Monday, July 10, 2017

Italian Food Magazine Thinks David Chang Is Me (Not The Other Way Around)


few years ago I was interviewed by the Italian food magazine, Fine Dining Lovers, about my thousands of Chinese restaurant visits.   It is actually a very strange article in that while the writer interviewed me in English, she wrote the article in Italian.  Then the finished article was translated back into English, leading to some very strange wording.  (You might say something was lost in the double translation.)  However, what upset me when I first saw the finished article was that they got my name wrong, calling me David Chang, the name of the renown New York chef and restauranteur. I immediately pointed this out to them, and they dutifully made the change on their website, making me happy.

However, what I didn't realize is that at the same time they changed "David Chang" to "David Chan" in the article about me, they also had an existing page compiling all the articles they had written about David Chang, the celebrity chef, and they added my interview to that page.  So they also dutifully changed the heading on that page from "David Chang" to "David Chan."  This mixup isn't terribly important since it only matters if you're looking for stories about David Chang on the Fine Dining Lovers website.  But it is funny that all their articles about the famous David Chang are catalogued under the name of the little known David Chan, which is the opposite of how things like that usually occur.

A good example of the latter type of confusion comes from my non-existent listing in the Internet Movie Data Base.  Yes, the IMDB did pick up my appearance in the movie documentary, The Search For General Tso.  However, they added it to a listing for another David Chan, who gained some level of notoriety for being in the cast of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.   Contrast this to the other internet movie websites like The Numbers and the now defunct New York Times movie database, which gave me a separate listing for being in the General Tso Movie.  And I presume the real David Chan actor is wondering what the heck General Tso is.

Fortunately other websites containing my compilations don't confuse me with anyone else.

My Menuism Chinese Restaurant Articles

My L.A. Weekly Articles

WaCowLA Taiwanese Chinese Language Tag Page

(And thanks to PorkyBelly on the Food Talk Central message board for the ironic back reference.)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My Embassy Kitchen LA Weekly Review With Full Pictorial Coverage

My LA Weekly review of Embassy Kitchen did not contain the pictures of the dishes I highlighted.  To fill that void, here's the original version of that article, fully illustrated.

Crowning a restaurant as the “best” Chinese or any other category of restaurant is a tricky thing, given the subjectivity of such a determination and the varying tastes among diners.  While this is certainly the case in trying to anoint a best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, most discussions of the topic tends to involve the same group of contenders, like Sea Harbour in Rosemead, Chengdu Taste, Lunasia, King Hua and Szechuan Impression in Alhambra, Newport Seafood and Mian in San Gabriel, and Din Tai Fung in various mall locations.  (Or if you’re Yelp, then it’s Americanized restaurants like Sea Dragon, Yang Chow and Wah’s Golden Hen. [Link to my L.A. Weekly Yelp article.])  However, the best of the bunch may well be Embassy Kitchen in San Gabriel, located directly in front of Embassy Billiards pool hall on San Gabriel Blvd., and from whence it derives its name.

Besides the improbability of Embassy Kitchen being one of the best Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles despite its status as the Chinese equivalent of bowling alley dining, equally surprising is the fact that Embassy Kitchen is still under-the-radar despite having been around for 20 years, making it senior to all the other top non-Yelp contenders except Newport Seafood, which opened in San Gabriel a year earlier in 1996.  Embassy Kitchen started as a small adjunct restaurant to the billiard parlor around 1997, even using the Embassy Billiards moniker.  It then moved to the large restaurant space in front of the billiard parlor around 1999.   

Like other top Chinese restaurant contenders Sea Harbour, Lunasia and King Hua, as well as most all of the other banquet sized Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, Embassy Kitchen serves Hong Kong style cuisine.  But aside from that, Embassy Kitchen diverges from these other Hong Kong style restaurants in many ways.  There are no tanks in the dining room full of live seafood, nor is the dining room huge, loud or boisterous.  There is not a gaudy menu with so many choices that the menu could be made into a movie, and they gladly take reservations.

But what distinguishes Embassy Kitchen from the pack is the food selection.  Yes, you will find Cantonese favorites like rock cod in corn sauce, walnut shrimp, fish maw crab meat soup, e-fu noodles, and steamed chicken with ginger and scallions, all superbly prepared.  But what you also find at Embassy Kitchen are two extremes not typically seen at most Hong Kong style restaurants in Los Angeles—complex dishes that require day in advance ordering and wonderful homestyle dishes.  To some extent most of these dishes are obscured on the Embassy Kitchen menu as they are only found on paper inserts on the inside cover of the permanent menu.  On the other hand, that might not make much of a difference, since non-Chinese faces are indeed rare at this restaurant.  There is no nefarious intent in keeping these dishes in a Chinese language supplement, as the owners indicate that they just weren’t sure how to accurately describe these dishes in English.

Perhaps the best exemplar of the complex advance order dishes is the boneless chicken stuffed with shrimp paste.  The chicken skin is light and crispy, the chicken is tender, and the shrimp paste provides a savory contrast.



Then there’s the tilapia rolls with whole carcass, one of the most unique and visual dishes you will find at a Los Angeles area Chinese restaurant, though from a taste point of view the re-stuffed fish (where the bones are removed and the fish is filled back up with fish and ground pork) might be a better choice.

One of the special items that does not necessarily need an advance order is the eight treasures stuffed duck.


Other signature dishes include the chicken stuffed with sticky rice (a traditional Cantonese dish still popular in the San Francisco area, but difficult to find in Los Angeles), and the fried rice with whole Dungeness crab or lobster.  Note that all of these dishes are large and run in the $50 range, and hence are more suited to large parties.  Indeed Embassy Kitchen has a larger quotient of large size tables compared to most other Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles.

At the other end of the spectrum are the many uncommon homestyle dishes on Embassy Kitchen’s menu.  However, be aware that these dishes are not inexpensive, as there are few items on the Embassy Kitchen menu that are under $15 and many are $20 or more.  But these dishes are generally well worth the price, particularly when considering the subtleties and complexities in the flavor of the dishes here.  At most popular Chinese restaurants, experienced diners can discern visually and by taste the main ingredients of a dish.  Yes, this dish contains dried orange peel, or five spice, or bean paste or fish sauce.  But at Embassy Kitchen this is not necessarily the case.  For example, our party was stumped by the steamed egg with tofu and seafood topping, so we had to ask them what was in it.  They replied “shrimp roe.”  Such ingredients also explain the higher price point.


Many other down-to-earth, and seldom seen at restaurant dishes are also real winners.   Steamed eggplant with dried scallop and ground pork may sound fairly pedestrian, but it is one of the best dishes on the menu, with it seemingly being a mystery how the ground pork can be cooked in such a light and fluffy manner.  

Similarly outstanding but unlikely dishes include clear rice noodles with cabbage, egg and dried scallops; stir-fried beef with flour crisp; French style beef stew (which comes with noodles at lunch time but not at dinner); and imitation shark’s fin with egg whites.   


Many people say that Embassy Kitchen is as close to actually eating in Hong Kong as you can get in Los Angeles.  However, more than any Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, Embassy Kitchen’s quality is driven by its owner-chef, Chef Yu, which probably explains in part its lack of widespread acclaim, with the stellar reviews of his cooking being offset by pedestrian reviews by diners who happen to eat there when he isn’t in the kitchen.  But in the long run, for those who dine at Embassy Kitchen on a recurring basis, this is a restaurant, the closest thing to artisan Chinese cooking that you will find in Los Angeles, that deserves to be considered among the best Chinese restaurants in the area.



Monday, June 19, 2017

Chinese Bakery Riots Return to Los Angeles

Everybody knows how much Chinese people like their food, and nowhere is this any more true in the United States than in Los Angeles.   While there really weren't Chinese bakery riots in Los Angeles, we did come close with the opening and then spread of the Taiwanese 85°C Bakery and Cafe chain as it rolled out throughout the Los Angeles area.  When they had their sole store in Irvine, CA, it would not be unusual to spend an hour waiting in line to get inside the bakery and make your purchases, and as the first branches opened up, opening day waits were two hours, and one could imagine some people became testy while waiting in line.  However, there are many branches of 85°C in the Los Angeles area these days, so the days of Chinese bakery conflict in Los Angeles seemed to be a thing in the past.

Until this weekend, at Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park.  Atlantic Times Square was conceived of nearly a decade ago as an attempt to bring a mainstream block long shopping center housing national brands to Monterey Park, the original "Chinese Beverly Hills" marketed overseas in the 1980s.  As things have turned out in the past couple years in the retail industry in general, and shopping malls in particular, that attempt was equivalent to trying to jump onto the Titanic before it set sail.  Fortunately, the attempt to attract mainstream tenants pretty much failed, except for Johnny Rocket's (since closed), the AMC theaters, and perhaps a couple of other places.  This left Atlantic Times Square to the Asian business community, which in the end turns out to be the best thing that could happen to that center

This past weekend  Sunmerry, a small Chinese bakery chain, like 85°C originating out or Irvine, opened up a store in Monterey Park, offering Grand Opening specials.  According to eyewitness reports, it was a near riot.  One account said "I was in a crowded, angry line for an hour and a half!! And that's not because there was a bunch of people in front of me. I was 4th in line for the most part. There was just no products coming out...Some older ladies were even starting to argue about their place in line...The only organizational part I appreciated was when the new batch came out. They realized that an angry mob would have started if they placed the items on the shelves, so they took each tray and offered a piece to each person down the line to make it fair. I was glad because I really didn't want to end up arrested for assault over bread." 

Another report said "Waited for over 45 minutes in the hot sun! At last got to the entrance then waited another 15 minutes before the manager let a crowd of customers including myself to go get the bread. However, there just isn't enough bread for the batch of customers that they allowed in, By the time it's my turn, there are basically nothing! I asked the manager to let me wait until next round of bread to come out, he said "No, you have to go back outside all the way to the last in line again"  WTF?? I waited over an hour for you to tell me to go back out to the hot sun waiting in line again when you didn't bring out enough for the customers??  F*** this!"

And then there was "I got a tray and went straight to chocolate croissants and I was surrounded by crazy people."  Nothing like specials to bring out the crazy in Chinese shoppers!





Friday, June 9, 2017

My Week of Dining in San Francisco (Or Who Abducted Martin Yan?)

One of our family traditions since the kids were little has been a June visit to San Francisco.   Even though Los Angeles Chinese food is a bit better than what they have in the Bay Area, I still look forward to trying the newest Chinese restaurants around San Francisco and revisiting our favorites. This year's June trip was particularly anticipated because it would be our first visits to the recently opened China Live and Mister Jiu's, both in San Francisco Chinatown.  But I can't help but lead off with my chronicle of June's trip with the disaster that was our dinner at Martin Yan's M Y China Restaurant in Westfield San Francisco.

Don't get me wrong.  Since it opened four years ago, M Y China has been one of our favorite Chinese restaurants anywhere, so much so that in our many visits here we pretty much exhausted their menu items.  Some of their items have been superior, such as the Peking duck, the crab, the xiaolongbao, and the roast chicken.  And while not every dish was high quality, we never had a bad one. Consequently we were looking forward to this meal, our last dinner of the trip.  All of which made the poor meal we had especially disappointing.  Granted, since we wanted to continue to work our way through the menu we ordered a couple of items we had never considered before, the Chairman Mao crunchy spicy chicken and the venison chow fun.  Crunchy is one thing, but Chairman Mao was more like a jawbreaker, hard and dry.  The venison chow fun was one of the worst chow fun dishes we ever had, having no flavor with zero wok hei.  Being charitable perhaps we could say since we never considered these dishes before, we shouldn't have ordered them this time.  But then there was the roast chicken, one of the few dishes we've ordered multiple times in the past.  This time, the chicken skin was like paper and the chicken was as dry as sawdust.   Don't know what happened this time. We asked the server if there had been a change in the kitchen, but she said there hadn't been.  But in any event, a restaurant of this quality and price level should consistently operate at a high level, and there was no excuse for this meal.

Meanwhile, the good news is that dining may be back in San Francisco Chinatown.  Things have been so discouraging in Chinatown in recent years such that we almost never eat dinner in San Francisco Chinatown anymore, just breakfast and lunch.  But things are on the upswing with the opening of China Live and Mister Jiu's.  China Live occupies the space that was once home to banquet restaurants Ocean City (whose owners still live in infamy for stiffing their employees by folding their tent and carting everything out of the restaurant sometime one night between midnight and 6 am) and Gold Mountain, but which has been empty for years.  China Live is a multi-million dollar project, intended to be the Chinese equivalent of Eataly in Manhattan, the large Italian market and restaurant complex.  Only the first floor of China Live is currently open, and its opening several weeks ago was so late compared to its original schedule that many people had assumed it would never open.   We had the Peking duck sesame pouches, the wok fried filet mignon, the crab egg rolls and (pictured below) the Marco Polo noodles.  The food was expensive and honestly not particularly good.   The contiguous but separate open kitchens for Peking duck, dumplings, and wok cooked items are an interesting feature.  And the restaurant was bustling both the night we ate there, a couple of nights later when we checked out the market area, and at lunchtime on our last day there, which is a very encouraging sign and which would be a shot in the arm for San Francisco Chinatown.



The highlight of the trip was our dinner at Mister Jiu's. I had made a reservation for dinner at Mr. Jiu in Chinatown a full month in advance, as the restaurant is very popular.  It’s the creation of a well known Bay Area chef named Brandon Jew, who took three years preparing the space that used to house Four Seas Restaurant upstairs on Grant Ave., but redesigning the space so that the entrance to the restaurant is on ground level at the back on Waverly Place, which sits up the hill from Grant Ave. The restaurant opened a year ago, and initially they were doing five course banquet menus for almost $100 per person.  However that concept wasn’t well received and they went a la carte late last year.  One theme of the restaurant is local sourcing, so in line with this we had the Dutch Crunch baked bbq pork bun, (below) patterned after San Francisco's unique Dutch Crunch bread.  It was fairly good, although not nearly as good as the various crispy bbq pork buns at Bay Area Chinese restaurants such as Dragon Beaux, Hong Kong Lounge 1 and 2, Koi Palace and Lai Hong Lounge. At $13 for three small bao, it also was about twice as expensive.  The crab and caviar cheung fun was excellent, and was definitely worth the $17 charge for the two rice rolls.  The McFarlane Springs salt baked trout from Central California was excellent, having the look, taste and texture of salmon, which made it worth the $48 tab.   Indeed it was a bargain compared to the $60 you'd pay for a live whole fish at a Chinese seafood restaurant.  Truly a meal that any foodie would enjoy.



Other trip highlights included the tomato cilantro Tibetan bison momo at Bini's Kitchen on Market Street in the Financial District, the variety of rice noodle rolls and other excellent Hong Kong style dishes at Cooking Papa in Foster City,  the crunchy pork buns, fish cheung fun and coffee ribs at Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown, the hotpot (below) at Little Sheep at their Union Square location, the pizza-like bacon and tomato bun at Fancy Wheat Field on Stockton St., and even the $1.25 crispy baked bbq pork buns at iCafe Chinatown on Waverly Pl.  But in the background, my memory of this trip is still haunted by the images of Martin Yan in a little room somewhere being held against his will.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Secret Past Life On The Chinese-American History Rubber Chicken Circuit

I have previously mentioned briefly my first bout as a speaker and writer some 40 years ago, not at all on the topic of Chinese food, but rather on aspects on Chinese American history and culture. This year's annual declaration of Asian Pacific American Heritage month reminded me of the first Asian Pacific American Heritage commemoration in Los Angeles Chinatown back in 1979, when it was designated merely as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week.   Initially, I wasn't sure at first if 1979 was the first commemoration--all I remember is being the keynote speaker at an early Asian Pacific American Heritage event.  But coincidentally I had recently rediscovered a binder containing flyers and handwritten notes relating to my early presentations on Chinese American topics.  In that binder I found the materials from that presentation, which indeed was the first year that Asian Pacific American Heritage was officially celebrated.  I'm not sure if event the was held at Golden Dragon or Tai Hong Restaurant in Chinatown.  An early announcement said Golden Dragon, but my recollection of the layout of the banquet room doesn't correspond to any currently existing restaurant in Chinatown that I could think of right now, and I'm reminded of Tai Hong.  In reality, much like the first NCAA basketball tournament back in 1939, being keynote speaker at that first Asian Pacific American Heritage event is probably a much bigger deal in hindsight than it actually was at that time.

That old binder was actually full of materials from a number of presentations I had given from the mid-1970s through the early-1980s, at which time I withdrew from writing and speaking on ethnic topics, though I did continue to speak on boring income tax topics through the late 1990s.  The binder included presentations that I have no current recollection of ever having participated in.  For example, back in 1982, I was master-of-ceremonies for the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Really?  And I gave a presentation to the Historical Society of Southern California at the long defunct Hong Kong Jade Garden restaurant?  I have absolutely no recollection of that presentation or even the restaurant.  And during the 1981 Los Angeles Bicentennial Celebration, I was part of the city's Bicentennial Speakers Bureau and did some speaking on the Chinese in Los Angeles.  Perhaps that's how some of my presentations came about.

I spoke at the University of Southern California at a conference put on by the Los Angeles Unified School District for a program called Project Follow-Through to educate school district personnel on ethnic studies issues, covering Asian American issues with my co-speaker, Professor Harry Kitano from UCLA.  I spoke to the California Conference of Historical Societies at General Lee's Man Jen Low restaurant on Chinese American history.  I was interviewed by Beverly Ann Lee of KNX radio about the Chinese community in Los Angeles, as well as Truman Jacques and Patricia Stich on Channel 2 (I think it was still KNXT back then) for the "It Takes All Kinds" public service television show, back when the FCC mandated public service television shows.

Mind you, I was doing all this while working as a tax accountant for Kenneth Leventhal & Company, a certified public accounting firm that specialized in the real estate industry.  I was puzzled back then why someone like myself without any academic credentials was able to give all of these presentations and write the articles I produced in that period on the Chinese in Los Angeles, the Chinese exclusion laws, and postcards of American Chinatowns, that were noted in the above referenced blog posting.

However upon reflection decades later, the answer is more clear to me.  As I previously recounted, I attended the first ever Asian American studies class offered at UCLA back in 1969,  which was quaintly titled "Orientals in America."  My class term paper on the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles was the basis of a number of subsequently published (though not especially widely circulated) articles on that subject.  Meanwhile, while going on to attend law school at UCLA, I spent my spare time in the law library poring through court cases involving Chinese Americans, mostly deportation cases under the Chinese Exclusion Act, not with any academic intent, but merely because I found the topic so riveting.  In so doing, I was getting in on the ground floor of an area for which no academic infrastructure had yet developed, and for which there was a giant vacuum which initially could largely be filled by amateurs like myself.  

Indeed, look at the Chinese Historical Society of America, founded in 1962 by lay people from the San Francisco Chinese community.  CHSA developed two pioneering historians--Him Mark Lai, a mechanical engineer, and Philip Choy, an architect.  Similarly, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California was founded in Los Angeles Chinatown in 1975, again by community members like Rev. Paul Louie and Stan Lau from the Department of Water and Power.   

For quite a few years now, Asian American studies has been a scholarly discipline like any other subject area taught on a university campus.  With all of the intellectual academic expertise that has built up over the years, there's no way that an amateur non-academic could have the impact or exposure today that I was able to experience way back then.   It was a unique opportunity for a layman to be there at the start of what turned into something so great.  I will always treasure the experience, and obviously it's a major part of the observations I make about Chinese food today.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A College Town's Chinese Restaurant Menu Is a History of Chinese Food in America

As I have mentioned numerous times, the presence of over 300,000 Mainland Chinese university students in the United States has altered the face of Chinese dining in the United States, bringing authentic Chinese food to cities and towns where such a find would have been unimaginable even just a decade ago.  As a big fan of both college sports and US geography, and having visited all 50 states, I have used my familiarity with both to track down authentic restaurants in many college towns.

Recently I was watching the replay of an ESPN college football telecast from a couple of years ago, when they did a promo for their College Game Day telecast.  It was a slow period early in the season, so ESPN decided to do their show from a small (athletically speaking) campus, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.  While I had heard of that school, I was surprised that I had never heard of the town in which it was located.  Looking it up, I saw that it was in rural Virginia, a two hour drive away from both Washington DC and Richmond, explaining why it had never come to my attention.  Obviously I decided to check whether James Madison was a school that had enough Chinese students to warrant authentic Chinese food, and indeed it is, with A Taste of China Restaurant providing anything a homesick Mainland Chinese student would want to eat.

The menu at A Taste of China is absolutely fascinating.  As I have written before, these college town Chinese restaurants serve a mixed audience--students from China, students not from China, and local residents.  The result is an interest mashup of old time Americanized Chinese dishes and cutting edge items from the Chinese interior.  However I don't think this has been any more starkly demonstrated than by the menu at A Taste of China.  For example, look at the "soup" section of their menu.
Talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime!  From the most primitive Toishanese American classic egg drop soup to the slightly more sophisticated wonton soup to the post 1960s immigration reform "northern" Chinese Americanized classic hot and sour soup, to the post immigration reform advanced Cantonese Westlake beef soup, to today's Sichuan boiled fish soup and pork rib pot.  It's like 150 years of Chinese dining in America capsulized in 8 lines.

Likewise, the hot appetizer section of the menu was also like a diorama of Chinese food in America.
Once again, the menu started with the crudest old time Americanized Chinese appetizer, the egg roll, followed by the slightly more modern crab rangoon, before transitioning to more modern, Mainland Chinese diner oriented appetizer items.

Typically we think of Chinese restaurants in the US as falling into distinct categories--old time Americanized Chinese, more modern Americanized Chinese, and modern authentic current Chinese regional cuisine.  But at A Taste Of China in Harrisonburg, and undoubtedly others in different college towns, they can be all rolled up into one.



Saturday, April 8, 2017

At Teto Sweets In Monterey Park It's The Non-Sweets That Are The Eye Opener

Thanks to Uncle Tetsu in the Westfield Santa Anita Mall, Japanese cheesecake has hit the local radar like a hurricane, resulting in the most ridiculous lineup queue in that part of town since Din Tai Fung (whose flagship location is just around the corner).   Fortunately somebody else stood in line so I could get my taste of Uncle Tetsu's cheesecake, which I would describe as good, but not great.

Naturally the success of Uncle Tetsu has encouraged others to follow suit, and perhaps best known is Teto Sweets, 610 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, which has become a satisfactory replacement for those unwilling to battle the lines at Uncle Tetsu.  Teto Sweets opened a few months ago, and is located in a nondescript structure on the corner of Garvey and Rural Dr. which I missed completely when I first drove there, and had to drive around a very long block to finally make it there.   I would also say that the name of the eatery is misleading, as it implies that it is primarily a dessert shop where the cheesecake is the only real dessert item on the menu.  Teto Sweets' Japanese cheesecake is like that at Uncle Tetsu,  good, not great.   However in fact while the cheesecake is good, but not great, great certainly does exist on the rest of the Teto Sweet menu.

So if the Japanese cheesecake at Teto Sweets is not the star of the show, what is?  Well that distinction belongs to the Golden Fried Bao which look as good as it tastes.


Think of your favorite Gua Bao from Baohaus or Taiwanese restaurant in the San Gabriel, but take the mantou bun and deep fry it to a golden brown.  That's the Golden Fried Bao at Teto Sweets.  The Golden Fried Bao comes in three flavors, Peking duck, chicken salsa and, naturally, pork belly.  The deep fried buns have a milky consistency, with just a hint of sweetness.  All three varieties are outstanding.

Also on the menu at Teto Sweets are Teto pancakes, sandwiches with a crunchy pancake wrapper with fillings like the abovementioned duck, chicken and pork belly choices, as well as others like spam and kalbi.  Other innovative dishes on the menu include mapo tofu fries and beef bone sticks. Also the obligatory selection of coffee and tea drinks.

So to turn around the well known restaurant slogan, when it comes to Teto Sweets, it's "come for the cheesecake but stay for the rest of the menu."