Monday, July 21, 2014

Hungry For Chinese Food In Hungary

In my Menuism article from a year ago on the proclivity of many Chinese and Chinese American tourists to seek out Chinese food wherever they travel, even bad Chinese food, instead of sampling the local cuisine, I asked the rhetorical question "Who wants to eat Chinese food in Hungary?"  Having just returned from Hungary, I must now admit that I in fact ate Chinese food while I was there.

However, in so doing, I was not suffering from the "Chinese Stomach" which I described in the Menuism article.   Rather, it was due to combination of factors that happened to come together.  First of all, being known for racking up a large number of restaurants, I knew people would ask me about how much Chinese food I ate on our recent trip to Austria, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.   So while not going out of my way to eat Chinese food in lieu of local cuisine, I did want to try a Chinese restaurant or two on the trip.  Then, for our only meal on our own in Budapest, we ended up at a modern shopping mall, West End mall, since we figured there would be a food court with many choices.  However our selection was narrowed by the fact that we carried a negligible amount off Hungarian forint, requiring us to find an eatery that accepted credit cards.  And it would be helpful to find someplace that had an English language description of their offerings.  So when I found that Wok N Go Noodle House satisfied both counts, that was the place for me.

In addition, it really had the most attractive spread in the food court.  Probably a dozen and a half different choices in large steam trays, some of which where visually quite enticing.  The sesame chicken was extra large pieces of deep fried battered chicken with a glistening sauce and the breaded chicken cutlet were particularly noteworthy.  I ordered the stir fried turkey with vegetables, though as things turned out I'm thinking that might have been chicken, not turkey, and perhaps there was an error in translation (though other chicken dishes were properly described).  Strangely among the vegetables in the dish was wood ear fungus, something I've never ever seen in an Americanized Chinese fast food eatery.  I also ordered the sliced marinated tofu, again an item only found at authentic Chinese restaurants back here in the USA.  The surprising thing is that this meal was probably better than the food that you would get at many ordinary Americanized Chinese eateries.  I mean it wasn't Panda Express which is pretty good for what it is, but I've had a lot worse, particularly in locales with few, if any Chinese residents.

Interestingly there were two other Asian restaurants in the food court, a Thai restaurant and a generic Asian restaurant, and they both had similar breaded chicken dishes on display.  And a good portion of the non-Asian eateries had deep fried items for sale, including one which had something that looked like an entire deep fried sandwich.  I can only guess that these were all schnitzel related or inspired, and that the Asian chicken dishes just fit right in.   That plus the fact that after decades of deprivation during the communist years, Hungary seems to have adopted western fast food as their national cuisine.  (Or as our tour guide said, the best Hungarian food these days is in New York City).

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Las Vegas Chinese Food Revisited

Most of you have read the original posting on this blog, later expanded for the Menuism blog, dispelling the myth that the best Chinese restaurants in America are in Las Vegas.  The popularity of that item has been puzzling to me.  It was later republished by the Huffington Post, even though I didn't think there was anything particularly noteworthy about the article, and indeed less worthy of publication there than a number of other  Menuism articles that were not reprinted.  Then on their Las Vegas annual convention website, the American Library Association included a prominent link to the article on the list of things for their attendees to do while in Las Vegas.  And now the article has been picked up by Scribd, the noted online digital library website.  My only explanation is that this article has garnered interest because it represents the intersection of two very popular topics, Las Vegas and food, as opposed to being particularly interesting or well written in its own right.

I do want to add an addendum to this article to reflect my subsequent visit to Wing Lei Restaurant.  I seldom write about restaurants that I  had not actually eaten at, but I felt compelled to mention Wing Lei because of its general renown, plus the fact that it was a Michelin one star restaurant.  Also,  I was fairly comfortable with my comments about Wing Lei, since its menu was wholly Americanized with items like egg drop soup, sweet and sour pork, and General Tso's chicken, a clear indication that this restaurant would do nothing for the reputation of Chinese restaurants in Las Vegas.

Finally having had the opportunity to eat at Wing Lei, I am pleased to confirm that my suspicions about the restaurant were correct.   I will say just like Michelin, I did give Wing Lei one star, though mine was on a scale of five, on the Opentable website.  As taken directly from that site:
Wing Lei

  • "Wing Lei is probably the only Michelin starred Chinese restaurant in the western United States. Wonderful setting and great service, but the food is borderline awful. Unless food is secondary to you, save your money and go to Panda Express. Or if you insist on a pricey Chinese meal, head to Hakkasan."
Actually, my comments above were relatively kind compared to how I really felt.  I had ordered the General Tso's chicken and the duck salad, the former in honor of my cameo in The Search For General Tso and the screening at the TriBeCa film festival.  It is possible to make Americanized Chinese food taste good in an upscale setting.  I've experienced that at such places like Tommy Toy's and the Empress of China in San Francisco (even some of the stuff at Ruby Foo's in New York was tasty) and that's what I was sort of expecting at Wing Lei.  What I got was awful (there was no borderline).  I've had better gloppy chicken at buck-a-plate Chinese fast food steam table outlets in South Central Los Angeles than what they served at Wing Lei.

Virtually all the other diners give Wing Lei four or five stars, some praising the General Tso's chicken in particular.  So it's clear what the profile of their targeted diners are, and how little they know about Chinese food.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Cleaver Quarterly

I had the honor and privilege of being interviewed for the inaugural edition of The Cleaver Quarterly, an illustrated international English language journal dedicated to various aspects of Chinese cuisine, published in Beijing.   This appears to be the first print magazine devoted solely to Chinese cuisine.   The interview is more like a round of 20 questions (in this case 23 questions)  about my experiences in seeking out Chinese restaurants throughout the United States and Canada.   While my previous L.A. Weekly and Los Angeles Times interviews would seem to have covered most of the territory that would be of any interest to readers, the 20 questions format did give me the opportunity to recount some tidbits from the past, such as what turned out to be the culinary awakening at Kim's Restaurant in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1976, my surprise in finding authentic Chinese food at Creasian Restaurant in Springfield, Missouri during my Cashew Chicken tour, as well my statement that Chinese food in Houston is better than that in Manhattan. 

One question which would have been better answered if the interview occurred just a little bit later dealt with the Chinese tradition of fighting for the restaurant tab at the end of the meal.  They asked me about any memorable fights and frankly I don't recall any.  However, after dinner a few weeks ago the customary fight broke out.  However a person at the table abruptly stopped the proceedings by saying "This is not a Chinese restaurant.  You're making a scene by fighting for the check."  Yes, the fight was at a European deli.

Since The Cleaver  Quarterly is an English language publication produced in Beijing, the exposure will be regrettably limited, since it is a fine, high quality publication.  It can be ordered online for $10 plus $7 handling at

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Decor Matters - At Least Just This Once

When it comes to eating at restaurants for me it’s all about the food and never about the decor.  Until now.  But it’s not a case of finally appreciating an exquisite decor, but rather being annoyed by an incredibly unbelievable dining setting..

Philippe Chow has to have the most weird and bizarre layout of any restaurant I’ve been to, so much that it detracts from any dining experience there may be (and which itself is very limited).   When you step through the doors you are confronted by an interior alley (actually more like a back alley) without a rooftop, with the podium on the left, the bar and small dining area on the right.  Continuing down the alley there is a mess hall like dining room painted in black and white on the left, and the kitchen door on the right, so as you sit at your table you get a great view of the wait staff coming in and out of the kitchen, and if you go to or leave your table, you have a great chance of bumping into a server.   There appears to be a private dining area at the end of the hall.

Instead of paying more attention to the meal, I was sitting there wondering what they were thinking when they designed the place.    Maybe they thought painting everything black would hide flaws, but that's not the way it works. If they were trying to be Beverly Hills hip they completely missed the mark. Maybe would have been hip back in the 70's but I can't get away from the tackiness and sloppiness of it.    All this might be unforgivable if we were talking about a hole in the wall dive that serves fantastic food.  But this is Philippe Chow in Beverly Hills, where the menu items run three times the price of what you would pay for Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley that is three times better. 

Of course I’d rather not dwell on the negative so I would like to say some positive things about Philippe Chow.  The food wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected and the $20 lunch special was reasonably priced for Beverly Hills, if they hadn’t run out of dessert and for which they gave us a raincheck, as if we’ll ever go back to this house of horrors.  Indeed the entrees, breaded fried salmon and velvet chicken, were quite interesting even if the dishes themselves missed the mark. And the satay chicken was actually pretty good, though the deep red batter was a little disconcerting. 

Also, I was happy to get the chance to eat here because when we arrived for our 11:45am reservation the restaurant was locked tight, which led me to assume they were out of business.  Fortunately we saw a construction worker inside and when we waved at him, he came to tell us that they didn’t open until noontime, which makes you wonder why they accept 11:30 and 11:45 am reservations.  And since the wait staff didn’t arrive until the noontime opening, he let us in, brought us menus and solicited our orders.  (It turns out he was part of the dinner crew and was daylighting as a handyman.  Nonetheless I had never been served at a restaurant by somebody dressed like one of the Village People.)  

Perhaps our thoughts about the decor were overly influenced by the fact that we were there in the daylight, where based on the fact that there were no other lunchtime diners the entire time this may well be a dinner restaurant, and at night the cheap and sloppy look of the premises is obscured by darkness.  But then I read that at night the interior is lit up in red lights, so it's probably even sleazier.

Finally I want to reiterate how happy I was to finally eat here, since a previous attempt to dine at Philippe Chow two months previously was postponed by rain--literally since we arrived to a flooded restaurant after a brief late winter rainstorm, without being timely notified that our reservation was cancelled.   (Whoever designed this restaurant without completely enclosing it must have listened to "It Never Rains In Southern California" one too many time.)    That's why my heart sank when the restaurant appeared to be locked up when we arrived for our reservation.    After all, based on these comments, this place could easily go out of business at any time.

[Thanks to Judy Isozaki who was equally taken aback by the premises and co-authored portions of this piece.]

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ten Thumbs Up! The Search For General Tso, the movie

As I have mentioned in the past, despite all my musings about food I have written a grand total of one restaurant review about a specific restaurant, and that was back in 1977.  So I’m now matching that number for movie reviews in this short review of the new film The Search For General Tso, which opened last month at the TriBeCa film festival and will be making its way around the independent film festival circuit.  My feelings about this movie are unrelated to the fact that I’m one of the interviewees–it’s a fantastic movie even (or perhaps especially) without me.  

For my California friends, I do need to make this prefatory remark.  General Tso’s Chicken is a sweet, spicy, savory dish made with deep fried chicken nuggets.  It is seldom seen in California.  Indeed Mrs. Chandavkl and her cousin who saw the movie with me at TriBeCa had never eaten the dish before, until we found Chinese Fast Wok Restaurant around the corner from the screening in Chelsea after we watched the movie.  Few, if any of my family and friends in California have ever had the dish, as it seems to have been pre-empted out here by the sweeter orange chicken dish, popularized by Panda Express.  But if you move east from California, General Tso’s Chicken is one of the most ubiquitous dishes found in Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

Ostensibly, The Search For General Tso deals with the mystery of the origins of General Tso’s Chicken, a standard Chinese restaurant dish in much of the United States, and the ultimate success in ascertaining where the dish came from creates a highly satisfactory conclusion to the movie.  Yes, in a progression from New York to China and back, even involving one of the descendants of General Tso, the creator of the dish is found and interviewed, as is the restauranteur who took the dish and ran with it, creating perhaps the signature dish of the secondary, non-Cantonese wave of Americanized Chinese food. 

But the movie is much more than that.  It is the story of the struggle of Chinese Americans against racial hatred and enmity to ultimately find a place in America.  Of immigration laws which prevented Chinese (singled out over every other nationality) from migrating to the United States for decades.  Of the Cantonese roots of the Chinese American community and Chinese food in America which only diversified to include Chinese of other regional origins after the repeal of Chinese Exclusion.  A story of how Chinese restaurants and Chinese food developed in the United States, and how the Chinese evolved from mass targets of scorn to a measure of acceptance.  Ask David Leong, Springfield, MO’s creator of the regional favorite Springfield cashew chicken, how long it took to gain that acceptance, as when opening his first restaurant in the 1960s his restaurant was bombed before it even opened.  (Not to mention local bankers who refused to loan him the money to start his restaurant.)   Through interviews with academics, writers, chefs, restauranteurs, food critics and more, Ian Cheney concludes the search for General Tso, in a tale that tells a much larger story.

In bringing author Jennifer 8 Lee’s search for General Tso to the movie screen, filmmaker Ian Cheney has done so much more.  As I told him at the post-screening Q&A in front of the sold out audience at the Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea, “As a Chinese American, I want to thank you for telling our story.” 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Search For General Tso--The Saga Ends

Shortly after my first 15 minutes of fame that followed from Clarissa Wei's piece on the crazy lawyer who had eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants, I was contacted by Lily Spottiswoode, associate producer at New York based Wicked Delicate Films (and unbeknownst to me at the time, the granddaughter of actor Jack Palance), regarding a documentary film they were shooting on Chinese restaurants.  The film was titled The Search For General Tso and was based on a segment of Jennifer 8 Lee's book, the Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which searched for the origins of General Tso's Chicken, an Americanized Chinese dish commonly found in the eastern United States.  The filmmakers' plans were eventually to travel out to the west coast to shoot some interviews and they asked if I was available to speak about regional differences in Chinese restaurants across the United States.

It took six months for the interview to take place, where I met with Lily, along with film director Ian Cheney and producer Amanda Murray.  At first they wanted to shoot the interview at a local Chinese restaurant that served General Tso's chicken.  However since General Tso's chicken is as rare in Los Angeles as it is common in New York, we ended up at Mission 261 in San Gabriel.  Our interview lasted over two hours, well in excess of what the film's running time would be, so it was clear to me that most of what I said would never make it into any film.  Since my interview was one of the last they conducted, they indicated that they would soon start the editing process.  I don't know anything about filmmaking, but I figured it would take maybe 6 to 9 months to pull the film together.  I did get a short informational request four months after the interview.  However, as the months rolled on I started to suspect that the film would not get finished, my guess being funding problems being the culprit.   Not only did I not hear from anybody, but the General Tso account on Twitter fell silent.

So it was a bit of a surprise that last month, a little over a year after the interview, the General Tso Twitter account revived to announce that the movie would be screening at this month's TriBeCa film festival.  The movie really has two parts--the successful search for the origins of General Tso's chicken, and an account on the Chinese restaurant landscape in the United States. The movie premiered two days ago before a sellout crowd of 500 viewers at the Bow Tie Cinema in Chelsea.  This Thursday's showing is also sold out, and I'm looking forward to seeing the film with great anticipation.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Thanks To The Asia Society For Expanding The Audience

It’s been nearly two years since food writer Clarissa Wei plucked me from obscurity to profile me as the crazy attorney/CPA who had eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants.  Within days I was contacted by the Asia Society to do an article on my picks as the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States.   Eating at so many Chinese restaurants didn’t make me an expert on Chinese food, as my knowledge was about Chinese restaurants, which is a completely different thing, but I gladly accepted the challenge.  The Asia Society article led to the opportunity to write articles on Chinese restaurants on the Menuism website on a recurring basis.  This has opened the door for me to publicize the Toishanese roots of Americanized Chinese food and the Chinese community itself, along with important facts about Chinese American history, such as discriminatory immigration laws that barred Chinese from coming to the United States for decades, and the post-immigration reform shift in the mix of Chinese immigration.  There’s not a single traditional restaurant review among my writings.

However, it’s only at this point almost two years later that I recognize what an opportunity that the original Asia Society article has provided me.  First of all, it’s given me an insight I would not have otherwise had into how the internet works.  No, I’m not talking servers and stuff like that, but how content originates on the internet, and then how that content speeds its way around the world.  Secondly, I also now just realize what a chance that first article provided to reach so many people with what I had to say.

When I wrote my Top 10 Restaurant story I had no idea as to the attention and controversy that would follow.  And it’s really all thanks to the Asia Society because my intended article was merely a listing and description of 10 restaurants, hardly anything to garner a wide audience.  The one thing that I wanted to explain to the editor when I submitted the article was that my list was different in that I made no effort to be geographically correct, and explaining in detail why all the restaurants were in California, and specifically why none were in New York.  These comments were meant solely as an aside to the editor and not for public consumption, so when I saw that the raw introductory comments were included at the start of the article, I cringed at seeing my unfiltered comments in public. 

What I didn’t realize, but Asia Society’s editor did, was that the purpose of internet content is to drive traffic, and nothing drives traffic like controversy.  And in those terms, the article turned out to be a blockbuster.  Through well placed links in social media and on restaurant message boards, a firestorm of commentary ensued, much of it negative from outraged New Yorkers who felt that had been dissed.  Indeed, reaction was so negative that I didn’t bother to re-read my Asia Society article again until just recently.  And when finally visiting the article again I was shocked to see the statistics on the page–3,200 likes on Facebook (probably an even larger number of dislikes, if there were such statistics kept) and over 300 tweets on Twitter.  Given that a minuscule percentage of web surfers bother to affirmatively interact with a like or tweet, the readership for that article must  have been staggering.   I could only dream about reaching those kinds of numbers again.   And it was due entirely to the inclusion by the Asia Society editor of what I intended to be off the record remarks.