Monday, June 19, 2017

Chinese Bakery Riots Return to Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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





Friday, June 9, 2017

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

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

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

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



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



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


Saturday, May 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday, April 8, 2017

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Not Just Food Trucks--More Chinese Food Options For USC Students

While my previous L.A. Weekly article on Chinese food for Mainland students at USC focused on the Chinese food trucks parked near the international student housing at Jefferson and McClintock, there are a few other alternatives for the Mainlanders.  Most obviously, the students can get in their cars and drive to the San Gabriel Valley, which is less than 15 miles away, though this is not advisable during rush hours.  Indeed, prior to the recent Chinese restaurant openings on the Westside catering to UCLA students that this was a common option for Mainland UCLA students, so this is just a continuing option for USC students.  However, a couple of other alternatives were also mentioned on the Food Talk Central message board.

The most interesting option mentioned was the frequent use of delivery services like To Go 626, to have food ferried from the San Gabriel Valley to campus.  Dozens of top Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, such as Chengdu Taste, Szechuan Impression, SinBaLa, Xi'An Tasty, Class 302, Gui Lin Noodle, Din Tai Fung, Shaanxi Gourmet, 101 Noodle Express, Savoy, and Beijing Pie House, have aligned themselves with delivery services like this.  And while the delivery services derive most of their business from local San Gabriel Valley residents, they'll deliver almost anywhere if you pay them the approximately $1 a mile delivery charge.  So for a rich Mainlander on the USC campus, a $15 service charge to get food delivered from your favorite San Gabriel Valley restaurant is quite insignificant.

You might think it's being presumptuous in assuming it's just rich Mainlanders at USC taking advantage of this delivery option, particularly since several students can go in together with a group order and make the delivery charge per head quite modest.  However apparently the San Gabriel Valley Chinese food delivery businesses also do a thriving business delivering food to Mainland students at UC Irvine.  And for a delivery charge of $45, clearly those deliveries are concentrated in the rich Mainlander crowd.  Now why would a rich UC Irvine student pay $45 to have authentic Chinese food delivered from someplace like Alhambra when Irvine itself has dozens of authentic Chinese restaurants, all within convenient driving distance in your Maserati or Lamborghini from your campus digs?  The answer lies in the fact that Irvine's Chinese restaurants skew toward their Cantonese and Taiwanese residents, meaning Cantonese, Taiwanese and Shanghainese style food. Irvine has only a small (though growing) number of Sichuan and other Mainland type Chinese restaurants (though strangely including a Uyghur restaurant), so if you really want the food of your home province and have money to burn, delivery from the San Gabriel Valley is an attractive option.

Another USC Chinese Mainlander food source, quite interestingly, is Lao Sze Chuan restaurant in Glendale.  Lao Sze Chuan is a Chinese restaurant chain originally out of Chicago which developed national ambitions.  The fact that the driving force behind the enterprise is now in prison for tax evasion has not stopped the national expansion plans which has seen branches open in the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and here in Glendale.  With the lack of Sichuan food in Los Angeles Chinatown, Lao Sze Chuan is the closest source of this authentic cuisine  so its attraction to USC students makes some sense.  On the other hand it would seem that it's not that much closer distance wise to USC than the San Gabriel Valley, so you'd think that going to Chengdu Taste or Szechuan Impression might be worth driving an extra couple of miles.  Of course the other neighboring amenities of Glendale, such as the Galleria, Americana and movie theaters could also be a factor in drawing USC Mainlanders here.

One last point raised on the message board was the assertion that a lot of USC Mainland Chinese students don't actually set foot on campus, but are rather whooping it up somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley and hence don't need a campus source of Chinese food.  Rather, these students purchase their degrees by having surrogates attend classes and take their tests, which makes some sense given the extreme wealth of some of these students.  It might sound fanciful to think that this happens on more than just an isolated basis.  However, it may well be true, as a scandal recently broke out at the University of Iowa, reported in detail in a Reuters special report, involving an organized ring that was involved in exactly these activities by dozens of Mainland students.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Tiny Rowland Heights Storefront Little Highness Bao Opens Up In Beverly Hills

In this post-Trump election world, things have reached a point that almost nothing surprises me.  But I have to tell you that to me, the opening of a branch of Little Highness Bao on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills pushes the envelope more than anything that seems to be happening in Washington DC.


Little Highness Bao is certainly not one of the big culinary names in the San Gabriel Valley.  It opened a small storefront last summer in a shopping center on the corner of Colima Road and Fullerton Road in Rowland Heights, where it purveys a very specialized category of buns, essentially steamed mantou buns filled with things like green bean with pork, chicken gravy with pork and onion, cabbage with vermicelli and dried shrimp (with another variety substituting mushroom for the vermicelli), rib with vegetables, and beef steamed buns.  Indeed it's the only restaurant I've been to that has this kind of specialty.  They also sell dumplings and other related types of fare.  Little Highness does appear to be in an expansion mode as they just opened a fishpot restaurant next to the original Rowland Heights store.  But it's not like they've created any kind of buzz out in Rowland Heights.  So certainly I was totally unprepared when my son Eric sent me a message that one of his foodie scouts had driven by, and even snapped a picture of the new Little Highness Bao location in Beverly Hills

Fortunately I was scheduled to work in Century City the next day, so it was only a slight detour to check out the Beverly Hills location of Little Highness Bao.   And there on Wilshire Blvd. between Roxbury and Bedford, directly across from Saks Fifth Avenue (and kitty corner from Neiman Marcus) was Little Highness Bao.  However when I walked in I momentarily thought I was in the wrong store because it only seemed to be a boba and tea shop, despite the giant mantou bun picture on the front window.  There were no food menus, either permanent, paper, or posted on the wall.  The clerk explained that the only menu was in marker on a side glass partition.


The menu is very sparse.  As you might be able to see, the menu includes beef noodle soup, wonton soup, pork dumplings, beef steamed dim sum (whatever that is), beef rolls, plus their signature pork and beef steamed mantou buns, as well as pork and beef xiaolongbao.  So to their credit they haven't filled their menu with Americanized items, but rather taken the friendliest items from the San Gabriel Valley.  Looking at the other tables in the restaurant, the xiaolongbao, not surprisingly, appears to be the most popular item with the local crowd.  When I was in the restaurant, all the other diners were non-Asian.  I did see a group of Mainlanders,who were apparently walking down the street, stop to take a peek, but then continued on.  I suspect they were unimpressed by the Beverly Hills hipster look of the restaurant, as well as the non-Asian servers and customers.  However, the food tastes like the Rowland Heights branch, the prices are not outrageous (XLB is $10.99, most everything else is under $9) and the cook with the baseball cap sure looked like a Mainlander to me.

Street address is 9667 Wilshire Blvd.