Arriving at Hua's Garden for lunch the following day, we found that new owners had changed the name to Yun Gui Garden. But the place remains a mecca for dishes from Yunnan, a province in western China close to Sichuan. The Yunnanese dried beef—a pile of crisp, thin, ruby-colored, ﬁve-spiced beef tossed with toasted dried chiles—reminded us of the fried chicken dish at Chung King. The region's chicken noodle soup arrived fully deconstructed: a rich, hot broth, a platter of pea shoots and bean sprouts, and a heap of raw pork and chicken slices that the waitress tossed in—a Mongolian hot pot with a concierge. But the Yunnan chicken, cooked in a clay vessel, was like nothing we'd seen before. Tender morsels of meat had been cooked so long in an umber-colored bouillon that they'd taken on a slightly orange color. Both soup and chicken had a sweet, bitter ﬂavor, like charred sweet-potato skin. Gnarled whole ginseng roots bobbed on the surface. It tasted slightly medicinal, and when we inquired about two small round fruits also afloat in the brew, we weren't surprised when our waitress said, "Let me ask the doctor," and approached an elderly woman, a customer eating lunch alone. "Dates and longans," she reported back.
We had spent several days eating in the heart of Los Angeles's Chinese community, but had yet to visit the city's Chinatown. Built in the forties, with faux pagodas and lanterns hung between lampposts, the district has experienced cycles of decay and renewal over the years, and most recently has become a destination for contemporary art and design. Where Chinese restaurants and businesses once sat, there are now new tenants like Realm, a home-furnishings boutique; hot galleries such as Peres Projects and Mary Goldman Gallery; and the Mountain, a bar and community hub for the arts crowd. But several gems from the neighborhood's past remain, like Fong's Oriental Art, a shop that's been selling sculpture, miniatures, and curios on Chung King Road for 53 years and where one could easily while away an afternoon browsing. And on North Hill Street, in a modern mall, is Empress Pavilion, a cavernous Cantonese banquet hall. On weekend mornings you might wait two hours for a table, watching through floor-to-ceiling windows as an army of waiters in black vests wheel stainless carts delivering dim sum to half the population of a small city.
We were there on a comparatively calm Friday night. Of all the restaurants we had visited in L.A., Empress Pavilion was the one with a menu most similar to what we'd experienced on the East Coast, with standards like Peking duck and kung pao chicken. We ordered barbecued pork with a caramelized, crunchy skin that our waiter stuffed, tableside, into buttery buns spread with plum sauce. We wrapped a jicama-and-scallion-spiked mince of squab in cup-shaped leaves of butter lettuce dabbed with soy sauce and oyster sauce. But the sleeper hit was steamed shrimp and asparagus with fried milk—crouton-sized squares of creamy, soft custard that played beautifully off the sweetness of the shrimp. If it wasn't exactly refreshing, it was downright delicious.
We'd eaten in 12 restaurants in four days and never in the same part of China twice. But perhaps the most surprising revelation was that in those four days, we never encountered a single fortune cookie.
MATT LEE and TED LEE are T+L contributing editors and write regularly for the New York Times.