Mrs. Lu, the owner of Dean Sin World, dominates the SGV food scene. The driving force behind her restaurant is the wholesale business, where she provides handmade dumplings and various buns to restaurant owners around the area. She even ships out to Minnesota.
"I'm not going to reveal all the restaurants around here that buys from me," she told Squid Ink. "But some restaurants have us drop off the products in the back door. They don't want anyone to know."
She did indicate that Giang Nan, a Shanghai restaurant in the same plaza, had once bought items from her. Giang Nan changed owners recently, and Lu did not confirm whether she still does business with them.
Though Dean Sin World primarily relies on their wholesale business, their family legacy is expanding in the form of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Lu is the mother of Lu Xiaoyen, who owns Mama Lu's Dumpling House, Lu's Dumplings, and Mama Lu's. Xiaoyen is planning to open a fourth location at 168 Market in San Gabriel soon.
Lu prides herself in her ingredients. "A lot of restaurants in this area buy wholesale materials, but I prefer to shop at 99 Ranch because they have better quality," she said.
The mini-empire may be growing, but Lu stays true to her humble roots. "When I first started the business it was really bitter. But I use my warmth to draw people in. I don't want people to come in, take their order and go straight into the kitchen," Lu said. "I prefer interaction so customers will come and try more. And we never once relied on advertisements. We've expanded by word of mouth. Our customer base is youths and they'll bring in their parents."
Lu began her culinary career in Shanghai, where she was born and raised. She was in charge of managing over 2,000 employees at a food production corporation. "I didn't want to teach if I didn't know how to learn," she said. "So when I was working, I would simultaneously learn from the chefs until I was fluent."
Lu moved to the States in 1998 and opened Dean Sin World in 2007, after operating out of her home for a couple of years. The name Dean Sin World (點心世界, dian xin shi jie) means "dessert world." In Chinese, the term dessert refers not to sweets, but to a variety of light refreshments. Dim sum plates, for example, are also often called "desserts."
"I call it a dessert world because I can make any Shanghainese dessert," Lu said. "Even if it's not on the menu, you can request it and I can make it."
But like most restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, the English and Chinese names do not match up. The phrase "Dessert World" is but a sub-header underneath the Chinese name of the restaurant -- Xie Ke Huang (蟹壳黄), or Yellow Crab Shell Pastry. The name refers to Lu's signature snack, the crab shell pastry.
"If you look at our pastry, it has a glaze over it that is reminiscent of a crab shell. And if you add legs, it looks like the famous Shanghainese hairy crab," Lu said. She sells both savory and sweet varieties.
"People have said our crab shell pastry is too expensive, so I tell them, I'll sell it to you for cheaper, but it'll be made with lard as opposed to vegetable oil, do you still want it?" she said. "After that, they understood." She added: "The owner of a San Diego restaurant came to us and ordered $300 worth of red bean crab shell pastry the other day."
As for the future, though Lu hinted at the purchase of another property, her pride comes from her daughter's success. "It's a really sweet thing to see my daughter take on the family business and expand it," Lu said while flipping through pictures of her children. "It's my legacy."
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Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Clarissa blogs about Asian food at clarissawei.com. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.