Julia Li understands the intimidation first-timers might feel when they walk through the front doors of her family's restaurant, Lu Lu Seafood and Dim Sum. The array of food paraded out at a dim sum feast can overwhelm even the most seasoned veterans, the wait staff can seem gruff and the dishes contain flavors and textures that reside outside the comfort zone of the Western palate.
Still, she doesn't think that quite captures the disconnect.
"Eating in the West is a very individualistic experience," observes Li. "In the West, you have your own individual plate, isolated from everyone else's individual plates. You eat what's yours, they eat what's theirs, and that's a fine way to do it. You get to choose what you want and have control over your meal. This is one of the most difficult things for people of Asian cultures when they come to the United States. It's such a different way of eating." Dim sum thrusts the diner into a more communal way of doing things — what Li describes as the Asian way.
Li pauses to pluck a piece of eggplant, slicked with oyster sauce and wrapped around balls of ground shrimp, from one of the seemingly infinite number of small plates scattered atop our table. It's late in the morning on a Saturday, but Lu Lu has an atmosphere more akin to a raucous happy hour than a sleepy weekend brunch. No-nonsense servers clamor around the room with urgency, pushing metal carts and pausing at each table to offer their wares. Whole families crowd large round tables, millennials hungry to try something new pack the sizable room, and international students — many of whom have carpooled to Lu Lu with strangers, Li notes — decompress after a tough week hitting the books.
Li places the eggplant squarely on my plate and insists I must try it. "Do you like tendon?" she asks. It's not really a question. A strip of prosciutto-thin meat, spiked with chilis, appears on my plate before I can give her an answer. Next to it, she places a shrimp dumpling and some pea shoot tips and a triangle-shaped slice of scallion pancake.
"In Asian culture, eating is a communal experience," Li continues as she piles food on my plate. "It's very different than how you eat in the West. There isn't really that ownership over your plate. You may have given up your power to choose, but there is a communal factor to it that allows you to try a lot of different things. I think the way we order and eat food is reflective of our different cultures. ... It's a very lonely experience to eat by yourself."
At this point, having not yet touched a single thing besides my teacup and napkin, I am indeed angst-ridden, but it has nothing to do with loneliness. I'm overwhelmed. No less than six different items compete for real estate on my tiny side plate. Our table is covered in small white dishes, to the point that you can't see the black tabletop underneath; we've resorted to using the windowsill for overflow space. I'm hungry, for sure, but consuming everything before us seems like an impossible feat.
But that's not what's really distressing me. I'm more worried that I am about to be revealed as an imposter.
Yes, I'm a food critic, but like many a lower-middle-class Midwesterner, my experience of Asian food growing up was limited to the chicken fried rice I'd grab on my way to work at my high school job at K-Mart. International food, in my house, meant "Italian" (read: spaghetti and tomato sauce from a jar) or tacos from an Old El Paso box kit.
It wasn't until college that my culinary horizons expanded. A job in a fine-dining restaurant and a boyfriend who'd emigrated from Korea when he was a kid helped me see the world beyond Western cuisine. Kimchi and kabobs, curries and pho all awakened my palate. Still, if someone suggested weekend brunch, my mind instantly went toward eggs, smoked salmon and a roast beef carving station.
That dim sum remains elusive to me has less to do with its accessibility and more to do with my fear of being outed for such a lack of experience. As someone who makes a living telling others what to think about food, the fact that there is such a gap in my knowledge is just embarrassing — and, like a not-yet literate kid who suffers through class, terrified of being called upon, it's something I've taken pains to cover up. The critic has no clothes.
The urgency to familiarize myself with dim sum — the reason I've called upon Li to serve as my interlocutor — is born of both interest and necessity. Since making its way to the U.S. via Hong Kong, this Chinese tradition evolved from a meal for homesick expats to an "exotic" alternative for adventurous trendsetters to, well, brunch. These days, going out for dim sum isn't just for those born into the tradition and those daring enough to fake it. It's the "it" weekend pastime for anyone with even a passing interest in international cuisine — and for any food lover who wants to kick things up a notch.
That's a development that Li has noticed over the years, and not just when it comes to dim sum offerings. Overall, she says, patrons have become more receptive to what is unfamiliar. "When we first started — our first restaurant was called Great Chef Garden — we could only do buffet because that's all people would eat," recalls Li. "We would serve a lot of Americanized stuff, but also authentic food as well."
Sixteen years ago, Li's family moved their restaurant to its current location on Olive in University City, and they have been doing dim sum ever since, at first for their Chinese clientele, then for curious locals from around the area. Those people still come to Lu Lu, though these days, it's a younger crowd packing the place. "I think people are just more open to trying things," says Li.
No matter how open they are to the experience, Li still recognizes a common apprehension overcome first-timers. It's something she wants to address.
"You can tell that people who are here for the first time are intimidated to walk in the front doors," Li says, relishing the opportunity to welcome newcomers into the dim sum fold. "But I love when people can think forward and walk through that door. It's not about things being wrong or right; it's about playing around with what fits."
Li, 28, is the ideal person to serve as a culinary sherpa. The daughter of Lu Lu founders Jenny Lu and Jerry Li (uncle LiMing Lu is also a co-owner), she's grown up in the business, watching her mom go from an employee in an Americanized Chinese restaurant to an envelope-pushing restaurateur.
Though the food business would have been a natural fit for Li, she opted for the arts when it came time to forge her own career path. She landed an impressive career in event production for Nickelodeon, then in branding and digital activation for Disney-ABC. Eventually, she found herself living in New York working for hip-hop legend Jam Master Jay's company, Scratch Music Group.
Li could not dismiss the feeling that she needed to be home. In 2014, she moved back to St. Louis to help her family expand its brand. She's been instrumental in elevating the original Lu Lu's profile, though her more ambitious project is launching several locations of their new, fast-casual concept, Lu Lu's Fresh Express.
"It's a push-pull with my family," Li explains. "I want to serve the most authentic food possible, and they think that people want more familiar, Americanized things — so I sneak in the authentic things."
There is nothing sneaky about the feast Li has assembled at our encounter, as the spread before us represents the mainstays of traditional dim sum — jellyfish, steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings, sticky rice in lotus leaf.
Sensing my apprehension at making the first move, Li offers a friendly observation.
"Dim sum is really just like Spanish-style tapas," she says. "Just think of that that way. Really, it just means 'tea time.'"
Though several variations exist, Li's translation captures both the essence and history of dim sum. The practice originated in southern China, near Guangzhou, as a means of feeding travelers along the Silk Road. Hungry patrons would stop in the area's numerous teahouses and, needing a bite to eat, would nosh on small snacks before heading on their way. In this sense, the tradition is a hybrid between tapas and British high tea.
And tea, it turns out, is to be the day's first lesson. "One of things you do at dim sum is pour tea for other people," Li says as she fills my cup. "What do think of this flower tea?"
The tea in question, made from a blooming chrysanthemum blossom, is one of several varieties of the hot beverage available for purchase at Lu Lu's dim sum. Li suggests adding a few sugar crystals to the perfumey liquid before continuing her lesson.
"There are no rules in dim sum," she insists. "But in general, the person with the most experience will be the one who orders. This doesn't have to be for every course. If there are several people there who know about the place, they can take turns ordering at each round. Generally, though, one person takes the lead."
As if on cue, a server stops her cart alongside our table and Li adds to our collection of dishes, pausing to ask for my preferences before she converses with her in Mandarin about what's available — that even a seasoned dim sum veteran has to ask what something is on the cart is comforting. There is back and forth, and then Li simply points and nods at her selections. Shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork bun and tofu paper make their way to our table, and the server hurries off. The entire exchange is curt, businesslike and utterly transactional, a big difference from the entertainment-style of service so often found in the U.S. and something that Li is quick to address.
"That's another thing to be aware of," says Li. "Service is not like it is at other restaurants in the U.S. The servers aren't especially friendly. They're not being rude, just culturally they are there to serve and not be a part of the meal. That's the one thing we get complaints about here — not our food, but that people think the service is bad. When I first came back I tried to retrain everyone to be nicer and they just looked at me and said no."
Li may be able to speak with our servers in perfect Mandarin, but as I look around the room, I notice the various other forms of communication going on. Some people flag down the servers with the pushcarts; others, more brazen, walk across the room to the cart with their dishes of choice. Newbies, who seem to communicate solely by pointing, feel obligated to order something every time it's offered. That sort of pace, however, would be difficult to sustain, as cart after cart, each dedicated to a different genre (steamed foods, fried foods, cold foods) passes by one after another on a nearly continual basis.
Li's instructions come nearly as quickly. There's the point about pouring tea, the ordering etiquette, the service style and the different types of carts. She talks about how everything is priced à la carte and that the server will tally up your bill at the end of the meal. Digging directly into one of the dishes in the center of the table is fine; there's no need to put it on your plate first, she insists. It's good form to put food on other people's plates. It's fine to point at what you want, and it's equally fine to leave food, since you're certain to order way too much.
The only thing left in our lesson is the food, though it's difficult to narrow down must-try dishes from the literally hundreds of offerings that cruise by our table. Were I not with Li, I probably would have stuck to the familiar: a pork bun, some dumplings, maybe a seaweed salad. And I would have been pleased with these choices. It's no surprise that the fluffy sticky buns, stuffed with succulent char sui, or barbecue pork, have made their way onto Western menus.
Still, the breakout dish for me, something I probably would have passed on had I not been trying to impress Li, is the beef tendon. The strips of paper-thin meat, spiked with chilis and garlic to cut through the pleasantly oily texture, seem oddly familiar. And then it hits me: this is the same mouthfeel you get from prosciutto.
In that moment, finally liberated from my fear of accidentally eating a chicken foot, I found myself again filled with angst — angst that I couldn't find room to devour every last morsel.
But hey, that's the kind of problem I can get into solving. Dim sum, after all, really is a feast.
"We have five different chefs from five different areas of China," Li tells me. "And we have one chef who is dedicated exclusively to our dim sum service. It's his full-time job, all week. That's why there are only a few other restaurants besides us who do this every weekend. It's quite a production."
The entire time she is talking, I'm distracted by the soy- and ginger-glazed spare ribs across the table. As she's finishing up her thought on how much work goes into preparing such a bounty, I interject a question about whether it's correct to pick them apart with my hand.
"You need to get out of that mindset," Li assures me. "Just go and do it and enjoy."