seeing their eyes widen as the table fills up with dishes, and when they take their first bite of a bean curd roll or barbecue pork bun.
For me, though, dim sum will always be something I share with my parents. By the end of our brunch, mom never fails to ask the cart ladies if they have creamy tofu pudding with ginger syrup that day; she knows it’s one of my favorites. And they both insist, no matter how full we are, that our meal isn’t complete without some egg tarts and piping-hot pineapple custard buns, too.
It’s our little ritual. It’s what I’m always thinking about as the plane makes its descent over downtown L.A., flying above the 110 freeway and then the 405. It’s something I miss whenever I start to feel homesick. But just thinking about it always reminds me of how it feels to be reunited with them: joyful.