Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can The Westside of Los Angeles Support Great Authentic Chinese Food?

One of the factors in my becoming willing to drive significant distances for Chinese food was working for 30 years on the Westside of Los Angeles.   When I first showed up for work there it was a wasteland as far as Chinese food was concerned.  Chinese food was defined by restaurants such as Wan Q, Kowloon, Madame Wu, Twin Dragon and Jade West.  Consequently I became quite used to making the trek from my Century City office to Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley at lunch time back in the days when it was a breeze to drive across town.

More recently it has been posited that if a signature San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant were to open somewhere in West LA, that they would clean up.  This is based on a perceived increase in the sophistication of Westsiders towards Chinese food, as well as a larger Chinese Westside presence including a large Chinese student population at UCLA.  However, others have replied to the contrary with words like don't be fooled by the number of knowledgeable Westsiders who understand and appreciate San Gabriel Valley Chinese food as indicated by their participation in Chinese restaurant discussions on message boards such as Chowhound.   In reality, there really aren't enough such Westsiders to actually support a branch of a high quality authentic Chinese restaurant on that side of town.  This position seems to be supported by the fact that while there is certainly a large amount of discussion of top San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants by non-Chinese commentators, if you actually walk into any of those restaurants, the presence of non-Chinese diners is negligible.

Thus it was with great anticipation that Newport Seafood, one of the very most popular Chinese (actually Chinese/Vietnamese) restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley was opening up a branch on La Cienega's Restaurant Row.  To Westsiders, the impending opening of the restaurant was earthshaking news, and would prove that the Westside's taste for Chinese food had matured to the point where one no longer had to make the trek to Monterey Park or San Gabriel to get the real thing.  Perhaps Newport Seafood would be followed by other San Gabriel Valley heavyweights.  Din Tai Fung?  Sea Harbour?  Why not?

However, so far, things have not gone as planned.  It was widely expected that when it opened, Newport Seafood would be one of the toughest tickets in town.  But even at the very beginning the restaurant was never full.  In fear of the crowds, I had deferred my first visit until a month after opening.  When I arrived, was I surprised.  Only one or other two tables were occupied the entire time we were there.  Subsequent reports indicate things have not improved on weekday afternoons, despite the fact that the food at Newport Seafood in Beverly Hills is quite good.

This is not to say that there is not good authentic Chinese food on the Westside.  Certainly Hakkasan in Beverly Hills is as good as it gets, but it's also as expensive as it gets and seems to be aimed at the expense account crowd.  A number of other authentic Chinese restaurants are doing OK on the Westside--Meizhou Dongpo, the first branch of a Beijing based chain, in Century City, Mandarin Kitchen and Qin West on Westwood Blvd., ROC and M & J Cafe on the Sawtelle corridor, and Formerly California Wok on Wilshire, to name some of them.    But the disappointing reaction to Newport Seafood still seems to indicate that the Westside still isn't ready for prime time.

Note that about 20 years ago there were similar hopes for authentic Chinese food on the Westside.  J.R. Seafood, a true Hong Kong style seafood restaurant opened up on Santa Monica Blvd., followed by VIP Harbor Seafood (a branch of San Gabriel's Harbor Seafood) on Wilshire Blvd., and Royal Star (a branch of Monterey Park's Ocean Star) in Santa Monica.  Indeed, those three restaurants were of equivalent quality to the existing Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, and in fact observers thought VIP Harbor Seafood was better than the San Gabriel original.   But alas, VIP Harbor and J.R. Seafood have been replaced by watered down successors, and the Royal Star location is no longer even a Chinese restaurant.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Congress Shouldn't Be Allowed To Pass Tax Laws

Yes, I know that sounds silly since it's Congress' job to enact all kinds  of legislation, including tax laws.  However the manner in which they have done their job when it comes to taxation indicates a basic inability to properly carry this out.  Today, they enacted legislation governing the treatment of several dozen tax items for the year 2014.  Yes, two weeks before the end of the year they establish the rules that apply for the entire year.  Or to put it another way, affected taxpayers did not know during most of 2014 what the tax law treatment would ultimately be for these items. 

Making this more ridiculous is the fact that many of these tax provisions are incentives, intended to encourage taxpayers to make certain types of expenditures.  This includes credits and deductions for spending money on research and development, to develop alternative energy sources, to invest in new equipment, and so on.  And what kind of incentive is it if you award it after most of the year has passed and taxpayers have already decided to incur or not incur those expenditures?

And oh yeah.  Because it was well known that Congress might or might not enact these provisions, the IRS can't issue tax forms for 2014, and until the tax forms are issued, taxpayers can't file their tax returns.  Is this any way to run a tax system?  Of course not.  But does Congress care?  Of course not.  They do this at the end of every year.  Today's changes expire at December 31, 2014.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Are There So Few Chinese Buffets in Los Angeles?

People in Los Angeles may not be aware of it, but there aren’t a lot of Chinese buffets in Los Angeles when compared to other parts of the country.  Yes, there are probably a few dozen Chinese buffet restaurants in Los Angeles county.  But when one sees the numbers of Chinese buffet restaurants in other parts of the country and compares them on a per capita basis to Los Angeles, the differential is startling. 

Recently visiting Gainesville, FL, I passed a half dozen Chinese buffets in my half hour drive around town.  With a population of 120,000, that would project out to 500 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, based on a population of 10 million in Los Angeles county.   Or about 10 years ago, when in Kilgore, TX, I saw three Chinese buffet restaurants in this town of 15,000.  That ratio would result in 2,000 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, a number which likely would exceed the total number of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles, which has a half million Chinese residents.

So why are Chinese buffets so relatively scarce in Los Angeles?  Offhand I can think of a few reasons.  First of all, to a large extent, a Chinese buffet is a lowest common denominator as far as Chinese food is concerned.  Many of these Chinese buffets are in cities having a small Chinese population, and where the local residents are not as sophisticated as to Chinese food.   As such, Chinese buffets are well suited to serve the types of dishes that unsophisticated diners are used to, like chow mein, fried rice and broccoli beef, and as such represent a higher percentage of Chinese restaurants in those communities.   Indeed, if you look at other locales with larger Chinese populations and a higher level of community sophistication as to Chinese food, such as San Francisco and Manhattan, you find that Chinese buffets are also not as common.     Also, buffets are part of the longstanding image that equates Chinese food with economical dining with their emphasis on low cost ingredients, which was one of the initial appeals of Chinese food to American audiences.    Less obviously, geographic areas with a higher density of Chinese buffets are also within the Fujianese restaurant worker diaspora, with an extremely large supply of willing Chinese restaurant workers and restaurant owners.

Still it’s surprising not to see more Chinese buffets in Los Angeles.  With a large Chinese population sporting a culture that both enjoys food and getting your money’s worth, one would expect to find a good number of Chinese buffets serving authentic Chinese food.  But while such restaurants do exist, there are but a handful of them.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Proponents Of Sharply Higher Minimum Wage Are Incredibly Naive

Here on the west coast a number of cities are talking about increasing the minimum wage substantially over current levels, with amounts of $15 an hour or more being bandied about.  The simplistic argument is that raising the minimum wage means minimum wage workers will have a lot more money to spend, boosting the economy.  However, somehow having earned a bachelors degree in Economics eons ago, I can tell you that things are not that simple. 

First of all, for the most part, businesses are conduits for costs, i.e., the prices they charge are equal to their costs plus a small profit margin.   While many people have this idea that business profits are a large percentage of how much businesses charge for their products and services, that is usually not the case.  For example, historically supermarkets earn a net profit of 1% to 2% (i.e., 1 to 2 cents per dollar of sales).  Restaurant net profits run 3% to 5% of sales, and averaged about 1% of sales during the great recession.  (And how many people know that in the entire history of the airline industry, commercial airlines have a cumulative net loss?)  The corollary to this is that a significant increase in the minimum wage will by definition be passed on in its entirety to consumers in higher prices.  So any increase in the minimum wage will in reality come out of your pocket and my pocket.

Of course there's nothing necessarily wrong with that scenario.  It might me worth it for you and me to help finance a higher wage for low paid workers.  But alas, things are more complicated than that.  In economics there's a concept of marginal utility.  Basically economic inputs, such as labor, are priced at how much they are worth, and there is a limit as to how much any particular economic input is worth.  And frankly there are a lot of jobs out there that aren't worth $15 an hour to the employer, so for these jobs raising the minimum wage to $15 will not raise that worker's pay, but rather will send him straight to the unemployment line.  If this sounds like economic gobbledygook, check out this article on potential changes in the fast food industry.  While McDonald's is one of the major targets of the $15 minimum wage advocates, the fact is that McDonald's is hurting with unprecedented declines in earnings.  And raising the minimum wage sharply will mean that technologies that didn't make sense with a $8 minimum wage will suddenly become a no-brainer with a $15 minimum wage.  Or how can a hole in the wall family owned Chinese restaurant afford to pay its dishwashers and busboys $15 an hour?  Maybe they can't and they'll be driven out of business with a higher minimum wage.

So as the old saying admonishes, be careful of what you wish for.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Yelp Star Ratings For Chinese Restaurants Don't Fly

In my previous posting on the best Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles according to Yelp, I pointed out how the two highest Yelp ratings went to two hole-in-the-wall nondescript restaurants in mid-City Los Angeles that served Americanized Chinese food.  Granted that most of the really good Chinese restaurants in the region are outside of the city of Los Angeles, located in the many cities of the San Gabriel Valley.  But the fact is that Wah's Golden Hen on Virgil and Sea Dragon on Vermont  with 4½ stars each score higher on Yelp than most all of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.  This is what I described as the comparability fallacy on Yelp, i.e., the people rating Wah's Golden Hen were a completely different group from those rating Sea Harbour in Rosemead, likely the best Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area.

But the fact is that people giving ridiculously high ratings to places like Wah's Golden Hen are only half of the equation.  The other part of the equation is that while the San Gabriel Valley has many of the great Chinese restaurants in the United States, the best of these do not have more than 3½ Yelp stars.  From my listing of the top 10 Chinese restaurants in the US, I rate Sea Harbour in Rosemead at #2 (and likely #1 in the dim sum category).  But it only has 3½ Yelp stars.  Numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6 in my national list, Elite in Monterey Park, and King Hua, Lunasia and Chengdu Taste in Alhambra?  All 3½ stars.      

This is not to say that there are no higher rated Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.  Newport Seafood and Boston Lobster rate at 4½ stars, while New Bay Seafood garners 4 stars.  But all three of these restaurants are lobster specialists, which may well indicate that lobster is its own demographic when it comes to Yelp ratings.   And there are a number of other 4 star Yelp rated Chinese restaurants in the area, including the well deserved Savoy in Alhambra, but also in Alhambra the horrid Sam Woo BBQ.

So why are the ratings for many San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants lower than should be expected?  It's hard to say but a few things come to mind.   First of all there are low reviews from non-Chinese diners who may not know what to order, or who do not appreciate truly good authentic Chinese food.  There are people who downgrade for non-culinary reasons such as service (what do you expect at a Chinese restaurant?), higher than average price, or parking.   But what I think might be the hidden key is that while the Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is the best in the United States, it does not compare to Chinese food overseas.  As a result, I'm guessing many of the Chinese diners in the San Gabriel Valley are giving ratings when comparing to food they've eaten in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and other locales.   But whatever the reason, be aware that Yelp ratings for Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles are badly off kilter.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lights! Camera! Action!

I just had the opportunity to be interviewed for an upcoming documentary series on the current state of Chinese cuisine in North America titled "The Way of the Wok."  This six part series is being produced by Lucent Media of Canada, in conjunction with New Tang Dynasty, a Chinese language television network in Canada.  The producer hopes to also distribute the series also to public television stations in the US and Canada.  The six part series consists of an overview of Chinese food in North America, and separate shows on what are sometimes referred to as the five great cuisines of China--Cantonese, Huiyang, Shandong, Dongbei and Sichuan, and their current status in North America.

Like other interview requests, this one was attributed to the publicity I've received as the 6,000 Chinese restaurant diner.  In this regard, I really didn't read the fine print about the program's content until I arrived at the filming site, Chua Ren Bai Wei Restaurant, a newly opened restaurant in Temple City on the site of the former Beijing Duck House.  When I arrived there the film crew had also just arrived as was setting up.  It turns out there were 6 of them--the production assistant Carmen Poon, who was my contact, the producer Theresa Kowall-Shipp, the hostess Christine Cushing, a well known Canadian chef who had her own self-named cooking show on Food TV Canada, two cameramen and one sound technician.   At this point in time I started to panic a little, particularly when I heard them talking about "Lu" cuisine which I never heard of, and when I realized that the series was focused on the intricacies of Chinese regional cuisines, which as a non-foodie I never paid particular attention to.  Fortunately it took them 45 minutes to set up, so I used the time to do a little background reading on my Blackberry on regional cuisines.  In addition I had also brought a print-out of my restaurant list for potential use as a prop, so while they were setting up I went to my car to check the list for when the various regional cuisines made their first appearance in the US.

As it turns out, we shot three separate segments for the show, for the overview of Chinese food in North America, on Shandong cuisine (which includes Peking Duck and which is a specialty of the restaurant) and on Sichuan cuisine, which is the main focus of Chua Ren Bai Wei.   We started with the overview segment and immediately Christine started asking about my restaurant list, and my motivation in visiting Chinese restaurants and in keeping the list. I talked about my initial interest in the budding ethnic studies movement of the late 1960s and how I became fascinated by the tale of Chinese American immigrants, and how visiting Chinese restaurants in my travels gave me the chance to see Chinese American communities wherever I traveled.   I mentioned how two decades later going to work for a national employer and attending meetings all around the country really accelerated my ability to explore Chinese restaurants.  A well placed leading question enabled me to segue into the fact that Chinese Americans and Chinese food in the US and Canada was exclusively Toishanese from 1850 until the 1960s, so what was known as Chinese food in North America during that period was really an accident of history, geography, and the enactment of Chinese exclusion laws that produced a fairly homogenous Chinese immigrant community from a single, small rural area of China.  This resulted in a narrow subset of Chinese dishes to proliferate in the US and Canada, that would be unrecognizable by most residents of China.  I altered my usual example to say it was as if all the Canadians in China were from some small town in Canada, where Christine volunteered that would be like if a particular obscure Canadian dish were found all over China.

We then went into the changing face of Chinese food in North America where Cantonese food is in decline, at least in relative numbers, as new Chinese restaurants are heavily dominated by Sichuan, Shandong and Northeastern styles reflecting the current immigration patterns and the rise of wealthy Chinese from these regions who are making their presence felt locally.  I also commented on the blurring of regional lines in San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants due to two separate factors.  One was the existing infrastructure of popular dishes, demonstrated by the very restaurant we were eating at, which while self-described as a Sichuan restaurant, also served Peking Duck and Dongbei dishes that are currently popular in the community.  I also pointed out the existence of the American born "626 generation" which is much more open to regional variations than their foreign born parents which further encourages mixed regional cuisine Chinese restaurants.

I also was able to disclaim early on that I am not a foodie, pointing not only to not photographing my meals, but also avoiding large categories of dishes for dietary and personal taste reasons, and that I will even try reputedly bad restaurants just to see for myself.  This disclaimer was helpful when later asked specific questions dealing with the different cuisines (Are there 8 Chinese or 5 Chinese cuisines?  I said 8 just because I noticed Hunan and Fujian missing from their list. What are the popular Shandong dishes in Los Angeles?  What spices are used in Sichuan cooking?)   Fortunately I didn't have to pass completely on any question, but I think it made my short answers more acceptable.

The second segment focused on Shandong style food, with two pre-ordered dishes served to us, Peking Duck and braised sea cucumber.  Christine asked me whether Peking Duck or Beijing Duck was the proper terminology.  I said even though the name of the city officially changed decades ago, Peking Duck is still the more common usage.  I also pointed out that there are East Coast and West Coast versions (like rap and the Bristol Stomp) with mantou buns used on the West Coast, pancake crepes on the East Coast.  When asked about Peking Duck in China, I said they used crepes, but what I had there wasn't very good because I went with a tour group.  Also when asked about the best Peking Duck I've eaten, I replied M Y China in San Francisco.  Christine was happy because she knows Martin Yan and their next filming stop is San Francisco so they'll stop by there.  The scene of us eating the Peking Duck was staged in that they knew I don't use chopsticks but that's all the provided me.  So when Christine said to dig in I had to say I needed a fork.    During the shoot the cameraman said he liked me because I was funny.  I also used the sea cucumber dish to interject how texture is so important in Chinese food, in contrast to other cuisines.

The third segment dealt with Sichuan style food.  This time they had us go through the restaurant menu to choose dishes. I think it was part of the plan to have me look at the menu of a restaurant that I had not eaten at previously, as after setting the venue they asked me not to go there until the interview.  I had previously mentioned in a prior segment that I had typical Cantonese taste buds and couldn't take typical spicy Sichuan dishes.  The restaurant's menu did not indicate how spicy individual dishes were, and the producer wanted to focus, obviously, on Sichuan dishes, so Carmen had the restaurant prepare non-spicy Sichuan dishes, double cooked pork and pork with garlic sauce.  We also ordered pork and shrimp dumplings to demonstrate how today's Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles overlap cuisines.

The conversation turned to the extent to which and whether non-Chinese were beginning to appreciate authentic Sichuan (and other regional) cuisines.  I gave a two part answer--when foodies talk there are a fair number of non-Chinese who seek out and appreciate these cuisines, but if you walk into a typical San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant you will see few if any non-Asian diners at any point in time, showing what a small percentage of non-Chinese diners seek out authentic Chinese food..  I then pointed out Meizhou Gongpo's first US branch in Century City, which is largely authentic, but where they have toned down the spice level for the Westsiders.  This led Christine to comment how more pragmatic Chinese chefs seem to be compared to Western chefs who are more likely to stubbornly stick to doing things the way they want.  I replied that's because for most Chinese restauranteurs, it's a business proposition.

After the interview they had me film some filler scenes.  They moved me and the food to a table by the window and filmed me eating.  They had me go down the street, then walk into the restaurant, stop to peruse the menu, then walk all the way in.  They gave me a dummy bill to pay.  I ad libbed by asking the cashier whether they took credit cards.

All in all it was a pleasant experience.  It took only about 3 hours of time, which was so much more efficient than the 4 hours it took to get 2 minutes of air time on KCET.  There were no retakes, just pauses where the producer suggested an additional line of questioning.  Since we were there from about 2 pm to 5 pm, there weren't a lot of other customers there.  But I did notice one restaurant employee, and later one diner, head in our direction to take their own smartphone or iPad shots of the festivities.   I guess the diner mistakenly thought I was somebody notable.   The project will be complete in spring, and hopefully they can get English language distribution in Canada and the US.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My 10 Best Chinese Restaurants in the United States - 2014 Update

Like most serious food observers, I am not a big fan of Top 10 type lists of best restaurants.  Different people have their own reasons for disliking these lists, with my personal objection being the tendency to place geographical or other correctness over the merits of the listed eateries.  National lists include restaurants in cities where I wouldn’t be caught dead eating Chinese food, and local lists include Chinese restaurants from parts of town that don’t have good Chinese food.  But the fact is that Top 10 listings on television and the internet draw a greater audience than other food related stories, so they’re not going away anytime soon.

Indeed, my one and only Top 10 listing,  the Asia Society piece on the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States, was far and away my most widely read piece.  The 3,200 Facebook likes for this item probably are a hundred times the amount for all of my other written articles combined.  Of course the reason for the huge readership of this article was that I stayed true to my principles and did not come up with a geographically correct listing, but rather a listing of restaurants all located in California.  This in turn created a massive dustup which generated the ultimate large numbers, with mostly New Yorkers condemning the listing and Californians applauding it.

Since it’s been over two years since my Asia Society listing, I feel it’s time to revise the listing to reflect new restaurants that have opened up in that time period and changes in quality in existing restaurants.  However I am not writing a third party publication article, nor am I even giving a critique of the revised Top 10 listing.  This is for a couple of reasons.  As I previously mentioned I’m not a fan of Top 10 listings so I don’t want to overemphasize it.  Also, the top half of the listing is pretty much the same as two years ago, so I didn’t want to rehash the same information.
One commentary on the revised Top 10 listing is worth mentioning, however.  While I had attributed the lack of New York restaurants in the original top 10 listing to the fact that New York Chinese food was a cut below that of Los Angeles and San Francisco, it was also because of a quirk in that star New York chef Joe Ng happened to be between restaurants when the 2012 listing came out.  A Top 10 listing in previous years would have listed World Tong in Brooklyn when he was in charge of that kitchen, or Chinatown Brasserie in Manhattan, when he landed there.  And now that he is back with Red Farm and Decoy (I know they are separate restaurants, but I rate them in tandem since they’re like Siamese twins, being in different floors of the same small building), New York is represented in my latest Top 10.  In order, here they are.

1.  Koi Palace, Daly City, CA
2.  Sea Harbour, Rosemead, CA
3.  Elite, Monterey Park, CA
4.  King Hua, Alhambra, CA
5.  Chengdu Taste, Alhambra, CA
6.  Lunasia, Alhambra, CA
7.  Din Tai Fung, Costa Mesa, CA and Arcadia, CA
8.  Hakkasan, New York, NY and Beverly Hills, CA
9.  Red Farm/Decoy, New York, NY
10.  Jai Yun, San Francisco, CA