What happens when you take a venerated barbecue restaurant and slap a pagoda on the roof? You change the name to Lu Lu and dish up authentic Chinese food and Hong Kong-style dim sum.
Lu Lu is the second venture by the Lu family, which also owns and operates the sprawling Great Chef Buffet in West County. Manager Jenny Lu took over the former Cheney's spot a few months ago, renovating it with a new oak bar, ornate light fixtures, brighter colors and a large downstairs banquet room.
It's certainly not as garish as some Chinese restaurants, and, like all dim sum restaurants, it's brightly lit, as if each table deserves its own spotlight.
Lu Lu fits comfortably on this stretch of Olive Boulevard in University City, surrounded by an assortment of Oriental restaurants, gift shops and groceries -- even a Hawaiian-barbecue joint.
On two visits, we were greeted enthusiastically and quickly and presented with the overwhelmingly thick menu, which lists well over 100 selections. It's daunting but rewarding -- with a little navigation. The waitstaff is helpful, making suggestions or calling on the more fluently English-speaking staffers to describe certain items. Lu Lu offers more than 30 seafood items, not to mention soups and appetizers containing shrimp, fish or squid.
On being seated, each party is immediately served a large bowl of iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and cucumbers in vinegar-and-oil dressing. Some longtime custom we missed? An attempt to cater to Americans who expect a salad? Globalization? We don't know. Along with the family-style salad come two small bowls of sweet-and-sour cabbage.
Asian menus must be written by the same folks who write instruction manuals and fireworks warnings, meaning you can order "flag legs" and "seafood delight in bird net." They also have a knack for combining words one would never think belong together, the "delicious sponge gluten" a case in point.
We started with the staple of all Chinese dining, the three basic soups: hot-and-sour, egg-drop and wonton. The hot-and-sour was neither very hot, temperature-wise, nor sour, but it was rich with beef-broth flavor and thick with matchstick slices of tofu and veggies. The egg-drop soup was viscous, with an almost buttery taste. The house-made wontons, in a thin chicken broth, were stuffed with shrimp and pork. All helped ward off the winter chill. For the more adventuresome, stewed-carp's-head soup in a clay pot is also available.
During one visit, we focused on entrées. We selected easily shared items, allowing for as complete a tour as possible given the extent of what the kitchen pumps out. Our meals arrived in waves, and soon our lazy Susan was full of Szechuan barbecued lamb, stir-fried green beans, Chinese eggplant and salted pepper scallops. The thin slices of flavorful lamb were stir-fried with red peppers, onions, jalapeños and hot oil, which provided most of the heat but was a bit too oily once the meat rested on the plate. The purple eggplant, served in a charred ceramic bowl hot from the oven, bubbled in a dark, sweet, hot garlic sauce. The beautiful, big salted pepper scallops, coated in a golden film but lacking an intense bite, were surrounded by an array of bright-green broccoli florets. Crispy, salty green beans with minced pork blended well with the lamb and scallops.
Dim sum is an unparalleled dining and social experience meaning "a little bit of heart" or "touch your heart." Although several dim sum selections are available during the week, weekends between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. are the time to enjoy the total dim sum experience, complete with servers trundling around with the traditional steam trolley carts, not dishing up food from some overheated buffet.
Our Sunday visit found Lu Lu transformed into a crowded, raucous room full of families and friends jabbering in English and Chinese, clattering dishes and shouted orders. Needless to say, dim sum is best enjoyed with a large group. Think of dim sum as hors d'oeuvres or Spanish tapas, with a huge variety of steamed and fried dumplings filled with vegetables, meats and shrimp served from tiers of bamboo steamer bowls, accompanied by small delicacies such as egg-custard tarts.
With several centuries of history behind it, the traditional dim sum repertoire includes 2,000 types of "snacks." Lu Lu serves about 30 items. There's even a standardized picture menu, which, at Lu Lu, doesn't name the dishes pictured.
If you're the type who enjoys browsing through a menu, dim sum is not for you. You can order larger items from a menu, but typically you choose from a wide assortment of morsels served from the roaming steam and griddle carts. And unlike some dim sum restaurants, Lulu does not present pictures or descriptions of the dishes on the trolleys. You will find yourself asking the server several times what he or she is carrying in the steamer baskets.
But that's half the fun of exploring. At first you may feel as if you're being descended upon like fresh prey by the highly attentive waitstaff, but relax and sip some tea as you make your choices. In the midst of the din and bustle, a pattern emerges: The lighter steamed dishes come first, followed by exotic items such as chicken feet and then the deep-fried dishes -- and, finally, dessert. Everything is washed down with copious amount of hot tea (just your basic weak oolong tea, nothing as nice as jasmine or green tea).
As the carts rolled by, we chose siu mai (firm steamed pork stuffed into open-ended thin wraps that sit upright like little spools), shrimp har gow (steamed translucent dumplings), char siu bau (steamed rice-flour buns -- bau -- filled with diced roast pork -- char siu -- in a sweet hoisin-based sauce), fried taro puffs (small oval balls covered in webbed mashed taro root and stuffed with a dense filling of finely ground pork or beef) and rice noodle (a white, slippery wide noodle folded over a filling of pork, shrimp or beef -- we picked the excellent shrimp version with a thin soy sauce).
Don't bother filling up on plain white rice when you can savor sticky rice wrapped and neatly tied in a lotus leaf. Our server did not snip the string for us, but once I slipped it off, I was rewarded with a small portion of sticky rice with a sweet black-bean-paste filling.
Green-pepper chunks stuffed with a ground-shrimp mixture were served hot off the grill trolley and matched with a slightly sweet black-bean sauce -- a favorite. Disappointing, however, was a tennis-ball-size shrimp croquette with an odd fishy taste. The custard tarts are a must -- choose mango or almond pudding.
At the start of your dim sum meal, you will be given a small card, which the server will mark each time you choose something. Don't feel obligated to take everything presented to you, but don't worry about overordering. Dim sum is cheap enough and makes for great leftovers.
Aside from smeary plates that looked as if they had been passed quickly through water, dim sum at Lu Lu is yum-yum. And at Lu Lu, these morsels are worth the bright lights and bustle.