Monday, May 4, 2020

Chinese Restaurants Take A Pounding From The Pandemic


Obviously these are tough times for everybody, rougher for some than others.  Particularly hard hit is the restaurant industry due to the precarious economics of the business, where a restaurant operation can expect net profit of 3 percent on sales even in good times.   Even more precariously situated are restaurant workers, as restaurant wages are often 25 percent or more of restaurant costs, so it doesn’t take much of a decline in restaurant revenue in such a low margin industry to trigger labor cutbacks.

However, Chinese restaurants have been hit by a triple whammy during this pandemic.  Not only have they been buffeted by the general economic disaster as amplified in the restaurant industry, but they have suffered additionally for being Chinese restaurants.  This is because COVID 19 originated in China, and from the beginning has been associated with things Chinese, as indicated by unfortunate terms such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.”  Immediately as the virus spread through China, business at Chinese restaurants in the United States, and indeed throughout the world, began to sink even before the rest of the world economy and other types of restaurants became impacted.

Startled by this unwelcome rise of xenophobia, the food community attempted to fight back.  Food bloggers around the country attempted to whip up support for neighborhood Chinese restaurants.  An organization called No Appetite For Ignorance started a campaign to support Chinese restaurants around the world by having Chinese food personalities, including the greatest Chinese food expert of all, Fuchshia Dunlop, highlight their favorite Chinese restaurants.   (You can check out my own recs here.)

Unfortunately this did not stanch the bleeding, and indeed one Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles neighborhood where I grew up, Kim’s Restaurant, had to shut its doors due to anti-Chinese harassment after serving the neighborhood for over 40 years.  Meanwhile, things got ugly at Taste of China Restaurant in Chesapeake, Virginia.  The restaurant owner saw her car vandalized with anti-Chinese graffiti and “Go Back To China” written on it.   People have run into the restaurant screaming anti-Chinese epithets and pouring water in the premises.  Fortunately both of these episodes had happy endings.  At Kim’s Restaurant, upset customers tracked down the restaurant owner and presented him with a ten page printout from the neighborhood online message board from customers decrying the anti-Chinese harassment and saying how much the customers missed the restaurant.  After seeing the extent of neighborhood support, Kim’s Restaurant reopened.  Meanwhile, the customers of Taste of China organized a takeout tailgate in the restaurant’s parking lot, overwhelming the restaurant with orders.  Unfortunately, the reported episodes of anti-Asian Covid 19 related bias have numbered in the thousands (not counting people calling up Chinese restaurants to order bat dishes) and most of the endings are not so happy.

Of course the early body blow to the Chinese restaurant industry can’t be blamed completely on anti-Chinese xenophobia.  Admittedly, Chinese-Americans themselves started abandoning Chinese restaurants even before the corona virus was making a conspicuous presence in the United States.  I remember exchanging Chinese New Year’s greetings with one of my old Chinese friends this past January.   But when the subject of our annual Chinese New Year lunch meeting came up, he told me that he was not going to set foot in a Chinese restaurant until the whole corona virus thing blew over.  And while Chinese New Year restaurant gatherings were not largely affected at the end in January, business at Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, which cater almost exclusively to Chinese diners, fell off throughout the month of February as Chinese-Americans went into a shelter-in-place before being ordered to do so by government officials.   I remember having lunch with another friend, a former Chinese restaurant owner, at the end of February and he estimated that business had already dropped by roughly 30 percent at San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants, at a time where dining out in the greater community had yet to decline.

Things started to crash a week into March when we drove up to one of the more popular Chinese restaurants, Henry’s Cuisine in Alhambra on an early Sunday evening and we weren’t even sure whether the restaurant was open or not.  At first we thought it was just kind of early for dinner, but we saw the sign on the door which indicated they were in fact open, but would be closing the following day until May, due to a sharp decline in business.  That first episode was quite a shock. But then in the next few days we heard of a few other Chinese restaurants doing the same thing.   Later in the week, cities started ordering dine in restaurants to cut their seating capacity by 50 percent, and by weekend, dine-in operations were ordered to shut, with only takeout or delivery permitted.

The closure of dine-in eating in the middle of March was obviously the watershed moment for restaurants in general and Chinese restaurants in particular.  Large Chinese restaurants with a high cost structure and smaller, marginal Chinese restaurants were the first to close, either on an interim or permanent basis.  Since then, Chinese restaurants have been struggling to adapt to a take out and delivery world.  Some which tried to make a go of takeout and delivery subsequently closed.  But others, like Woon in Los Angeles, closed initially on a strategic basis, and as their subsequent path became clear, re-opened for takeout and delivery.   Henry’s Cuisine did reopen for takeout in early May, but closed again after two days with plans to reopen again in a month.  Quite often the continuing operations came on a modified basis, including changes to hours, changes to the menu, adding inventories of food products and supplies for resale, refusing credit cards and taking cash only, and other adaptations.   

Industry statistics indicate that the closure rate for Chinese restaurants during the pandemic have been more than double than that of other categories of restaurants in the United States.  While part of that may be connected to the current stigma of being a Chinese restaurant, another factor is that a higher percentage of family owned Chinese restaurants are operating on a “shoestring” compared to other types of restaurants.  As celebrity Chinese American chef Ming Tsai has stated, the post-pandemic future for mom and pop restaurants in general is bleak, warning that half of these operations are not likely to survive.  https://finance.yahoo.com/news/ming-tsai-50-of-mom-and-pop-restaurants-cannot-get-through-coronavirus-pandemic-191715552.html?.tsrc=fin-srch    And mom and pop Chinese restaurants would seem to be at greater risk.

We all hope things return to normal as soon as possible with the least amount of disruption.  But realistically it is unavoidable that some restaurants will not reopen, and in this regard Chinese restaurants are more vulnerable.  Besides falling into economic distress at an earlier point in time and the xenophobia factor, there is a particularly high concentration of “mom and pop” Chinese restaurants      Unfortunately, then, it is quite likely that many of us will not have the opportunity to ever eat at some of our favorite Chinese restaurants again.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Why I Was Wrong About Gibraltar

2018 was a climatic travel year in that we visited three locales where I never dreamed I would ever visit.  Well maybe I dreamed of visiting these places, Dubai, India and Gibraltar, but I never thought it would actually happen.  Now when traveling anywhere you haven't been before, you can see pictures before your trip to get an general idea of what the destination is like, but of course there's nothing like actually being there.  However, in the case of Gibraltar, the reality turned out to be 180 degrees different from the expectation.

The reason for the gap between expectation and realization was the purchase of this computer that I am currently writing on.  It was a brand new Dell, Windows 10 computer, and Windows 10 instituted a startup screen showing landscapes or other pictures of Windows' choosing, sometimes identified, sometimes not identified, showing up for several startups and then disappearing not to be seen again.  One of the early startup picture was something that looked like the Rock of Gibraltar, with the rock teeming with crowded structures all the way down the rock.  Since Gibraltar sits across the strait from northern Morocco, this Moorish type of scene seemed logical to me.  But like I said, the startup pictures may or may not be identified, and this one was not.

So imagine my surprise when I got to Gibraltar and found not a crowded Moorish landscape, but rather a sparsely populated British looking (obviously not surprising in hindsight since Gibraltar is British) one.  And while I was still excited to be in Gibraltar, this stark difference did diminish the excitement to some extent, though I also met my goal of having a meal there, if a ham and cheese french bun at the St. Michael's Cave gift shop can be considered a meal.

As I said, the Windows 10 pictures don't repeat themselves.  Except that two years later the picture that I thought was Gibraltar did reappear, and with identification.  What I thought was Gibraltar was actually Uchisar, a town in central Turkey, built around a large rock formation that actually didn't look like the rock of Gibraltar except for this one particular view.  And now I have a sense of closure knowing where I have to go if I want to see the Gibraltar I had imagined in my mind.

This is Uchisar.


This is Gibraltar.




Wednesday, April 1, 2020

I Wasn't Dreaming After All--This Restaurant Does Exist

When I first started this blog back in 2009, it wasn't a Chinese food blog, or any kind of food blog at all.  Rather I thought of it as a personal diary which I could easily access rather than fumbling around looking for some kind of paper book, never dreaming that anybody else would read anything I wrote.  As such I even posted some of my more unusual dreams on the blog.  

Which leads me to write about Wok N' Tenders.  Since Howlin Ray’s became a sensation in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, turnabout would be fair play if a Nashville Hot Wings and chicken tenders placed opened up just down the street from Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken on Crenshaw, and also served Chinese food on the side. But then if you told me that they’re serving Peruvian Chinese food I would have told you that I’m actually asleep right now and having another of my weird dreams that I actually used to post about.

Now the Chinese influence on food in Peru is quite real.  Chinese arrived in Peru at about the same time they came to the United States for the California gold rush.  Their presence has led to a style of cuisine called "chifa," based on the Cantonese term for cooking (in our Toishanese dialect, "ji faan") which literally means to prepare rice.  Chifa is essentially Chinese food made with local Peruvian ingredients.  There is also "chaufa", which specifically refers to Peruvian fried rice, from the Cantonese word "chow faan", which means fried rice.  The term chaufa also can refer more generally  to Peruvian food cooked Chinese style.

If you look hard enough you can find restaurants in the United States that serve a wide range of Chinese-Peruvian dishes.  There are a couple here in Los Angeles, though the greatest concentration I have run into was in Orlando, Florida.  Indeed, I actually stumbled into one in Buenos Aires.  But if you walk into any straight-up Peruvian restaurant in the United States, there will most likely be something in the way of chifa or chaufa on the menu.

Still, Chinese-Peruvian food is not so common here for me to find a Nashville hot wings/Chinese Peruvian restaurant and not think that I was having a strange food dream. But in fact I’m wide awake, and Wok N’ Tenders on the corner of Crenshaw and Venice is the restaurant, just two blocks from where I attended Mt. Vernon Junior High School in the 1960s, since renamed Johnnie Cochran Middle School.  Who would have thought something like Wok N' Tenders would eventually show up there?

The Chinese menu is relatively short. There’s chicken or beef chaufa (fried rice), chicken or beef tallarin (meat with noodles), and lomo saltado (Chinese stir fry with french fries). I had the chicken tallarin and it was really great.

IMG_20200330_1525224

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Chef Tony Staggers Into Town

Don't get me wrong.  The dim sum at Chef Tony's is quite good, innovative and visually appealing.  But when Richmond BC's best dim sum comes to the Los Angeles area, admittedly third tier behind both Vancouver and San Francisco, a nearly transcendental experience is expected.   They still may reach that point since they're still in soft opening, but Chef Tony is not currently ready for prime time, particularly in light of the hefty bill.  The first clue was walking into a restaurant at 11:10am to find only one other table of 2 occupied.  At the same stage, Longo Seafood's much larger premises were full by 11am and Palatte Tea House in San Francisco was likewise full.   Because I was a solo diner I could only try five items on this visit.

The crispy baked bbq pork bun was excellent, perhaps even the best I've eaten.  One issue, though is that there were sugar crystals sprinkled on top of the bun, making this the sweetest pork bun I've ever eaten.  Like I said it tastes great but I'm not sure if this is what I want in this dish.  The custom made bowl does add a nice touch.



Visually I was extremely impressed by the gold leaf shrimp dumpling which reminded me of the gold leaf dim sum I ate in Hong Kong.   But it tasted like any other good shrimp dumpling and was a bit pricey at $11.80 for an order of four (I paid $9 for these three.)


The pandan pork and shrimp buns looked very interesting.  Tastewise the only notable thing was that the bun was sweeter than the typical steamed bun.


The one really great thing about Chef Tony is that some dim sum items can be ordered by the single piece, so you don't have to worry about getting stuck with $8 or $9 for a full order of something you don't like.  This is the gold foil lava bun, which was excellent (though this is a hard dish to mess up).


Lastly, the signature coconut bunny.  Can't say it was better than anybody else' s coconut bunny.


At this point I think the question is whether Chef Tony is any better than its sister restaurant Sea Harbour or not.  (They're using Sea Harbour packed hand wipes right now.)  The dim sum certainly is prettier than Sea Harbour, but a deeper dive would be needed to see if it's equal to, better than, or not as good.  And then the question is whether it's worth the price premium, as the pictured items added up to over $37 including tax and tip.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

What We Ate In Taiwan

For longtime readers of this blog, you are aware that I don't often mention specific food dishes, nor do I include lavish pictures of food that I have eaten.  However for once I'm departing from this format with a 15 part pictorial write-up of the food that we ate on the trip we took late last year to Taiwan.  The reason for this departure is the wonderful tour put on by Supera Tours (www.superatours.com), the English language arm of the Signet Tour Company in the San Gabriel Valley and the array of extraordinary meals we had on the trip.  

For those who have taken a tour packaged in the Chinese communities of California or Canada, tour food wasn't anything to talk about, unless the talk was grousing about how boring and repetitive the food was.  That's because for many tour companies, food is a cost to be minimized in order to keep the tour price economical.  But in the end after hearing a number of people say that it seemed like they ate the same food every day on these tours (a description with which I concur) I wondered if it had to be this way. Fortunately we came across Supera Tours, which while not operating a high priced gourmet, foodie tour, provided food highlight after food highlight, which made me completely rethink the concept of the culinary end of Chinese tours.

The first segment of What We Ate In Taiwan, which covered the food we ate before the tour began,  was previously posted here. 

The next fourteen segments, generally discussed in chronological order on a venue by venue basis, can be found after this posting, except that the last segment does not appear here on the main blog page, but has to be linked directly due to a website glitch at http://chandavkl.blogspot.com/2020/02/what-we-ate-in-taiwan-part-14-farewell.html



What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 2 -- The Original Din Tai Fung



While the Supera/Signet Tours (www.superatours.com) promotional materials use the catch phrase "food=life" I was anxious to see if the tour would actually live up to the promise.  Well Supera Tours showed that they really meant business when they took us to lunch for the first official meal of the tour at the original location of Din Tai Fung in downtown Taipei.

Now Los Angeles area diners have been familiar with Din Tai Fung and their signature xiaolongbao, their open kitchen where you could watch the XLB being made, and other goodies created in the kitchen for 20 years now, ever since they opened up in Arcadia in the San Gabriel Valley.  It did not take long for that restaurant to reach cult status, and Din Tai Fung was the toughest Chinese restaurant ticket in town, as people lined up outside the restaurant daily before opening, or experienced extended waits during the day.  Despite everything, Din Tai Fung refused to expand beyond their relatively small Arcadia store.   Their fame spread far and wide across the United States.  A week long pop-up in Flushing, New York Chinatown was sold out, leading New Yorkers to believe that they were in for their own branch of Din Tai Fung, but that didn't happen.  Heavy rumors said that Din Tai Fung was going to open up in the Vallco Mall in Cupertino in California's Silicon Valley, but that did not come to pass either.  (Ironically years later, Apple opened their Apple II headquarters just up the street.)

Word on the street was that Din Tai Fung had an in-house astrologer that nixed most expansion plans.  The only expansion activities that Din Tai Fung did engage in was a second Arcadia branch, two doors down from the original, and two locations in Seattle, where some family members had moved.   But then a half dozen years ago, Din Tai Fung did a 180° turn.  Not only did they go on an expansion tear, but all of their new locations were in major regional shopping malls with hundreds of seats.  Since then they have opened up in the Americana in Glendale, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia, Del Amo Fashion Square in Torrance and Westfield Century City in Los Angeles, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Valley Fair in Santa Clara, and Washington Square in Portland, OR.  And the funny thing is with all this extra capacity, you still have a long wait to eat in the restaurant.

While all of the Din Tai Fung US locations are highly regarded, I have always heard that the original Taipei location was clearly superior to all the US and other overseas locations.  Consequently, I was looking forward to making the comparison.   Despite the fact that we arrived before 11:30am and were part of a tour, we had to wait nearly a half hour before being admitted to the restaurant.  


When we finally got in we were broken up into four different groups on different floors.  First up was the cucumber salad, an excellent version.


Of course, Din Tai Fung sets the standard for xiaolongbao.


But I've never had on choy at a Din Tai Fung before.


Nor hot and sour soup.



Something interesting were these hui tou dumplings.  These dumplings are upside down to show that they were cooked slurry style so that the bottoms meld into a single piece.



This may not look like it, but here is the definite star of the show--truffle xiaolongbao.  Wow!



A really nice dish was pork siu mai with sticky rice.  My mom used to call siu mai "stacks" because they looked like a haystack way back when in Los Angeles.  These babies certainly do.


Another interesting item--they may look like regular XLB to you, but these were filled with squash.  Creative and delicious.



 A special off menu item for our group was the fried rice.  People who have eaten at the Los Angeles area branches of Din Tai Fung know they make the best fried rice in town, and this did not disappoint.


And what are these XLB with a dark filling?  Why, taro.  I've had these in Los Angeles



And lastly and leastly, chocolate buns.  Perhaps not the best idea.




All in all, this was an excellent meal.  Indeed some of the tour members not from Los Angeles went on their own to eat at other branches of Din Tai Fung.  But while the original Din Tai Fung is indeed better than what we get in California, I would say just incrementally so.  Which is fine with me knowing that our branches of Din Tai Fung are nearly as good as the flagship location.













What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 3 -- Evergreen Resort Hotel Buffet

Having taken a number of tours over the years organized by Chinese tour companies in both California and Canada, the daily breakfast buffet and occasional dinner buffet at the tour's hotel stop typically provided the culinary highlights of the tour because the restaurant meals provided on these tours were largely forgettable.  A fairly common assessment of these restaurant lunches and dinners is a lack of quality and variety, with seemingly the same rice, cabbage, scrambled eggs, soup and watermelon at each stop.  In the same manner that some people characterized disco music as one song being played continuously, the Chinese food on the typical tour has been widely described as like eating the same meal every day even though you were in a different city.  Against that backdrop, since even the most economical Chinese tours stay primarily at four star hotels, the accompanying buffets provide a welcome contrast, both in the context of food quality and variety, and the ability to fill up your tank.

However, on our Taiwan tour with Supera/Signet (www.superatours.com), the hotel buffet meals paled compared to our restaurant meals, not because the hotel buffets were inferior, but because the restaurant meals were so good and interesting.  But this is not to say that the buffet meals on the tour weren't worth mentioning.  To the contrary many of them were also memorable, such as our first road stop at the Evergreen Resort Hotel.

The hotel had a nice buffet which I thought a bit reminiscent of Las Vegas.  It had a fruit and vegetable smoothie bar, a shaved ice bar, Haagen Dazs self serve, a noodle soup station, two kinds of self-serve beer and a refrigerator of canned Chinese drinks.   Interesting dishes included stir fried pork with cuttlefish.


Ham siu mai.





Crab cakes.


This wasn't what I expected when I saw the sign that said "cornbread."  This was actually a danish topped with cream corn.


Everybody's favorite, the hot dog Danish.


And just to prove I wasn't lying about the buffet beer.


Other interesting items included shark, tofu thread salad, and quinoa jook.  On any other Chinese tour the Evergreen buffet would have been a highlight.  It was really enjoyable.