Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lucky Baldwin's

In three and a half years and 879 entries, the words Lucky Baldwin's have appeared in the body of a post exactly once. And that's kind of funny, because once upon a time I spent more waking hours there than I did at home. Once upon a time it was my favorite place in the entire world. 

I often visit places and write about my history with it. I can't do that here. I mean, I could, but it would be the longest post I've ever written. I could write a book like The Tender Bar. So, similar to what William Least Heat Moon did at the beginning of Blue Highways, I will devote one paragraph to my history with the place and then nothing more:

I met Elizabeth at Lucky Baldwins. And Tracie. And Tim. And Murph. Carla, Bryce, Hatcher, Dave, Min, Rob, Phil, Mick... If you've read their name here and they are not related to me, there is a 90% chance I met them at Lucky's. The first legal drink I had in America was on my 21st birthday on their patio. The only time I've ever had my heart broken was by a girl who worked there. The last time I ever saw my friend Erik was inside the bar one Thanksgiving. A friend of mine who worked there said she needed a ride and when I asked where she said Boston; I drove her. I received phone calls there more than once and on another occasion mail. After 17 years of heartache following the Angels I watched them win their only World Series from a table on the patio. I held the owner's son in my hands on his first day home from the hospital and presented my birthday present: a Shaquille O'Neal onesie; he didn't care at the time which was probably for the best. I used to play the entire Small Change album on the jukebox until the cook asked me to stop because he said it was making him suicidal. I once was interviewed sitting on a barstool by the local ABC news at 6:10 in the morning with a pint in my hand.

So the other day, for Tracie's birthday - I won't say which but it was one worth celebrating with extra vigor - a group of us gathered on the patio at Lucky Baldwin's for a birthday celebration.

You can never go wrong giving Tracie booze, yarn, or cats. So we gave her booze. 

Elizabeth and I have not been regulars at Lucky's in three years but the waitress remembered our orders without asking: Guinness for me, Craftsman Poppyfields for her.

I've always enjoyed Lucky's fish & chips and was pleased to have a giant plate of smaller, fish "nuggets" served. I'd never seen it done that way before. I had planned to eat at least two or three, but only ended up having one. Not because it wasn't good, but because...

Two big plates of fried shrimp appeared. There are very few things in life I enjoy eating more than fried shrimp, and these were done perfectly.

The sandwich pieces were a little bland, but it happens. (Lucky's customizable sandwiches have always been some of my favorite in town, but you can always add mustard and pickles to those.)

The pizza really surprised me with how good it was. Thin crust, a tangy sauce, and plenty of cheese. I loved it.

I've never been much of a fan of Lucky's fries, and this time was no exception. Not even when Tracie's sister ordered a side of ranch.

Someone bought the table a bottle of Moinette blonde, though the waitress would not tell us who as she uncorked it and poured us all a taste. It was fine, but no Guinness.  

I won't tell you what number birthday it was, but I will tell you that the number of candles is incorrect.

The cake was delicious.

Like I wrote, I have not been a regular at Lucky Baldwin's for three years. There is no need to go into the reasons why. But hanging out there with a bunch of friends was the perfect way to spend my last weekend in Pasadena. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Empress Pavilion & Golden China

The two Chinese things I will miss most about Los Angeles? That's easy - my friends Tyler and Bryce. (Well, more specifically, Tyler's outdoor pizza oven and Bryce's little daughter.) But just below that are probably a couple of restaurants.

Empress Pavilion has been the site of many, many group outings over the years. The entire ritual varies - sometimes we take the train, sometimes we wander over to Union Station after lunch for a beer or two at the Traxx bar - but the main event is always the dim sum itself. Two English friends of mine had never had dim sum until I introduced them a few years back, so this week they wanted to have one last go at it.

Carla and Tim came along, too, making it lunch for five. We got there at noon - not too late to make sure everything was still available.

It's always been a good laugh at how quickly we are besieged with dim sum carts upon sitting down. This occasion took that to the extreme: within 60 seconds of being seated, we had no fewer than 10 carts approach us and ended up with at least half a dozen plates of food on the table, a number that more than doubled within a few minutes. This is, of course, not a complaint. Not by any means.

Not many things in life are prettier than the abutment of chili paste and hot mustard in a small dish. 

My friends all like the baked BBQ pork buns, but they're just too sweet for me.

Likewise, I'm not a big fan of the BBQ pork spareribs. (Although I love eating the cabbage and carrots than lurk beneath the pork, swimming in a vinegar sauce and lightly kissed with the flavor of the pig.)

I assembled my first plate: shumai, fried dumpling, potsticker, shrimp har gow, and a steamed pork and shrimp dumpling.

The contents of this steamed bun - pork and shrimp, like the vast majority of the dim sum - were delicious, but I was not a fan of the bun. It was hard and dense, as if it had been sitting around for quite a while. 

The fried, taro-wrapped shrimp dumplings are good but a touch on the bland side; I always add a significant amount of mustard, which helps.

The mound of shrimp atop a bell pepper slice is one of my favorite items. I have no idea how they create the thick shrimp patty, but I love it. 

I do not remember what this dumpling contained (probably pork and shrimp), but it was delicious.

Empress Pavilion's potstickers, when you get a hot, fresh batch, are fantastic, stuffed with pork and vegetables. These were some of the best I have ever had at Empress. 

The fried shrimp and mango dumplings are interesting: I love the batter and the shrimp, but the huge pieces of mango are distracting. I usually take out half the mango.

People who know far more about dim sum than I do tell me that Empress really isn't all that great. And they may very well be right, or at least as right as one can be in matters of opinion. But I don't care, I really like the place. This was yet another in an unbroken line of great lunches.

When the check arrived, Les insisted I didn't have to chip in. "That's ridiculous," I said.

"Hey," he announced to the table, "Jason isn't paying today."

"That's true," I said. "Jason isn't paying today." 

At any rate, my friends all bought me lunch and let me take home the leftovers, which I had for dinner. 

While I would never call Golden China as good as Empress - nor, for that matter, as good as Yujean Kang, Fu Shing, Yang Chow, or a few other similar places in Pasadena - it has been a reliable constant over the last four years that I have lived in South Pasadena. There has been comfort in knowing that any day of the week when I can't decide what to do for lunch, or perhaps a rainy day when a bowl of hot & sour soup sounds perfect, I can pop in and try yet another item on their lunch menu. You get plenty of food with those lunch specials, and even the most expensive of the them - the seafood dishes - still check in at under seven dollars.

The other day I suggested Elizabeth and I go to lunch with my parents at Golden China. It turned out I was the only one who got a lunch special. Oh well.

It's kind of ridiculous how many times Golden China's tea and soup has featured here over the years. Whatever, it's a free blog.

My mom ordered a bowl of wonton soup and out came a bowl the size of a kitchen sink. I took a little bowl myself. Wonton soup has never been my favorite. It's tasty, but it bores me. This was no exception. 

The paper wrapped chicken is not the familiar (at least at Americanized Chinese joints) triangle of ground chicken, but rather a little packet full of chicken shreds and vegetables. I really like it, but admit it is quite hard to eat, requiring some real precision work with the chopsticks. 

My dad ordered the BBQ pork. He was not a big fan, the sauce being the main impediment to his enjoyment of it. He only ate a couple of pieces. (He enjoyed the paper-wrapped chicken much more.)

Someone ordered egg rolls. I did not have one, as I knew I would be getting my own. 

I decided to try something new: the Shredded Chicken Delight. Even though I had no idea what that meant. The chicken was just fine, but the whole dish was lacking in flavor. Not bad, but no discernible flavor. I added mustard to quite a few bites.

And, as usual, I loved my egg roll and salad.

I am sure I will find new Chinese restaurants I like on the East Coast, but I wonder if there will be any place as reliable as Golden China has been.