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A Good, Old-Fashioned Chinese Breakfast

November 22, 1986|MAX JACOBSON | Jacobson is a Pasadena free-lance writer. and

Steve Grant of Van Nuys heard about it some years ago from a Korean woman he worked with. His buddy, Bob Louden of Hollywood, saw it described on television. Both men are wild about it now. Dim sum, delightful Cantonese pastries taken with cups of steaming tea, may never replace the good, old-fashioned American breakfast, but to thousands of Chinese-Americans, dim sum is more than just a cooking style; it's a way of life.

At least that's the impression one gets from the young professionals, food faddists, and people just plain tired of bacon and eggs fighting for tables at Miriwa, a cavernous restaurant smack in the middle of Chinatown. Miriwa must have the hottest brunch in town: more than 1,200 on a busy Sunday. It's certainly one of the liveliest.

Varied Gatherings

On a recent Saturday visit, I met a group of bright-eyed medical students from UC Irvine, whooping it up at a round table. All but one was American born, but half were of Asian descent. They made a perfect picture of the demographics found at Miriwa.

Miriwa's main entrance is dominated by a giant Chinese wall sculpture, which looks as if it belongs on a De Laurentiis movie set, and by an ersatz waterfall, which is shut off promptly at three in the afternoon, when the kitchen closes. As you walk up the gaudily carpeted staircase toward the main dining room, you see that getting there is not going to be that easy, because in addition to all those people looking for an alternative to corn flakes, the foyer is jammed with assorted Chinese families. The Chinese rarely use baby-sitters; watch out for kids underfoot.

Under these circumstances, just putting your name on the reservation list is a minor miracle, but before too long, your number will be called, (first in Cantonese, then in English).

Forks and Teas

Before you can blink, some bus boys will have set down forks and jasmine tea alongside your chopsticks. Don't feel you're being regarded as a rube; this is preferential treatment in a teahouse. Chinese families, who are aware of more exotic choices, may order varieties of tea like bo lei, deep red and heartily musky, or gok fa, a pale yellow spicy herbal.

More than 30 kinds of dumplings and savories, baked buns with barbecued pork, shrimp wrapped in rice noodle, beef balls, stuffed green pepper, to name just a few, roll by constantly in bamboo steamers atop metal pushcarts. Women clad in pale red aprons dispense them aggressively, stopping by your table, looking you in the eye, and musically hawking the names of dim sum in their native dialects.

Mr. Mac (Hong Kong-born assistant manager John Mac) aims to please, especially the non-Chinese guest. Mac finds it gratifying (and probably amusing) that his specialty has come into vogue in the '80s. "Miriwa was the first large dim sum restaurant in Los Angeles," he says, "and when we first opened, we seldom saw Americans eating our more unusual dishes, like pig stomach or duck feet. Now they order these dishes more often than we do."

That's hard to believe, but one thing is clear. Dim sum is much more than a passing fancy, and Miriwa, at age 7, has hit the big time.

Miriwa, 747 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 687-3088, weekend brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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