Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Seeds of My Chinese Restaurant List and A Childhood Puzzle Solved After 50 Years

I don't think that anybody familiar with my Chinese restaurant list would be surprised to learn that I've been making lists since I was a kid.  What may be surprising is that while I have only been keeping my restaurant list for a little over 25 years, I just discovered a connection to the first lists I remember making as a grade schooler in the late 1950s.

As a kid I was what might be described in today's parlance as an American geography and history geek.  And the first lists I kept were of the cities with the largest population, by state.  Not only based on census data which came out every 10 years.  But I also kept track of annual unofficial updates as reported by the Britannica Yearbook and other publications.  So what does this have to do with visiting and recording trips to Chinese restaurants?  Well in one way,  quite a bit.  Because of my fascination with American cities as a kid, when I finished school and started working and traveling on my own, I decided I wanted to visit as many of these cities and states as I could, and in large part regardless of whether there were any particular tourist attractions of note.  For me,  I was excited to visit Paducah, KY, just because it was Paducah, KY.  And from the beginning, as I had explained in numerous interviews and presentations, my interest in things Chinese American which I picked up in college led me to dine in Chinese restaurants whenever I  could.  While I didn't actually eat Chinese food in Paducah, that first solo out of state trip did lead me to two Chinese restaurants in Memphis and one in Clarksdale, MS, and I was on my way.  Indeed the very next year led to restaurant visits in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Sioux City, Hopkins, MN, Bloomington, Fargo, Houston, Washington DC and Philadelphia.

All this has come to my attention due to a happenstance event which reminded me of my old city population lists.  Sometime in the early 1960s I came across a puzzling listing of the most populous cities in Arizona.  Coming in fourth place after Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa with an estimated population of 10,000 was Amphitheater.  I had never seen a reference to Amphitheater in any previous population listing, and in those pre-internet days, a search of library materials for Amphitheater, Arizona came up with absolutely nothing.  I eventually gave up, assuming perhaps it was somebody's idea of a joke to list some stadium with 10,000 seats as the fourth largest city in Arizona when filled.  And occasionally in years subsequent, I would think about Amphitheater, but eventually resigned myself to treating this as a mystery that would never be solved.

But then just the other Saturday, it was a beautiful sunny day and I worked a half day in my Century City office.  I decided to take a slight detour from my usual path home over to Hollywood Blvd. just to gawk at the tourists taking in the sights on such a quintessential Southern California day.  And as I drove by the Madame Toussaud museum, there it was on the message board.  "Welcome Amphitheater High School."  As soon as I got home I dashed for my computer and did the search.  Amphitheater High School is in Tucson.  A further search showed Amphitheater, obviously not a separate incorporated city, had been used to describe an area of north Tucson since the late 19th century because the natural layout of the area was like an amphitheater.  Strange that in two visits to Tucson I never came across any reference to that community even though my visits to that city were well planned in advance.  I guess it just shows how much more difficult it was to access information of all types back in those pre-internet days.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Kentucky's Final Four Loss As Explained By John Wooden

Like everybody else I was surprised by Kentucky's 71-64 loss in the NCAA basketball championship semi-final game.  They were a perfect 38-0 this season, ranked #1 in the polls since the first week of the season, and had talent comparable to some NBA teams.  But I wasn't as surprised as most people, as I told my friends all week that there was one factor that could stop Kentucky from going all the way--that 38 game winning streak.

Everybody knows legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden both as one of the greatest coaches ever, and also as one of the most insightful minds ever associated with athletics with sagacious observations both as to life and athletics.  In my opinion the most insightful thing he said, and probably considered heretical by most people with associated sports is that under the proper circumstances, a loss may actually be a good thing for a competitor's experience.  In particular, when a team is on a long winning streak, he noted that the quality of its performance begins to diminish.  Wooden referred to winning streaks as becoming burdensome, which often leads up to an unexpected losing performance. It's not clear exactly why, but it's probably a combination of different factors.    Maybe the team starts playing not to lose, rather than trying to win, with keeping the streak alive becoming a distraction, whether conscious or not.  Maybe the team becomes overconfident.  Maybe opponents dig down deeper.  Maybe it's something totally subliminal.  And even if the team with the winning streak continues to win, quite often it's clear that the team is laboring under the pressure of the streak.  (Perhaps an explanation of Kentucky's close win over Notre Dame in its previous game.)  But whatever the reason, it is not unusual for teams on long winning streaks to stub their toe against an opponent that seemingly doesn't match up.

Now if the loss is suffered in a relatively meaningless game, the loss can be beneficial, as in today's parlance it's like hitting a reset button and you can again return to your former level of excellence.  But if that loss occurs in the sudden death NCAA tournament, it can't be remedied.  To me it's clear that if Kentucky had suffered a loss, say during the SEC tournament, that there's no way that anyone would have come close to them during the NCAA tournament and they would have sailed to the championship.

Of course things are a little more complicated than saying teams are more susceptible to a loss when on a winning streak, as there have been some impressive winning streaks in sports history.  One corollary rule is if you are vastly superior to your opponent, that opponent won't beat you no matter how badly you play.  Given that the college basketball season ends with the sudden death NCAA tournament, entering the tournament on a long winning streak is not a good thing, as the team will be facing a string of high calibre opponents.  No wonder why there hasn't been an undefeated NCAA basketball champion since 1976. (Remember that great unbeaten early 90s UNLV team?)  Another corollary is that consecutive wins from a prior season probably shouldn't count because each year's team is a different entity.  And of course, if two teams with long winning streaks meet, one of them will have to win.

Indeed one sees the effect of the winning streak phenomenon every year in college football.  Around the eighth week of the season there are often several unbeaten teams, many of which project out as going unbeaten for the rest of the year based on the calibre of their remaining opponents.  "Oh my gosh," pundits exclaim.  "It will be chaotic if the regular season ends with so many unbeaten teams."   But every year the season ends, and there's usually no more than one unbeaten team left, the others suffering upset losses at the hand of underdogs.

So yes, a loss can be therapeutic.  In John Wooden's last season as UCLA coach in 1975, they suffered a humiliating 21 point loss to a mediocre Washington team near the end of the regular season.  Now they weren't on a long winning streak at the time. But after that loss many observers concluded that the 1975 UCLA team wasn't that good and it wasn't going far in the NCAA tournament.  But indeed that team did win it all with some great play in the NCAA tournament.

John Wooden was also remarkable because he really didn't care whether his teams won or not, just that they played to their potential, so different from the winning is everything mentality we see all over sports.  And perhaps it is this mentality that obscures the truth that a loss might just do you good under the right circumstances, and help you win when it really counts.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Best Chinese Restaurant Names

Since Los Angeles Times Reporter Frank Shyong's Analysis of Chinese restaurant names in my Excel Chinese restaurant listing has just been republished, this is a good time for me to recount some of my favorite Chinese restaurant names.  Despite the safety zone that Frank referred to in his article, there are also a number of Chinese restaurants with unusual, if not inexplicable names.  Sometimes things get lost in translation.  For example, in my interview in the food documentary The Search For General Tso, I mention the oddly named Strange Taste Restaurant which operated for a number of years at the intersection of Henry St. and Catherine St. in New York Chinatown.   I presume they were using "strange taste" in a good manner, to distinguish themselves from run of the mill Chinese restaurants, not knowing that strange tasting food was never good.   Along the same lines is Smelly Pot in Industry, in the San Gabriel Valley.  The name describes the restaurant's signature dishes which are all infused with the Taiwanese favorite, fermented, a.k.a. stinky tofu. But to us native English speakers, somehow that just doesn't do it.  And in a similar category are the departed Burrrp Cafe in Alhambra, Quantity and Quality Kitchen in Temple City (later shortened to Q&Q) and Fuzhou Manual Fish Ball in Rowland Heights (they meant hand made fish balls).

One recently closed restaurant I wonder about was Porkaroma, a food court based pork specialist in nearby Rowland Heights.   My initial thought was that they were using the "rama" suffix (e.g., Futurama), but got mixed up.  But would an immigrant restaurant owner be familiar with "rama", and perhaps might they really be enticed by the aroma of pork?  I guess we'll never know.

Then there are those Chinese restaurants whose names would ordinarily imply anything but Chinese food.  My favorites in this category are Bavarian Garden in Oakland, O'Toole's Roadhouse in Rowland Heights, and The Viking's Table in West Los Angeles, again all now closed.  But these restaurant names are easy to explain.  Whoever opened these restaurants merely kept the name of the previous restaurant at that location.  This is not an unusual practice, motivated perhaps by the desire to minimize the costs of changing signage or printing new business cards.  This may also explain why Hong Kong Palace in suburban Washington DC serves top notch authentic Sichuan style food despite the apparent incongruity in the name.   Indeed, some Chinese restaurants take this a step further, by taking over an existing restaurant location, changing the name of the restaurant on legal records, menus etc., but NOT changing the exterior signage on the building.  We've seen that occur with relative frequency, again most likely as a cost cutting measure, at least until the success of the restaurant has been ensured and it pays to have the correct name outside.  But it sure makes it difficult for those of us searching for newly opened restaurants, as a simple drive-by isn't sufficient to indicate that a new restaurant has opened.

Of course, we've all seen Chinese restaurant menus mangle the English language, but you would expect that somebody would advise a restaurant to use real English words in the name.  But that didn't stop Authletic Dumpling House from opening up in New York Chinatown or Noodl Cafe in San Gabriel.   In one case they got the individual words right, but somehow when put together, Bake Are We Cafe in Artesia, CA doesn't work.  They may have avoided a lawsuit from Toys R Us, but it probably wasn't worth the resulting head scratching.  Of course, a nonexistent word can turn out to be clever, as was the case with Cuisineer Six in the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino.

Then there are the names which are inexplicable, perhaps randomly chosen because an English language name is required for legal purposes.  How would you explain the Shanghai style restaurant in Rowland Heights called Suit Ur Buds, the Taiwanese restaurant in San Gabriel, Why Thirsty, Auction Chinese Food in Colton, CA, or Go Believe in Manhattan Chinatown?   

But my favorite Chinese restaurant name of all is the seemingly innocuous Rivera Cafe, which operated in San Gabriel.  Yes, Rivera is a fairly commonplace name.  But why would a Chinese restaurant call itself Rivera, which is a Hispanic surname?  My best guess is that they didn't know how to spell Riviera.  But there's always the possibility that they were big fans of Geraldo. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Are There So Many Chinese Restaurants Named Fuleen? And Why Haven't Most Of You Ever Seen One?

Fuleen Restaurant, on Division Street in Manhattan Chinatown, is one of the better Chinese seafood restaurants in New York City, and one of the more enduring restaurants in the Little Fuzhou section of Chinatown east of Bowery.  When I first went there a dozen years ago I didn't pay any attention to the name, since Chinese restaurants often have odd names, particularly when not catering to non-Chinese diners.  Then about 10 years later I ran into Fuleen Palace in Howard Beach in Queens which serves Americanized Chinese food, and I started to wonder--did this restaurant have a common owner with the one in Manhattan Chinatown?  However that theory went down the drain when  I started seeing similar variations, such as Chen Fulin Kwok in Brooklyn Chinatown and Fully Bakery in Elmhurst.  At that point the question of what Fuleen or its variations stood for started to drive me crazy on two different accounts.

Besides these Fuleen restaurants, an internet search then pulled up many, many other "Fuleen" Restaurants  as well as its phonetic equivalent, "Fulin".   There's actually a chain of Chinese restaurants with that name in Tennessee and Alabama.  And there are other variations, such as FuLoon, Fullin, and who knows what else.  The first strange thing is that the word Fuleen only seems to be associated with Chinese restaurants in the eastern United States.  Mention Fuleen to anybody on the West Coast and you get blank stares.   The second factor is the dozens of Fuleen, Fulin, etc. restaurants  all seem to have opened quite recently, certainly just in this century.

The fact that all of the Fuleen restaurants are located in the eastern United States does provide a major clue to the origin.  As I wrote in my Menuism article on Monday night wedding banquets in Manhattan Chinatown, there is a network of Chinese restaurant owners and workers tethered to the Fujianese community in the eastern part of Manhattan Chinatown.  Quite possibly, the name Fuleen and its deriviations is an indication of ownership by Chinese originally from Fujian Province in China, who passed through Manhattan Chinatown and rode the bus network from there to places all over the eastern half of the United States. Since the Fujianese did not make their presence felt in the United States until the 1990s, that would explain the lack of pre-existing use of the Fuleen name.  This was a good theory, but was this really the answer?

In search of a solution I asked for thoughts from the participants of the Chowhound message boards. 
It turns out that the Chinese name for Fuleen Restaurant 富臨 has no English equivalent, but is a term that connotes wealth and joy.  There is nothing particularly Fujianese about the use of the term, but for whatever reason it now appears to have been adopted by Fujianese restaurant owners, much like previously generations of Chinese restaurant owners gave names like Golden Palace or Silver & Gold Amazing to their eateries.  While there is no smoking gun confirming this conclusion, given that Fuleen doesn't have a specific technical meaning, it's consistent with the current domination of Fujianese restauranteurs in the east, south and midwest.   And at this point there's really no other explanation.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

If The Government Only Had A Brain

We live in an area of the Hollywood Hills called The Oaks.  It’s a community of over 300 homes, adjacent to Griffith Park, between the observatory and the Hollywood sign.  Thanks to a rockslide in Griffith Park some 25 years ago, there is no access to the San Fernando Valley on the other side of the Hollywood sign, so there are no Waze driven commuters going through the community.  Brad Pitt has his US compound in the Oaks, and over the decades notables from Will and Ariel Durant to Cary Grant and Randolph Scott’s bachelor mansion to Diane Keaton, Vince Vaughn, Jason Priestly, Flea, Nicolas Cage (before his real estate empire crumbled) and Adam Levine have rotated in and out of the neighborhood.

There are two main entrances to the Oaks, the Fern Dell Griffith Park entrance on Los Feliz Blvd., and Bronson Ave. at Franklin Ave. on the western end.  While there are other streets which could be theoretically used for access to the Oaks, only the two main entrances have traffic signals, and without a traffic signal it’s nearly impossible to cross Franklin Ave.   Recently the Bronson Ave. entrance has seen extreme traffic delays at times, leading to a community outcry for amelioration.  I’m guessing that the increase in traffic might be from cars using Bronson Ave. as an access route to the Hollywood sign, which despite traffic signs to the contrary, can be reached by turning up Hollyridge Dr., and which GPS toting tourists have finally discovered.   That and all the hipsters hanging out at the Oaks Gourmet, jammed whether it's 10:30 am or 2 pm (don't those people have jobs?), plus Gelsons and the Scientology Center at the same intersection. 

The neighborhood and city councilman Tom La Bonge came up with a perfect solution–install a traffic signal at Van Ness Ave and Franklin Ave. to provide a third entry point.  Besides relieving pressure on Bronson Ave., Van Ness Ave. ends right at Hollywood freeway onramp, which would give Oaks residents a straight shot onto the freeway.  Congratulations were in order, and all that was needed was approval by the Los Angeles City Traffic Department.  So guess what?  The Traffic Department turned down the signal request because there wasn’t enough traffic to justify the signal--nobody was crossing Franklin Ave. on Van Ness.  Well d’oh.  Of course not.  Because without a signal you’d wait forever to cross Franklin at Van Ness, so few drivers are stupid enough to take that route.  But government is too stupid to figure that out.    

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Proof Los Angeles Chinese Food Is Superior To That Of New York

As anybody who has eaten Chinese food both in the San Gabriel Valley and in New York knows,  San Gabriel Valley Chinese food is far superior.  However, there are numerous New Yorkers who have never been in the San Gabriel Valley, and hence find it implausible that anything can be better than their Chinese food.  I tried to tell them that in my Top 10 Chinese Restaurants in the United States article that included no New York restaurants, and ended up with the internet version of being tarred and feathered by irate New Yorkers.  Furthermore, given that New York has a greater Chinese population than either Los Angeles or San Francisco, the thought of either of those California cities being superior in Chinese food to New York is that much more unbelievable to the doubting New Yorkers.

Fortunately, renown food writer Clarissa Wei has come to the rescue in her article "How Los Angeles Became A Powerhouse For Chinese Food".   Her well written and thoroughly researched article documents the underlying reasons why Los Angeles has the best Chinese food in the country and why New York doesn't.  Interestingly, my first contact with Clarissa was around three years ago on this precise topic.  Clarissa was a Californian who had gone to Manhattan to attend New York University, and who began writing food stories for The Village Voice in New York and L.A. Weekly back home.  While she had a general sense that New York Chinese food was inferior, that's not exactly the type of article you'd want to submit to The Village Voice.  In the course of our correspondence concerning the comparative status of New York and Los Angeles Chinese food, I happened to mention to Clarissa about my 6,000 Chinese restaurant visits and accompanying Excel schedule and she immediately jumped on that topic, interviewing me in person and writing the L.A. Weekly profile that quickly jumped to Huffington Post, and then news and celebrity websites not only in the United States, but also Asia, Europe, Africa and who knows where else around the world.

Three years later Clarissa has written the definitive article on the topic.  In my short Menuism article on why New York Chinese food lagged California I briefly mentioned demographic factors distinguishing the New York and Los Angeles Chinese communities, such as the presence of large numbers of wealthy Chinese immigrants and their food centric "626 Generation" progeny.  Clarissa fleshes out these topics and discusses other factors, such as the arrival of highly trained chefs from China, a Chinese language foodie social media network (one Chinese language Facebook group devoted to spotting new Chinese restaurants has 4,800 members),  and competition of multiple emerging regional cuisines which raise the Chinese food bar in Los Angeles on an ongoing basis.  Clarissa notes that the 626 Night Market attracted a crowd of 40,000 on its opening night, and I may add gummed up Los Angeles freeway traffic for hours.  

While I certainly didn't need any convincing, Clarissa's article paints a picture which shows the stark difference between Los Angeles and New York Chinese food, and while there is unquestionably lots of good Chinese food in New York, and the Chinese food is particularly diversifying in Flushing, there is more and better outstanding Chinese food in Los Angeles.  We are literally in the midst of a Chinese food frenzy in Los Angeles, so the Chinese food in Los Angeles had better be the best in the country.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Wonders Never Cease--The Search For General Tso in Theaters and Video on Demand

When I happened to be in New York last April when The Search For General Tso played at the Tribeca Film Festival, as I was looking at myself on the screen I tried to savor the moment thinking I might never view the film again.  After all, it appeared to be a struggle to get the film completed and onto the festival circuit, and I imagined the most we could hope for was an eventual DVD release, and I considered that a longshot.  Consequently it was a pleasant surprise last month to learn that the film had been picked up for limited distribution by Sundance Select, to begin showing in theaters starting on January 2, as well as video on demand.

Of course I still wondered whether the movie would play anywhere near me, so I was pleased that Arena Theater, a small art house in Hollywood near my home, was showing the movie from January 2 through January 8.  Furthermore, they scheduled a special screening this past Sunday with a bonus Q&A session with film producer Jennifer 8 Lee, hosted by KCRW food personality Evan Kleinman and Midtown Lunch blogger Zach Brooks.  It was a sold out crowd (which meant about 100 people in this small venue) and a great event.  I had been interviewed by Evan on her Good Food radio show a couple of years ago, right after Clarissa Wei's L.A. Weekly piece on my Chinese restaurant adventures  and had a nice chat with her before the screening.  Also I was looking forward to meeting Jennifer 8 Lee and Zach Brooks, but I didn't get to speak with either before the screening.

Watching the movie for the second time was in a way more interesting, since at Tribeca I was preoccupied waiting for my three minute appearance to arrive,  while this time I could give full attention to the movie's content. At the start of the post-screening Q&A I was surprised that Zack Brooks said he wanted to introduce a "celebrity" in the audience (which I did figure out was me, since I'm in the film), since I still hadn't spoken to him yet.  So even though the theater was fairly dark, I stood up and waved.  One guy in the audience yelled out "How do you stay so slim despite going to so many Chinese restaurants?"  I gave my standard "exercise and portion control" response.

After the Q&A, while most everybody else headed straight for the General Tso's chicken being served in the patio, I went on the stage to speak with Zack Brooks and Jennifer 8 Lee.  While waiting for Jennifer to free up, one of the other people waiting to talk to her asked me how I managed to eat at 6,000 restaurants, since that seemed to be such a daunting number.  Since it's a common question, I replied that if you do the math that's a restaurant a day every day for 17 years, but that I've been doing this for a lot more than 17 years.  I also explained that I eat up to four meals a day when I travel out of town, each at a different restaurant.  When I finally got to talk to Jennifer she gave me a warm greeting, and while I'm sure most people compliment her on her Fortune Cookie Chronicles book, I told her how much I enjoyed her New York Times articles on the Chinese community in New York ten years ago, and how they gave me such an insight.  After the screening, I got to meet Chowhound posters Mr. Taster and Dommy! and chat with a number of audience members on things like my most interesting restaurant find (Creasian in white bread Springfield, MO).  I would have liked to stay longer, but we had a family dinner scheduled and had to rush off.

Being in this movie was truly an adventure.  It was illuminating in seeing the process of making a movie, documentary or otherwise, which is such a time consuming and unpredictable process.  Two years after being interviewed for two hours, three minutes of the interview makes it to the screen, and which three minutes are included was from my point of view a random thing, so random that until the second viewing I couldn't tell you what I talked about in the movie.   I'm certainly not complaining at all since when I was interviewed by Ian Cheney and his crew at Mission 261 restaurant in San Gabriel, they arrived after I did because they had  just come from a prior interview in Pasadena with the founders of Panda Express at their headquarters--which didn't make it into the movie at all.

An interesting sidelight was that after the Tribeca screening, the movie was catalogued in the Internet Movie Data Base and I was given credit as being part of the "cast", and even being mentioned by named in the Variety review of the movie.  Unfortunately, IMDB confused me with a real actor named David Chan, who gained a small measure of fame in the 1990s Ninja Turtles movies, so I'm sure  he was puzzled to find The Search For General Tso listed as one of his credits.  However, with this year's theatrical release the IMDB entry cut out most of the interviewees from the cast listing, so it's off his resume now.  However the movie industry site The Numbers got it right, giving me my own page and listing me with one "acting credit".