Saturday, September 5, 2015

Déjà Vu All Over Again for Los Angeles Chinatown Dining

With the arrival of Roy Choi’s Chego, Little Jewel of New Orleans, Scoops, Pok Pok Thai, and Champ Ramen and the forthcoming large Pok Pok, Chinatown is once again a dining destination, albeit not particularly for Chinese food.  But this is not Los Angeles Chinatown’s first dining renaissance as once before it had emerged from its dining slumber to be a culinary hot spot.

While it is natural to lump Los Angeles Chinatown with other historic core city Chinatowns like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Vancouver and many others, in reality Los Angeles Chinatown is uniquely different.  That’s because today’s Chinatown in Los Angeles began as a Hollywood set like tourist only attraction with wishing wells, touristy restaurants and gift shops in a plaza like setting, but virtually no Chinese people actually living in the area.   Yes, Los Angeles did once have a real historic central city Chinatown, but that was leveled in 1933 to make way for the Union Station.  While civic do-gooders thought they were providing two separate suitable replacements in New Chinatown on North Broadway and China City on North Spring, virtually all of old Chinatown’s residents moved out of the downtown area, leaving Los Angeles without a real Chinatown for a good three decades.  From its opening in the late 1930s through the 1960s, New Chinatown dining was largely tourist oriented.  As I kid the only time I ever went to Chinatown was for an occasional banquet at one of New Chinatown’s or Spring Street’s (the two districts had not yet merged to form today’s Chinatown) larger restaurants such as Hong Kong Low, Lime House, General Lee’s, Grand Star, New Hung Far, Golden Pagoda or New Grand East.  We otherwise didn’t go to Chinatown to eat.  Rather whenever we ate out it would be in one of the San Pedro St. City Produce Market (the real Chinatown of that era that few outsiders know about) Chinese restaurants such as New Moon, Man Fook Low, Paul’s Kitchen or Moon Palace (which subsequent became On Luck).

Then came the game changer, the 1965 repeal of the restrictions on Chinese immigration to the United States.   With the influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, New Chinatown saw its first critical mass of Chinese residents, and restaurants serving a more modern type of Cantonese food sprang up in Chinatown in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Phoenix Inn, Won Kok Center and Golden Dragon.  Meanwhile, Grandview Gardens captured the imagination of Angelinos, both Chinese and non-Chinese, who swarmed the restaurant on Sunday mornings for their dim sum service.   Miriwa upped the ante by opening  its newfangled dim sum service on carts in 1976 on the second floor of Chunsan Plaza (currently occupied by Ocean Seafood).    

Los Angeles Chinatown reached its first culinary zenith in the 1980s as restaurants filled the street to street Food Center between Broadway and Hill St.  Mon Kee on Spring Street may have been the first Chinatown restaurant to serve Hong Kong style seafood, though it was soon left to the downtown lunch crowd.   But in 1984 ABC Seafood stepped in and introduced advanced Hong Kong seafood cuisine in the old Lime House location, for over a decade serving the best Chinese food in Los Angeles, if not the nation.   However later in the 1980s Monterey Park, and then the rest of the San Gabriel Valley gradually overtook Chinatown, to the point that there is nothing close to a destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown today.  Indeed, as far as Los Angeles Chinatown is concerned, the best known restaurant may be the touristy Yang Chow with its slippery shrimp, which annually wins  the "Best Chinese Restaurant" award from downtown office workers.. 

Ironically ground zero for Chinatown’s second renaissance is the old Food Center complex, since renamed Far East Plaza, as over the years fewer and fewer eating places populated the center’s premises.  But now, housing Chego, Pok Pok Thai, Scoops and Champ Ramen (as well as the pop-up cat cafe), it really has become a food center again.  Or like Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.    

Monday, August 3, 2015

Me And General Tso

Monday, July 6, 2015

Stumbling Onto Chinese Food in New Zealand

While I intended to dine on some Chinese food during our recent trip to New Zealand and Australia, I knew that being part of a tour group would severely hamper my ability to do any real exploration for Chinese food since free time was limited and I would be restricted by the location of the tour hotel.  Indeed, I assumed my best, and perhaps only opportunity would be on a free day in Sydney, where our hotel was going to be within walking distance of Chinatown.  Never did I expect to register successful Chinese meals in three of the five nights we spent in New Zealand.

The first meal literally dropped into our lap as it was our tour group welcome dinner at Eight Restaurant in the Langham Hotel in Auckland.  Now, Eight could be the name of a Chinese restaurant, since eight is a lucky number to Chinese, with numerous 88 and 888 Restaurants in existence.  However it was unlikely that the only restaurant in Langham’s Auckland location would be Chinese.  Furthermore, they explained that “eight” refers to eight different styles of preparation the restaurant used.  The tour guide said it was all you can eat, but not a buffet because your food was cooked to order.  But as it turns out the tour guide was wrong, because it really was a buffet, and the cook to order component was really just the teppan grill we see at many Chinese buffets in California.  And while it was technically not a Chinese buffet since that term wasn’t used and there were Chinese and non-Chinese food items, it was technically a Chinese buffet because it was full of items that Chinese people like, and restaurants with a similar food lineup do call themselves Chinese buffets.  It was no surprise therefore that at least three-quarters of the customers were Asian.  Most obviously was the dim sum station, with one of my favorites, the now seldom seen beef siu mai. There was the meat grill with prime beef and pork cuts in addition to alpaca, kangaroo, ostrich and venison choices.  There was a separate seafood grill with six kinds of fish, as well as clams, shrimp and other kinds of seafood.  There was an Indian station too, with goat masala, as well as lamb, chicken, and vegetarian choices.  Other stations served  raw oysters, mussels, and a decent dessert spread.  But while it was fun eating there, at about $75 US per person it really wasn’t worthwhile, because the flavor of the food was not at all outstanding.   But that sure didn’t stop all those Chinese diners.

The next meal in the tourist town of Rotaruo was even more improbable.  At least Auckland has a large Chinese population and indeed we drove through their budding Chinatown on the way from the airport into town.   But Rotaruo did not have the same concentration of Chinese residents, and what Asian influence there was in that city appeared to be heavily Korean.  Having walked through most of the downtown area early in the day, we were actually headed to Carl’s Jr. for dinner as that seemed to be the most likely venue near the hotel.  But on the way over there we passed a place called Hong Kong City Takeaway, so I stopped in poked my head in thinking I could supplement my Carl’s meal with something from here.  My attention was drawn to a picture of crab with black bean sauce, which indicated this wasn’t a typical tourist Chinese spot.  Then I looked up on the wall and saw a blackboard with several dozen items written in Chinese without translation.   As it turned out, we had stumbled into an authentic Chinese restaurant.  We were lucky that it was very early and the restaurant was empty, as that enabled us to talk to the guy behind the counter and get an idea of exactly what he served.  When we asked him about what kind of vegetables he had, he went back in the kitchen and brought out gai lan and on choy to show us.  When we asked about what kind of fish he used, he reached under the counter, grabbed a supermarket ad, and pointed to the basa ad.  We ended up staying and had the curry fish, tofu chicken, and Chinese broccoli with beef.  All three dishes were quite good, and as we ate our meal we saw numerous Chinese patrons coming in for takeway.  Interestingly a couple of doors up the street was a place called Chopsticks Restaurant, which we had actually spotted at a distance at lunch time, which had extensive Chinese writing on a signboard outside of the restaurant.  But passing this restaurant after finishing our meal, we saw that Chopsticks was totally empty, so Hong Kong City was clearly the real find;.

Our last New Zealand stop was the ski resort town of Queenstown, which personally reminded me of Vail, CO.  I was walking down the street when I spotted the sign “Queenie’s Dumplings” which made me wonder whether there might be an authentic Chinese restaurant in this ski resort.  A couple of the other Chinese restaurants in town, Madam Woo and Lakeside Palace seem to be westernized, but dumplings aren’t normally associated with westernized Chinese food.  And indeed, Queenie carried a full line of dumplings, as well as noodle soup dishes.  The mixed Asian and non-Asian kitchen staff did raise some questions, but the majority Chinese clientele was sufficient validation.  The chicken and corn dumplings (which can hardly be found in Los Angeles) and the beef dumplings were both pretty good.

If anything this experience shows how Chinese are expanding their footprint in places like New Zealand just as they are back home in California.  Which from a culinary perspective is just fine with me.

1976 Rose Bowl Game

One of my all time favorite football games, and most likely my favorite not involving the UCLA/USC rivalry was the January 1, 1976 Rose Bowl between UCLA and Ohio State.  Ohio State was the only unbeaten team in the country and had thrashed UCLA at the Coliseum earlier in the 1975 season.  The score was 41-20, but the final score was misleading because Ohio State ran out to a 41-7 lead before coasting to victory.  All Ohio State needed to win that season's national championship was to beat UCLA again, which everyone assumed they would do quite easily.  Oddsmakers installed Ohio State as a 15 point favorite.   Most of us thought that Ohio State would win by a bigger margin than that.  Indeed I'm not sure why I even bothered to go to the game.  And as the game approached things appeared to get worse.  The UCLA team almost mutinied because Coach Dick Vermeil cracked the whip so hard during the practices leading up to January 1.

Ohio State took the opening kickoff and rolled down the field with little resistance, just as everybody suspected.  But when they got inside the UCLA 30 yard line, Ohio State stalled (aided by some questionable play calling) and had to settle for a long field goal to go up 3-0.  Meanwhile, whenever UCLA got the ball they couldn't do a thing.  They didn't get their first first down until the end of the first half and only had about 40 yards total for the half.  But after the initial drive, the UCLA defense stiffened and the half ended 3-0, in what seemed like an unbelievable moral victory.

But then more unbelievably, UCLA's offense caught fire in the third quarter.  What didn't work in the first half, running and passing, started to work, even though UCLA's best offensive lineman, Randy Cross, was lost for the game at the end of the first half.   UCLA took the opening kickoff, marched down the field, though having to settle for a tying field goal.  Two subsequent Bruin touchdown drives and it was 16-3 UCLA in the third quarter, and UCLA was on its way to a 23-10 win with highlight plays by John Sciarra, Wally Henry and Wendell Tyler, and Coach Woody Hayes memorably trudging over to the UCLA sideline before the game ended.   

But as the years went by my memory of the game started to grow dim, since it predated the introduction of home VHS machines in the United States in 1977.  Consequently I wasn't able to re-watch this game like some of my other later favorites.  I had resigned myself to never reliving that game until I met the star of the game,  John Sciarra, sometime in the 1990s at a presentation he gave on pensions and retirement plans.  He said that after a great deal of effort, he and other members of the team were able to obtain copies of the videotape of that game directly from NBC, which gave me hope that the game tape might some day be made available to the public.  Sure enough, a few years later a collector friend came across a copy and made a duplicate for me.  Unfortunately my copy was a third or fourth generation copy and wasn't conducive to watching on a recurring basis, though it was better than nothing.  Then about 10 years ago ESPN Classics showed the game, and while I didn't get that cable channel, a relative did and taped it for me.  But while it was a good quality picture, it was highly abridged, so I never watched it too often.

However it is now the age of YouTube, and ever since they got rid of their relatively small maximum file size limits, all kinds of older sporting events have been uploaded, including decent copies of both halves of the 1976 Rose Bowl game.  Now I can finally watch the game in its entirety and relive the magic moments that I thought would someday fade away.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Reviving Crunchy Baked BBQ Pork Buns

When I was a kid, the only Chinese bbq pork buns in circulation were the steamed ones, much larger in size than the current buns served in orders of three buns, and referred to back then as "hom bao".  Then somewhere along the line somebody invented the baked bbq pork bun, baked to a golden brown on top with a smooth top having a sweet glaze.  I'm guessing these arrived first in Hong Kong, maybe in the 1980s, though frankly I can't tell you where I first encountered this item in the United States.

But the real gem in this collection is what might be referred to as the crunchy top bbq pork bun.  It's most associated with Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, the world's most inexpensive Michelin starred restaurant and seems to have been replicated only by a handful of Chinese restaurants in the United States, most notably Hong Kong Lounge and Lai Hong Lounge in San Francisco. (Strangely, a small bakery in San Francisco Chinatown, AA Bakery on Stockton St., produced them for a while, but seems to have stopped.)  Also, Sea Harbour in Rosemead, CA has a similar item they call a French top bbq pork bun.  The Tim Ho Wan version is the best, but the Lai Hong Lounge version is a good substitute.  Indeed so good, we once ordered four orders of three buns at Lai Hong Lounge, one to eat at the restaurant and the others to take back to Los Angeles.

But the problem with taking these things home is that a dim sum item that starts off with a crunchy top soon turns into a soggy and soft bun that doesn't taste so good.  Microwaving one of these cold buns only makes it hot--it's still soggy.  However after experimenting I figured out how to revive these things at home.  A double passing through a toaster oven cycle gets the top nice and crunchy again.  Unfortunately, that's not enough to warm up the inside fully, and more time in the toaster oven will burn the top.  But after the double toaster oven treatment, 20 to 25 seconds in the microwave, and voila!

Note that this treatment also works to revive pineapple top bbq pork and chicken buns, too.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Upscale Chinese Dining in the East San Gabriel Valley

As Clarissa Wei recently highlighted a lot of the new developments in Chinese dining are concentrated in the eastern portion of the San Gabriel Valley, as opposed to the more established west San Gabriel Valley communities such as Monterey Park,  Alhambra, and San Gabriel.  For those looking for microtrends in this advancement of Chinese dining, I've noticed in the Rowland Heights-Industry-Hacienda Heights area a disproportionate number of recent openings of more upscale Chinese restaurants.

When I say upscale, I mean both in terms of restaurant decor and design, as well as a higher price point that what we're used to seeing. Immediately coming to mind are Zheng's Fusion, Southern Gourmet, Lobster Bay and Taste Guizhou, and I'm sure there are quite a few others. I guess with a newer and less pricey real estate stock, it's easier to spend a few extra dollars on the decor than in the denser west San Gabriel Valley and its older real estate inventory. And in these new restaurants, many, if not most of the dinner entrees  run in the $20 and more category.  Hardly pricey by typical foodie standards in the Los Angeles area, but quite a departure from the value pricing that most Chinese diners in the San Gabriel Valley have typically been looking for.

It's not like there's any overall loss of interest in reasonably priced Chinese food in the west San Gabriel Valley.  Indeed, one now finds the best and more expensive west San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants like Sea Harbour, King Hua, Shi Hai and Elite only half  full on Saturday nights, while restaurants like Mama's Lu Dumpling House (hardly anything on the menu over $10) and 5 Star Seafood (entrees nudge over $10, but you get an allegedly 3 pound lobster for $5.97 with a minimum $30 purchase) packed to the gills with long waits during the same Saturday night timeframe.  So value certainly is still king in the west San Gabriel Valley.

It's clear that these new upscale east San Gabriel Valley eateries are being driven by the nouveau riche Chinese mainlanders descending on the San Gabriel Valley.   One observer commented that these nouveau riche seen in restaurants in and around Rowland Heights are very conspicuous, particularly the women, by their obviously expensive designer clothing and accessories which are just as obviously mismatched.   But why in the eastern area?   Super rich Chinese mainlanders have typically been identified with the communities of Arcadia and San Marino, and not especially with Hacienda Heights and points east.  Yet the new upscale restaurants don't seem to have made their mark around Arcadia and San Marino, except perhaps the spacious and pricey Spring Bamboo Seafood which took over space formerly occupied by a large piano store.   And yes, there is Hai Di Lao in the Santa Anita Mall, but that IS a shopping mall.  Perhaps the east San Gabriel Valley has its own share of rich mainlanders who are still operating under the radar, or maybe that's just where it's easier to build out a large and upscale restaurant venue.  But at the moment it's a bit of a puzzle.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Almonds Almonds Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink

Since my first car trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco over 50 years ago, I've made the trek dozens and dozens of times.  The first trip was up old Highway 101, which was the old style US highway that ran through the middle of city after city, mostly near the downtown areas.  That made the trip 10 hours long or more, such on that first trip we actually stayed overnight the first day, in Salinas at the Sandstone Motel.  Since Interstate 5 was completed in the 1980s, that has been our primary route up north, but though the route has changed, one thing has stayed the same--driving past miles and miles of farmland, often wondering what crop was growing there.  (One of my friends came up with the practical comment that a law should be passed requiring farmers to label their crops for the benefit of passing motorists.)

However after a recent trip to San Francisco and back on Interstate 5, I came to the realization that in one respect everything has suddenly changed.  There really is no wondering what's growing alongside the highway, now, as it's now mostly almond trees.  Actually almond trees have been around at least a few years, and at one time I did wonder what kind of tree it was.  Pistachio? Peach? Apricot?  Then the only time we ever drove up north in late February, we witnessed all the trees in full bloom.  Doing a quick internet search disclosed that the almond trees were in bloom, and we were fortunate enough to see them during the very short period each that the blossoms were out.

But while blooming almond trees were a marvelous sight, as everybody seems to know now, all those almonds along the highway have a nefarious side.  Almond trees are water hogs compared to other crops, and as such they are proliferating as our water supply, both runoff and ground water, is greatly diminishing.  In the old days we used to see (well, I'm guessing because the farmers didn't label their fields) growing corn, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes and citrus trees, among crops along the highway.  While there are still some other crops growing, it's more and more almonds all the time.

The problem is that what we think of as normal rainfall for California for the past century and a half, dating back to the beginning of California's agriculture industry, may have been an aberrant rainy period, and today's drought could be the old normal coming back, at least in the opinion of some climatologists.  If this is true, there just isn't going to be enough water around for everyone.  For those who drive the Interstate 5 corridor, you've doubtless seen for many years the political billboards put up by farm organizations talking about how water for farms means jobs and food production.  I used to feel sorry for the farmers as I passed those signs on the highway.  After all, they are growing a majority of the produce consumed by the United States.  But with almond trees, these products aren't being grown to meet an existing demand.  Rather, the almond growers have created their own demand that didn't exist before, to the point that almonds account by themselves for 10 percent of all water consumption in California (or if you believe  the almond growers, 9 percent).   It's not that the water shortage has suddenly snuck up on us from behind.  So those growers who rapidly expanded their almond production knowing about potential water issues are in no position to ask for sympathy.