Sunday, July 15, 2018

Attention Culver City--Chinese Eating Is Really Becoming Interesting In Your City

It was just three months ago that I discussed the Culver City opening of Ooak Restaurant, which was highly significant for three reasons. First of all, it appeared to be the first opening of a Guangzhou based Chinese restaurant from Mainland China in the greater Los Angeles area.  Secondly, this opening occurred in Culver City, whose only connection to authentic Chinese food has been the branch of 101 Noodle Express located in the Westfield Culver City Fox Hills Mall.  And that presence has since been tarnished by the fact that 101 Noodle Express took their famed beef rolls off the menu at this Culver City location.  And lastly, its vegetarian/vegan menu in this part of the Los Angeles area appeared to be an outreach to a demographic not typically courted by authentically good Chinese restaurants, in this case vegetarian Westside hipsters. 

However, as it turns out, Ooak Restaurant's original opening may just be the tip of the iceberg in what may be part of a game changing process.  In its first few months of operation, Ooak Restaurant has notched a slow but steady increase in clientele.  But what I have found surprising is that they seem to be drawing as much Chinese clientele for their specialty Chinese vegetarian menu as the local hipster crowd that one might have imagined to be the target audience for this location.  This might just be the manifestation of the surprisingly sudden increase in sources of authentic Chinese food on the Westside in the past two or three years as indicated by multiple openings of Northern Cafe and Tasty Noodle House branches out of the San Gabriel Valley, as well as opening of other authentic Chinese restaurants such as the fabled Din Tai Fung, Popcorn Chicken, Little Highness Bao, Little Fatty, Gu Yi, Flaming Pot and iFood, and the upcoming Westside locations of 85°C Bakery & CafĂ©, Hi Di Lao Hotpot, and Sichuan Impression.  Note too, authentic Sichuan menu items added to longstanding Westside restaurants Hop Woo and Golden China, and the appearance of a significant Chinese clientele at Bao on Beverly Blvd, and you can see that something major is happening. 

But yet, perhaps the biggest event for Westside Chinese dining is yet to come.  In dropping by to check out their new (perhaps seasonal) vegetarian dim sum menu I started chatting with the restaurant manager, who disclosed plans to relocate their Chinese vegetarian operations to a smaller location, and convert the existing Ooak space in Culver City to a dim sum and Chinese seafood restaurant.  My hope is that this would lead to the first full sized Westside Chinese seafood/dim sum operation like we find in the San Gabriel Valley since Royal Star closed down in Santa Monica over a dozen years ago.  And given the Guangzhou based ownership of Ooak Kitchen, might we even hope for the first Guangzhou style dim sum and seafood restaurant in the Los Angeles area?   (The first Guangzhou dim sum restaurant in the US, H.L. Peninsula, just opened up in South San Francisco this year.)  If so, this could be a real game changer in Westside Chinese dining.

In the interim there's more news out of Ooak Restaurant as they have added a summertime vegetarian dim sum menu.  Of course, not all dim sum for vegetarians is necessarily something different from regular dim sum, such as the egg yolk lava bun and egg tarts.  However, the vegetarian versions of non-vegetarian dim sum items are quite interesting.   Unfortunately though the composition of these items remains a mystery to me as our server was not familiar with the ingredients used in the individual items except to mention things like mushrooms, water chestnuts, and vegetarian oyster sauce.

Perhaps the best item is the vegetarian har gow, particularly since the vegetarian har gow had an essence that was very shrimp like.

Another reasonably close cousin to the real thing was the vegetarian bbq pork bun.

However, the vegetarian siu mai was off the mark, plus it fell apart like a house of cards as soon as I started eating it.

At $5 to $8 per dim sum item, Ooak Kitchen's vegetarian dim sum is worth it if you're a Westside vegetarian.

A couple of bonus items were pretty good.  The spicy vegetarian wontons weren't particularly spicy, unless you asked for the chili sauce on the side.

And the pineapple fried rice was visual and unique.

Obviously Ooak Restaurant has already made things very interesting in Culver City.  I hope that things are about to get really more interesting.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Dim Sum Chef Returns to Xiang Yuan Gourmet and I Do, Too.

It was less than a year ago when Xiang Yuan Gourmet opened up in Temple City and as I speculated at the time, it might have been the best dim sum opening in Los Angeles in a decade . Of course a few weeks later Longo Seafood opened up and eclipsed Xiang Yuan Gourmet, but still that gave the San Gabriel Valley a great new one-two dim sum punch.  But then earlier this year, a poster on Yelp reported that the dim sum kitchen got in a spat with the restaurant owners and walked out.  (While I savaged Yelp's Chinese restaurant ratings in my L.A. Weekly article I do admit that Yelpers do provide a good source of peripheral restaurant information.)   I'm not clear whether the restaurant continued dim sum service for a while with replacements, but they did eventually terminate dim sum for conventional lunch service.  However last week, another Yelper reported the return of dim sum to Xiang Yuan Gourmet, so I headed out there.

Of course the $64 question is whether the revived dim sum service would be similar to what they previously served, or whether it's a new bunch of dim sum chefs in the kitchen.  I can't say for sure, but the dim sum is quite similar to the old menu, and the quality is high.

First up was the salty egg yolk bun.   The casing is very similar to the old Xiang Yuan Gourmet crispy bamboo paste balls, which is still on the new menu, and would further indicate that the old crew is back in the kitchen.

Next was the deep fried shrimp rolls.  Just as good as before.

Something different this time, shrimp/cruller cheung fun.  Excellent flavor. even though not especially photogenic.

This is their almond and walnut bun.  A variation of their former almond cream bun.  Better than the almond cream bun at Red 8 at the Wynn in Las Vegas, as the Xiang Yuan version is a mixture of nuts and cream (with less cream) and not overly sweet.

Now the real question is whether their taro bun is the same porcupine shaped bun that used to be on the old menu.  A follow up field trip is warranted.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Bistro Na's--A Year and a Half Later

When I first visited Bistro Na's in late 2016, as I wrote in Menuism and L.A. Weekly it was more about the significance of the restaurant's opening itself, as the first conspicuously upscale Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, the first restaurant to offer Imperial Court style Chinese cuisine in the United States, and the first U.S. branch of a widely known Mainland Chinese restaurant chain.  Now a year and a half later, I returned to Bistro Na's, this time reporting on the wonderful menu and ambiance they have created. 

Back in 2016, Bistro Na's was as much about its quirkiness and doubts about their concept as the food itself.  Walking into an empty restaurant on a weekday afternoon, we were told by a waiter that we could not be seated because because we did not have a reservation, though we were eventually seated by another hostess.  Similar tales were reported on the internet, but with rejected diners saying they merely went back to their car, phoned in a reservation, and were then seated.  Meanwhile, though the food was excellent and the decor was outstanding, the overshadowing elements were the emptiness of the restaurants, and the fact that what small crowd was in fact in the restaurant was comprised mostly of female diners, which led me to speculate that the restaurant was a meeting place for the Rich Housewives of the San Gabriel Valley.  But the lack of clientele was particularly troubling since the typical pattern for newly opened San Gabriel Valley restaurants was for the restaurant to be packed by looky-loos in its opening days, with the true test being how many of the grand opening diners would ever come back.  (The best example of this was Singapore Leaf in Alhambra which was packed with overflow crowds when they opened, but out of business within three months.)  So if Bistro Na's couldn't even get looky-loo's in the door when they opened, what chances would they have for long term success?

Indeed, Bistro Na's has survived, and on this follow up visit to Bistra Na's, I'm pleased to be able to focus on the food, and I'm equally pleased to report that this is truly a gem of a restaurant.  The restaurant was packed, albeit we did go on Father's Day, with people waiting to get in.  Everything that we ordered was a winner.  The most highly decorated dish on the menu was the crispy shrimp and did not disappoint.  Light, crispy and delicious, shell and all.

Sometimes it pays to go with a staff recommendation even though it may sound improbable at the time.  The lotus stuffed with sticky rice was a complete surprise, both in appearance in flavor.  Not a bland vegetarian dish, but instead a tasty combination highlighted with a sweet cane sugar sauce.

Another surprisingly delicious dish was the fried tofu with vegetable, with the vegetable comprising one edge of the fried tofu stick.

The staff also recommended the bean curd skin salad.  While variations of this dish are commonplace in non-Cantonese cold table displays and restaurant menus, the taste of cumin sets this version off from the others.

Having been put off by too many gamey tasting Western lamb dishes, it was with trepidation we ordered Bistro Na's crispy lamb dish.  Wow!  If this wasn't the best dish of the meal, it was certainly close.

We needed a dish to round out our order, but a couple of other choices were unavailable, so we "settled" for the ordinary looking cold steamed chicken.    Good thing we did because this was as good as this dish gets.

If the crispy lamb wasn't the best dish, then the prime rib was.  I typically don't take prime rib over a good steak, but if every prime rib were like this I certainly would.

While we didn't order anything off of the official dessert section, the fried rice cakes with condensed milk certainly served the purpose.  And condensed milk certainly makes anything taste better.

By Chinese food standards, Bistro Na's is pricey.  But compared to Western restaurant serving similar or analogous items, around $150 for these items were a bargain.  Nobody outside of the Chinese community seems to know about Bistro Na's, and a lot of people in the community don't know about it either.  But if it's hidden, it's certainly a hidden treasure.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Return To Dragon Beaux

With our second trip to San Francisco in three months we took advantage of this to have another dim sum lunch at Dragon Beaux in San Francisco.  After my previous visit this year, I suggested that Dragon Beaux might well be the best dim sum restaurant in the United States.   And nothing in this visit suggests any different conclusion.

Of course the trouble with Dragon Beaux is that it is so good that it is also very popular and often requires a long wait to get a table.  Since this time we were on our way back to Los Angeles, I timed our arrival for 1:45pm on a Thursday, and sure enough the crowd has receded enough such that there were empty tables.  My plan was to order all new dishes, that were highly recommended on the food message boards.  Before I could order, a server came around with a tray of Macau egg tarts.  Since we had recently eaten wonderful egg tarts at Pastels Belem in Lisbon, and cheese tarts from the newly opened Bake in Westfield's San Francisco Center on Market Street, it made sense to grab these for comparison.  While I preferred the Portuguese tart from Lisbon, Mrs. Chandavkl thought the Dragon Beaux Macau tart was just as good. 

After placing our order, our choices started coming in.  First was the taro puff, not particularly one of my favorite dim sum items and indeed in hindsight I wonder why I had eaten them as many times as I had in the past.  No question with the Dragon Beaux version, so light and delicious!

Next up, another real winner, the stuffed eggplant.  Not as fantastic as some commentators had made them out to be, but still probably another best in class item.

Next came the daikon cake, again touted by some to be transcendental.  (If you notice a pattern, compared to our previous visit which focused on innovative items, this time we had mostly traditional items.)  This was certainly good, but not necessarily better than everybody else's.

Perhaps most highly rated among commentators was the scallop shiu mai, a regular shiu mai topped by a scallop slice on top.  This certainly as good as shiu mai gets.

I made one random choice off the menu, the Mongolian beef bun.  I was a little apprehensive since I've had some pedestrian non-Cantonese steamed beef bao recently.  However this dish was exquisitely presented as a sizzling/smoking dish.  While not knocking it out of the park, this was a nice dish with a sweetness in the bun contrasted to the salty interior.

Last on the list was the mysterious "glutinous pillow", very highly rated by the commentators.  As it turns out, it was merely a fancy name for the ordinary hom sui guk.  However this was not an ordinary dish, with the crispy crunchy exterior compared to the soft interior making this by far the best version of this dish I've ever seen. 

As my prior posting indicates, Dragon Beaux certainly hits it with modern dim sum, and this visit confirms that traditional dim sum is also superior.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Returning To My Old Hood--For Chinese Food?

Things are really changing in my old neighborhood, which was called Crenshaw back then, though this seem to have been replaced in these days of gentrification by the term West Adams (used to describe the area south of the Santa Monica Freeway).  I lived on Chesapeake Ave. between Jefferson and Adams, two blocks from Dorsey High School.  We moved there in 1952, breaking away from the neighborhoods near downtown Los Angeles where many Chinese Angelinos were confined to by housing discrimination.  The 1948 US Supreme Court decision outlawing deed covenants restricting ownership of property to Caucasians was an impetus for Chinese and other minorities to expand their presence in Los Angeles neighborhoods, though de facto housing discrimination continued in some local communities for many more years.

When we arrived in Crenshaw the neighborhood was in transition, with Chinese, Japanese and African Americans moving in and whites moving out.  But the Crenshaw area, including Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills and Viewpark, did stabilize and was reasonably well integrated, with my graduating class at Dorsey High School almost equally mixed with Asians, Blacks and Caucasians.   It was only after the 1965 Watts riots made their way to Crenshaw that the composition of the area became unbalanced.

Now I know things have been changing lately in the Crenshaw area, reading  in L. A. Times articles about how a combination of the Expo Line, the under construction Crenshaw Line, and the general eastward creep of the Westside have brought new home buyers into the area.  However I was still stunned to read last year that what now is referred to as West Adams is now one of the hottest housing markets in the United States.   The little 1,200 square foot house on Chesapeake which we bought for $9,000, is now Zillow valued at $785,000.  (Last year it was $611,000).

There really was no truly authentic Chinese food in Los Angeles in the old days, so in Crenshaw we were satisfied with local Chinese restaurants such as Four Seasons on Santa Barbara Ave. (now MLK Blvd.), Tai Ping on Crenshaw for more upscale sit down dining, and Kim's Restaurant next door, Paul's Kitchen #2 and Confucius Delicacies on Jefferson Bl. for homestyle Cantonese cooking, and the Sakiba at the Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw for bbq pork noodle soup.  I honestly can say that I don't miss any of those eateries.  Though we lived in the area until the 1990s, it was really no big deal to drive for Chinese food to Chinatown, or on weekends, the San Gabriel Valley.

Since I'm still in the area once or twice a week I've kept pretty close track of the Chinese food in Crenshaw/West Adams and it's all pretty much either steam table fast food or buffet, with Kim's and Tim's Kitchen succeeding Paul's, managing to survive as sit down options. And the area hasn't gentrified enough yet to lead to any legitimate sit down Chinese openings.   Still when I saw that New China Mongolian BBQ was opening at 4134 Crenshaw, where a string of steam table places has operated for 25 years, I dashed on down there to check it out.   I was expecting more of the same Chinese fast food, except that the Mongolian BBQ part of the name threw me.  Mongolian BBQ in the 'hood?  But when I stepped inside, while I did see the Mongolian BBQ grill, it was the layout of the rest of the restaurant that struck me.  New China Mongolian BBQ is a self-serve takeout restaurant which sells food for $3.69 a pound.   (Offhand I can't recall seeing this particular format for a Chinese restaurant before.)  Think taking food out from a standard Chinese buffet, except that there's almost no place to sit down and eat.  The self-serve steam trays are comparable to the selection available at smaller Chinese buffets, with a nice variety of chicken, rice, noodle, beef, vegetable and pork dishes.  And the food is good buffet quality (if that's not an oxymoron)--and see what I got for $4 in my first visit there. 

While New China Mongolian BBQ may not be my new absolutely favorite Chinese restaurant, I can see myself coming here frequently.  And I haven't tried the Mongolian BBQ yet.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Stumbling Across Madrid’s Unknown Chinatown in The Blink of An Eye

Though it is widely believed that there is no Chinatown in Madrid, it turns out I was fortuitously able to discover it in about 30 seconds.  Even the tour guide on our tour of Spain and Portugal, who is from Hong Kong and who did tell us a little about the Chinese living in Spain  was unaware of this Chinatown. 

By way of background, this month’s tour of Portugal and Spain has been one of the most Chinese food deprived trips I’ve been on.  Basically I saw one Chinese restaurant in Lisbon on the first day of the trip, which was coincidentally right next to the hotel, then didn’t see another Chinese restaurant anywhere for over a week.  The last two days of the trip were in Barcelona, where restaurants are quite commonplace, and where two of our three group meals were at Chinese restaurants, something which I had mixed feelings about.  While I like to eat at Chinese restaurants wherever I go, and found these two restaurant visits insightful, I really didn’t get a chance to sample Barcelona’s vaunted local food.

Also, typically on our other recent trips to Europe, South America, Dubai and India, many hotel breakfast buffets offer at least a small section of food for Chinese travelers.  However not one of the six hotels we stayed at during the trip had any.  Even the Barcelona hotel didn’t have a Chinese food section in its buffet, but they did make a different accommodation for a large Chinese tour group from Shanghai–a private VIP room with specially prepared dishes.  My sister-in-law was erroneously directed into this room as the waitress mistook her for one of the Shanghai group members, and as the first member of our group to make it down to breakfast, she didn’t realize the mistake.  But while the Novotel had a special menu for this Chinese group, including some kind of Chinese vegetable dish, and all in all she said the special meal wasn’t very good.  

So now my discovery.   We’re riding on Highway 42  from Toledo and approaching Madrid, perhaps twenty miles out of town.   We had ridden for miles of boring countryside so I had actually stopped looking out of the window.  But I looked up and peered out and saw what appeared to be a semi-industrial area, and noticed what looked like a Chinese shopping center, with one store with signage that said “Wenzhou”, and another one which was a Chinese bakery.  I also saw a highway billboard in Chinese.

When we got to our hotel in Madrid, I mentioned my sighting to our tour guide.    He previously had told us how that most of the Chinese in Spain were from the city of Wenzhou, famous for manufacturing knockoff designer goods.  (The only Wenzhou people in the US are found in New York, where a decade ago they controlled the fake DVD business that was booming at the time.)  Inasmuch as our guide leads this tour of Spain and Portugal probably 10 times a year for Cantonese and English speaking Chinese Americans and Canadians, I figured he had passed by this Chinese enclave many times, and would have additional information about it.  However, when I mentioned this “Chinatown” I saw, he said there was no Chinatown in Madrid and I probably just merely saw a Chinese restaurant named Wenzhou.

Not satisfied with his response, I did a Google search for “Wenzhou Madrid” which brought up Wenzhou Supermarket with two locations, one on the edge of downtown Madrid (in an area with a scattering of Chinese residents and businesses) and the other in the area which we had driven through, called Fuenlabrada.  It also pulled up a map of of Fuenlabrada which showed two other places called Wenzhou Market, and other businesses within the area with Wenzhou in their name.  Further armed with the name Fuenlabrada, I was able to get a full picture of this Chinatown.  Fuenlabrada is home to a large number of warehouses used to store various types of goods imported from China, usually representing lower priced merchandise.  There are hundreds of Chinese companies employing thousands of workers, here with Fuenlabrada being likely the largest Chinese commercial center in Europe.  The Chinese economic activity here is no secret, but little attention has been paid to the corollative development of a  Chinese residential community in the area, creating a new Chinatown for the Madrid area. 

While traditional Chinatowns in the United States and worldwide were largely founded by Cantonese migrants, decades ago, who knows how many other communities like Fuenlabrada Chinatown, of recent origin founded by Chinese mainlanders, there might be around the world?  And lucky for me we drove by Fuenlabrada  and I happened to look out of the bus window at the right time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Sichuan Style Chinese Food Finally Coming to Los Angeles Chinatown

Perhaps the loudest message I've been sending the last couple of years is how Los Angeles Chinatown has been seemingly defying gravity by serving almost exclusively Cantonese style Chinese food, while every other Chinese community in the United States is home to numerous authentic non-Cantonese restaurants, particularly restaurants serving Sichuan style food. Not only that, but you can find authentic Sichuan style food in virtually every college town in the US.   So it was certainly strange to find no Sichuan style food in Los Angeles Chinatown, while you could find three or more places serving such fare in Iowa City, Iowa within short walking distance of the University of Iowa campus.

Indeed, my most recent Menuism article from last month discussed the Cantonese wall of Los Angeles Chinatown and how perhaps Hispanic diners were helping to prop the wall up.  All along I've assumed that the Cantonese wall of Los Angeles Chinatown could crack at any time, and indeed in my Los Angeles Weekly article from early last year I may have prematurely declared that the time had arrived.  Yet into the spring of 2018, no Sichuan food was to be found in Los Angeles Chinatown.

While it took longer than I thought, Sichuan food is about to arrive in Los Angeles Chinatown with the opening of another branch of Sichuan Impression, joining Howlin' Ray's Nashville Hot Chicken, Chego, Lao Tao, Baohaus, and LASA, among other non-traditional tenants in Far East Plaza (originally called the Food Center when it opened in the late 1970s as Los Angeles' answer to Hong Kong's "Food Street.")    Seemingly, Los Angeles Chinatown is poised to join the 21st century as far as Chinese food choices are concerned.

But while I have been predicting this day for quite a while now, I'm not totally ready to concede that the  Cantonese wall of Los Angeles Chinatown is going the way of the Berlin Wall.  Yes, Sichuan Impression is one of the two big Los Angeles area dogs of the modern Sichuan cuisine movement in the US, along with Chengdu Taste.  But Sichuan Impression is opening up in Far East Plaza, which is ground zero for the culinary hipsterization of Los Angeles Chinatown.  Los Angeles Chinatown has become a magnet for trendy non-Chinese restaurants, as I previously wrote for Menuism, with other non-Chinese newcomers outside of those in the Far East Plaza complex, such as Little Jewel of New Orleans, David Chang's Majordomo, Burger Lords, and the already departed Pok Pok.

With its mainstream renown, I'm wondering whether Sichuan Impression's upcoming opening in LA Chinatown is more a reflection of hipsterdom rather than an organic demand for Sichuan style food.  Perhaps the recent downtown  high rise opening of Li Orient that I previously chronicled  is an indication of organic demand for Sichuan cooking in central Los Angeles, but we will have to wait and see.