Saturday, June 13, 2015

Reviving Crunchy Baked BBQ Pork Buns

When I was a kid, the only Chinese bbq pork buns in circulation were the steamed ones, much larger in size than the current buns served in orders of three buns, and referred to back then as "hom bao".  Then somewhere along the line somebody invented the baked bbq pork bun, baked to a golden brown on top with a smooth top having a sweet glaze.  I'm guessing these arrived first in Hong Kong, maybe in the 1980s, though frankly I can't tell you where I first encountered this item in the United States.

But the real gem in this collection is what might be referred to as the crunchy top bbq pork bun.  It's most associated with Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, the world's most inexpensive Michelin starred restaurant and seems to have been replicated only by a handful of Chinese restaurants in the United States, most notably Hong Kong Lounge and Lai Hong Lounge in San Francisco. (Strangely, a small bakery in San Francisco Chinatown, AA Bakery on Stockton St., produced them for a while, but seems to have stopped.)  Also, Sea Harbour in Rosemead, CA has a similar item they call a French top bbq pork bun.  The Tim Ho Wan version is the best, but the Lai Hong Lounge version is a good substitute.  Indeed so good, we once ordered four orders of three buns at Lai Hong Lounge, one to eat at the restaurant and the others to take back to Los Angeles.

But the problem with taking these things home is that a dim sum item that starts off with a crunchy top soon turns into a soggy and soft bun that doesn't taste so good.  Microwaving one of these cold buns only makes it hot--it's still soggy.  However after experimenting I figured out how to revive these things at home.  A double passing through a toaster oven cycle gets the top nice and crunchy again.  Unfortunately, that's not enough to warm up the inside fully, and more time in the toaster oven will burn the top.  But after the double toaster oven treatment, 20 to 25 seconds in the microwave, and voila!

Note that this treatment also works to revive pineapple top bbq pork and chicken buns, too.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Upscale Chinese Dining in the East San Gabriel Valley

As Clarissa Wei recently highlighted a lot of the new developments in Chinese dining are concentrated in the eastern portion of the San Gabriel Valley, as opposed to the more established west San Gabriel Valley communities such as Monterey Park,  Alhambra, and San Gabriel.  For those looking for microtrends in this advancement of Chinese dining, I've noticed in the Rowland Heights-Industry-Hacienda Heights area a disproportionate number of recent openings of more upscale Chinese restaurants.

When I say upscale, I mean both in terms of restaurant decor and design, as well as a higher price point that what we're used to seeing. Immediately coming to mind are Zheng's Fusion, Southern Gourmet, Lobster Bay and Taste Guizhou, and I'm sure there are quite a few others. I guess with a newer and less pricey real estate stock, it's easier to spend a few extra dollars on the decor than in the denser west San Gabriel Valley and its older real estate inventory. And in these new restaurants, many, if not most of the dinner entrees  run in the $20 and more category.  Hardly pricey by typical foodie standards in the Los Angeles area, but quite a departure from the value pricing that most Chinese diners in the San Gabriel Valley have typically been looking for.

It's not like there's any overall loss of interest in reasonably priced Chinese food in the west San Gabriel Valley.  Indeed, one now finds the best and more expensive west San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants like Sea Harbour, King Hua, Shi Hai and Elite only half  full on Saturday nights, while restaurants like Mama's Lu Dumpling House (hardly anything on the menu over $10) and 5 Star Seafood (entrees nudge over $10, but you get an allegedly 3 pound lobster for $5.97 with a minimum $30 purchase) packed to the gills with long waits during the same Saturday night timeframe.  So value certainly is still king in the west San Gabriel Valley.

It's clear that these new upscale east San Gabriel Valley eateries are being driven by the nouveau riche Chinese mainlanders descending on the San Gabriel Valley.   One observer commented that these nouveau riche seen in restaurants in and around Rowland Heights are very conspicuous, particularly the women, by their obviously expensive designer clothing and accessories which are just as obviously mismatched.   But why in the eastern area?   Super rich Chinese mainlanders have typically been identified with the communities of Arcadia and San Marino, and not especially with Hacienda Heights and points east.  Yet the new upscale restaurants don't seem to have made their mark around Arcadia and San Marino, except perhaps the spacious and pricey Spring Bamboo Seafood which took over space formerly occupied by a large piano store.   And yes, there is Hai Di Lao in the Santa Anita Mall, but that IS a shopping mall.  Perhaps the east San Gabriel Valley has its own share of rich mainlanders who are still operating under the radar, or maybe that's just where it's easier to build out a large and upscale restaurant venue.  But at the moment it's a bit of a puzzle.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Almonds Almonds Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink

Since my first car trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco over 50 years ago, I've made the trek dozens and dozens of times.  The first trip was up old Highway 101, which was the old style US highway that ran through the middle of city after city, mostly near the downtown areas.  That made the trip 10 hours long or more, such on that first trip we actually stayed overnight the first day, in Salinas at the Sandstone Motel.  Since Interstate 5 was completed in the 1980s, that has been our primary route up north, but though the route has changed, one thing has stayed the same--driving past miles and miles of farmland, often wondering what crop was growing there.  (One of my friends came up with the practical comment that a law should be passed requiring farmers to label their crops for the benefit of passing motorists.)

However after a recent trip to San Francisco and back on Interstate 5, I came to the realization that in one respect everything has suddenly changed.  There really is no wondering what's growing alongside the highway, now, as it's now mostly almond trees.  Actually almond trees have been around at least a few years, and at one time I did wonder what kind of tree it was.  Pistachio? Peach? Apricot?  Then the only time we ever drove up north in late February, we witnessed all the trees in full bloom.  Doing a quick internet search disclosed that the almond trees were in bloom, and we were fortunate enough to see them during the very short period each that the blossoms were out.

But while blooming almond trees were a marvelous sight, as everybody seems to know now, all those almonds along the highway have a nefarious side.  Almond trees are water hogs compared to other crops, and as such they are proliferating as our water supply, both runoff and ground water, is greatly diminishing.  In the old days we used to see (well, I'm guessing because the farmers didn't label their fields) growing corn, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes and citrus trees, among crops along the highway.  While there are still some other crops growing, it's more and more almonds all the time.

The problem is that what we think of as normal rainfall for California for the past century and a half, dating back to the beginning of California's agriculture industry, may have been an aberrant rainy period, and today's drought could be the old normal coming back, at least in the opinion of some climatologists.  If this is true, there just isn't going to be enough water around for everyone.  For those who drive the Interstate 5 corridor, you've doubtless seen for many years the political billboards put up by farm organizations talking about how water for farms means jobs and food production.  I used to feel sorry for the farmers as I passed those signs on the highway.  After all, they are growing a majority of the produce consumed by the United States.  But with almond trees, these products aren't being grown to meet an existing demand.  Rather, the almond growers have created their own demand that didn't exist before, to the point that almonds account by themselves for 10 percent of all water consumption in California (or if you believe  the almond growers, 9 percent).   It's not that the water shortage has suddenly snuck up on us from behind.  So those growers who rapidly expanded their almond production knowing about potential water issues are in no position to ask for sympathy.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Seeds of My Chinese Restaurant List and A Childhood Puzzle Solved After 50 Years

I don't think that anybody familiar with my Chinese restaurant list would be surprised to learn that I've been making lists since I was a kid.  What may be surprising is that while I have only been keeping my restaurant list for a little over 25 years, I just discovered a connection to the first lists I remember making as a grade schooler in the late 1950s.

As a kid I was what might be described in today's parlance as an American geography and history geek.  And the first lists I kept were of the cities with the largest population, by state.  Not only based on census data which came out every 10 years.  But I also kept track of annual unofficial updates as reported by the Britannica Yearbook and other publications.  So what does this have to do with visiting and recording trips to Chinese restaurants?  Well in one way,  quite a bit.  Because of my fascination with American cities as a kid, when I finished school and started working and traveling on my own, I decided I wanted to visit as many of these cities and states as I could, and in large part regardless of whether there were any particular tourist attractions of note.  For me,  I was excited to visit Paducah, KY, just because it was Paducah, KY.  And from the beginning, as I had explained in numerous interviews and presentations, my interest in things Chinese American which I picked up in college led me to dine in Chinese restaurants whenever I  could.  While I didn't actually eat Chinese food in Paducah, that first solo out of state trip did lead me to two Chinese restaurants in Memphis and one in Clarksdale, MS, and I was on my way.  Indeed the very next year led to restaurant visits in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Sioux City, Hopkins, MN, Bloomington, Fargo, Houston, Washington DC and Philadelphia.

All this has come to my attention due to a happenstance event which reminded me of my old city population lists.  Sometime in the early 1960s I came across a puzzling listing of the most populous cities in Arizona.  Coming in fourth place after Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa with an estimated population of 10,000 was Amphitheater.  I had never seen a reference to Amphitheater in any previous population listing, and in those pre-internet days, a search of library materials for Amphitheater, Arizona came up with absolutely nothing.  I eventually gave up, assuming perhaps it was somebody's idea of a joke to list some stadium with 10,000 seats as the fourth largest city in Arizona when filled.  And occasionally in years subsequent, I would think about Amphitheater, but eventually resigned myself to treating this as a mystery that would never be solved.

But then just the other Saturday, it was a beautiful sunny day and I worked a half day in my Century City office.  I decided to take a slight detour from my usual path home over to Hollywood Blvd. just to gawk at the tourists taking in the sights on such a quintessential Southern California day.  And as I drove by the Madame Toussaud museum, there it was on the message board.  "Welcome Amphitheater High School."  As soon as I got home I dashed for my computer and did the search.  Amphitheater High School is in Tucson.  A further search showed Amphitheater, obviously not a separate incorporated city, had been used to describe an area of north Tucson since the late 19th century because the natural layout of the area was like an amphitheater.  Strange that in two visits to Tucson I never came across any reference to that community even though my visits to that city were well planned in advance.  I guess it just shows how much more difficult it was to access information of all types back in those pre-internet days.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Kentucky's Final Four Loss As Explained By John Wooden

Like everybody else I was surprised by Kentucky's 71-64 loss in the NCAA basketball championship semi-final game.  They were a perfect 38-0 this season, ranked #1 in the polls since the first week of the season, and had talent comparable to some NBA teams.  But I wasn't as surprised as most people, as I told my friends all week that there was one factor that could stop Kentucky from going all the way--that 38 game winning streak.

Everybody knows legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden both as one of the greatest coaches ever, and also as one of the most insightful minds ever associated with athletics with sagacious observations both as to life and athletics.  In my opinion the most insightful thing he said, and probably considered heretical by most people with associated sports is that under the proper circumstances, a loss may actually be a good thing for a competitor's experience.  In particular, when a team is on a long winning streak, he noted that the quality of its performance begins to diminish.  Wooden referred to winning streaks as becoming burdensome, which often leads up to an unexpected losing performance. It's not clear exactly why, but it's probably a combination of different factors.    Maybe the team starts playing not to lose, rather than trying to win, with keeping the streak alive becoming a distraction, whether conscious or not.  Maybe the team becomes overconfident.  Maybe opponents dig down deeper.  Maybe it's something totally subliminal.  And even if the team with the winning streak continues to win, quite often it's clear that the team is laboring under the pressure of the streak.  (Perhaps an explanation of Kentucky's close win over Notre Dame in its previous game.)  But whatever the reason, it is not unusual for teams on long winning streaks to stub their toe against an opponent that seemingly doesn't match up.

Now if the loss is suffered in a relatively meaningless game, the loss can be beneficial, as in today's parlance it's like hitting a reset button and you can again return to your former level of excellence.  But if that loss occurs in the sudden death NCAA tournament, it can't be remedied.  To me it's clear that if Kentucky had suffered a loss, say during the SEC tournament, that there's no way that anyone would have come close to them during the NCAA tournament and they would have sailed to the championship.

Of course things are a little more complicated than saying teams are more susceptible to a loss when on a winning streak, as there have been some impressive winning streaks in sports history.  One corollary rule is if you are vastly superior to your opponent, that opponent won't beat you no matter how badly you play.  Given that the college basketball season ends with the sudden death NCAA tournament, entering the tournament on a long winning streak is not a good thing, as the team will be facing a string of high calibre opponents.  No wonder why there hasn't been an undefeated NCAA basketball champion since 1976. (Remember that great unbeaten early 90s UNLV team?)  Another corollary is that consecutive wins from a prior season probably shouldn't count because each year's team is a different entity.  And of course, if two teams with long winning streaks meet, one of them will have to win.

Indeed one sees the effect of the winning streak phenomenon every year in college football.  Around the eighth week of the season there are often several unbeaten teams, many of which project out as going unbeaten for the rest of the year based on the calibre of their remaining opponents.  "Oh my gosh," pundits exclaim.  "It will be chaotic if the regular season ends with so many unbeaten teams."   But every year the season ends, and there's usually no more than one unbeaten team left, the others suffering upset losses at the hand of underdogs.

So yes, a loss can be therapeutic.  In John Wooden's last season as UCLA coach in 1975, they suffered a humiliating 21 point loss to a mediocre Washington team near the end of the regular season.  Now they weren't on a long winning streak at the time. But after that loss many observers concluded that the 1975 UCLA team wasn't that good and it wasn't going far in the NCAA tournament.  But indeed that team did win it all with some great play in the NCAA tournament.

John Wooden was also remarkable because he really didn't care whether his teams won or not, just that they played to their potential, so different from the winning is everything mentality we see all over sports.  And perhaps it is this mentality that obscures the truth that a loss might just do you good under the right circumstances, and help you win when it really counts.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Best Chinese Restaurant Names

Since Los Angeles Times Reporter Frank Shyong's Analysis of Chinese restaurant names in my Excel Chinese restaurant listing has just been republished, this is a good time for me to recount some of my favorite Chinese restaurant names.  Despite the safety zone that Frank referred to in his article, there are also a number of Chinese restaurants with unusual, if not inexplicable names.  Sometimes things get lost in translation.  For example, in my interview in the food documentary The Search For General Tso, I mention the oddly named Strange Taste Restaurant which operated for a number of years at the intersection of Henry St. and Catherine St. in New York Chinatown.   I presume they were using "strange taste" in a good manner, to distinguish themselves from run of the mill Chinese restaurants, not knowing that strange tasting food was never good.   Along the same lines is Smelly Pot in Industry, in the San Gabriel Valley.  The name describes the restaurant's signature dishes which are all infused with the Taiwanese favorite, fermented, a.k.a. stinky tofu. But to us native English speakers, somehow that just doesn't do it.  And in a similar category are the departed Burrrp Cafe in Alhambra, Quantity and Quality Kitchen in Temple City (later shortened to Q&Q) and Fuzhou Manual Fish Ball in Rowland Heights (they meant hand made fish balls).

One recently closed restaurant I wonder about was Porkaroma, a food court based pork specialist in nearby Rowland Heights.   My initial thought was that they were using the "rama" suffix (e.g., Futurama), but got mixed up.  But would an immigrant restaurant owner be familiar with "rama", and perhaps might they really be enticed by the aroma of pork?  I guess we'll never know.

Then there are those Chinese restaurants whose names would ordinarily imply anything but Chinese food.  My favorites in this category are Bavarian Garden in Oakland, O'Toole's Roadhouse in Rowland Heights, and The Viking's Table in West Los Angeles, again all now closed.  But these restaurant names are easy to explain.  Whoever opened these restaurants merely kept the name of the previous restaurant at that location.  This is not an unusual practice, motivated perhaps by the desire to minimize the costs of changing signage or printing new business cards.  This may also explain why Hong Kong Palace in suburban Washington DC serves top notch authentic Sichuan style food despite the apparent incongruity in the name.   Indeed, some Chinese restaurants take this a step further, by taking over an existing restaurant location, changing the name of the restaurant on legal records, menus etc., but NOT changing the exterior signage on the building.  We've seen that occur with relative frequency, again most likely as a cost cutting measure, at least until the success of the restaurant has been ensured and it pays to have the correct name outside.  But it sure makes it difficult for those of us searching for newly opened restaurants, as a simple drive-by isn't sufficient to indicate that a new restaurant has opened.

Of course, we've all seen Chinese restaurant menus mangle the English language, but you would expect that somebody would advise a restaurant to use real English words in the name.  But that didn't stop Authletic Dumpling House from opening up in New York Chinatown or Noodl Cafe in San Gabriel.   In one case they got the individual words right, but somehow when put together, Bake Are We Cafe in Artesia, CA doesn't work.  They may have avoided a lawsuit from Toys R Us, but it probably wasn't worth the resulting head scratching.  Of course, a nonexistent word can turn out to be clever, as was the case with Cuisineer Six in the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino.

Then there are the names which are inexplicable, perhaps randomly chosen because an English language name is required for legal purposes.  How would you explain the Shanghai style restaurant in Rowland Heights called Suit Ur Buds, the Taiwanese restaurant in San Gabriel, Why Thirsty, Auction Chinese Food in Colton, CA, or Go Believe in Manhattan Chinatown?   

But my favorite Chinese restaurant name of all is the seemingly innocuous Rivera Cafe, which operated in San Gabriel.  Yes, Rivera is a fairly commonplace name.  But why would a Chinese restaurant call itself Rivera, which is a Hispanic surname?  My best guess is that they didn't know how to spell Riviera.  But there's always the possibility that they were big fans of Geraldo. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Are There So Many Chinese Restaurants Named Fuleen? And Why Haven't Most Of You Ever Seen One?

Fuleen Restaurant, on Division Street in Manhattan Chinatown, is one of the better Chinese seafood restaurants in New York City, and one of the more enduring restaurants in the Little Fuzhou section of Chinatown east of Bowery.  When I first went there a dozen years ago I didn't pay any attention to the name, since Chinese restaurants often have odd names, particularly when not catering to non-Chinese diners.  Then about 10 years later I ran into Fuleen Palace in Howard Beach in Queens which serves Americanized Chinese food, and I started to wonder--did this restaurant have a common owner with the one in Manhattan Chinatown?  However that theory went down the drain when  I started seeing similar variations, such as Chen Fulin Kwok in Brooklyn Chinatown and Fully Bakery in Elmhurst.  At that point the question of what Fuleen or its variations stood for started to drive me crazy on two different accounts.

Besides these Fuleen restaurants, an internet search then pulled up many, many other "Fuleen" Restaurants  as well as its phonetic equivalent, "Fulin".   There's actually a chain of Chinese restaurants with that name in Tennessee and Alabama.  And there are other variations, such as FuLoon, Fullin, and who knows what else.  The first strange thing is that the word Fuleen only seems to be associated with Chinese restaurants in the eastern United States.  Mention Fuleen to anybody on the West Coast and you get blank stares.   The second factor is the dozens of Fuleen, Fulin, etc. restaurants  all seem to have opened quite recently, certainly just in this century.

The fact that all of the Fuleen restaurants are located in the eastern United States does provide a major clue to the origin.  As I wrote in my Menuism article on Monday night wedding banquets in Manhattan Chinatown, there is a network of Chinese restaurant owners and workers tethered to the Fujianese community in the eastern part of Manhattan Chinatown.  Quite possibly, the name Fuleen and its deriviations is an indication of ownership by Chinese originally from Fujian Province in China, who passed through Manhattan Chinatown and rode the bus network from there to places all over the eastern half of the United States. Since the Fujianese did not make their presence felt in the United States until the 1990s, that would explain the lack of pre-existing use of the Fuleen name.  This was a good theory, but was this really the answer?

In search of a solution I asked for thoughts from the participants of the Chowhound message boards. 
It turns out that the Chinese name for Fuleen Restaurant 富臨 has no English equivalent, but is a term that connotes wealth and joy.  There is nothing particularly Fujianese about the use of the term, but for whatever reason it now appears to have been adopted by Fujianese restaurant owners, much like previously generations of Chinese restaurant owners gave names like Golden Palace or Silver & Gold Amazing to their eateries.  While there is no smoking gun confirming this conclusion, given that Fuleen doesn't have a specific technical meaning, it's consistent with the current domination of Fujianese restauranteurs in the east, south and midwest.   And at this point there's really no other explanation.