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".

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can The Westside of Los Angeles Support Great Authentic Chinese Food?

One of the factors in my becoming willing to drive significant distances for Chinese food was working for 30 years on the Westside of Los Angeles.   When I first showed up for work there it was a wasteland as far as Chinese food was concerned.  Chinese food was defined by restaurants such as Wan Q, Kowloon, Madame Wu, Twin Dragon and Jade West.  Consequently I became quite used to making the trek from my Century City office to Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley at lunch time back in the days when it was a breeze to drive across town at lunch.

More recently it has been posited that if a signature San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant were to open somewhere in West LA, that they would clean up.  This is based on a perceived increase in the sophistication of Westsiders towards Chinese food, as well as a larger Chinese Westside presence including a large Chinese student population at UCLA.  However, others have replied to the contrary with words like don't be fooled by the number of knowledgeable Westsiders who understand and appreciate San Gabriel Valley Chinese food as indicated by their participation in Chinese restaurant discussions on message boards such as Chowhound.   In reality, the argument goes, there really aren't enough such Westsiders to actually support a branch of a high quality authentic Chinese restaurant on that side of town.  This position seems to be supported by the fact that while there is certainly a large amount of discussion of top San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants by non-Chinese commentators, if you actually walk into any of those restaurants, the presence of non-Chinese diners is negligible.

Thus it was with great anticipation that Newport Seafood, one of the very most popular Chinese (actually Chinese/Vietnamese) restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley was opening up a branch on La Cienega's Restaurant Row.  To Westsiders, the impending opening of the restaurant was earthshaking news, and would prove that the Westside's taste for Chinese food had matured to the point where one no longer had to make the trek to Monterey Park or San Gabriel to get the real thing.  Perhaps New Port Seafood (notice the variation in the name of the Beverly Hills branch) would be followed by other San Gabriel Valley heavyweights.  Din Tai Fung?  Sea Harbour?  Why not?

However, so far, things have not gone as planned.  It was widely expected that when it opened, New Port Seafood would be one of the toughest tickets in town.  But even at the very beginning the restaurant was never full.  In fear of the crowds, I had deferred my first visit until a month after opening.  When I arrived, was I surprised.  Only one or other two tables were occupied the entire time we were there.  Subsequent reports indicate crowds have not improved on weekday afternoons, despite the fact that the food at New Port Seafood in Beverly Hills is quite good.

This is not to say that there is not good authentic Chinese food on the Westside.  Certainly Hakkasan in Beverly Hills is as good as it gets, but it's also as expensive as it gets and seems to be aimed at the expense account crowd.  A number of other authentic Chinese restaurants are doing OK on the Westside--Meizhou Dongpo, the first branch of a Beijing based chain, in Century City, Mandarin Kitchen and Qin West on Westwood Blvd., ROC and M J Cafe Express on the Sawtelle corridor, and Formerly California Wok on Wilshire, to name some of them.    But the disappointing reaction to New Port Seafood still seems to indicate that the Westside still isn't ready for prime time.

Note that about 20 years ago there were similar hopes for authentic Chinese food on the Westside.  J.R. Seafood, a true Hong Kong style seafood restaurant opened up on Santa Monica Blvd., followed by VIP Harbor Seafood (a branch of San Gabriel's Harbor Seafood) on Wilshire Blvd., and Royal Star (a branch of Monterey Park's Ocean Star) in Santa Monica.  Indeed, those three restaurants were of equivalent quality to the existing Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, and in fact observers thought VIP Harbor Seafood was better than the San Gabriel original.   But alas, VIP Harbor and J.R. Seafood have been replaced by watered down successors, and the Royal Star location is no longer even a Chinese restaurant.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Congress Shouldn't Be Allowed To Pass Tax Laws

Yes, I know that sounds silly since it's Congress' job to enact all kinds  of legislation, including tax laws.  However the manner in which they have done their job when it comes to taxation indicates a basic inability to properly carry this out.  Today, they enacted legislation governing the treatment of several dozen tax items for the year 2014.  Yes, two weeks before the end of the year they establish the rules that apply for the entire year.  Or to put it another way, affected taxpayers did not know during most of 2014 what the tax law treatment would ultimately be for these items. 

Making this more ridiculous is the fact that many of these tax provisions are incentives, intended to encourage taxpayers to make certain types of expenditures.  This includes credits and deductions for spending money on research and development, to develop alternative energy sources, to invest in new equipment, and so on.  And what kind of incentive is it if you award it after most of the year has passed and taxpayers have already decided to incur or not incur those expenditures?  Perhaps the most egregious example is this year's tax credit for energy efficient windows.  Not only is this "incentive" given retroactively to purchases already made in 2014, but almost every window sold in the United States today qualifies for the tax credit.  Talk about money for nothing!

And oh yeah.  Because it was well known that Congress might or might not enact these provisions, the IRS can't issue tax forms for 2014, and until the tax forms are issued, taxpayers can't file their tax returns.  Is this any way to run a tax system?  Of course not.  But does Congress care?  Of course not.  They do this at the end of every year.  Today's changes expire at December 31, 2014.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Are There So Few Chinese Buffets in Los Angeles?

People in Los Angeles may not be aware of it, but there aren’t a lot of Chinese buffets in Los Angeles when compared to other parts of the country.  Yes, there are probably a few dozen Chinese buffet restaurants in Los Angeles county.  But when one sees the numbers of Chinese buffet restaurants in other parts of the country and compares them on a per capita basis to Los Angeles, the differential is startling. 

Recently visiting Gainesville, FL, I passed a half dozen Chinese buffets in my half hour drive around town.  With a population of 120,000, that would project out to 500 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, based on a population of 10 million in Los Angeles county.   Or about 10 years ago, when in Kilgore, TX, I saw three Chinese buffet restaurants in this town of 15,000.  That ratio would result in 2,000 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, a number which likely would exceed the total number of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles, which has a half million Chinese residents.

So why are Chinese buffets so relatively scarce in Los Angeles?  Offhand I can think of a few reasons.  First of all, to a large extent, a Chinese buffet is a lowest common denominator as far as Chinese food is concerned.  Many of these Chinese buffets are in cities having a small Chinese population, and where the local residents are not as sophisticated as to Chinese food.   As such, Chinese buffets are well suited to serve the types of dishes that unsophisticated diners are used to, like chow mein, fried rice and broccoli beef, and as such represent a higher percentage of Chinese restaurants in those communities.   Indeed, if you look at other locales with larger Chinese populations and a higher level of community sophistication as to Chinese food, such as San Francisco and Manhattan, you find that Chinese buffets are also not as common.     Also, buffets are part of the longstanding image that equates Chinese food with economical dining with their emphasis on low cost ingredients, which was one of the initial appeals of Chinese food to American audiences.    Less obviously, geographic areas with a higher density of Chinese buffets are also within the Fujianese restaurant worker diaspora, with an extremely large supply of willing Chinese restaurant workers and restaurant owners.

Still it’s surprising not to see more Chinese buffets in Los Angeles.  With a large Chinese population sporting a culture that both enjoys food and getting your money’s worth, one would expect to find a good number of Chinese buffets serving authentic Chinese food.  But while such restaurants do exist, there are but a handful of them.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Proponents Of Sharply Higher Minimum Wage Are Incredibly Naive

Here on the west coast a number of cities are talking about increasing the minimum wage substantially over current levels, with amounts of $15 an hour or more being bandied about.  The simplistic argument is that raising the minimum wage means minimum wage workers will have a lot more money to spend, boosting the economy.  However, somehow having earned a bachelors degree in Economics eons ago, I can tell you that things are not that simple. 

First of all, for the most part, businesses are conduits for costs, i.e., the prices they charge are equal to their costs plus a small profit margin.   While many people have this idea that business profits are a large percentage of how much businesses charge for their products and services, that is usually not the case.  For example, historically supermarkets earn a net profit of 1% to 2% (i.e., 1 to 2 cents per dollar of sales).  Restaurant net profits run 3% to 5% of sales, and averaged about 1% of sales during the great recession.  (And how many people know that in the entire history of the airline industry, commercial airlines have a cumulative net loss?)  The corollary to this is that a significant increase in the minimum wage will by definition be passed on in its entirety to consumers in higher prices.  So any increase in the minimum wage will in reality come out of your pocket and my pocket.

Of course there's nothing necessarily wrong with that scenario.  It might me worth it for you and me to help finance a higher wage for low paid workers.  But alas, things are more complicated than that.  In economics there's a concept of marginal utility.  Basically economic inputs, such as labor, are priced at how much they are worth, and there is a limit as to how much any particular economic input is worth.  And frankly there are a lot of jobs out there that aren't worth $15 an hour to the employer, so for these jobs raising the minimum wage to $15 will not raise that worker's pay, but rather will send him straight to the unemployment line.  If this sounds like economic gobbledygook, check out this article on potential changes in the fast food industry.  While McDonald's is one of the major targets of the $15 minimum wage advocates, the fact is that McDonald's is hurting with unprecedented declines in earnings.  And raising the minimum wage sharply will mean that technologies that didn't make sense with a $8 minimum wage will suddenly become a no-brainer with a $15 minimum wage.  Or how can a hole in the wall family owned Chinese restaurant afford to pay its dishwashers and busboys $15 an hour?  Maybe they can't and they'll be driven out of business with a higher minimum wage.

So as the old saying admonishes, be careful of what you wish for.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Yelp Star Ratings For Chinese Restaurants Don't Fly

In my previous posting on the best Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles according to Yelp, I pointed out how the two highest Yelp ratings went to two hole-in-the-wall nondescript restaurants in mid-City Los Angeles that served Americanized Chinese food.  Granted that most of the really good Chinese restaurants in the region are outside of the city of Los Angeles, located in the many cities of the San Gabriel Valley.  But the fact is that Wah's Golden Hen on Virgil and Sea Dragon on Vermont  with 4½ stars each score higher on Yelp than most all of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.  This is what I described as the comparability fallacy on Yelp, i.e., the people rating Wah's Golden Hen were a completely different group from those rating Sea Harbour in Rosemead, likely the best Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area.

But the fact is that people giving ridiculously high ratings to places like Wah's Golden Hen are only half of the equation.  The other part of the equation is that while the San Gabriel Valley has many of the great Chinese restaurants in the United States, the best of these do not have more than 3½ Yelp stars.  From my listing of the top 10 Chinese restaurants in the US, I rate Sea Harbour in Rosemead at #2 (and likely #1 in the dim sum category).  But it only has 3½ Yelp stars.  Numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6 in my national list, Elite in Monterey Park, and King Hua, Lunasia and Chengdu Taste in Alhambra?  All 3½ stars.      

This is not to say that there are no higher rated Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.  Newport Seafood and Boston Lobster rate at 4½ stars, while New Bay Seafood garners 4 stars.  But all three of these restaurants are lobster specialists, which may well indicate that lobster is its own demographic when it comes to Yelp ratings.   And there are a number of other 4 star Yelp rated Chinese restaurants in the area, including the well deserved Savoy in Alhambra, but also in Alhambra the horrid Sam Woo BBQ.

So why are the ratings for many San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants lower than should be expected?  It's hard to say but a few things come to mind.   First of all there are low reviews from non-Chinese diners who may not know what to order, or who do not appreciate truly good authentic Chinese food.  There are people who downgrade for non-culinary reasons such as service (what do you expect at a Chinese restaurant?), higher than average price, or parking.   But what I think might be the hidden key is that while the Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is the best in the United States, it does not compare to Chinese food overseas.  As a result, I'm guessing many of the Chinese diners in the San Gabriel Valley are giving ratings when comparing to food they've eaten in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and other locales.   But whatever the reason, be aware that Yelp ratings for Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles are badly off kilter.