Most of us associate the word deli with chicken soup, kreplach, noodles and pickled fish and, believe it or not, so do the Chinese. It's just that in their delis, the chicken soup has herbs in it, the kreplach are eaten with vinegar and chili paste, the noodles are made from rice and the pickled fish is likely to be squid or jellyfish. These are not dishes I've had at my rabbi's house recently. Minor differences, I say.
A deli is a place to celebrate and Deli World, the stupefyingly good Chinese delicatessen atop Monterey Park's Hong Kong supermarket, is a celebration. For the sheer pleasure of fressing on boiled dumplings, tripe soup and raw crab, it is simply without peer in greater Los Angeles.
The concept may be bizarre, but it's effective. The restaurant is on the second level of the market, which is itself a converted skating rink, and when you dine there you get a bird's eye view of Asian-Americans ministering to the complex needs of their families' palates. Watching them buying fish, inspecting fruit and jawing with the butchers is a rich slice of life, so rich that you're almost full before you order. Then that menu is brought.
The menu is another bizarre concept. About 50% of the available dishes are pictured a la Denny's, framed by English and Chinese descriptions. The bottom third of the menu is all in Chinese, literally hundreds of dishes that a waiter assured me were just variations on the basic themes. Anyone for pig's ear in his cold noodles?
But not to worry, this isn't a restaurant where you're going to miss anything, because everything is prepared within shouting distance of your table. And believe me, there's plenty of shouting. Deli World is not the kind of place you bring a date to talk about the relationship. You come here to eat.
Here's how to order: A waiter will come by, and if you're lucky he'll be a Taiwanese kid in high school who speaks fluent, San Gabriel Valley English. Come to think of it, maybe you're better off with a Chinese-speaking waiter. You order by number, and he writes down the numbers on a paper slip, which he gives to the cashier. Then, before the waiter can get your food, you have to go and pay. Do not attempt to communicate with the cashier or, before you know it, you'll draw a major crowd. I tried to ask her if one of the cold dishes in the glass case adjacent to her was "five-spice beef" (which it was). She kept repeating, "not spicy, not spicy." It finally dawned on me that she didn't know the difference between "spice" and "spicy."
After you pay, expect the dishes to arrive in terms of seconds, not minutes. This is a high-octane operation.
Steamed pork rib is something to start with. The most tender, meatiest chunks of pork ribs come atop a bamboo steamer piled with rice crumbs, scallions and garlic, hiding a pile of cooked squash. At $2.75, it belongs in the Pantheon of under $3 dishes, right alongside great potato knishes. Then, prepare to be bowled over by No. 231, "pork intestine with hot sauce," much like a Korean soup, a boiling pot with bean curd, pig's blood and tripe. Menudo was never this good. If that's not your style, then try No. 254, "chicken cold noodle," also $2.75, and enough for two people. They don't skimp on the chicken, either.
Dumplings are especially good here, and in addition to all the popular favorites--fried, boiled and steamed--there are delectable oddities like fried steamed bun, divinely heavy, subtly glazed, and brimming with a meaty filing. Also assigned to the dumpling file are the shrimp shao mai , minced pork wrapped in noodle skin topped with steamed shrimp. With a bit of vinegar, they really come to life.
Some dishes just have to be experienced, because neither the pictures nor the descriptions begin to do justice to them. "Minced chicken with rice" is really a treasure trove of goodies, chock-full of chestnuts, dates, pork, vegetables and mushrooms. Salted crab is marinated in rice wine and turns out to be she-crab, with coral pink roe to dazzle you. No. 413, "chive box," is actually not that great, but if you're not curious enough to try it just from the name, then maybe you'd better have lunch at the Sizzler across the street.
There's an inexhaustible list of things to try, ranging from cold dishes like marinated cucumbers in sesame oil and cold fried tofu with bean sprouts, to cross-cultural masterpieces like tempura soup and oyster pancakes. Nothing is less than first-rate.
Should you tire of tea, Deli World has a fresh-juice station serving exotica like watermelon juice, guava juice and other South China favorites. For those with an incurable sweet tooth, there are those maddeningly refreshing shaved ices, topped with globs of taro, red bean, grass jelly, fruit compote, and sticky, Technicolor syrups. China has not as yet, I'm sorry to report, discovered the egg cream.
Deli World Cafe, 125 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park, (818) 572-6588. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., until 10 p.m. on weekends. Parking in rear. Cash only. Lunch for two, $8-$12.