First off-- if you have not been to Hsi Lai Temple (a Chinese Buddhist temple in the hills of Hacienda Heights) you must go. The place transports you to another place entirely. Unlike the Wat Thai temple in North Hollywood, this is a sprawling campus of 5 different temples, connected by a central plaza, flanked by gardens, including one whis The dining hall is below the main temple, where they offer a $5.00 vegetarian buffet.
As this was a Taiwanese temple, the main starch was mi-fen (fried vermicelli-like rice noodles) and rice, which were adequate and filling. The other entrees were various types of stewed vegetables, as well as some cold salads. One entree was cauliflower and beans (soybeans?) in a milky, orange sauce-- slightly tart and a little sweet. Another was a dish of unusual, silky and ever so slightly chewy inch-wide strips of tofu, as if someone ran over a block of the stuff with a flat plane cheese slicer. Lastly, I had a sort of slightly sweet stewed turnip with strips of thin, chewy mushrooms. Also slightly sweet and a little bit sour. There were other items available, including some cooked pieces of what looked like bok choy. My girlfriend also had one of the cold salads-- slices of spicy pickled turnip. Tasty. All the food was adequate, not transcendent or overly delicious-- which somehow seemed appropriate as the food is made by monks who would eschew the elaborate for the moderate. Balance in all things.
However one items which did in fact seem horribly out of balance were the small bowls of transluscent greenish broth that one widely-grinning, shaven-headed monk handed over to me at the end of the buffet line. "Hau chu!" I said to the monk, practicing the Chinese my girlfriend is teaching me. "Good food!". Now I am used to the look of surprise that most Chinese people have when I speak even a few words of their language (I only know a few anyway), but this monk really laughed. I walked to my table to taste this broth, which had long, irregularly shaped pieces of a lumpy vegetable at the bottom. The aroma was slightly sweet, rather benign. I took a sip and promptly gagged. It was quite possibly the most intensely bitter thing that has ever passed my lips. I thought back to the laughing monk. Visions of fat, laughing buddhas danced around my head and the world went out of focus.
In an effort to show off their more advanced palates, my girlfriend ate the melon pieces, and my other friend downed the broth in one gulp.
My question to those brave souls who have eaten bitter melon (or bitter melon soup) in LA... are there places that make this stuff so it is palatable, let alone delicious? The jist of the stuff seems to be that you drink it like medicine, which seemed unusual at a buffet.
Please enlighten me, fellow hounds!
No longer bitter,
P.S. The Buddha's birthday festival is next Saturday... it would probably be a great time to check this place out if you have never gone.