Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Search For General Tso--The Saga Ends

Shortly after my first 15 minutes of fame that followed from Clarissa Wei's piece on the crazy lawyer who had eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants, I was contacted by Lily Spottiswoode, associate producer at New York based Wicked Delicate Films (and unbeknownst to me at the time, the granddaughter of actor Jack Palance), regarding a documentary film they were shooting on Chinese restaurants.  The film was titled The Search For General Tso and was based on a segment of Jennifer 8 Lee's book, the Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which searched for the origins of General Tso's Chicken, an Americanized Chinese dish commonly found in the eastern United States.  The filmmakers' plans were eventually to travel out to the west coast to shoot some interviews and they asked if I was available to speak about regional differences in Chinese restaurants across the United States.

It took six months for the interview to take place, where I met with Lily, along with film director Ian Cheney and producer Amanda Murray.  At first they wanted to shoot the interview at a local Chinese restaurant that served General Tso's chicken.  However since General Tso's chicken is as rare in Los Angeles as it is common in New York, we ended up at Mission 261 in San Gabriel.  Our interview lasted over two hours, well in excess of what the film's running time would be, so it was clear to me that most of what I said would never make it into any film.  Since my interview was one of the last they conducted, they indicated that they would soon start the editing process.  I don't know anything about filmmaking, but I figured it would take maybe 6 to 9 months to pull the film together.  I did get a short informational request four months after the interview.  However, as the months rolled on I started to suspect that the film would not get finished, my guess being funding problems being the culprit.   Not only did I not hear from anybody, but the General Tso account on Twitter fell silent.

So it was a bit of a surprise that last month, a little over a year after the interview, the General Tso Twitter account revived to announce that the movie would be screening at this month's TriBeCa film festival.  The movie really has two parts--the successful search for the origins of General Tso's chicken, and an account on the Chinese restaurant landscape in the United States. The movie premiered two days ago before a sellout crowd of 500 viewers at the Bow Tie Cinema in Chelsea.  This Thursday's showing is also sold out, and I'm looking forward to seeing the film with great anticipation.

 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Thanks To The Asia Society For Expanding The Audience

It’s been nearly two years since food writer Clarissa Wei plucked me from obscurity to profile me as the crazy attorney/CPA who had eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants.  Within days I was contacted by the Asia Society to do an article on my picks as the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States.   Eating at so many Chinese restaurants didn’t make me an expert on Chinese food, as my knowledge was about Chinese restaurants, which is a completely different thing, but I gladly accepted the challenge.  The Asia Society article led to the opportunity to write articles on Chinese restaurants on the Menuism website on a recurring basis.  This has opened the door for me to publicize the Toishanese roots of Americanized Chinese food and the Chinese community itself, along with important facts about Chinese American history, such as discriminatory immigration laws that barred Chinese from coming to the United States for decades, and the post-immigration reform shift in the mix of Chinese immigration.  There’s not a single traditional restaurant review among my writings.

However, it’s only at this point almost two years later that I recognize what an opportunity that the original Asia Society article has provided me.  First of all, it’s given me an insight I would not have otherwise had into how the internet works.  No, I’m not talking servers and stuff like that, but how content originates on the internet, and then how that content speeds its way around the world.  Secondly, I also now just realize what a chance that first article provided to reach so many people with what I had to say.

When I wrote my Top 10 Restaurant story I had no idea as to the attention and controversy that would follow.  And it’s really all thanks to the Asia Society because my intended article was merely a listing and description of 10 restaurants, hardly anything to garner a wide audience.  The one thing that I wanted to explain to the editor when I submitted the article was that my list was different in that I made no effort to be geographically correct, and explaining in detail why all the restaurants were in California, and specifically why none were in New York.  These comments were meant solely as an aside to the editor and not for public consumption, so when I saw that the raw introductory comments were included at the start of the article, I cringed at seeing my unfiltered comments in public. 

What I didn’t realize, but Asia Society’s editor did, was that the purpose of internet content is to drive traffic, and nothing drives traffic like controversy.  And in those terms, the article turned out to be a blockbuster.  Through well placed links in social media and on restaurant message boards, a firestorm of commentary ensued, much of it negative from outraged New Yorkers who felt that had been dissed.  Indeed, reaction was so negative that I didn’t bother to re-read my Asia Society article again until just recently.  And when finally visiting the article again I was shocked to see the statistics on the page–3,200 likes on Facebook (probably an even larger number of dislikes, if there were such statistics kept) and over 300 tweets on Twitter.  Given that a minuscule percentage of web surfers bother to affirmatively interact with a like or tweet, the readership for that article must  have been staggering.   I could only dream about reaching those kinds of numbers again.   And it was due entirely to the inclusion by the Asia Society editor of what I intended to be off the record remarks.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Miracle of Glucosamine

We often hear about dietary supplements which supposedly are effective at dealing with various health conditions.  Gingko biloba for memory loss, St. John’s wort for depression and echinacea for the immune system are examples of supplements which seem to have lost some of  their following after becoming fad favorites, and it's not clear as to whether they in fact have any value.  However there is one supplement which I eagerly will stand for as the poster boy, glucosamine for the relief of arthritic knee pain.

It was 15 years ago and I began to experience extreme kneecap pain from prolonged sitting.  Football games, airplane trips, and even automobile rides of over an hour were events of extreme discomfort for me.  Then I heard of glucosamine, so as much as out of desperation I started taking two pills daily.  The very next day my knees felt better, though that was either coincidental or the power of suggestion, as my pain quickly returned.  And after more than two months, I saw no results and was about to stop taking the pills.  But I decided to stay with it a little long, and am I sure glad I did.  For in that third month, the knee pain disappeared.   Now I can sit for hours on a transoceanic airplane ride or a sporting event and not go through the agony that I did 15 years previously.

About the same time that I conquered that pain, I also bought a treadmill and started running daily 7 to 8 minute miles.  However, while my kneecap pain from sitting was cured, I was now beginning to experience pain from running, particularly on the outside and back of the knees.  I just chalked this up as part of the cost of running on a daily basis, perhaps the onset of arthritis, and didn’t think any more of it.

Indeed, I went along like this for 10 years, living with the minor knee pain, and skipping my run on more painful days.  Obviously I’m a slow learner, for it wasn’t until after 10 years of relief from my kneecap sitting pain that I asked myself the question as to why the glucosamine pills didn’t alleviate the pain in my knees from running.  So I thought about it and I concluded that maybe it was because my dosage wasn’t large enough.  So I doubled my intake of glucosamine to four pills a day.  And guess what?  The pain from running also completely went away.  I now run my daily mile (slower than I did 10 or 15 years ago) and never have any knee pain at all.  That is certainly proof of the miracle of glucosamine.
 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Great Chinese Restaurants Continue To Open

As many of you know a couple of years ago I came out with a Top 10 Chinese Restaurant in the United States listing for the Asia Society   , and which was reproduced as a sidebar to the Los Angeles Times article about my quest for 6,000 Chinese restaurants.   Unlike most best restaurant listings seen in print or on the air, I made no attempt to balance the list for geographic locale, regional cuisines, or any other factor to make the article more palatable to a wider group of readers.   Rather I gave my personal opinion as to what were in fact the best Chinese restaurants in the country.  As a result my list consisted of restaurants all located in California, the majority of which represented Cantonese style cuisine.  The reaction from two quarters was swift.  I was pilloried by New Yorkers, incensed that no New York restaurants were included, with innumerable internet comments that I was obviously a “homer” who was biased towards California food.  A lesser degree of complaint came from supporters of Sichuan and similar non-Cantonese Chinese food who made similar allegations based on my Toishanese/Cantonese ancestry.

As to the status of New York Chinese food it appears that while it had been previously unspoken, many people were thinking what I said.  After the original wave of outrage from New Yorkers, it is common to see concessions from New Yorkers on the restaurant message boards that New York Chinese food is behind the curve compared to California and Canada.   And my more recent comments on the second class state of New York Chinese food draw little negative reaction.  All this is not to say that Chinese food in New York is bad.  There are many excellent Chinese restaurants in New York, and I look forward to visiting Manhattan Chinatown and other venues in New York City to sample Chinese restaurants.  My only point is that, to use a boxing term, pound for pound the Chinese food in New York is clearly inferior to that in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.

With regard to Cantonese vs. non-Cantonese food, the analysis is slightly different.  No question, there is outstanding Sichuan, Shanghai, Beijing, Dongbei, Taiwanese and other regional Chinese style restaurants to be found in California, New York and other locales.  However, at the time that the original Top 10 listing was published, there just weren’t enough signature restaurants in those categories to make a large dent in the Top 10, though some of the Sichuan style restaurants in various parts of Manhattan outside of Chinatown definitely deserved honorable mention.

However supporters of New York Chinese food and Sichuan style Chinese food can rejoice in that they now have recently opened restaurants that clearly are of Top 10 caliber.    Just weeks before my Top 10 list was published, the London based Hakkasan chain opened its first US branch in midtown Manhattan at 310 W. 43rd St.   At the time, many people assumed it was just another expensive Chinese restaurant that served Americanized Chinese food a la Mr. Chow.  However, it did not take long for observers of Chinese food to realize that Hakkasan was the real thing, and that their mantra of offering modern authentic Chinese food was a valid description.  While some of their fare may not seem like authentically Chinese fare, such as Peking duck with Kaluga caviar, it is certainly consistent with modern Chinese food trends in places like Hong Kong and other Chinese food centers.  Hakkasan has since opened branches in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Beverly Hills.

Meanwhile , in the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, since its opening less than a year ago, Chengdu Taste has taken the food world by storm, becoming the hottest ticket in town both in terms of taste and buzz, and even capturing the attention of New York food writer Ruth Reichl.  With its mouth numbing Sichuan menu full of complex flavors, the lines at this relatively small restaurant at 828 W. Valley Bl. in Alhambra are ridiculous.  Prime time waiting time may be upwards of two hours and if you can get in with a wait of under an hour at anytime, consider yourself fortunate.  To accommodate its crowds, Chengdu Taste extended its closing time by two hours and is hastily opening up a second location a few miles east on Valley Bl.  As I have said many times before, Chinese food continues to evolve and the next great restaurant is waiting to raise the bar once again.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

What We Ate In Hong Kong, Part IV - The Pictures

As regular readers know from reading this this blog, I am not a foodie and do not photograph my meals.  However, the descriptions of the food we had in Hong Kong last month has led to requests to see what some of the items described look like.  Fortunately my daughter, Supertina, is a foodie and does photograph her meals.  So since she was on the trip, we do have photographic coverage on my Picasaweb page.  The pictures are at https://picasaweb.google.com/117066920837972224028/HongKongFood

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What We Ate In Hong Kong, Part III

Lung Hing Keen, Four Seasons Hotel, Central.  Needed to have somebody pull some strings to get us off of the waiting list for a reservation.  This was a definitely different type of upscale dining.  Tables widely spaced throughout the dining room, without the fuss or clatter typically associated with dim sum restaurants.  The look and the taste of the food was exquisite.  The steamed scallop dumpling came with a green wrapper and was almost creamy.  The gold leaf seafood dumpling in a brown wrapper was unique, though I can’t say that the gold had any particular taste.  We also had siu mai, pan fried beef buns (visually like Shanghainese shen jen bao), xiaolongbao (perhaps the most ordinary of the dishes), roast goose XO puffs, ha gow, abalone chicken puffs, crispy spring rolls with shrimp, mushrooms dumplings in a brown wrapper, XO rice noodle logs (incredibly delicate), egg puffs, poppyseed jello, steamed fois gras with abalone sauce and lobster fried rice.  Truly a meal to remember and surprisingly only $70 per person.

Pak Loh Chiu Chow, Grand Century Shopping Mall, Mong Kok.  The best shark fin soup I had ever eaten.  We also had the Chiu Chow appetizer plate (shrimp ball, crab ball, jellyfish and roast goose), gai lan, fried arugala with chicken, shrimp lettuce wrap, bamboo pith tofu casserole and two desserts, green bean taro and taro bars.  Not a Michelin star meal, but quite good, though at $70 per person (likely due to the shark fin) nothing close to Lung Hing Keen.

Aberdeen Fishball and Noodles, 242 San Yeung Choi St. S, Mong Kok.  Another random choice near the hotel.   The fish broth was by far the tastiest I had ever eaten.  The fish balls and noodles themselves were good, not great, in line with our previous experience of random Hong Kong restaurants. 

Tasty Congee in the Elements mall in the western part of Tsim Sha Shui.  We had fresh carp jook, shrimp dumpling soup, you tiao cheung fun, dark fish balls, gai lan and turnip cake.  Another excellent meal, though at $15 per person a little expensive for this category of food. 

Tsui Wah, 2 Carnarvon Road, in Tsim Sha Shui, another one of those restaurants with long lines of people waiting to get in.  Tsui Wah is a popular café chain and we had several favorites including curry beef brisket, milk buns, gai lan, vegetables with fish, mixed vegetables, tomato beef with egg, hot almond egg white drink, and Singapore mei fun.  Reasonably priced at $10 per person.

Other eats.  The egg tarts at Tai Cheong were fantastic.  But other bakery fare was a little disappointing.  In our last Hong Kong visit in 2009, I was impressed by the quality and variety of the buns and sandwiches.  But at least at the places I tried near the hotel it was like being back home.  I’m guessing that this shows that Los Angeles has closed the gap with newcomers like 85° Bakery and its imitators leading the way.   One morning I decided to drop by the neighborhood grocery store for a no carb breakfast, hoping to get some cold cuts.  Unfortunately they apparently haven’t heard of chicken or turkey lunch meat in Hong Kong.  Everything was pork except for chicken hot dogs, one from France, the other from California.The problem was that the French hot dogs indicated that they were uncooked.  While the California hot dogs made in Fresno had no indication that they needed to be cooked, could it be that Hong Kongers expected all hot dogs to be uncooked?  So having to choose between pork cold cuts or possibly uncooked chicken hot dogs, I chose the latter, guessing the California hot dogs were already cooked.  Fortunately, they were cooked.

Every scheduled meal was better than the food back in Los Angeles, so we finally achieved our desire to experience the superior brand of Chinese food.  Where Hong Kong excels is at the high end (there are no Michelin star Chinese restaurants in California) and the low end (who thought noodle soup or egg tarts could taste so good?).    Also Hong Kong has a superior variety and quality of fresh ingredients.    Otherwise there is a vast middle where the food is comparable to Los Angeles Chinese food.    In Hong Kong as demonstrated by the long lines outside of many of the restaurants we visited, the people know where the good food is.  But as the waiter at Ming Court, who had been a longtime resident of the San Gabriel Valley said, the Chinese food in Los Angeles is also very good, so Hong Kong’s advantage is in spots, not across the board.








Monday, February 10, 2014

What We Ate In Hong Kong, Part II




Our first venture onto Hong Kong Island and Michelin star restaurants.  

Kau Kee Restaurant, 21 Gough St., Central.  We got there 10 minutes before opening and there was a block long line waiting to get in.  The beef brisket noodle soup was fabulous.  The curry version not so good, though some people prefer that one to the plain.   Priciest of the street eats at about $7 per person.
                                                                                                                       
Fish Ball Chong Chai Kee, 2 Kau U Fong, Central.   This was probably the least outstanding planned meals of the trip, perhaps magnified by the fact that we came here immediately after the fantastic noodles at Kau Kee.  The highlight at Fish Ball Chong Chai Kee was the fish balls that had a crunch (if that’s possible) unlike that of any other fish ball we’ve had.

Gyu Jin,  a hotpot restaurant in the iSquare vertical shopping mall in the Tsim Sha Shui district.  The Gyu Jin hotpot was all you can eat, with the price depending on the particular grade of beef chosen.  Ours came to $40 per person.  There were also serve yourself items consisting primarily of vegetables, fish balls, and tofu and noodle items.  The broth was very flavorful and much better than what is typically found in Los Angeles

Seaview Food Shop, 72 Bute St., Mong Kok.  Another random eatery by the hotel.  Jook was quite good.  Cheung fun wasn’t. 

Tim Ho Wan, MTR Hong Kong Station, Central.  Though it’s a one star Michelin restaurant,  it was not a fancy place with a fancy menu, indeed being located in the shopping area of a transit station.  Very tasty, though common dim sum items.  The selections included fried beef rolls, beef balls, ha gow, chicken feet, the star-of-the-show a baked cha siu bao that looked like a biscuit, tofu wrap, egg roll, lotus leaf chicken rice, turnip cake, spare rib, ham sui guk, beef cheung fun, siu mai, malay cake, spinach shrimp dumpling, preserved vegetable with ground ground pork, lettuce and gojiberry jello.  Despite the lack of exotic varieties, the Michelin star was well deserved and many of the common items were the best versions we had.  Cost about $10 per person.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab, 421 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai.  On the menu were black bean clams, their signature crab, seafood soup, fried rice, mantis shrimp, egg soup, steamed turbot and shrimp in the nest.  By far the highlight was the deep fried garlic served with the crab and the mantis shrimp.  That garlic was totally delicious.  Particularly popular with tourists.

Lan Fong Yuen, 36 Nathan Road (inside), Tsim Sha Shui.   Another long line.  The menu at Lan Fong Yuen, a Hong Kong style café, is quite compact.  When we asked a waiter about  vegetable dishes he said there weren’t any.   We had all of their signature dishes–chicken on a bed of ramen, both with ginger sauce and also in lobster sauce.  Hong Kong style milk buns, and Hong Kong style French toast.  All of these items were terrific.  They only dish that wasn’t very good was the pork chop rice. 

Ming Court in the Langham Place Hotel, Mong Kok.  Two star Michelin.  The traditional Cantonese dinner at Ming Court was outstanding.  The Peking duck was the best I’ve eaten, with a delicious pancake wrapper (as opposed to the Mantou buns that we Californians are used to), as was the rest of the duck with pine nuts in lettuce cups.   The other entrees were all winners, steamed minced Australian waygu beef with tangerine peel, crisp vermicelli with minced waygu, tomato, and egg; and tofu with wild mushrooms in black truffle sauce.  The complimentary shrimp balls were also excellent.   About $40 per person.