Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lights! Camera! Action!

I just had the opportunity to be interviewed for an upcoming documentary series on the current state of Chinese cuisine in North America titled "The Way of the Wok."  This six part series is being produced by Lucent Media of Canada, in conjunction with New Tang Dynasty, a Chinese language television network in Canada.  The producer hopes to also distribute the series also to public television stations in the US and Canada.  The six part series consists of an overview of Chinese food in North America, and separate shows on what are sometimes referred to as the five great cuisines of China--Cantonese, Huiyang, Shandong, Dongbei and Sichuan, and their current status in North America.

Like other interview requests, this one was attributed to the publicity I've received as the 6,000 Chinese restaurant diner.  In this regard, I really didn't read the fine print about the program's content until I arrived at the filming site, Chua Ren Bai Wei Restaurant, a newly opened restaurant in Temple City on the site of the former Beijing Duck House.  When I arrived there the film crew had also just arrived as was setting up.  It turns out there were 6 of them--the production assistant Carmen Poon, who was my contact, the producer Theresa Kowall-Shipp, the hostess Christine Cushing, a well known Canadian chef who had her own self-named cooking show on Food TV Canada, two cameramen and one sound technician.   At this point in time I started to panic a little, particularly when I heard them talking about "Lu" cuisine which I never heard of, and when I realized that the series was focused on the intricacies of Chinese regional cuisines, which as a non-foodie I never paid particular attention to.  Fortunately it took them 45 minutes to set up, so I used the time to do a little background reading on my Blackberry on regional cuisines.  In addition I had also brought a print-out of my restaurant list for potential use as a prop, so while they were setting up I went to my car to check the list for when the various regional cuisines made their first appearance in the US.

As it turns out, we shot three separate segments for the show, for the overview of Chinese food in North America, on Shandong cuisine (which includes Peking Duck and which is a specialty of the restaurant) and on Sichuan cuisine, which is the main focus of Chua Ren Bai Wei.   We started with the overview segment and immediately Christine started asking about my restaurant list, and my motivation in visiting Chinese restaurants and in keeping the list. I talked about my initial interest in the budding ethnic studies movement of the late 1960s and how I became fascinated by the tale of Chinese American immigrants, and how visiting Chinese restaurants in my travels gave me the chance to see Chinese American communities wherever I traveled.   I mentioned how two decades later going to work for a national employer and attending meetings all around the country really accelerated my ability to explore Chinese restaurants.  A well placed leading question enabled me to segue into the fact that Chinese Americans and Chinese food in the US and Canada was exclusively Toishanese from 1850 until the 1960s, so what was known as Chinese food in North America during that period was really an accident of history, geography, and the enactment of Chinese exclusion laws that produced a fairly homogenous Chinese immigrant community from a single, small rural area of China.  This resulted in a narrow subset of Chinese dishes to proliferate in the US and Canada, that would be unrecognizable by most residents of China.  I altered my usual example to say it was as if all the Canadians in China were from some small town in Canada, where Christine volunteered that would be like if a particular obscure Canadian dish were found all over China.

We then went into the changing face of Chinese food in North America where Cantonese food is in decline, at least in relative numbers, as new Chinese restaurants are heavily dominated by Sichuan, Shandong and Northeastern styles reflecting the current immigration patterns and the rise of wealthy Chinese from these regions who are making their presence felt locally.  I also commented on the blurring of regional lines in San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants due to two separate factors.  One was the existing infrastructure of popular dishes, demonstrated by the very restaurant we were eating at, which while self-described as a Sichuan restaurant, also served Peking Duck and Dongbei dishes that are currently popular in the community.  I also pointed out the existence of the American born "626 generation" which is much more open to regional variations than their foreign born parents which further encourages mixed regional cuisine Chinese restaurants.

I also was able to disclaim early on that I am not a foodie, pointing not only to not photographing my meals, but also avoiding large categories of dishes for dietary and personal taste reasons, and that I will even try reputedly bad restaurants just to see for myself.  This disclaimer was helpful when later asked specific questions dealing with the different cuisines (Are there 8 Chinese or 5 Chinese cuisines?  I said 8 just because I noticed Hunan and Fujian missing from their list. What are the popular Shandong dishes in Los Angeles?  What spices are used in Sichuan cooking?)   Fortunately I didn't have to pass completely on any question, but I think it made my short answers more acceptable.

The second segment focused on Shandong style food, with two pre-ordered dishes served to us, Peking Duck and braised sea cucumber.  Christine asked me whether Peking Duck or Beijing Duck was the proper terminology.  I said even though the name of the city officially changed decades ago, Peking Duck is still the more common usage.  I also pointed out that there are East Coast and West Coast versions (like rap and the Bristol Stomp) with mantou buns used on the West Coast, pancake crepes on the East Coast.  When asked about Peking Duck in China, I said they used crepes, but what I had there wasn't very good because I went with a tour group.  Also when asked about the best Peking Duck I've eaten, I replied M Y China in San Francisco.  Christine was happy because she knows Martin Yan and their next filming stop is San Francisco so they'll stop by there.  The scene of us eating the Peking Duck was staged in that they knew I don't use chopsticks but that's all the provided me.  So when Christine said to dig in I had to say I needed a fork.    During the shoot the cameraman said he liked me because I was funny.  I also used the sea cucumber dish to interject how texture is so important in Chinese food, in contrast to other cuisines.

The third segment dealt with Sichuan style food.  This time they had us go through the restaurant menu to choose dishes. I think it was part of the plan to have me look at the menu of a restaurant that I had not eaten at previously, as after setting the venue they asked me not to go there until the interview.  I had previously mentioned in a prior segment that I had typical Cantonese taste buds and couldn't take typical spicy Sichuan dishes.  The restaurant's menu did not indicate how spicy individual dishes were, and the producer wanted to focus, obviously, on Sichuan dishes, so Carmen had the restaurant prepare non-spicy Sichuan dishes, double cooked pork and pork with garlic sauce.  We also ordered pork and shrimp dumplings to demonstrate how today's Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles overlap cuisines.

The conversation turned to the extent to which and whether non-Chinese were beginning to appreciate authentic Sichuan (and other regional) cuisines.  I gave a two part answer--when foodies talk there are a fair number of non-Chinese who seek out and appreciate these cuisines, but if you walk into a typical San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant you will see few if any non-Asian diners at any point in time, showing what a small percentage of non-Chinese diners seek out authentic Chinese food..  I then pointed out Meizhou Gongpo's first US branch in Century City, which is largely authentic, but where they have toned down the spice level for the Westsiders.  This led Christine to comment how more pragmatic Chinese chefs seem to be compared to Western chefs who are more likely to stubbornly stick to doing things the way they want.  I replied that's because for most Chinese restauranteurs, it's a business proposition.

After the interview they had me film some filler scenes.  They moved me and the food to a table by the window and filmed me eating.  They had me go down the street, then walk into the restaurant, stop to peruse the menu, then walk all the way in.  They gave me a dummy bill to pay.  I ad libbed by asking the cashier whether they took credit cards.

All in all it was a pleasant experience.  It took only about 3 hours of time, which was so much more efficient than the 4 hours it took to get 2 minutes of air time on KCET.  There were no retakes, just pauses where the producer suggested an additional line of questioning.  Since we were there from about 2 pm to 5 pm, there weren't a lot of other customers there.  But I did notice one restaurant employee, and later one diner, head in our direction to take their own smartphone or iPad shots of the festivities.   I guess the diner mistakenly thought I was somebody notable.   The project will be complete in spring, and hopefully they can get English language distribution in Canada and the US.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My 10 Best Chinese Restaurants in the United States - 2014 Update

Like most serious food observers, I am not a big fan of Top 10 type lists of best restaurants.  Different people have their own reasons for disliking these lists, with my personal objection being the tendency to place geographical or other correctness over the merits of the listed eateries.  National lists include restaurants in cities where I wouldn’t be caught dead eating Chinese food, and local lists include Chinese restaurants from parts of town that don’t have good Chinese food.  But the fact is that Top 10 listings on television and the internet draw a greater audience than other food related stories, so they’re not going away anytime soon.

Indeed, my one and only Top 10 listing,  the Asia Society piece on the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States, was far and away my most widely read piece.  The 3,200 Facebook likes for this item probably are a hundred times the amount for all of my other written articles combined.  Of course the reason for the huge readership of this article was that I stayed true to my principles and did not come up with a geographically correct listing, but rather a listing of restaurants all located in California.  This in turn created a massive dustup which generated the ultimate large numbers, with mostly New Yorkers condemning the listing and Californians applauding it.

Since it’s been over two years since my Asia Society listing, I feel it’s time to revise the listing to reflect new restaurants that have opened up in that time period and changes in quality in existing restaurants.  However I am not writing a third party publication article, nor am I even giving a critique of the revised Top 10 listing.  This is for a couple of reasons.  As I previously mentioned I’m not a fan of Top 10 listings so I don’t want to overemphasize it.  Also, the top half of the listing is pretty much the same as two years ago, so I didn’t want to rehash the same information.
One commentary on the revised Top 10 listing is worth mentioning, however.  While I had attributed the lack of New York restaurants in the original top 10 listing to the fact that New York Chinese food was a cut below that of Los Angeles and San Francisco, it was also because of a quirk in that star New York chef Joe Ng happened to be between restaurants when the 2012 listing came out.  A Top 10 listing in previous years would have listed World Tong in Brooklyn when he was in charge of that kitchen, or Chinatown Brasserie in Manhattan, when he landed there.  And now that he is back with Red Farm and Decoy (I know they are separate restaurants, but I rate them in tandem since they’re like Siamese twins, being in different floors of the same small building), New York is represented in my latest Top 10.  In order, here they are.

1.  Koi Palace, Daly City, CA
2.  Sea Harbour, Rosemead, CA
3.  Elite, Monterey Park, CA
4.  King Hua, Alhambra, CA
5.  Chengdu Taste, Alhambra, CA
6.  Lunasia, Alhambra, CA
7.  Din Tai Fung, Costa Mesa, CA and Arcadia, CA
8.  Hakkasan, New York, NY and Beverly Hills, CA
9.  Red Farm/Decoy, New York, NY
10.  Jai Yun, San Francisco, CA

Friday, August 22, 2014

And, The Best Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles Is...

Well when I say "Best Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles" don't be misled, because I'm talking about Los Angeles itself (zip 900**) and not any suburban areas.  As I said last year in a couple of Menuism articles, 300 of the top 300 Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles county were located in the San Gabriel Valley, which is outside of the city limits of Los Angeles.  Consequently we're not necessarily talking about elite eateries.

So in looking for the best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles where better to look than Yelp's reviews?  (The sarcasm in that statement will be quickly apparent.)  According to Yelp, the highest rated Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles are Wah's Golden Hen on Virgil Ave. in East Hollywood and Sea Dragon on Vermont Ave. in what essentially is Pilipinotown, each with an average rating of 4½ stars.  (Wah's would get the nod based on a larger number of reviews.)   Now let me start off by saying that I have a soft spot for both of these restaurants, Wah's for the oldtime Cantonese food with a nice lady running the place and Sea Dragon being a big step over the mostly Korean style Chinese restaurants or steam tray places that dominate the area west of downtown.

But highest rating in Los Angeles?  Puhleeze.   There are at least 25 Chinese restaurants in L.A. Chinatown better than these two, and those of you who know me know that I have a fairly low opinion of food in Chinatown, though an occasional meal at Master Chef, Pho Broadway or J. R. Bistro is acceptable.   The recently opened Meizhou Dongpo in the Century City Mall, the first US branch of the mainland Chinese restaurant chain cracks the Los Angeles county top 300 list.  Huang's BBQ House on Melrose (which actually exceeds Wah's and Sea Dragon with five Yelp stars, but only has six reviews and isn't considered by Yelp in their ratings) at least serves Chinatown quality food.  And there are other scattered decent Chinese restaurants having Los Angeles zip codes, including Hong Kong Cafe and ROC Kitchen on Sawtelle in West Los Angeles, Pingtung on Melrose, Bao on Beverly Blvd., the restaurant formerly known as California Wok (it's not quite clear what the current name of the restaurant is) on Wilshire in West Los Angeles, Pine & Crane in Silver Lake, Mandarin Kitchen on Westwood Blvd.  and The Palace on Wilshire and Barrington.  And in downtown one can't overlook Peking Tavern, another newly opened top 300 entrant and perhaps the best of the bunch.

So why do Wah's and Sea Dragon rise to the top of Yelp's list?  The answer is the basic flaw in Yelp's star rating system, which I refer to as the lack of comparability.  For example, Sea Harbour in Rosemead was my choice as second best Chinese restaurant in the United States in my controversial Asia Society article that generated 300 Tweets and 3,200 Facebook likes.  Some observers even say Sea Harbour has the best dim sum in the US.   But while Wah's and Sea Dragon rate 4½ Yelp stars each, Sea Harbour only garners 3½ stars.   Now there are many defects in the Yelp star system, most of which are to be left for another day's discussion.  But the issue I want to focus on here is that the diners who give Wah's 4½ stars are a completely different demographic from those who give Sea Harbour 3½ stars.  For the same reason you see high ratings for generally disdained Chinese restaurants such as P.F. Chang, not really a Chinese restaurant in my book, and Mr. Chow.  So while Yelp appears to be objective to the extent that people refer to numerical stars and only eat at 3 or 4 star Yelp restaurants, it's truly an apples to oranges comparison.

So for those of you who believe in Yelp, Wah's Golden Hen is the place to go.  The rest of us should really wonder about Yelp.

Francis Wai Finally Elected To UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame

It took a long time, but Francis Wai was finally elected to the UCLA athletic hall of fame.  Wai was the "Asian Jackie Robinson", replicating #42 as a four sport athlete at UCLA and ethnic sports pioneer.  However, Wai's athletic accomplishments faded into the pages of history as he was killed during World War II.  Then his name resurfaced in 2000 when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime heroics.

As a rabid UCLA football fan, I first became aware of Francis Wai when I started to collect old UCLA football game programs.   I noticed that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, UCLA had three players named Wai on the football roster, who turned out to be the Wai brothers from Honolulu via Sacramento.  An interesting sidelight was that UCLA's all time football letterman list had shown Francis Wai lettering in three years, but in fact that was the combined accomplishment of the Wai brothers.  I actually wrote the UCLA athletic department to point out the error.

I didn't become aware of Francis Wai's wartime accomplishments until reading a story about an Asian American UCLA student who went on a campaign to gain recognition for Francis Wai.  After reading about his heroics I thought Wai would be a natural for the UCLA athletic hall of fame, particularly in light of the ever growing Asian American student population at UCLA.   Consequently, I sent in hall of fame nomination papers for Francis Wai in consecutive years, but receiving no response.    Then a UCLA friend of mine mentioned that he had just joined the selection committee for the UCLA athletic hall of fame.  I thought to myself "Ha!  Finally I have an in to the process."  However, my friend told me that the hall of fame selection process was a very political one.  Many former UCLA athletes actively lobby for admission and all sorts of political pressure is exerted in choosing each year's class.  At that point I gave up hope of Wai ever making it to the hall of fame, so I was extremely pleased to read UCLA's announcement yesterday that Wai is in this year's class.

Recently, the Honolulu Star Advertiser printed an interesting article on the UCLA football team's visit to play at the University of Hawaii in 1939.  These days there's nothing at all unusual about mainland college football teams scheduling a game at Hawaii, so I never gave a second thought about UCLA's game there in 1939.  The article tells how the 1939 UCLA football team went to Honolulu by boat, which was a four day trip each way.  Besides two Wai Brothers, the 1939 UCLA football team had an unprecedented four African American football players, including three stars in Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode (later a well known character actor).  In contrast, most universities had zero black athletes in those days.  While USC had one black football player in the 1920s, they had none in the 30s or 40s decades.  So it was an interesting and historic visit which allowed Francis Wai to play before his hometown fans.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Rich Get Richer--New Dim Sum Contenders In Los Angeles

As far as the United States goes,  Los Angeles is hands down the best metropolitan area for dim sum.  Eliminating Hakkasan, which has locations in Beverly Hills,  Manhattan and San Francisco (though a lot of Hakkasan's dim sum has been eliminated in LA and New York due to lunch time closures), Los Angeles has the standout Sea Harbour, Elite, Lunasia and King Hua, San Francisco has Koi Palace and Yank Sing, and New York has nothing beyond Hakkasan in this category.  (Red Farm is excellent but it isn't dim sum.  The predecessor Chinatown Brasserie was in this class but was closed to make way for Red Farm.)

Now add two top notch dim sum contenders, both to the Los Angeles area collection.  China Red in Arcadia actually opened last year, but only converted to a full dim sum lunch service recently.  Indeed because of this two step path to dim sum service, China Red was off most people's radar until unmasked by Kristie Hang, the other 626 Foodette to Clarissa Wei, when she wrote her Ultimate Guide To San Gabriel Valley Dim Sum and listed China Red at the top.  Immediately everybody made the mad dash to Arcadia to see what Kristie was talking about.  And indeed, the dim sum at China Red was outstanding, particularly the golden lava bun, the baked bbq pork bun, the Macau egg tart, and the giant dumpling in soup.  Not as good as Sea Harbour, but certainly in the next tier.

More recently Shi Hai opened in Alhambra at the site where Blue Ocean (literally) blew up some three years ago, the original fire which landed emails in my inbox mere seconds apart and garnered live helicopter coverage on the TV news and posts on Chowhound.  Apparently Shi Hai was conceived with the goal of being top dim sum dog in town immediately upon opening.  While they failed in that quest, it still ranks up there near China Red, Lunasia and King Hua.

In doing a city to city comparison, New York is not in the conversation since they only have the ultra pricey Hakkasan (one LA food blogger who moved to New York doesn't even bother with dim sum there and saves his dim sum stomach for trips back home).  Of the other two cities, Los Angeles is far ahead of San Francisco.  The main reason is that all of the top Los Angeles area dim sum restaurants serve their wares off a menu, not carts.  While from historical/nostalgia point of view, many diners prefer cart dim sum, those only interested is the quality of the product unanimously go for menu dim sum for freshness.  In contrast, both Koi Palace and Yank Sing serve off carts, which is indeed a tribute to them for being able to produce such a high quality cart product.  A small number of Bay Area restaurants serve dim sum off the menu, with Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown being one of the best.   But in looking at the best dim sum restaurants in California, even the next lower tier of Los Angeles area restaurants such as Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights, Capital Seafood in Monrovia, Mission 261 in San Gabriel, and J Zhou in Tustin (all menu restaurants) are better than what's next best in the Bay Area after Koi Palace and Yank Sing.  Likewise, menu dim sum is almost unheard of in New York, but it's not surprising that the places that don't have carts (Hakkasan, Red Egg, Dim Sum Go Go) top the local options, though the latter two rank below even the third tier of California dim sum houses.

While nothing in California matches up to the best dim sum in Vancouver (Richmond BC) or Toronto (Richmond Hill-Markham-Scarborough) it's good enough to keep me very happy and isn't that far behind the Canadian rivals such that I no longer think about planning trips to Canada.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hungry For Chinese Food In Hungary

In my Menuism article from a year ago on the proclivity of many Chinese and Chinese American tourists to seek out Chinese food wherever they travel, even bad Chinese food, instead of sampling the local cuisine, I asked the rhetorical question "Who wants to eat Chinese food in Hungary?"  Having just returned from Hungary, I must now admit that I in fact ate Chinese food while I was there.

However, in so doing, I was not suffering from the "Chinese Stomach" which I described in the Menuism article.   Rather, it was due to combination of factors that happened to come together.  First of all, being known for racking up a large number of restaurants, I knew people would ask me about how much Chinese food I ate on our recent trip to Austria, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.   So while not going out of my way to eat Chinese food in lieu of local cuisine, I did want to try a Chinese restaurant or two on the trip.  Then, for our only meal on our own in Budapest, we ended up at a modern shopping mall, West End mall, since we figured there would be a food court with many choices.  However our selection was narrowed by the fact that we carried a negligible amount off Hungarian forint, requiring us to find an eatery that accepted credit cards.  And it would be helpful to find someplace that had an English language description of their offerings.  So when I found that Wok N Go Noodle House satisfied both counts, that was the place for me.

In addition, it really had the most attractive spread in the food court.  Probably a dozen and a half different choices in large steam trays, some of which where visually quite enticing.  The sesame chicken was extra large pieces of deep fried battered chicken with a glistening sauce and the breaded chicken cutlet were particularly noteworthy.  I ordered the stir fried turkey with vegetables, though as things turned out I'm thinking that might have been chicken, not turkey, and perhaps there was an error in translation (though other chicken dishes were properly described).  Strangely among the vegetables in the dish was wood ear fungus, something I've never ever seen in an Americanized Chinese fast food eatery.  I also ordered the sliced marinated tofu, again an item only found at authentic Chinese restaurants back here in the USA.  The surprising thing is that this meal was probably better than the food that you would get at many ordinary Americanized Chinese eateries.  I mean it wasn't Panda Express which is pretty good for what it is, but I've had a lot worse, particularly in locales with few, if any Chinese residents.

Interestingly there were two other Asian restaurants in the food court, a Thai restaurant and a generic Asian restaurant, and they both had similar breaded chicken dishes on display.  And a good portion of the non-Asian eateries had deep fried items for sale, including one which had something that looked like an entire deep fried sandwich.  I can only guess that these were all schnitzel related or inspired, and that the Asian chicken dishes just fit right in.   That plus the fact that after decades of deprivation during the communist years, Hungary seems to have adopted western fast food as their national cuisine.  (Or as our tour guide said, the best Hungarian food these days is in New York City).

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Las Vegas Chinese Food Revisited

Most of you have read the original posting on this blog, later expanded for the Menuism blog, dispelling the myth that the best Chinese restaurants in America are in Las Vegas.  The popularity of that item has been puzzling to me.  It was later republished by the Huffington Post, even though I didn't think there was anything particularly noteworthy about the article, and indeed less worthy of publication there than a number of other  Menuism articles that were not reprinted.  Then on their Las Vegas annual convention website, the American Library Association included a prominent link to the article on the list of things for their attendees to do while in Las Vegas.  And now the article has been picked up by Scribd, the noted online digital library website.  My only explanation is that this article has garnered interest because it represents the intersection of two very popular topics, Las Vegas and food, as opposed to being particularly interesting or well written in its own right.

I do want to add an addendum to this article to reflect my subsequent visit to Wing Lei Restaurant.  I seldom write about restaurants that I  had not actually eaten at, but I felt compelled to mention Wing Lei because of its general renown, plus the fact that it was a Michelin one star restaurant.  Also,  I was fairly comfortable with my comments about Wing Lei, since its menu was wholly Americanized with items like egg drop soup, sweet and sour pork, and General Tso's chicken, a clear indication that this restaurant would do nothing for the reputation of Chinese restaurants in Las Vegas.

Finally having had the opportunity to eat at Wing Lei, I am pleased to confirm that my suspicions about the restaurant were correct.   I will say just like Michelin, I did give Wing Lei one star, though mine was on a scale of five, on the Opentable website.  As taken directly from that site:
Wing Lei

  • "Wing Lei is probably the only Michelin starred Chinese restaurant in the western United States. Wonderful setting and great service, but the food is borderline awful. Unless food is secondary to you, save your money and go to Panda Express. Or if you insist on a pricey Chinese meal, head to Hakkasan."
Actually, my comments above were relatively kind compared to how I really felt.  I had ordered the General Tso's chicken and the duck salad, the former in honor of my cameo in The Search For General Tso and the screening at the TriBeCa film festival.  It is possible to make Americanized Chinese food taste good in an upscale setting.  I've experienced that at such places like Tommy Toy's and the Empress of China in San Francisco (even some of the stuff at Ruby Foo's in New York was tasty) and that's what I was sort of expecting at Wing Lei.  What I got was awful (there was no borderline).  I've had better gloppy chicken at buck-a-plate Chinese fast food steam table outlets in South Central Los Angeles than what they served at Wing Lei.

Virtually all the other diners give Wing Lei four or five stars, some praising the General Tso's chicken in particular.  So it's clear what the profile of their targeted diners are, and how little they know about Chinese food.