Sunday, October 13, 2019

Wenzhou Style Food Comes To Los Angeles

Recently an article about Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles listed roughly two dozen Chinese regional cuisines represented by restaurants in the Los Angeles area.  Not included in this list of cuisines was the cuisine of Wenzhou, but this was no surprise, as with the case with migrants from Fujian province, most people coming from Wenzhou to the US go directly to New York, and very few make their way to California, though there apparently are enough of them locally for there to be a Wenzhou Chamber of Commerce in El Monte.  (Wenzhou is part of Zhejiang, whose cuisine can be found in Los Angeles, but Wenzhou cuisine itself cannot.)

I first became aware of the Wenzhou population in New York a dozen years ago when I read about how they dominated the pirated DVD business back there, and how a couple of Wenzhou restaurants had opened in Flushing. And when I was in Spain last year, I learned that almost all the Chinese in Spain are from Wenzhou and they specialize in importing low cost knockoff products. The one Wenzhou dish from Flushing that I ate which stuck in my mind was something called variously fish dumpling or fish paste, served in soup with noodles optionally added. I’m not exactly sure if dumpling or paste is a fair description, since there is no dumpling wrapper, and it was more meaty than cooked fish paste.  Rather it's grouper beaten to a pulp, but not as smoothly as the fish paste you see in the stores.  Anyway, while food writer Tony Chen seems to have disappeared as a source of written information on Chinese food, he still has his finger on the pulse, and recently posted a picture from a Wenzhou style restaurant in El Monte.

After a couple of false starts I finally ended up at Masterbee Express, in the space right in the front in the Tito’s Market shopping center at 9814 E. Garvey Bl., in El Monte. But even upon arriving there, there was nothing to indicate anything other than a typical gringo Chinese fast food place. The proprietor who spoke almost no English appeared to indicate that his colorful little menu including fried rice, chow mein, chow fun and jalapeno chicken was all he had, but then he seemed to ask what I was looking for. I tried saying “fish noodle” but that didn’t get anywhere. But then he whipped out some hand held translation device and motioned for me to speak into it. When I said fish noodle, the machine spit something out and he smiled and said “fish balls” and brought out a Chinese language menu with a dozen items on it. There still was some confusion because the fish balls (which by no stretch of the imagination do not look like balls) came either with or without noodles, but an English speaking customer came over and straightened that out. Then when I said “Wenzhou” the owner smiled broadly and I knew we were on the same page.

The Wenzhou fish ball noodle soup was quite pricey–$15.99 for a normal sized bowl of noodle soup, possibly because of the labor required to render the fish. But if you hadn’t tried that dish or any Wenzhou cuisine before, or if you had and liked it the way I did, it’s worth it. This version wasn’t as good as what I had in Flushing, but that’s to be expected given the disparity in the local Wenzhou population between New York and LA.  I'm just happy that the cuisine exists here.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Reflecting on Embarcadero Center Chinese Dining Over The Years

Sometimes I get nostalgic about Chinese restaurants that no longer are around and recently I thought about Harbor Village which had locations in San Francisco and Monterey Park.  The San Francisco branch opened around 1985, back in the days when people from Los Angeles used to drive or fly to San Francisco in search of better Chinese food.  Harbor Village in San Francisco was the beachhead for a Hong Kong based Chinese restaurant, which I believe was called Harbourview.   Everybody in Los Angeles drove up to Harbor Village in the Embarcadero Center for their Hong Kong brand of dim sum at the time where dim sum/Hong Kong seafood palaces were just starting to spring up in the United States.  We drove up in the summer of 1987, our first trip away from Los Angeles where we brought our two little kids, Eric (6) and Christina (4) with us.  I remember very little about that lunch except that we had dim sum on carts (yes, I know all dim sum was on carts in 1987 but I remember specifically watching the carts) and we were joined by my former co-worker Marlene Kristovich, who subsequently became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.   Harbor Village opened a branch in Monterey Park shortly thereafter in 1988.  The San Francisco location closed in 2005 when they lost their lease, while Monterey Park was sold in 2000 to what became Empress Harbor.

I don't know what, if anything, occupied the Embarcadero Center space from 2005 to 2014, but in 2014 the famous Singapore based Crystal Jade restaurant opened up in that location to great anticipation and then fanfare, not surprising given Crystal Jade's reputation and the $14 million spent decorating the premises.  However all that quickly came crashing down when the San Francisco Chronicle's review of the new restaurant savagely ripped into the restaurant, followed by corroborating reports from all around.   Of course I will try any Chinese restaurant once, irrespective of what other people may say, so we showed up in early 2015 to check it out.

Crystal Jade was a giant facility with a large lounge, but I found the interior disappointing, in light of the $14 million spent to decorate the place and I didn’t see anything in the interior even worth photographing.   In one of my very few Yelp reviews, I gave it 3 stars out of 5, with the comment that the $90 dinner was probably worth half of that.   (If I factored the price into the rating it'd be no better than 2 stars.)  The egg white with sea bass was quite good.  We were a little miffed with the “sliced pork shoulder in honey sauce” appetizer for $13.  It turned out to be chashu, though pretty good chashu.  Whole scallops with macadamia nuts was decent, and the beef tenderloin which the waiter raved about was pretty good, but no better than the beef cubes at any number of San Gabriel Valley restaurants.  All in all, the $90+ tab was not money well spent.

Crystal Jade finally gave up after four years and sold the location to the operators of R&G Lounge.  (Crystal Jade would not have lasted nearly as long in the Los Angeles area which lacks the expense account dollars and the geographical concentration of tourists that San Francisco has.)    Harborview Restaurant opened up in late 2018 and we visited there this past June.   Arriving there I was surprised to see the dining room nearly packed on a weeknight.  The crispy baked bbq pork buns were pretty good, though not comparable to San Francisco's best.

Something unexpected was the lemon chicken (wor shu style, but quite nicely done) a surprisingly old school (meaning Toishanese, pre-Hong Kong immigration era) dish at what otherwise seems like a modern Chinese restaurant.

 Decent but not noteworthy were the mustard green with mushrooms.

 I was surprised when the waiter recommended beef brisket with turnips, but they consider this their signature dish and certainly was excellent.

However, like Crystal Jade before it, the quality/price ratio (QPR) at Harborview was certainly not worth it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Food Friday In San Francisco

A wedding in Monterey was the perfect excuse for a two day side trip to San Francisco.  Through a combination of circumstances, most of our notable eating was concentrated on our second day there, Friday.  As many people know my favorite Chinese dish these days is the Tim Ho Wan style crispy baked bbq pork buns.  At sit down restaurants, a small dim sum sized bun can come to $3 each, but at iCafe on Waverly Place in San Francisco Chinatown you can get a giant one for $1.50.  And the iCafe version is better than some dim sum palace versions.

Breakfast was light as we had planned an early dim sum lunch at the Guangdong based HL Peninsula Pearl branch in Burlingame.  I had read that the restaurant filled up early, so our friends got there at the 10:30am opening to grab a table and indeed the restaurant seemed to be full by 11am.  We had a variety of old and new dim sum items.  Versions of lotus leaf sticky rice and bean curd rolls were excellent, har gow, chicken feet, and beef cheung fun with corn were good.  The star of the show, though, was the piggie mango pudding, very visual and as good as this dessert gets.

Another highlight was the house special bbq pork plate.  Skin was crispy, meat was tasty (as was the fat) though at $18 for eight small pieces this was on the pricey side.

Another good dessert was the pandan bird nest tart, something I've never seen anywhere.

The most visual, but least tasty item was the pumpkin green bean paste bun.

All in all, while not in the category of San Francisco dim sum restaurants like Dragon Beaux and Hong Kong Lounge, I can see why the HL Peninsula locations are so popular.

Moving on, I had kept hearing about this dumpling place called Dumpling Time which was a little too far to reach on foot from my annual Market Street meeting, which was located somewhere in the general vicinity of the Nordstrom Rack just off the 101.  So I did a Google map inquiry and found Dumpling Time was located just three blocks away from Nordstrom Rack where I dropped off Mrs. Chandavkl.  Unfortunately I couldn’t read the Google map orientation properly and started going in the wrong direction, but after a block I realized my mistake and turned around.  It’s amazing how the neighborhood around the Nordstrom Rack had changed in the years since we started going there probably 15 years ago.  What was a dumpy area to the east is now a vibrant location with Zynga having their headquarters building, and other new developments.  With two major restaurant visits set for the day, I only ordered the chicken bao which appeared to have slivers of wood ear fungus mixed in, which provided a good contrast.  Also they provided a different look from the normal chicken bao. 

When we got back to the hotel after 3pm, it was still four hours before dinnertime so an additional snack was in order.  The previous evening I had noticed a newly opened restaurant called V & J Restaurant and noticed they had a special happy hour menu during the off hours of 10am to 11am, 3pm to 6pm, and 10pm to 11pm.  The values were amazing so I had ordered cod in spicy broth for $4.50 and snow pea leaves for $6.50 that night, so we we ordered a reprise of the snow pea leaves for our snack.  We also picked up breakfast and lunch from  V&J before our Saturday drive down to Monterey, scoring Chinese broccoli, bean curd sheet sticks, drunken chicken and chow chicken lai fun (a type of Cantonese noodle we seldom see in Los Angeles) for the grand total of $20.50 plus tax.

We had a 7pm reservation for our return visit to Palatte, and before we left for San Francisco I wanted to be sure that we took the right bus to get there.  In June we had asked the front desk how to take the bus to Fisherman’s Wharf and they told us to catch the #8 bus on Columbus, which made perfect sense since many years we rode a bus that went along Columbus and took us to the Wharf.  But in June we were stunned to find that the #8 bus left Columbus and ended up taking us to Pier 39.  So checking the mapping services beforehand, it was clear that we should take the #30  bus which would take us up Columbus towards Ghirardelli Square.  The only question I had was where on Stockton Street to catch the bus–Columbus or Pacific/Jackson.  The front desk wasn’t helpful so we decided to get on at Pacific/Jackson, which turned out to be the right choice since I saw the bus about to reach the stop and I literally sprinted to catch it.  Except when I mentioned to the bus driver we wanted to go to Fisherman’s Wharf he said we were on the wrong bus.  What??  But he said not to worry, he could take us two stops where we could transfer to the right bus, the #8.  Wait a second, I said, the #8 goes to Pier 39 and I don’t want to go there.  The driver tells us no, Pier 39 is Fisherman’s Wharf.  Which explained everything to me.  In the old days there was no Pier 39 and to us old timers, Fisherman’s Wharf meant the area with all the fishing vessels docked by Alioto’s restaurant.  The Wharf area then expanded west adding places like the Cannery, the Anchorage and Ghirardelli Square where Palatte is located.  But then it expanded east, including the development of Pier 39, such that today Pier 39 is considered to be part of the Wharf, while Ghirardelli is not.  So anyway we were on the right bus for Ghirardelli Square, and in fact the bus let us off across the street.

When we got into Palatte the place was packed, which made us very happy.  Ghirardelli Square was pretty dead the past few years and Palatte has really revitalized it in just a few months.  Dennis Leung, who had hosted us there in June, was not around, but fortunately at the end of our June visit he introduced us to his floor manager, Ken, and after chatting with him a while he remembered us from the prior visit, and we were treated quite well.  He pointed out the special menu printed on a small slip of paper that we actually had ignored when making our dinner selections, so we ordered two items off of that menu, the black cod stuffed with eggplant and the Iberico pork rice noodle rolls, both of which were excellent.  We also ordered our two favorites from our first visit, the fried tofu cubes and the crab rice noodle rolls, which while quite good didn’t wow us like the first time, though I'm sure they actually tasted the same as before.

We were so full that we had to cancel our squid ink fried rice with shrimp order.  We were ready to leave when Ken came over to tell us about their desserts.  We said we were full, but he said they were on the house.  So we got the chocolate egg rolls accompanied by a lychee based sauce).

The second dessert was called Cloud 9 (nine frozen melon balls surrounding a scoop of frozen tofu dessert).

I asked Ken about the progress of their San Mateo location and he said he thought it would be open in December or January, so we'll be sure to visit the new Palatte location on our next Bay Area trip.

One last noteworthy food related aspect of the trip was the Saturday morning visit to Beijing 49er, a newly carved out 1st floor eatery in what had been the two story Chinatown Restaurant on Washington St. in Chinatown.

This has to be the stupidest name ever for a Chinese restaurant because all of the Chinese who came to California for the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century were from the areas outside of Canton in southern China, where the law against Chinese emigration abroad could not be enforced.   So there were no Beijing 49ers back there, nor have any Beijingers ever played for San Francisco's NFL franchise.  Of course this was to be expected from probably the biggest tourist trap in Chinatown.  But I did like the crystal chicken dumpling, the first time I've seen this type of dumpling made with chicken instead of shrimp.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Today's Video Shoot With Lucas Kwan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times

Today's video shoot with Lucas Kwan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times at Hui Tou Xiang restaurant in San Gabriel went quite well, and was much more extensive than I was led to believe.   Peterson indicated beforehand  he wanted to focus on how Monterey Park became a Chinese town, and implied the interview would be a short one, which led me to believe I was doing just a segment of the video.  Peterson specifically mentioned Frederick Hsieh, the real estate entrepreneur who sold Monterey Park as the "Chinese Beverly Hills" to overseas Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong, leading to today's San Gabriel Valley mega Asian community.  However while Hsieh's exploits have been well publicized, the Asianization of the San Gabriel Valley began a decade before Hsieh came on the scene.  As such I was a bit anxious as to whether I would be able to move the conversation to cover what happened prior to Hsieh's arrival.

What few people realize is that the rise of the San Gabriel Valley as a massive Chinese American/Asian American community is the result of historic housing discrimination in the city of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles is a city of the 20th century.  In 1900 there were only 100,000 residents of Los Angeles.  But in the early 20th century hundreds of thousands of people piled into LA from back east, such that by 1930 the population of Los Angeles grew to 1.25 million.

As a result there was the massive development of new residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles.  The dark side of this boom was that most of these neighborhoods were reserved for white people only, through the use of deed restrictions which barred minority occupancy.  So if you were a Chinese American or other minority in Los Angeles, there were only certain parts of town where you could live.  In the mid-20th century you’d find the Chinese largely concentrated in south LA and parts of east LA, such as El Sereno.

Then in the late 1950s new residential neighborhoods were developed in Monterey Park.  There was a heavily Japanese neighborhood in east LA right on the southern border of Monterey Park.  These Japanese found that the developers of a new subdivision on the Monterey Park side were willing to sell to them, so they made the short move from the old residences on the Los Angeles side to the new houses on the Monterey Park side of the border.  This was the start of the great Asian migration to the San Gabriel Valley.  Soon thereafter in the early 1960s, the hillside Monterey Highlands area was developed and Chinese Americans from nearby El Sereno, as well as south LA, found that they were welcome there.  By 1970 there were over 2,000 Chinese Americans living in Monterey Park, mostly American born Chinese engineers and professionals and their families.  

As it turns out 1970 was probably the year that the restrictions on Chinese immigration to the US had a practical effect, opening the doors for Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan to move to the Los Angeles area.  This is where Hsieh came to Monterey Park in the early 1970s and found a growing community of Chinese Americans and had the vision to recognize this to be an ideal landing spot for the new wave of Chinese immigrants.

Surprisingly, this is not where the interview started at, as Peterson delved into my background as a Chinese food observer and I responded about my initial interest in American history and geography, the revelation brought by the pioneering "Orientals in America" class at UCLA in 1969, and the convergence of the two when I started to travel the country and eat at Chinese restaurants.  Then I talked about the convergence of meeting people at work who had been in the first wave of Hong Kong students who came to college in the US with the appearance of the new and improved Hong Kong style of Cantonese food.  

When he asked where I grew up, I started talking about Crenshaw/West Adams, and how we were part of the changing racial makeup of the area in the 1950s, and how the pendulum has swung back into today's gentrification.  Surprisingly, Peterson brought up the issue of housing discriminating, recounting how his mother's family was only able to move into Culver City via subterfuge, and asked me if I had experienced anything like that.  I told him about the time a real estate broker (named Orrin Fuller, if I recall correctly) showed us a house on Charlene Ave. in View Park, but after leaving the house informed us not to make an offer because all the homeowners on the block had made a pact to not sell to a minority buyer.   

Of course this was the perfect segue into talking about how the origins of Chinese and Asian San Gabriel Valley were rooted in the historic housing discrimination in Los Angeles.  He asked if there was friction caused by the arrival of the Chinese in Monterey Park, and I mentioned the English signage proposal as a past issue, but that became moot when Chinese became a majority of the population in Monterey Park and Chinese councilmembers and mayors came into office.  Peterson also asked various other questions, such as how Chinese food changed with the arrival of Hong Kong immigrants, how Chinese influence has marched eastward across the San Gabriel Valley as newer housing tracts came on line (I sent him my article on that topic as a pre-read), and why Los Angeles has become the pre-eminent Chinese food center in the US.  I answered this latter question by pointing out that Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York have comparable numbers of Chinese residents, but a big difference was that there is such a large contiguous concentration of Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley, where as Chinese communities in San Francisco and New York were more spread out.  I also pointed out the existence of the food centric "626 Generation" of millennials and young adults, for which there was no comparable group in San Francisco and New York.  A final topic was the flip in Chinese food from Cantonese to non-Cantonese in just the past few years, and I made my usual comments that Cantonese restaurants probably represent only 10 percent of new Chinese restaurant openings, in the San Gabriel Valley, which are dominated instead by Sichuan food, hotpots, and skewers.

One interesting tidbit mentioned by Peterson was that he advised famed Sichuanese chef Yu Bo who has indicated the desire to open a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles not to do so.   Apparently Yu Bo wants to open a highly upscale restaurant and Peterson told him he didn’t think it would succeed based on the upscale level that Yu Bo seems to be contemplating.  I agreed, stating that Los Angeles will not support fine Chinese dining based on the failure of Hakkasan to succeed in Beverly Hills despite successful branches in Manhattan and San Francisco. I explained that Manhattan has Wall Street and corporate headquarters and San Francisco is Wall Street West and also has many corporate headquarters.  This provides a lot of expense account money to spend on fine dining, Chinese or otherwise, which people who have expense accounts view as free money (whether or not it actually is).  In contrast Los Angeles was not a financial center, has only has a few corporate headquarters, weighted in the entertainment industry, and as such does not have the expense account sustaining sources that New York and San Francisco have. Peterson said Los Angeles was too casual to support fine dining anyway, pointing out that people here who often dine out in shorts would not accept restaurants having dress codes.

Afterwards the camera crew, a gentleman with a neatly trimmed beard and Vespa, a short woman with dark hair, staged two short scenes, one an ending scene where we thanked each other, and the other one where we walked to our booth.   There was also one canned insert during the interview where I explained my inability to use chopsticks.  We ordered hui tou dumplings and fish dumplings, the latter which were superb. All in all, the video session lasted nearly an hour. Afterwards I asked Peterson the exact nature of the day's shoot, and he indicated that they're doing a series of neighborhood food profiles, and this was the program on Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley.  For some reason the kitchen then sent out two more orders of hui tou dumplings and an order of leek dumplings. After our meeting was over, the crew packed up and headed to Koreatown where they were shooting their next video.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

On The Cutting Room Floor

Almost five years ago I was interviewed for three segments of six part TV series called ‘The Way of the Wok,” focusing on Chinese food, and specifically focusing on the five major cuisines of China, and how they have manifested in Canada in the United States.  Canadian celebrity chef Christine Cushing interviewed me on a variety of topics, though the interview really wasn’t a perfect fit because they were looking for a Chinese food expert, which I am not.  Anyway I hadn’t heard a peep from them after the interview, and my presumption was that they ran out of money before being able to package the series, or couldn’t find anybody to buy it.  A couple of years later, I was cleaning my desk and I found the card of the show’s producer,  Theresa Kowall Shipp.  Curious about what might have happened to the show, I did a Google search to find that the show had just made its TV debut in Hong Kong a little over a week previously under the moniker “Confucius Was A Foodie.”  I also found detailed information about the six episodes, and it didn’t look like any of my interviews made the final cut.  

Then, early this year the show finally showed up on PBS, expanded to eight episodes, certainly a long time from production time to showing up on US television.  In watching the first couple of shows it was clear that my scenes were definitely not included because the focus of the show had shifted from Chinese food in North America to Chinese food in general, with the majority of the scenes being shot in Asia and other foreign locales, with scenes shot in Canada, San Francisco and Los Angeles being really incidental.

For the most part I didn't watch the episodes, but I did fast forward through to parts that were clearly shot in North America to see if there were interesting tidbits about the Chinese food here.  In the episode on Sichuan cuisine, I noticed that they took a bit of artistic license by including some scenes of Los Angeles Chinatown in the show, despite the fact that there is no Sichuan food in Los Angeles Chinatown.  I presume they did this because while they were talking about Sichuan food in the San Gabriel Valley in that segment, the SGV doesn't have the stylized Chinese architecture that you find in Los Angeles Chinatown, and they wanted that visual Chinese atmosphere in the show.

The other interesting visual find in watching the Sichuan episode was that there were very brief (one to two seconds) shots of the interior and the exterior of the restaurant, Chua Ren Bai Wei in Temple City, where I shot my scenes.  I was very happy to see those snippets, because it shows that they didn't destroy the tape they took that day.  And in just now checking the Confucius Was A Foodie website again, they now refer to the shows as the first season, so maybe there will be a second season and maybe they'll use some more old tape!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Guangzhou Style Cantonese Food Comes To The United States

For almost the first 150 years of Chinese food in America, the dining scene was dominated by Cantonese food.  Indeed for the first 120 years it was the rural version of Cantonese food from Toishan and surroundings which characterized what Americans understood to be Chinese food.  Starting around 1970, Cantonese style food from Hong Kong came onto the scene, and has largely been the pre-eminent style of Cantonese food in America since then.  But starting in the late 1990s, non-Cantonese regional cuisines began to become more and more commonplace, such that today in most Chinese-American communities, non-Cantonese regional food styles prevails by a wide margin over Cantonese food.

A commonly used term to describe the dominant non-Cantonese food is "Mainland" food, with the term Mainland being a term of distinction for Mainland China, as opposed to Hong Kong and Taiwan.  `Of course most of you are probably thinking that Cantonese food originated in the city formerly known as Canton, now known as Guangzhou, which certainly is on the Chinese mainland. But "Mainland" food is identified with migrants who arrived from China after diplomatic relations were re-established between China and the United States in the 1970s.    While Cantonese people have migrated to the United States during this period, they had no effect on Cantonese cuisine in the United States which combined historic Toishanese food that radiated out of America's historic Chinatowns, as subsequently modified and supplanted by influences from Hong Kong.

Well, I should say there was no Mainlander effect on Chinese food in the United States until last year.  That's when the Guangzhou based HL Peninsula Seafood restaurant opened up in South San Francisco.  So on our Bay Area visit last month, HL Peninsula was high on our list of dining destinations.

Now I can't say there was a large apparent difference dining at HL Peninsula as opposed to a typical Hong Kong style Cantonese seafood restaurant.  The only thing truly distinctive was this plate of fruit at our table waiting for us as we were seated.

Visually, HL Peninsula, as one of the newest venues that we have visited, was also once of the most nicely decorated with the giant TV screens that seem to be de rigeur at newly opened Chinese seafood palaces.

Our first dish was something that we never had before, sliced fish and pumpkin soup.  Totally fabulous!

The next dish certainly wasn't anything new, but the French cut steak was definitely very good.

And the clams with vermicelli was another winner.

The snow pea leaves were good but nothing different from a typical dinner.

HL Peninsula proved to be such a hit that a second branch of the chain, HL Pearl, has opened up in nearby Burlingame.

Actually, HL Peninsula was not the first Guangzhou based restaurant chain we ate at on this trip.  Before we got to San Francisco, we stopped at the Pacific Pearl shopping center in Pleasanton where  Yin Ji Chang Fen, specializing in rice noodle rolls opened up.  Yin Ji Chang Fen was actually something quite different from what we were used to, as a sit down restaurant focusing on rice noodle rolls.  Furthermore, these weren't the rolls we were used to seeing in the United States, but rather a burrito sized meal in itself.   This marinated beef roll was also a balanced meal in itself as it had a thin layer of green vegetables on the inside.

They also had an egg filled rice noodle roll, something I had never had before.

Mention should also be made of the Guangzhou based Chinese dessert chain Sweethoney, which has also opened up a number of branches in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Yin Ji Cheng Fan has also just opened up in San Gabriel, so Los Angeles area residents can enjoy Guangzhou Cantonese food, too.  Actually, we had a small taste of Guangzhou cuisine as I described last year when Guangzhou based Ooak Kitchen opened up in Culver City.  As I described at the time that was a puzzling opening as there is not a major Chinese population in or around Culver City, but nevertheless Ooak Kitchen served a distinctively authentic Guangzhou style vegetarian cuisine, including an incredible vegetarian beef steak made out of a gigantic mushroom imported from China.  Needless to say, Ooak Kitchen's concept didn't last very long, and they rebranded the restaurant Fifty One Kitchen, with a combination of more standard Chinese vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes, with nothing to evidence the restaurant's roots in Guangzhou.

It would not be surprising to see more of these Guangzhou based restaurant chains open up in the United States, raising the question of whether the term "Mainland" Chinese cuisine can still completely exclude Cantonese cuisine.  I think the answer to that question is in the negative, based on my recent conversation with Jack Wang, the Millennial owner of Miao Miao Xian restaurant in Monterey Park, which serves paper wrapped fish and other Sichuan style dishes.  Despite the style of cuisine his restaurant serves, Wang is Cantonese.  But he also describes himself as a Mainlander.  So if the Cantonese owner of a non-Cantonese Mainlander restaurant calls himself a Mainlander, I would think Guangzhou style Cantonese food is also Mainland fare.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

How Grand is Grand Harbor?

The return of Michelin to Los Angeles has created additional excitement on the local restaurant scene, and for me personally seeing how they have evaluated Chinese restaurants has been something that has attracted my attention.  It was surprising, though satisfying, to see Bistro Na's garner a Michelin star, but practically speaking the greatest interest has been in seeing what Chinese restaurants did and did not get the Bib Gourmand honorable mentions.   The one restaurant that piqued my interest was Grand Harbor, the one Cantonese restaurant on the list which we do not patronize, and which made the cut over places such as King Hua, China Red, Seafood Palace, Happy Harbor and Elite.  Consequently, a return visit to Grand Harbor for dim sum was warranted as I wanted to see whether it had improved noticeably over our visits there from back in 2015.

Walking into the main dining room I was reminded of how well appointed it was, perhaps the nicest decor of any Cantonese restaurant in the area including Longo Seafood.

First item was the appetizer plate with my childhood favorite sil ji.  Crispy skin was excellent but the roast pork meat was much too dry.

The first thing I look for is interesting nontraditional dim sum items on the menu.  The crispy fried fish cake was a highlight of the meal.

The pan fried XO buns sounded interesting but they were ordinary and misleading to boot.  For one thing they weren't pan fried, as demonstrated by the steamed bao paper on the bottom of the bun.  Also the pork filling had very little indication of XO sauce in the taste.

While not unique, the spare rib rice noodle rolls evoked thoughts of the similarly named wonderful dish at Longo Seafood.  While not bad, these didn't come close to Longo's, and furthermore came with rice noodle logs instead of cheung fun as at Longo.

Actually I love rice noodle logs, but with spare ribs it was the wrong combination.  Furthermore, we had already ordered a separate rice noodle log dish, which was excellent, but which deprived us of the chance to try both rice noodle items.

A variant of an often seen dim sum item was the double egg tofu connected by a layer of fish paste in the middle.  This was pretty good.

Grand Harbor serves what I refer to as the "ironic" version of the pineapple bun.  What most people don't realize (though the awareness level is rising) is that the traditional Chinese pineapple bun (literally translated from Chinese as "bolo bao") has no pineapple content.  Rather, the name refers to the physical appearance which is reminiscent of the exterior of a pineapple.  However, a small number of pineapple bun makers have recently added pineapple cream filling to the bun, either as to not disappoint unknowing diners, or as an ironic joke.  Grand Harbor's ironic pineapple bun is perhaps the most visually attractive version, but pales in taste to that at Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights.

The last item at our dim sum lunch wouldn't seem to qualify as dim sum either as to content or as to serving size.  But the beef brisket was probably the highlight of the day with a spot on anise flavor and wonderfully tender beef.

All in all, the food at Grand Harbor was good, but disappointing.  As I wrote a couple of years ago for L A Weekly, Yelp ratings for Chinese restaurants are largely unreliable for a number of reasons.  Indeed, I just now happened to check Grand Harbor's Yelp rating, which is stunningly low at 2½ stars, as the food at Grand Harbor is pretty good.  On the other hand, when you look at all of the better, excellent Cantonese restaurants that did not receive a Michelin Bib Gourmand, I have to conclude that the Yelpers are closer to the truth than Michelin seems to be.