Sometimes the Los Angeles food scene can present an embarrassment of riches. There are so many different types of cuisine in which diners can become lost (or found), and within all of those different types, there can be an overwhelming number of businesses and menu items from which choose. LA Cycle Tours provides a number of cycling options for tourists and residents to discover more about the scenery and the history of L.A.; several of the choices for their trips center on food, including a taco tour, pastry tour and dim sum tour.
The Get Some Dim Sum Tour involves a smashing mash-up of activities. First, you get a nice, low-impact workout; the circular tour, which starts and ends at the Hotel Indigo, is advertised as being an eight-mile trip. However, the journey hardly seems that long, as the storytelling of tour guide Josef Bray-Ali is fascinating enough to keep guests riveted. The content of the storytelling is the perfect accompaniment; it’s all about Chinatown.
As guests follow Bray-Ali along the bicycle route through old and new Chinatown, they learn about the sordid elements of the tourist trap’s history. From aspects of the opium trade to early brothels to the “Disney-fied” structures that command the attention of visitors, there are plenty of juicy details. The stories are packed with historical information about rival gangs, political corruption, and the inhuman US immigration policy as it pertained to the early Chinese residents of Los Angeles.
Finally, there’s the food. One of Bray-Ali’s main objectives with the tour is to expose people to some of the traditional foods and dining habits that are far more rooted in Chinese history and tradition than, say, the dining experience at a Panda Express.
He credits Art Palacios, founder of LA Cycle Tours, for coming up with the tour’s formula, which includes the bike and helmet rental, guided tour, bottled water, and all of the food costs. As for the dim sum tour, that was the brainchild of Bray-Ali’s brother, Adam. “He and I started a bike business called The Flying Pigeon LA Bike Shop, back in 2008. We were importing Chinese bikes, and he had this idea that we should [showcase] Chinese food.” he recalled. “So people came to our bike shop, and we would lead them to one dim sum restaurant on a Sunday. And we did that every Sunday for… almost a year. I got a little burned out because it was a grind every Sunday. I cancelled a lot of family plans and just couldn’t take a day off, so I turned it to every month and I kept that going for a number of years.”
Later, Bray-Ali and Palacios joined forces. “This ride in particular, and the way LA Cycle Tours does rides, [imparts] that magic of the spirit of the city. When you’re on a bike with a group of people, it’s like being at a good dinner party, hopefully, but one where you’re also on a wonderful tour and seeing things with new eyes or seeing them for the first time.” He continued, “And then, a guide is giving you fun little stories either about their own personal experience growing up in L.A., [from] a story from the newspaper, ripped from the headlines of the recent news, or sometimes something going back a little further… the deepest I went on research was finding a graduate student from Occidental College, a thesis paper from 1946 and this gentleman had written his graduate thesis on Chinatown, and he’d done a lot of firsthand interviews, primarily with a man named Peter Soo Hoo, who came up with the idea of L.A.’s new Chinatown, that exists today.”
Along the tour, we dined at three different restaurants, CBS Seafood, Ocean Seafood, and Golden Dragon. At each location, the tour group would sit down and Bray-Ali would coach his guests on the cuisine and etiquette of eating dim sum style. For those not in the know, dim sum style involves having a punch card/ticket on your table; wait staff circulate throughout the restaurant with various pushcarts, each featuring different items. They pause at the tables, ask if you want this or that, then move on. When diners select an item, the employee stamps the item on your card, and in the end, your stamps are tallied and you pay accordingly.
The trip also included a stop into Long’s Family Pastry and some goodies from Phoenix Bakery, which Bray-Ali ran across the street to fetch some deserts from, while the tour group finished licking our plates at Golden Dragon — because we were running short on time. Bray-Ali did all of the ordering, and his selections provided a very pleasing cross-section of authentic and delicious foods that guests may have otherwise never been inclined to try, including one or two items that might be a little too adventurous [fried chicken feet, anyone?].
When the tour ended, our stomachs were full of food and our minds were full of colorful stories about the history and culture of Chinatown (and beyond). Given the amount of food we ate, the first-rate tour experience, and the convenience of all that was included in the package, the $100 price tag is very reasonable. On top of that, the whole thing took place within a span of a mere three hours. For the bargain, the storytelling and the chow, the Get Some Dim Sum Tour is highly recommended. Perhaps we’ll have to try that taco or pastry tour next…