Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why I Don't Crave Vancouver Chinese Food Like I Used To

For over 40 years I have periodically travelled from Los Angeles to Vancouver in search of superior Chinese food.  My first trip was in 1970, which predates the "modern" era of Chinese food in the United States and Canada, as the effects of the repeal of discriminatory anti-Chinese immigration laws by both countries had yet to affect the local dining scenes.  The Chinese communities in Los Angeles and Vancouver were still essentially Toishanese/Cantonese, as were all other North American Chinatowns.  While the Chinese food we ate in Vancouver Chinatown in 1970 may have better than what we were used to in Los Angeles (as much due to L.A.'s tertiary status as a Chinese community back then), it was only marginally so, and indeed what impressed us the most was how much larger the portion sizes were in Vancouver Chinatown.

My next visit to Vancouver did not come until 1993.  Really there was no reason to travel to Vancouver as far as Chinese dining was concerned, until the panic that set in during the late 1980s as Hong Kongers realized that control of Hong Kong would indeed revert to Mainland China in 1997.  The mass exodus out of Hong Kong to Vancouver created an early 1990s Chinese dining nirvana in Vancouver that the entire Chinese community in Los Angeles knew about.  Tales of Angelinos returning from Vancouver detailed how every Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, and the suburb of Richmond, even the stalls in the food courts, surpassed the best Chinese food in Los Angeles.  So we all went to Vancouver whenever we could.  And indeed the tales were true.  Returning from Vancouver, we could not bear to eat the inferior Los Angeles Chinese food for weeks after our return, and we couldn't wait for our next trip to Vancouver to partake in the Chinese food.

Angelinos continued to make the pilgrimage to Richmond B.C. for Chinese food into the 21st century.  But in the past five years things began to change.  Fewer Angelinos made the trip to Vancouver, and those who did go came back not quite as impressed.  Yes, there were restaurants in Richmond B.C. which exceeded anything we had in Los Angeles, but a lot of others were now only "just as good", or "not any better".  So what happened?

What happened is two things.  The main factor is that Chinese food in Los Angeles has gotten so much better in the last decade.  But it's been a gradual process, such that we here in Los Angeles who eat Chinese food on a day to day basis aren't as sensitive as to how much the food has improved. This was driven home to me by two almost random comments made to me in the past couple of years.  One was made by the maitre'd at a Michelin starred Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong.  As you know, Hong Kong is ground zero for great Chinese food, and the best Chinese food there knocks the socks off of anything that we have.  Anyway the gentleman commented that he lived in the San Gabriel Valley for many years, had to return to Hong Kong for family reasons, and missed the SGV.  Then he commented that "the Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is very, very good."  To hear that from somebody tending one of the best Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong was quite illuminating.  More recently, I met a Chinese foodie from Vancouver who was in Los Angeles for a visit, and who told me that he was surprised at how good the dim sum was at Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights.  Given that I would rank Happy Harbor probably around #7 in the Los Angeles area dim sum pecking order, that also says a lot about the current state of our Chinese food.

In addition, Vancouver Chinese food has appeared to have plateaued in recent years.  There are two potential explanations for this factor.  First of all, there has been a degree of migration back from Vancouver to Hong Kong, as fears as to what would happen to Hong Kong under Chinese rule turned out to be largely unfounded so far.  Indeed we've encountered a number of these Canadian returnees in our travels.  And of course among some of the returnees were some of Vancouver's top chefs.  Secondly, like every Chinese community outside of Asia, the demographics are changing with non-Cantonese Mainlanders, many of them with tremendous wealth, now moving into North American Chinese communities.  Naturally they're bringing in their own regional style of Chinese food, but in this regard Vancouver is actually trailing other areas like the San Gabriel Valley, as the Chinese restaurant scene in the SGV shifted away from Cantonese food before Vancouver did.  As such, Vancouver is playing catch up to the SGV as far as many of these regional cuisines are concerned.  For example I had heard about a splash that a new Shandong style noodle house was making in Vancouver, which sounded like Vancouver's answer to the SGV's 101 Noodle Express group.  However, a scout who went up to try it reported back that it wasn't nearly as good.

I think the bottom line assessment is that there are some Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, Hong Kong style, Shanghai style, and hotpots, that are clearly better than anything in Los Angeles and an occasional visit up to Richmond B.C. is warranted.  However the number of such restaurants is diminishing.  Furthermore, top mainland Chinese restaurants that are starting to open up branches in North America are choosing to do so in California, where they perceive the action to be.  So as the focus in both cities turns to other regional Chinese cuisines, Vancouver loses its advantage over Los Angeles.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Best Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown? It's Back To The Future!

Before talking about what might be the best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown, we first need to make it clear that we're talking about a "Tallest Midget in the Circus" type of topic.  It's been 30 years since the best Los Angeles Chinese food was located in Chinatown, and over 15 years since there has been a destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.  Still sometimes you want a Chinese meal and it's too late or traffic is too bad to trek on over to the San Gabriel Valley, so knowing the best Chinese food around Chinatown is a useful thing.

That last destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown was ABC Seafood, which opened up in 1984 as the first high quality Hong Kong style seafood restaurant in the Los Angeles area, and for the first decade of its existence was the best Chinese restaurant in the United States.  Indeed, we probably showed up there for Saturday night dinner three times a month.  While ABC Seafood is still there, the owner-chef retired in 1999, selling it to a group headed by one of the waiters, Jackie Liao.  Two or three changes of ownership later, ABC Seafood is an also ran in the very pedestrian collection of Chinese restaurants operating today in Los Angeles Chinatown.

Now when the new owners took over ABC Seafood in 1999, they tried to continue to operate the business as usual.  The menu was completely unchanged, and visually the dishes were identical.  But the old owner took his recipes with him, and the food was not the same.  Apparently a couple of the cooks from ABC landed at the sister NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, so the food there was the next best thing to the old ABC, though it wasn't quite there.  A few months later in 1999, a larger group of former ABC Seafood waiters got together and bought the Dragon Inn location at Spring and Ord, christening their new enterprise CBS Seafood.  They declared that they were the true successor to ABC Seafood, and indeed their menu was also completely identical to that of ABC Seafood, except that the menu covers were green instead of red.  But they didn't have the original ABC recipes either, and while we continued to dine there regularly for a while, it was because we knew the waiters, and not because of the food.  And as the food began to spiral downward, we stopped going there altogether.

Well actually we never stopped going to CBS Seafood completely.  You see it has one thing that no other Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown has--a large and convenient self-parking lot.  So once in a great while when parking is the most important consideration, we end up at CBS Seafood.  This was the case last month, when we went there for dinner, perhaps for the first time in four or five years.  A couple of the old waiters were still there and they greeted us like the long lost friends that we were.  We ordered with little expectations, though we wondered why the prices were equal to or greater than in the San Gabriel Valley.  But guess what?  The food was pretty good.  Not San Gabriel Valley good, but a fairly decent imitation.  Indeed, the French cut filet mignon ranked with the best, and a number of other dishes were quite good.  A return visit a couple of weeks later confirmed the tallest midget classification.

As far as a runner up restaurant is concerned, it's even more retro than CBS.  Phoenix Inn may have been the first Hong Kong style restaurant to open up in Los Angeles Chinatown in the post-1965 immigration reform era.  They subsequently opened up in Alhambra, and then a few years ago started the pioneering Phoenix Boutique dessert chain in the San Gabriel Valley.  The Chinatown Phoenix Inn seems to have revived itself by patterning itself after the San Gabriel Valley operations, including a display case full of dessert items.  The Chinatown branch also has the greatest concentration of millennial aged Chinese clientele of any Chinatown eatery aside from the boba shops, certainly a good sign.

And for those of you who are wondering about the revived Empress Pavilion, my assessment is that the old Empress Pavilion closed in part because the food wasn't very good, and the new owners really haven't improved on that.  Hopefully the need for a banquet facility of that size in Chinatown is so great that Empress will survive.  But I certainly can't recommend anybody go there for anything other than a banquet where somebody else is paying.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Flushing Update

As I wrote a couple of years ago in my Menuism article on Flushing Chinatown, Flushing's Chinatown is the most vibrant Chinatown in the United States, making it one of my most favorite Chinese communities.  Unlike touristy Chinatowns that roll up the carpet earlier in the evening, the streets of Flushing remains full of activity well until late at night, and without the gift and souvenir shops and other tourist trappings that mar other Chinatowns.

Since it had been two years since my last visit to Flushing, I was pleased to be able to take a long lunch break while working in Manhattan and take the 7 train to Flushing.  So much had changed in Flushing in just two years.  One Fulton Square, the retail and hotel complex which was under construction during my last visit (and which I remember from my first Flushing visit 20 years ago as being the semi-paved and somewhat sketchy parking lot to Golden River Restaurant) was complete and in full swing.  Meanwhile, across the street, Flushing Mall, which was constructed after my first visit to Flushing, but which had the ambiance of something built in the mid-20th century, was in the process of being torn down.

Perhaps the main attraction for me was to see the recently opened New York Food Court on Roosevelt St.  With roughly 20 spaces, I was surprised to find a new eatery operating at each space. This was truly amazing given that the New World Mall with its 30 or so eateries had opened up just three years previously.  True, the closing of Flushing Mall did eliminate the occupants of that mall's food court.  But when you take into account the fact that New World Mall, New York Food Court, and the Golden Mall combined play host to over sixty eateries, that is truly mind boggling as that number of restaurants is by itself half as many as all of the Chinese restaurants in San Francisco Chinatown.

I was quite intrigued by the recently opened Happy Food Court on Main St., taking over the location formerly occupied by Corner 28 and it's mini-Peking duck bites.  Food court might be a misnomer since this is a single restaurant operation.  But then again maybe it isn't because there are nearly as many food choices here as you find in a legitimate multi-tenant food court.  

One thing that made me especially happy was finally being able to find my single most favorite Chinese dish, fish dumplings, in New York.  Fish dumplings came to Los Angeles more than a dozen years ago, and since being introduced have spread widely throughout the Los Angeles and San Francisco Chinese communities.  But as if to validate my comment from a few years ago that New York Chinese food is still stuck in the 20th century, fish dumplings were unavailable and unheard of in New York, with the closest thing I previously found being the fish won ton at New Bo Ky in Manhattan Chinatown.  However earlier this year a tipster sent me a note that a new restaurant called Dumpling Galaxy was serving fish dumplings on Main St.   Unfortunately my lunch break time did not stretch long enough for me to visit Dumpling Galaxy.  But as I was making the rounds at New World Mall to see what may have changed in the past two years, there I saw the sign touting fish dumplings at Szechuan Dish in stall #25.  Light and fluffy as just as good as back home in Los Angeles!

A couple of other things worth noting at New World Mall.  There was a lot of turnover in the lineup at the mall from my last visit there.  In addition, I noticed that a lot of the eateries there now had Chinese language only signage.  (I found this distressing since how could I catalog a restaurant for my Chinese restaurant spreadsheet if it didn't have any English language signage?).  Chinese only signage isn't normally an issue since Chinese businesses throughout the United States generally are required to have an English language name for public safety purposes (i.e., so non-Chinese police and fire responders know where they're going).  But that's not an issue when you're in an enclosed food court.  And aside from Flushing, Chinese food courts are not particularly common in the United States.

I don't get to Flushing as often as I like.  The food doesn't match up to that in the San Gabriel Valley, but it's the most exciting Chinatown in the US because it's a true community that doesn't go to sleep with the chickens.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thank You, NIMBYs

Los Angeles is a wonderful place to live.  With the climate, geography, glamour and amenities it's no wonder that people from all over the world, from rich Chinese and other investors, to pro athletes who don't play for LA teams, have been flocking here.  But there are downsides to living in paradise.  Housing costs are incredibly high, traffic congestion is ridiculous (it takes my co-worker about 2 hours each way to commute a little over 20 miles), and people are forced to live long distances from where they work.  Interestingly,  the three problems I just mentioned have all been greatly acerbated by the "activist" community.  Typically we think of activists as being progressive and standing up for the little guy.  And in the case of NIMBY (not in my back yard) activists, they think they are taking that path.  But in the way the world really works, they have created a world 180 degrees apart from what they intend.

The latest act of NIMBYism was just chronicled in the newspaper, where activists are pushing a ballot measure that would have the effect of stopping high rise residential construction in Hollywood.  The idea behind the construction boom is to build high rise apartment buildings near transit stops is to move people off the freeways and onto public transit, to ease the housing shortage which makes rents and home prices so high, and to generally revitalize the center part of the city.  But the activists want nothing of this, saying high rise residential construction will destroy the character of their neighborhoods.  Now if there were just one group in NIMBYs in town there wouldn’t be a societal problem.  But there are NIMBYs all over Los Angeles, creating what is referred to as high barriers to entry for the development of new residential housing in Los Angeles.   This NIMBY created restriction on the supply of housing means a shortage of housing, high prices, and long commutes for people who are relegated to moving into the boondocks in search of affordable housing.

Indeed, the contrast between housing supply and prices in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, as opposed to parts of the country, like Texas, where there are no restrictions or opposition to the development of new housing stock, and developers are free to build new projects, is stark.  I remember being on vacation a few years ago and having breakfast at Denny’s.  I was talking to my waiter and learned that he was originally from Los Angeles, but left because of the high cost of housing.  His next revelation floored me.  He had just bought a three bedroom house with a pool.  On his salary from Denny’s.  Of course there is a flip side to living in a city where there is a plentiful housing supply.  The value of your house will only keep up with inflation, and generally not appreciate above that rate.  In contrast my house in Los Angeles is worth at least four times what I paid for it.  Oh wait.  Thank you, NIMBYs.  I love you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The David R. Chan Collection at Stanford University

You could imagine my surprise last night when I stumbled upon a reference on the internet to the David R. Chan Collection at Stanford University.  The two most likely reactions are (1) it's a joke or (2) it's another David R. Chan.  But, as it turns out, the reference really is to yours truly.  Now I have no real connection to Stanford aside from the fact that I dropped a big bundle there sending my son to law school on The Farm.  So obviously there's a twisted path here.

As I have previously written, I was finishing my undergraduate studies at UCLA right at the time that the formal study of the history of the Chinese in the United States was just beginning.  I hadn't even dreamed of logging in Chinese restaurant visits back then, but I was always a collector of things.  And back then, materials on the Chinese experience in America were so precious that I tried collect everything I could on the topic.  I spent probably hundreds of hours photocopying articles, and even books, from the UCLA library, and I subscribed to any English language Chinese American publication I could get my hands on, including the weekly East West newspaper out of San Francisco.

Of course after the years things really piled up, particularly the newspapers.  In a way it was fortunate that East West ceased publication in the 1980s, stopping further additions to that collection.  The historian in me prevented me from tossing the newspapers out, but I didn't want to be stuck with storing them forever.  I approached the UCLA Asian American Studies Library about taking the newspapers, and they were receptive, saying they would get back to me.  However they never did.  Meanwhile, my daughter enrolled at UCLA so I sent her to the Asian American Studies Library to follow up.  She actually found the person I had spoken with a few years previously (who had gone on medical leave in the interim), who was again receptive.  But once again there was no follow up.

A few years later my son moved to the Bay Area to go to law school.  At the same time, the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco hired their first professional curator, Anna Naruta, and I told her about my newspaper collection.  Anna said there was no known collection of East West newspapers (only a curator would know that) and that CHSA would gladly take them.  Of course there's the question of how you transfer 20 years of newspapers from my house in Los Angeles to the CHSA building on Clay St. in Chinatown.  Now I always did look for excuses to visit the Bay Area, and with my son in school there, I had the perfect excuse to regularly drive north.  Indeed in three years of law school, I made the trek 18 times.  And during 2006 and 2007, a number of those trips were made with boxes of newspapers in my trunk.  Actually, the hard part was the parking in S.F. Chinatown.  Basically there isn't any.  On some occasions Anna gave me access to a parking spot on their premises.  But when Anna wasn't around, I was reduced to carrying the newspapers from my car parked at the Royal Pacific Motor Inn on Broadway to the CHSA building five blocks away.

After delivering the newspapers (and receiving my charitable contribution tax receipt) I didn't give any further thought to the newspapers except to be glad to have found a good home for them.  Consequently it was a bolt out of the blue when I saw the "David R. Chan Collection" referred to in the latest CHSA Bulletin, announcing that Stanford University Library was making available four listed CHSA  "archival collections to researchers, in its Department of Special Collections in Green Library", which had apparently been transferred by CHSA to Stanford some time before.  (It would have been nice if somebody had told me what was going on.)    But I'm happy to make this contribution to academic research.  And happy as I am at this turn of events, I have one regret.  I probably should have taken a larger charitable contribution deduction in 2006 and 2007.

Monday, October 12, 2015

My Chinese Food Articles and the 40th Anniversary of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

In the three years since Clarissa Wei indirectly launched me on an avocational career writing on Chinese American restaurant topics, I've written a few dozen history and cultural laced Chinese food articles.  (For the uninitiated, most of those articles aren't here on my blog, but rather can be found at this link to the Menuism website. )  But writing these articles has not been a brand new experience for me, but rather a revival after a 30 year writing slumber.  Indeed, the period of writing inactivity was so long that I almost forgot about my previous writing bouts, and really was just reminded of it now as I was just interviewed in connection with the upcoming 40th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

During that interview it was brought to my attention the forgotten fact (as far as I was concerned) that I was CHSSC member number 8,  At that point in 1975 I was a couple of years out of law school and had written a number of articles on Chinese American history in the six years since I received my undergraduate degree from UCLA.  My specialty areas were the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles and the Chinese Exclusion laws.  Back then the field of Chinese American history was so undeveloped that a rank amateur like myself  could make real contributions to the literature of the day.  My term paper from the undergraduate "Orientals in America" class at UCLA on the Chinese in Los Angeles was immediately published in the pioneering Asian American movement newspaper Gidra, and other iterations of that topic appeared in Bridge Magazine out of New York Chinatown, and in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce 1975 Chinese New Year souvenir program.  My magnum opus, so to speak, was my piece also from 1975 entitled "The Tragedy and Trauma of the Chinese Exclusion Laws", presented to the bicentennial related conference The Life, Role and Influence of the Chinese in America, sponsored by the Chinese Historical Society of America, and included in the proceedings from that conference that they published.

I then went on to a different area of concentration--American Chinatowns as depicted in turn of the century post cards, as well as cards from later eras.  I took some of my duplicate postcards (didn't want to risk the originals) and put together a display and presentation, first given at a meeting of US government employees in the San Fernando Valley at the Van Nuys Federal Building (at this point in time I have totally forgotten how they got a hold of me--I think the guy's name was Hyman Lee), and later to the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and the Chinese Historical Society of America's second conference on the Life, Role and Influence of the Chinese in America held in 1980.  A paper was published in connection with the CHSA conference, though the book wasn't actually published until 1984.  I think that was the last of my historical articles to be published, though probably not the last I had written, as I did write some articles for both of the Chinese Historical Societies between 1980 and 1984.

I guess there was a precursor of my current Chinese food writing activities back in 1977 when I wrote my one and only published restaurant review, of Hong Kong Restaurant in Sioux City, IA for East West, the Chinese American Journal, a weekly newspaper out of San Francisco.  But even then, the review was as much about the setting of the restaurant, as the food that they served, particularly the fact that I ended up driving by the Sioux Bee Honey Factory before reaching the restaurant..  After the early 1980s, life got too busy to continue my writings on Chinese-American topics.  But in 2012, thanks to the publicity resulting from Clarissa Wei's write up on me and my 6,000 Chinese restaurant visits, I received offers to write on Chinese food.  Well meaning people contacted me under the presumption that having eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants I was an expert on Chinese cuisine and had the knowledge to be a Chinese restaurant critic.  Nothing was farther from the truth--I was like the guy my co-workers once talked about, who had 15 years experience in taxation, but which did not impress them because they said it was like "fifteen 1 year experiences".  Nevertheless I have taken the ball and run with it, using the opportunity to bring out the themes I used to write about decades ago--the Chinese Exclusion Laws, racial discrimination against Chinese Americans, and to tell these stories to new generations who had little idea of such events that had transpired in the past.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Déjà Vu All Over Again for Los Angeles Chinatown Dining

With the arrival of Roy Choi’s Chego, Little Jewel of New Orleans, Scoops, Pok Pok Thai, and Champ Ramen and the forthcoming large Pok Pok, Chinatown is once again a dining destination, albeit not particularly for Chinese food.  But this is not Los Angeles Chinatown’s first dining renaissance as once before it had emerged from its dining slumber to be a culinary hot spot.

While it is natural to lump Los Angeles Chinatown with other historic core city Chinatowns like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Vancouver and many others, in reality Los Angeles Chinatown is uniquely different.  That’s because today’s Chinatown in Los Angeles began as a Hollywood set like tourist only attraction with wishing wells, touristy restaurants and gift shops in a plaza like setting, but virtually no Chinese people actually living in the area.   Yes, Los Angeles did once have a real historic central city Chinatown, but that was leveled in 1933 to make way for the Union Station.  While civic do-gooders thought they were providing two separate suitable replacements in New Chinatown on North Broadway and China City on North Spring, virtually all of old Chinatown’s residents moved out of the downtown area, leaving Los Angeles without a real Chinatown for a good three decades.  From its opening in the late 1930s through the 1960s, New Chinatown dining was largely tourist oriented.  As I kid the only time I ever went to Chinatown was for an occasional banquet at one of New Chinatown’s or Spring Street’s (the two districts had not yet merged to form today’s Chinatown) larger restaurants such as Hong Kong Low, Lime House, General Lee’s, Grand Star, New Hung Far, Golden Pagoda or New Grand East.  We otherwise didn’t go to Chinatown to eat.  Rather whenever we ate out it would be in one of the San Pedro St. City Produce Market (the real Chinatown of that era that few outsiders know about) Chinese restaurants such as New Moon, Man Fook Low, Paul’s Kitchen or Moon Palace (which subsequent became On Luck).

Then came the game changer, the 1965 repeal of the restrictions on Chinese immigration to the United States.   With the influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, New Chinatown saw its first critical mass of Chinese residents, and restaurants serving a more modern type of Cantonese food sprang up in Chinatown in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Phoenix Inn, Won Kok Center and Golden Dragon.  Meanwhile, Grandview Gardens captured the imagination of Angelinos, both Chinese and non-Chinese, who swarmed the restaurant on Sunday mornings for their dim sum service.   Miriwa upped the ante by opening  its newfangled dim sum service on carts in 1976 on the second floor of Chunsan Plaza (currently occupied by Ocean Seafood).    

Los Angeles Chinatown reached its first culinary zenith in the 1980s as restaurants filled the street to street Food Center between Broadway and Hill St.  Mon Kee on Spring Street may have been the first Chinatown restaurant to serve Hong Kong style seafood, though it was soon left to the downtown lunch crowd.   But in 1984 ABC Seafood stepped in and introduced advanced Hong Kong seafood cuisine in the old Lime House location, for over a decade serving the best Chinese food in Los Angeles, if not the nation.   However later in the 1980s Monterey Park, and then the rest of the San Gabriel Valley gradually overtook Chinatown, to the point that there is nothing close to a destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown today.  Indeed, as far as Los Angeles Chinatown is concerned, the best known restaurant may be the touristy Yang Chow with its slippery shrimp, which annually wins  the "Best Chinese Restaurant" award from downtown office workers.. 

Ironically ground zero for Chinatown’s second renaissance is the old Food Center complex, since renamed Far East Plaza, as over the years fewer and fewer eating places populated the center’s premises.  But now, housing Chego, Pok Pok Thai, Scoops and Champ Ramen (as well as the pop-up cat cafe), it really has become a food center again.  Or like Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.