Not so long ago, Hong Kong Low, housed in a pagodaeaved tower at the hub of New Chinatown, was one of the swankiest restaurants in the area, with lacquered ceilings and parasol-topped drinks and a piano bar crowded with World War II vets hungry for torch songs and mediocre Cantonese-American food.
It was a place where smaller Chinese Opera troupes gave recitals when they were in town, low-budget office parties were thrown and Angelenos who hadn't caught on to the new Cantonese seafood thing hung out at Sunday dinner.
Some time in the late '70s, the faded upstairs dining room became L.A.'s best punk-rock club for a while, and on weekend evenings, chow mein noodles and spareribs in black bean sauce gave way to only slightly less subtle entities like Black Flag and the Germs.
The place went Chiu Chow for a while, I think, around the time a lot of Chinatown businesses moved east to the San Gabriel Valley and the piano-bar business drifted down the street. Not many people noticed when the restaurant closed its doors for more or less permanent "remodeling," and Hong Kong Low became the center of the local senior hot-lunch program.
But a small piece of Hong Kong Low survived or became reincarnated or something, and the little dim sum takeout place behind the restaurant is nothing less than a miracle. If you're the least bit nostalgic for the Chinatown that existed before the last wave of immigration, before anybody ate double-pleasure flounder or thought of driving to Monterey Park for anything but enchiladas or county offices--nostalgic for sweet buns filled with coconut and beef curry pies--Hong Kong Low Deli is about all that's left.
The deli sits in a back alley behind the restaurant, a couple of yards from the site of a spectacularly failed jewel heist a few years ago, and is moody in an Alan Rudolph sort of way: Chinese characters scrawled on tattered scraps of colored paper; high ceilings; long lines; armies of women cooks; flaky chicken buns and squares of fried taro stacked on steam tables behind greasy panels of glass. The women behind the counter can be as brusque as those at Canter's. If you can't decide what you want within a few seconds, you may well be passed over for the next guy in line.
Open in time for early breakfast, Hong Kong Low Deli serves what dim sum used to be back when everybody called them "teacakes," dim sum without the parboiled geoduck and jellyfish salad and mango mousse with a cherry on top: dumplings. Unfortunately, you have to get them to go, but the dumplings, if not exactly refined, are usually impeccably fresh, pulled straight out of ovens or steamers without a 14-kilometer noontime ride in stainless-steel carts. Ten dollars' worth of shrimp dumplings and egg rolls will comfortably feed the UCLA starting five. *
Baked bao (buns), browned and hot and brushed with sticky syrup, are spectacular, large as small throw pillows and filled with barbecued pork in a sweet and garlicky syrup. Fluffy steamed bao filled with chicken and black mushrooms are marked with little red dots to differentiate them from the bao stuffed with sweet barbecued pork. Turnover-like "pies" are made of flaky pastry, egg-washed to a deep, burnished gold, stuffed with a blandish chicken stew, barbecued pork or a truly fine pungent mince of curried beef.
There are capsules of sticky rice flavored with a few bits of meat and vegetables, deep-fried to a wicked, oily crunch; dense, fried sesame dumplings; savory turnip cakes; greasy, if delicious, squares of pan-fried taro; also sort of sub-par fried chow fun noodles rolled out to a truck-tire thickness. You'll usually find long buns filled with custard, and freshly baked squares of yellow cake, and gorgeous egg-yolk custard tarts the vivid yellow of a 5-year-old's painting of the sun.
I'm all for stately homes, but if hungry people had political clout, Hong Kong Low Deli is the kind of thing the city's Cultural Heritage Commission might be dedicated to preserving instead of a bunch of old buildings that don't even have restaurants in them.
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WHERE TO GO
Hong Kong Low Deli, 408 Bamboo Lane, Chinatown, (213) 680-9827. Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cash only. Takeout only. Lunch for two, food only, $3-$5.
WHAT TO GET
Barbecued pork bao , curried beef buns, fried sticky rice, radish cake, custard tarts.