Sunday, January 14, 2018

Fake Canto Food Comes To Los Angeles Chinatown

For the first century of Chinese presence in the  United States, most all Chinese residents in America were Cantonese in origin (and of this group, predominantly from the rural counties in Toishan).  As a result, all Chinese food in America during this time period was Cantonese/Toishanese.  However, the big news in the 21st century has been the impact of Mandarin speaking Chinese immigrants to the United States, almost completely flipping the Cantonese/non-Cantonese mix of Chinese food in Chinese American communities. 

Indeed, the demographic disparity has gotten so out of line that the 21st century has seen the rise of what is now sometimes referred to as the "fake Canto" restaurant, a term coined by food blogger Tony Chen.  Fake Canto restaurants are those opened up in Chinese communities by Mandarin speaking non-Cantonese immigrants from mainland China.  Well before the advent of fake news, these fake Canto restaurants were opening up, occasioned by the lack of sufficient real Cantonese restaurateurs in the particular locality.

Fake Canto restaurants originally arose in the eastern United States in Chinese communities where there were few, if any local Cantonese restauranteurs available to satisfy the local demand for dim sum and Cantonese banquet facilities.  These included communities that never had a Chinese community, prior to the 1960s reform of the US immigration laws, such as Atlanta, Dallas and Orlando, or communities where the Cantonese community had all but died out, such as St. Louis.  

The fake Canto phenomenon had initially been limited to the East, Midwest and South, where Fujianese immigrants have dominated the Chinese restaurant industry since the 1990s.  However, fake Canto has now taken a new step forward, now showing up in localities that do have an existing Cantonese presence, such as Manhattan Chinatown.  

Now comes clearly the most startling episode of fake Canto restaurants where in December of 2017, East Garden restaurant opened up in Los Angeles Chinatown.  This is truly startling since Los Angeles Chinatown is the culinarily the last greatest bastion of Cantonese food in the country.  While most every new Chinese restaurant in the nearby San Gabriel Valley serves Mainland non-Cantonese food, there is only one such restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown, Qin West.   So with Los Angeles Chinatown so top-heavy with Cantonese food, why would anyone open up a fake Canto restaurant?  Another Mainland Chinese restaurant would make more sense in Los Angeles Chinatown, particularly with the nearby pool of Mainland Chinese students attending USC.  Yet, fake Canto has come to Los Angeles Chinatown.

Fake Canto, does not necessarily imply a lesser quality product.  The food at East Garden is pretty decent. 

The egg tofu with mushrooms was one of the best versions I’ve eaten.

The honey garlic short ribs, a variation of a dish more associated with pork chops, was also quite good.

But a major tipoff that we were talking fake Canto was the appearance of pork rolls, a dish never seen on Cantonese menus, and most commonly seen in Taiwanese restaurants described as chicken rolls.

Besides this and other non-Cantonese items on the menu, East Garden’s fake Canto giveaway is that the staff only speaks Mandarin.  Another clue was that the beef chow fun was cooked spicy, and had no “wok hei” to the flavor.  And in the company’s logo, the Chinese name uses the Mainland simplified characters, not the traditional characters.

East Garden is in Chunsan Plaza, downstairs from Ocean Seafood.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Blame Housing Discrimination, Or Why I Don't Remember The Los Angeles Snowstorm of 1962

Since I'm in Dubai and missing the current major LA rainstorm and mudslides, It's probably appropriate to mention other weather events that I either missed or forgot.  Back  2003 there was the freak hailstorm in South Los Angeles caused by an almost unprecedented stationary storm that led to a foot of hail on the ground in some places, which was erroneously described by many as snow at the time.  Unfortunately I was in Dallas at the time and missed the event, though I did save the Dallas newspaper describing that event.  Then there was the actual snow in Los Angeles in 1962 which is a complete blank in my mind.

A couple of years ago the KCET website ran a piece on the few recorded instances of snowfall in Los Angeles.  My son asked me if I remembered the most recent episode listed, which was in early 1962 when I was 13 years old.   I had always thought 1949, when I was an infant, was the last time snow fell in Los Angeles and was shocked to read that it snowed in the San Fernando Valley in 1962.   I was puzzled by my lack of any memory of this event, particularly since I always had an interest in weather.  For example I remember 6 consecutive days of rain in 1962, and being evacuated  from our neighborhood in the Crenshaw district because of flooding in 1954 or 1955.  (Not everybody in Los Angeles had storm sewers back then.)   And as a second grader I kept a daily diary which included the temperature for the day.

On reflection, my lack of recollection of the 1962 snow was due to the fact my geographic world was so small back then.  Yes, in the 50s my dad would take us on Sunday afternoon rides to outlying places like Zuma Beach, Newport Beach, Anaheim or El Monte. But those were like mini-vacations to distant places for us since we never took real vacations as he worked so hard, 6½ days a week every week.   The rest of the time we stayed within a relatively narrow swath in central Los Angeles, from the Crenshaw district in the west to downtown Los Angeles where my dad worked, to El Sereno where some family friends lived.

The reason why  we were so confined is that for Chinese-Americans, Los Angeles was still semi-segregated housing wise in the 1950s and into the 1960s.  Most Chinese Americans of that era lived in Central, South or East Los Angeles, and all our friends and relatives lived there.  Yes, there were Chinese living in a nice central LA area like Silver Lake, but communities such as Arcadia, San Marino, South Pasadena, Glendale, Inglewood and Palos Verdes were totally off limits  to minorities, including Chinese-Americans, well into the 1960s.  Indeed, I thought it was a really big deal in the late 50s when one of my uncles bought a house in someplace called Gardena and then another uncle bought a house in Mar Vista, followed by my grandfather's buying a house in the Athens district near the border with Gardena in the early 1960s,

Our geographic confinement was probably best expressed by the fact that before I went to UCLA in 1965,  I told people that I hadn't been west of La Brea Ave. more than 5 times in my life (which probably was just a slight exaggeration) and had only visited the San Fernando Valley 5 times or less (probably not an exaggeration).  So snow in the Valley in 1962 isn't something that would register with me at that time.

Obviously being the subject of any kind of discrimination is no fun.  But to have felt its effects does provide an interesting perspective on one's life.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Mysteries of the Internet

Ever since Clarissa Wei wrote the first article about me, and launching a secondary career of writing about Chinese restaurant subjects, I have been regularly Googling myself (using the search term "David Chan Chinese restaurant") to see if people have been talking about me or my articles.  In so doing I have come across a number of inexplicable anomalies, such as incoherent brief references to past articles in foreign websites, Google search summaries that clearly mention me where the quoted text does not appear at all in the linked website, a linked website automatically forwarding to an unrelated random website, and on my own blog, the listing of referring websites from other totally unrelated, random websites.

However, I recently came across the most puzzling anomaly of all.  The Google search on my Blackberry Android pulled up a link to a website "" and what appeared to be a discussion of one or more Chinese restaurant articles I have written.  Typically this kind of hit links to a site which does contain "David Chan" and "Chinese restaurants", but not complete sentences, and also mentioning numerous other random people.  However, while still not a polished article, the references were semi-coherent and mostly about me.

The entire "article" was over 2,000 words long, and made reference to numerous articles about me and by me from a number of different publications, from Clarissa's initial article five years ago to an article that quoted me just a few days ago.  Indeed there were references to so many different articles that it was almost like somebody was stalking me.

But then here is where things get really weird.  The same Google search on my old Blackberry pulled up the same hit--but the link sent me directly to a porn site.  And then, the same Google search on my laptop did not provide the corresponding hit at all.   But when I went to the website on my laptop, it sent me to a website offering some kind of possibly sketchy software download.

My guess is that there are scammers out there targeting people who Google themselves either to drive traffic to particular website, or perhaps worse, to infect their computers.  But exactly what is going on is a real mystery that I doubt if I will ever solve.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Dim Sum Shop Opens Up In West Covina

Besides falling behind San Francisco when it comes to high end dim sum, Los Angeles also trails San Francisco and New York insofar as channels for dim sum sources are involved.  In Los Angeles, you're pretty much limited to medium to large size dim sum palaces.  You can dine in for dimsum at a place like Sea Harbour in Rosemead, or find one of the other sit down dim sum restaurants which has a take out annex such as Longo Seafood in Rosemead or CBS Seafood in Chinatown to get your dim sum to go.

In contrast in San Francisco there are a large number of small dim sum purveyors which stock behind the counter dim sum, which you can order for takeout or eat on premises at tables provided for your convenience.  Yeah, there are a couple of those here in LA, but most locals probably can't identify one of these offhand.  There's also the New York model where a sit down Cantonese restaurant will have behind-the-counter dim sum which you can order for takeout, but you really can't sit down and eat it there.

All of which makes this month's opening of Sheng Hui Dim Sum in West Covina, a seemingly small, innocuous eatery, potentially more significant than one might imagine upon first glance.  It's a model different from anything else mentioned above, a small sit-down dim sum restaurant.   You sit at the table and order from the menu. There's no wait staff, just the cook in back and his wife up front. Certain items are sitting pre-made behind the counter in the familiar metal trays and brought to your table.  Likewise other items are resting in a heated case.  On the other hand, some items are cooked to order and brought to your table.   Most items are $2.88 and the selection is relatively small, comparable to the small Bay Area take-out/sit down eateries.  Dim sum at Sheng Hui compares extremely favorably to the best of the cart places in the San Gabriel Valley.  Their pineapple taro  (below) and pineapple egg yolk dim sum are a revelation.  They apparently also at times stock some fanciful paste filled steamed buns (e.g., rabbit, piggie, panda), but they weren't available when we went there.

Sheng Hui Dim Sum is at 2889 E. Valley Blvd., in a part of West Covina wedged between Rowland Heights and Walnut.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Is Longo Seafood Waking Los Angeles From Its Dim Sum Slumber?

As indicated in my summer LA Weekly piece on the recently opened Xiang Yuan Gourmet in Temple City, the Los Angeles area has not welcomed a new dim sum contender to challenge the existing stalwarts in nearly a decade.   While Los Angeles continues to generally widen the lead over the rest of the United States in purveying the best Chinese food in the country, the Los Angeles area dominance in dim sum which was so wide a decade ago has completely evaporated. The San Francisco Bay area is now the US king of dim sum with its powerhouse lineup including Dragon Beaux, Koi Palace, Hong Kong Lounge #1, the unrelated Hong Kong Lounge #2, and Lai Hong Lounge.  In the words of Chinese restaurant industry maven Robert Lu (known as the irrepressible "ipsedixit" for nearly two decades on Los Angeles area food message boards), Los Angeles area dim sum "has largely stagnated in terms of innovation."  In contrast, the Bay Area has stepped up with new and better varieties of dim sum to catch, and now pass Los Angeles in the past three years or so.  Shades of much of the 20th Century, when Angelinos used to travel up to San Francisco to get a better brand of Chinese food, and it's deja vu again insofar as dim sum is concerned.

However, the worm may be starting to turn, first with Xiang Yuan Gourmet, but especially now with the opening a few weeks ago of Longo Seafood in Rosemead at 7540 E. Garvey Ave.   Game changing dim sum at this street location would be wholly unexpected.  Not that there's anything wrong with this location per se, given that it has hosted at least 10 different dim sum eateries in a three decade period.  It's just that over this period, it has been home to so many undistinguished dim sum restaurants that finding high quality dim sum in this building would be nearly unimaginable.  With the exception of Donald Lam's Seafood City, the first dim sum restaurant to occupy this spot and which reigned here in the mid-1980s, dim sum at this location had been known more for value pricing and not gourmet quality. 

But with the arrival of Longo Seafood, everything has changed.  In hindsight, there were small clues that something was happening here.  Where replacement restaurants at this location previously took just days or maybe a few weeks to open up, this location was closed for the better part of a year while renovations were in progress.  And it wasn't that the remodel was dragging along slowly, as there was clearly continuously activity.   This all made sense when the restaurant opened earlier this fall, revealing a sleek, total and upscale upgrade to the location, highlighted by its gigantic chandelier and similarly gigantic TV screen.  Longo Seafood is definitely one of the nicest Chinese restaurant dining rooms in the San Gabriel Valley.

Of course good decor is nice, but everybody's interested in the food, and the crowds have been enthusiastic, sometimes filling the restaurant by 11 am even on weekdays.  No surprise given the existence of dim sum items not ordinarily seen in Los Angeles, such as lobster rolls at eight pieces for $19.99, black truffle shumai (below) at six pieces for $15.99, and foie gras shrimp dumplings also at six pieces for $15.99.

Steamed rice rolls are not the rectangular cheung fun typically seen at dimsum, but as seen below are elongated rice noodle twists served on regular plates with varieties such as wagyu beef, vegetable and truffles, shredded duck, and using red rice rolls, spareribs.   With their extensive dim sum menu it'll take several visits to get a complete reading on Longo Seafood, but certainly it's so far, so good.

Why Chip Kelly Is A Better Fit for UCLA than USC

For the past few years, UCLA and USC football fans have fantasized about being able to hire Chip Kelly to be their school's football coach.  Between his prickly personality and his brush with the NCAA, however, Kelly becoming coach of either school was clearly a pipe dream.   UCLA was particularly a farfetched destination given that UCLA never had the financial resources like powerhouse schools in Texas and the South, and hiring Kelly would first entail firing Jim Mora and paying off his $12 million buyout clause, which presumably was beyond the school's athletic budget, not to mention a big paycheck for Kelly which would be seemingly be even further beyond the budget.  Yet, UCLA was able to come up with the money to pull the trigger on both.

So how and why did all this become a reality?   With the proper context it now all makes sense.  In the past few years UCLA has upgraded its athletic facilities tremendously, from the Pauley Pavilion remodel, to the new Wasserman football facility and the Ostin basketball facility, which added up to hundreds of millions of dollars.  These were financed through a combination of fundraising, the lucrative Pac 12 media contract, and the record athletic wear sponsorship deal with UnderArmour.    In the context of all the capital expenditures, the extra millions needed to upgrade the coaching situation seem relatively insignificant.   It turns out Coach Mora would have been fired even if UCLA had beaten USC, as the school needed a different kind of football coach to lead the football program to level needed to match the new facilities.  And it wouldn't be surprising to learn if UnderArmour added to the pot, as they were in dire need of establishing a flagship university for their brand.

So why is Chip Kelly not a good fit for USC, but an acceptable fit for UCLA?  Two reasons.  First of all is the NCAA issue.  Chip Kelly was under an NCAA show cause order due to the fact that Oregon made illegal payments to a Texas scouting service.  There was no evidence that Kelly knew of the payments, but as head of the football program he bore ultimate responsibility, and jumping to the NFL probably closed the book on that violation.  Personally I can't believe that Kelly did not have actual knowledge of those payments.  With this in mind, there's no way that USC could have hired Kelly to replace Steve Sarkisian.  Given their NCAA problems in both football in basketball, USC could not afford to hire a coach with any hint of a problem, so Kelly would be a nonstarter.  Furthermore, Kelly is all football and is not the kind of coach to shmooze the alumni and be friends with all of the wealthy donors.  USC is certainly not the kind of place for that kind of coach.

So how is UCLA the better fit?  Well, it's athletic director Dan Guerrero is a highly respected member of the NCAA infrastructure and is known for doing everything above board.  Rick Neuheisel came to UCLA as football coach with a reputation of sometime pushing the envelope with the NCAA, and in his four years as coach there was nary a problem.  Guerrero will keep Kelly under control if there is a need to do so.  Secondly, UCLA does not have the cadre of alumni donors that need to be stroked like USC and many other schools have.  Indeed, there is just Casey Wasserman and probably a couple of others.  So Chip Kelly can spend his time on football, rather than donor relations.

It would have been great had I been able to attend last Monday's introductory press conference with Chip Kelly.  I received an invitation to attend just two hours before the event began, apparently a reward for being a 30 year season ticket holder.  It probably wouldn't have been worth taking four hours off on a workday to attend a 30 minute press conference with just a select number of fans in attendance.  But it would have been fun.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Week of Dining in San Diego and New York

Last month's trip from LA to San Diego to New York produced a number of dining highlights.  Actually San Diego was mostly onsite hotel meals, with only one restaurant visit.  Del Mar Rendezvous, is a Chinese restaurant I would never had heard of except for the fact that Clarissa Wei had included it in the handful of California Chinese restaurants in her article on the 50 best Chinese restaurants in the US that she had written for CNN.   In reading Yelp their signature dish seemed to be the marinated duck breast, so we ordered that plus the Singapore mei fun.  Because the duck required preparation time, the mei fun came out first and was clearly the worst version of that dish we ever ate, moist and bland.   The $26 duck on a bed of string beans came out later, and it was OK, but certainly no better than the roast duck you could get in Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley for much less.  Strangely the tweet I posted saying that this was the worse mei fun I had ever eaten was retweeted by a San Diego magazine and another San Diego tweeter with a large social media presence–between them the two tweeters had 10,000 followers.  I wonder whether they realized that my tweet was so negative.  I also wonder why Del Mar Rendezvous made CNN's national Top 50.

We took an afternoon flight out of San Diego for New York, and by the time we got our luggage and rode the taxi into town it was 11 pm, so I was still debating whether to eat.  However since the Halal Guys were just a block away from the Sheraton we headed there and luckily the line was short.  The chicken rice was as good as ever. 

For me, the highlight of the trip was the next morning at Tim Ho Wan in East Village.  Tim Ho Wan invented the crispy baked bbq pork bun, and the bun helped their Hong Kong location become the first restaurant in the $10pp category to garner a Michelin star.  When they first opened in New York about a year ago, the waiting time was as much as 3 to 4 hours, so I decided to get there early, at 10:30 am.  I was relieved to find that it was only half full when I arrived there.  I presume that by now that novelty has worn out, plus the fact that aside from the crispy bbq pork bun, the word has gotten out that the rest of the stuff on the menu isn’t particularly good.  I had two orders of the crispy buns which while not as good as the Hong Kong branch, or even versions of the same item in the Bay Area, were still good enough to make me happy.

Next most notable meal was dinner at Hakkasan.   The NY Hakkasan menu was largely different from the San Francisco branch, and we had the lamb wrap (similar to the now ubiquitous Shandong beef rolls), seabass with Chinese honey (the best dish of the night), and the curry seafood hotpot with fried bread, plus a bowl of chicken soup.  In addition, because they misplaced our order for a while, they comped us their special passionfruit dessert, which was a dab of passionfruit sorbet, a small chocolate square with passionfruit in the center, and a small passionfruit gel.  The $15 retail price for the dessert made for a $150 dinner in total, which while quite good, really wasn’t worth that hefty of a price. 

A nice side trip was a subway ride to Columbia University to check out the Chinese food trucks I had written about.  The ride was short from Midtown, and it took a few minutes more to figure out that the trucks were parked near the main gate.  There were a half dozen trucks parked, four Chinese though the others were also Asian.  I  spotted the Uncle Luoyang trick and had the tofu skin salad which was quite good, eating it while looking out over the main courtyard.  

Another nice trip was going out to Flushing where  we went to New Mulan Seafood restaurant as it was the only major dim sum location in Flushing I had never been to.  The bad news was that it was full up with people waiting for dim sum, but the offsetting news was they had a separate dining room that did not serve dim sum, which was largely empty and was good enough for me.  It was actually one of the nicest dining rooms I’ve seen in a Cantonese restaurant in a Chinese community.  The regular menu had a high price point, but they also had a nice menu of $10 lunch specials.  The best dish was the throwback Cantonese fillet steak, almost never seen in California before where everybody serves the better tasting French cut filet mignon instead.  Another sign of how New York Chinese food badly trails the west coast.  

The rest of the food in New York was good to average.  It was interesting going to the original Eataly in Chelsea after having visited the Chicago Eataly twice.  The pappardelle with black truffle cream was excellent, but the lasagna wasn't, as the noodles were much too thin.  Chinatown dinners at Canton Lounge and Shanghai Heping were ordinary, as was breakfast at Hoy Wong.   However, the fish jian bing at Yinwahmen, the first I’ve ever seen, was very interesting, basically like a McDonald’s filet of fish but spicy with pickled vegetables.   And Kam Hing Coffee Shop turned out to be a real gem, the only restaurant on Baxter St., a street I passed dozens of times but never bothered to check out since their signature item being sponge cake wasn't that much of an attraction to me.  Kam Hing has one of the shortest menus I’ve ever seen in a Chinese restaurant.  But in addition to the sponge cake, they have fish balls, and rice noodle logs, and they do a booming business both with sit downs and take outs.  

Last mention goes to the Lexington Ave. street fair, one of the rotating street fair locations put on by a company called Mardi Gras Productions, which ran over a dozen blocks.   Several food vendors sold arapas, a Colombian cornmeal patty made with mozzarella cheese.   Very interesting and I thought also very good.