Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Chinese Restaurants Open In New San Gabriel Valley Hotels

When I first heard that a number of large chain hotels would be opening up in the San Gabriel Valley, I was anticipating some interesting additions to the local Chinese dining stock.  After all, when the San Gabriel Hilton opened up a dozen years ago, the adjacent new shopping center filled up with numerous stripes of Chinese restaurants, the hotel restaurant hosted a weekend buffet that I still sometimes dream about today, and their banquet kitchen became one of the top Chinese banquet venues in the Los Angeles area.  However, with the opening of the first two of these next generation hotels, the San Gabriel Sheraton and the Hilton Garden Inn turned Holiday Inn in El Monte, it appears that the impact on the local Chinese restaurant scene will be modest.  Where I had envisioned multiple Chinese eateries in each of these new hotels, so far it's just one Chinese restaurant in each hotel.

I didn't even realize that Tasty Dining had opened in the Holiday Inn in El Monte last fall, probably because I had no idea that the hotel had changed brands from Hilton to Holiday Inn even before the hotel opened, and I was still searching for information on the new Hilton Garden Inn in El Monte, which didn't exist.   Tasty Dining is certainly an interesting choice for the Holiday Inn's only restaurant, as it's a relatively small operation whose existing location is in one of Valley Blvd.'s many shopping malls, and who is best known for being the LA area's first Wuhan style food specialist.  Indeed, they are certainly proud of the honor, as their business card proclaims this to be the "Tasty Dining Flagship Store in El Monte" (Indeed as a native Angelino who historically associated El Monte with the El Monte Legion Stadium, and Latino rock, I never dreamt I'd see the words "El Monte" and "Flagship" used together.)

The Holiday Inn Tasty Dining menu is quite similar to that of its original location, with one concession to its location in a branded hotel being one small section on the menu of non-Chinese dishes.  While this hotel was obviously built for Chinese clientele, the Holiday Inn and other international branded hotel will surely attract some percentage of non-Chinese guests, and hotels always have to accommodate the dining needs of all its guests.  Indeed, if you look at the El Monte Holiday Inn website, there's no indication that their intended audience is Chinese guests, so in that regard I'm surprised there aren't more Western food options on the Tasty Dining menu.  One interesting thing about Tasty Dining is that in addition to the main dining room, there is an adjoining annex which also serves as the breakfast buffet area for hotel guests.  The breakfast buffet is a common amenity at Holiday Inns all over the country.  This annex also becomes an overflow dining area for Tasty Dining during their hours of lunch and dinner service.   Interestingly the breakfast buffet hours are included in the Yelp listing and the hotel's listing of Tasty Dining's hours of operation, even though Holiday Inn breakfast buffets typically are continental breakfast, and I did spy yogurt cups in the refrigerator.

Next to open earlier this year was the San Gabriel Sheraton, and once again the Chinese dining runs one deep.  The Sheraton houses just two restaurants, the first to open being a steak house called EST.Prime Steakhouse.  This is a safe choice for both Chinese and non-Chinese hotel guests alike.  The second restaurant is Ba Shu Feng, the first US branch of a noted Sichuan restaurant chain from China.  The restaurant's expansive dining room is richly appointed, and makes one wonder whether this will be the first non-Cantonese Chinese banquet facility in Los Angeles.  An interesting sidelight to the Sheraton is its widespread use of robots to perform various tasks.  For example, when I checked the hotel directory kiosk to find exactly where Ba Shu Feng was located, the directory display asked me whether I wanted it to take me there.  Which I did.  (The display in the picture below says "Great.  Please follow me.")

In hindsight the limited Chinese dining options within the first two new internationally branded hotel chains to open up in the San Gabriel Valley makes sense.  These new chain hotels were specifically targeted at tourists traveling from Mainland China, many of whom are keenly aware of the Chinese dining options existing in the San Gabriel Valley.  While any large hotel has to have in-house dining facilities to serve guests who might want to take a random meal on premises, there are hundreds of authentic Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley and there's no sense adding significantly to that large of a collection.

Tax Reform is Fine But Revenue Scoring is Bogus

Having been involved in tax policy analysis for over 30 of my 45 years in the tax business, I have no quarrel with the basic outlines of the recently enacted tax reform package.  While the press and the public seem to feel otherwise, the fact is that the press, propelled by statements made by politicians for public consumption, is incapable of accurately conveying tax policy issues to the public.  For example, both politicians and political observers continually call for a “simple and fair” tax law.  However, anyone who has any familiarity at all with the tax law knows that “simple” and “fair” are incompatibly conflicting goals.  A simple tax law by definition cannot be fair.  A fair tax law cannot be simple, since simplicity equates to one size fitting all. and the world is much too complicated for that.  (It is possible, however, to have a tax law that is complicated and unfair.)   But fair and simple is what the public and press want to hear.  And when it goes more complicated issues of tax policy, the press and the public consistently get it totally wrong. 
Turning to the recently enacted tax reform bill, the press and the public point to the cut in the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, and characterize this as a giveaway to business.  However, the US taxing system does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of an international system, and with a rate of 35% and taxing a US corporation’s income whether it was earned in the US or abroad (something which very few countries in the world do), the US taxing system was an outlier.   (That's why inversions were invented as a form of self-help.)  Indeed, foreign governments around the world were miffed at the United States for being  totally out of step with the rest of the world in their taxing system.  Even the Democratic party recognized the US outlier status, as President Obama’s annual  budget proposals consistently called for a cut in the corporate tax rate, albeit to 28%, as opposed to the 21% that was ultimately adopted. Still, the Obama 28% proposal (which was viewed as an "opening bid" to Congressional Republicans) was a 20% reduction in the tax rate and was widely acknowledged by Congressional Democrats as being necessary to get the United States in step with the rest of the world.  However now, though well aware of the need for corporate tax reform like that included in last year's bill, Democratic politicians pile on against the enacted tax reform corporate tax cut because that's what their constituents want to hear.
What I do take issue with is the fact that the tax reform bill created a $1.4 trillion budget hole, something which might be needed if we were coming out of a recession, but not when we were 10 years into an economic recovery.   The tax reform discussion over recent years involves two separate elements–lowering the top tax rate such that corporations operating at the margin would be incentivized to invest in the United States, while reducing credits and deductions to pay for the rate reduction.  That Congress chose to create such a large budget gap is regrettable. A 21 percent corporate tax rate itself is not inordinately low in today's international tax system, but the Republicans did not have the courage to broaden the tax base further by eliminating more deductions and credits.

But on top of this they doctored the budget numbers, which is inexcusable. In particular I am appalled by the enactment of amended Sec. 461(j) for excess business losses of non-corporate taxpayers, which disallows nonpassive losses of a taxpayer (passive losses are alreaded restricted) in excess of $500,000.  It’s not the provision itself that irritates me, but rather it’s the revenue scoring of this provision as a $150 billion revenue raiser, to get the total revenue loss of the tax reform bill under the Budget Reconciliation limit.  This $150 billion amount was likely intended to offset the $410 billion revenue loss attributable to the 20% passthrough deduction intended to put passthrough business owners on a somewhat equal footing with C corporations garnering the new 21% tax rate.  It’s also equal to the total amount raised by the BEAT anti-base erosion minimum tax being imposed on multinational corporations.  The problem is that Sec. 461(j) only provides for a year-of-loss disallowance.  The next year it goes into the taxpayer’s NOL where it can be used (at least up to 80%) starting the very next year.  How Sec. 461(j) raises $150 billion under these circumstances is a mystery to anybody who thinks about this.  I’d say that $1.5 billion is a more realistic figure than $150 billion, and that by itself the miscalculation of the Sec. 461(j) revenue effects puts the tax reform bill out of compliance with the Budget Reconciliation rules.
Revenue forecasts for proposed tax legislation is probably largely voodoo in any event.  But the forecast for Sec. 461(j) makes you wonder who the witch doctor was. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Does Dragon Beaux Serve The Best Dim Sum In The United States?

Despite my gutsy comment in the San Francisco Chronicle that San Francisco Chinese food is five years behind that in Los Angeles, I really enjoy going to the Bay Area to eat at their Chinese restaurants.  Indeed the unattributed statement made in the same article that Bay Area dim sum was better than Los Angeles was a thought I had passed on to the article's author, Clarissa Wei.  In tandem, the Bay Area's top dim sum restaurants of Dragon Beaux, Koi Palace, Hong Kong Lounge, Hong Kong Lounge 2 and Lai Hong Lounge top L.A.'s best of Longo Seafood, Sea Harbour, Lunasia, King Hua, Elite, Happy Harbour and China Red, though you can't go wrong at any of these dim sum emporiums.  However, in this week's Bay Area trip I wanted to return to Dragon Beaux to see if this was possibly the best of the bunch.

The thought that Dragon Beaux might be the best dim sum restaurant in the country entered my mind when I had their version of the Tim Ho Wan style baked bbq pork bun.  While not as good as the original Tim Ho Wan version, it's better than what the New York branch of Tim Ho Wan serves, and better than the few versions of the dish available in the Los Angeles area.

The first new dish we had was a baked purple yam bun.  Perhaps I was extra intrigued by this item since it looked like chocolate, but I haven't been able to eat chocolate in 50 years due to allergies.  While this probably looks better than it tastes, I thought it was very good, quite interesting and not too sweet.

The pork belly with crispy skin was another winner.  The skin was a little bit short of what we had in Alameda at Pacific Lighthouse, but the skin there was part of an appetizer plate and did not have pork belly meat attached.

Another interesting and delicious bun was the baked curry chicken charcoal bun.  Both visually and culinarily interesting with a kick beyond the curry.

The only loser was this salmon salad pastry.  Pastry was dry, as was the salmon filling.  I'm really shocked that there was something this bad on the menu.

Something that seems to have disappeared off of dim sum menus in the past decade or two is beef siu mai--perhaps chicken siu mai has become the alternative siu mai of choice these days.  This spinach skin beef siu mai was excellent.

Another highly visual offering is the squid ink dumpling, filled with peanuts and spicy pork.  Once again it looks better than it tastes, but again not to say it wasn't good.

One last must try at Dragon Beaux is the red rice fish cheung fun.  They may have been the first restaurant to serve this item, but it has certainly spread elsewheres in the past couple of years.

Dragon Beaux is leading the pack for innovative dim sum in the US these days and most of their offerings are winner.  They also have premium items such as abalone with flat noodles which sound very intriguing.  Dragon Beaux is clearly among the best, if not the very best dim sum in America at the moment.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Eastern US College Town Style Chinese Dining Comes To West Los Angeles

Many of you have read my articles discussing how the massive number of Mainland Chinese students coming to study at US colleges in the past decade has changed the face of Chinese dining in the United States.   Cities big and small proximate to colleges and universities with a sufficient Chinese student enrollment have been introduced to authentic Chinese food, as restaurants have popped up to meet this demand for Chinese food.

Interestingly, Chinese restaurants serving these Mainland Chinese students in smaller US towns such as Harrisonburg, VA, Storrs, CT and Iowa City, IA have developed their own style which you typically do not see in non-campus town Chinese restaurants.    There are two separate distinguishing characteristics that mark these restaurants.  Because the Mainland students come from different areas of China, these restaurants often serve multi-regional Chinese food, as opposed to focusing on, say, Sichuan or Shaanxi style food.  Secondly, none of these restaurants can (or wants to) survive on Mainland student business alone, so they also have classic Americanized Chinese dishes on their menu for the locals and non-Chinese students.  As I previously wrote, this can lead to a menu which gives a panoramic view of the entirety of the history of Chinese American dining.

While not as pronounced as some of the examples in eastern college towns, the newly opened iFood Chinese in the shopping center on the southeast corner of National Blvd. and Sepulveda Blvd. in West Los Angeles is the best example I've seen locally.  For fans of classic Chinese American favorites, there is orange chicken, wor wonton soup, broccoli beef and honey walnut shrimp.  For the health minded Westside locals watching their cholesterol count, there are chicken potstickers and chicken xioalongbao (try to find either of those in the San Gabriel Valley).  For Sichuanese natives there are nine varieties of dry pots.  Taiwanese can revel in fried pork chops and Taiwanese style salt and pepper shrimp, and for the Shanghai crowd there's giant ground pork meatballs.   And for us Cantonese there's West Lake Beef soup and cold chicken with green onion.  What a lineup!

iFood Chinese is located at 3120 S. Sepulveda Blvd., right next to Von's.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Stumbling Across Chinese Food In Dubai and India

As previously noted, being able to sample any kind of Chinese food while part of a tour group is an iffy proposition as you are largely restricted to eating at the stops provided by the tour organizer.  In this regard, because our trip to Dubai and India was organized by the Chinese operated Ritz Tours, out of the San Gabriel Valley, I was hoping there would be some Chinese food choices, given tour packagers in China and in Chinese-American communities often provided mostly Chinese meals even in tours to non-Asian destinations.  However, while I could imagine Chinese meals in tour destinations such as Europe, I doubted that Chinese meals would be provided for Dubai and India, and my inquiry to the tour company confirmed that there were no Chinese meals scheduled.

We actually arrived in Dubai two days before our main tour so we could stop by the adjacent Emirate of Abu Dhabi on a local tour.  At lunch time we were taken to buffet lunch at Al Asalah Heritage Restaurant.  They had a nice selection of dishes there, including something like beefy mashed potatoes, chicken, fish, beef, beans, Indian dishes, and interestingly, chow mein and basmati fried rice.  I thought the presence of chow mein was an interesting demonstration of the universality of that dish.  After we returned to Dubai in the evening,  I decided to read about the Abu Dhabi buffet restaurant  on the internet, and to my surprise it was classified as a Chinese-Lebanese-Indian restaurant!  That explains the chow mein at the buffet table and perhaps shows the universality not of chow mein, but of Chinese operated buffets in non-Chinese guise.

The next day was a free day for us in Dubai so we headed to the Mall of the Emirates, one of the two great shopping malls in Dubai.   This visit was very illuminating as to the state of Chinese food in this part of the world.  At Chow King  I had the chicken siu mai, a rarely encountered dish in the United States, where siu mai is almost exclusively made with pork.  Also it was interesting that "Chinese fried chicken" had a different meaning in this part of the world, too.

 But the status of Chinese food really gained perspective when I passed the Dubai branch of Din Tai Fung and took a look at their menu.   All of your favorite porky items, like xiao long bao, wonton, dumplings, shu mai, and potstickers were all made with chicken instead.  With chicken, and a lesser extent turkey, used to substitute for pork in both Chinese and non-Chinese foods, I could do very well eating in a Muslim society.  (As a sidelight, not only was Din Tai Fung represented in Dubai, but Hakkasan also has a branch, though in a fancy hotel, so topflight authentic Chinese food is well represented in Dubai.)

The first true clue that there would not be a Chinese food drought on the tour came on the first day of our official tour.  At the fabulous Atlantis The Palm resort, the Kalidescope $50 lunch buffet contained a whole selection of Chinese food.   Again, most fascinating to me was all of the chicken based items that we normally don't see in the United States.  Topping the list was the bbq chicken bao--a bao identical to the steamed bbq pork buns we get back home, but with chicken substituted for pork.  Other items included regular chicken buns, chicken xiaolongbao, and chicken siu mai.

After our relatively short stay in Dubai it was on to India and our first stop of Delhi.  When we went downstairs for our first buffet breakfast at the J. W. Marriott, it was clear that this hotel did a fair amount of trade with Chinese guests, as there was an entire section of Chinese food including cook to order noodle soup (including fish balls and chicken balls), gai bao, chicken siu mai, garlic chili chow mein, and other dishes.    Dinner at the hotel restaurant had even more Chinese items than at breakfast, including  roast duck, pork and chicken, sweet and sour water buffalo (below), and oyster sauce lamb.

And for those of you wondering what water buffalo tastes like, well it's just like .... beef.

The hotel meals in Agra and Jaipur did include a few Chinese selections (including candied wintermelon in Agra), but nothing like the ones noted above.  The Marriott in Jaipur had a token nod to Chinese guests, Chinese noodle soup at breakfast and dinner, and strangely, something called moo goo gai at dinner.  However Moo goo gai was nothing like the similarly named ancient Chinese-American dish of sliced chicken in a white sauce, but rather as you can see below, was chunks of chicken in a savory sauce.

We did have one last shot a Chinese meal when we returned to Delhi for the flight home, as the tour guide took us to Lazeez Affaire, a combination Indian and Chinese restaurant.  However, the menu they gave us had no Chinese items on it so we just ordered Indian food.  However later looking at the Chinese menu it’s just as well as we didn’t order from that menu, which included such dishes as chop suey, pad Thai, sushi and tom yum soup, and which also entailed an excessive length of time to cook.  

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Fake Canto Food Comes To Los Angeles Chinatown

For the first century of Chinese presence in the  United States, most all Chinese residents in America were Cantonese in origin (and of this group, predominantly from the rural counties in Toishan).  As a result, all Chinese food in America during this time period was Cantonese/Toishanese.  However, the big news in the 21st century has been the impact of Mandarin speaking Chinese immigrants to the United States, almost completely flipping the Cantonese/non-Cantonese mix of Chinese food in Chinese American communities. 

Indeed, the demographic disparity has gotten so out of line that the 21st century has seen the rise of what is now sometimes referred to as the "fake Canto" restaurant, a term coined by food blogger Tony Chen.  Fake Canto restaurants are those opened up in Chinese communities by Mandarin speaking non-Cantonese immigrants from mainland China.  Well before the advent of fake news, these fake Canto restaurants were opening up, occasioned by the lack of sufficient real Cantonese restaurateurs in the particular locality.

Fake Canto restaurants originally arose in the eastern United States in Chinese communities where there were few, if any local Cantonese restauranteurs available to satisfy the local demand for dim sum and Cantonese banquet facilities.  These included communities that never had a Chinese community, prior to the 1960s reform of the US immigration laws, such as Atlanta, Dallas and Orlando, or communities where the Cantonese community had all but died out, such as St. Louis.  

The fake Canto phenomenon had initially been limited to the East, Midwest and South, where Fujianese immigrants have dominated the Chinese restaurant industry since the 1990s.  However, fake Canto has now taken a new step forward, now showing up in localities that do have an existing Cantonese presence, such as Manhattan Chinatown.  

Now comes clearly the most startling episode of fake Canto restaurants where in December of 2017, East Garden restaurant opened up in Los Angeles Chinatown.  This is truly startling since Los Angeles Chinatown is the culinarily the last greatest bastion of Cantonese food in the country.  While most every new Chinese restaurant in the nearby San Gabriel Valley serves Mainland non-Cantonese food, there is only one such restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown, Qin West.   So with Los Angeles Chinatown so top-heavy with Cantonese food, why would anyone open up a fake Canto restaurant?  Another Mainland Chinese restaurant would make more sense in Los Angeles Chinatown, particularly with the nearby pool of Mainland Chinese students attending USC.  Yet, fake Canto has come to Los Angeles Chinatown.

Fake Canto, does not necessarily imply a lesser quality product.  The food at East Garden is pretty decent. 

The egg tofu with mushrooms was one of the best versions I’ve eaten.

The honey garlic short ribs, a variation of a dish more associated with pork chops, was also quite good.

But a major tipoff that we were talking fake Canto was the appearance of pork rolls, a dish never seen on Cantonese menus, and most commonly seen in Taiwanese restaurants described as chicken rolls.

Besides this and other non-Cantonese items on the menu, East Garden’s fake Canto giveaway is that the staff only speaks Mandarin.  Another clue was that the beef chow fun was cooked spicy, and had no “wok hei” to the flavor.  And in the company’s logo, the Chinese name uses the Mainland simplified characters, not the traditional characters.

East Garden is in Chunsan Plaza, downstairs from Ocean Seafood.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Blame Housing Discrimination, Or Why I Don't Remember The Los Angeles Snowstorm of 1962

Since I'm in Dubai and missing the current major LA rainstorm and mudslides, It's probably appropriate to mention other weather events that I either missed or forgot.  Back  2003 there was the freak hailstorm in South Los Angeles caused by an almost unprecedented stationary storm that led to a foot of hail on the ground in some places, which was erroneously described by many as snow at the time.  Unfortunately I was in Dallas at the time and missed the event, though I did save the Dallas newspaper describing that event.  Then there was the actual snow in Los Angeles in 1962 which is a complete blank in my mind.

A couple of years ago the KCET website ran a piece on the few recorded instances of snowfall in Los Angeles.  My son asked me if I remembered the most recent episode listed, which was in early 1962 when I was 13 years old.   I had always thought 1949, when I was an infant, was the last time snow fell in Los Angeles and was shocked to read that it snowed in the San Fernando Valley in 1962.   I was puzzled by my lack of any memory of this event, particularly since I always had an interest in weather.  For example I remember 6 consecutive days of rain in 1962, and being evacuated  from our neighborhood in the Crenshaw district because of flooding in 1954 or 1955.  (Not everybody in Los Angeles had storm sewers back then.)   And as a second grader I kept a daily diary which included the temperature for the day.

On reflection, my lack of recollection of the 1962 snow was due to the fact my geographic world was so small back then.  Yes, in the 50s my dad would take us on Sunday afternoon rides to outlying places like Zuma Beach, Newport Beach, Anaheim or El Monte. But those were like mini-vacations to distant places for us since we never took real vacations as he worked so hard, 6½ days a week every week.   The rest of the time we stayed within a relatively narrow swath in central Los Angeles, from the Crenshaw district in the west to downtown Los Angeles where my dad worked, to El Sereno where some family friends lived.

The reason why  we were so confined is that for Chinese-Americans, Los Angeles was still semi-segregated housing wise in the 1950s and into the 1960s.  Most Chinese Americans of that era lived in Central, South or East Los Angeles, and all our friends and relatives lived there.  Yes, there were Chinese living in a nice central LA area like Silver Lake, but communities such as Arcadia, San Marino, South Pasadena, Glendale, Inglewood and Palos Verdes were totally off limits  to minorities, including Chinese-Americans, well into the 1960s.  Indeed, I thought it was a really big deal in the late 50s when one of my uncles bought a house in someplace called Gardena and then another uncle bought a house in Mar Vista, followed by my grandfather's buying a house in the Athens district near the border with Gardena in the early 1960s,

Our geographic confinement was probably best expressed by the fact that before I went to UCLA in 1965,  I told people that I hadn't been west of La Brea Ave. more than 5 times in my life (which probably was just a slight exaggeration) and had only visited the San Fernando Valley 5 times or less (probably not an exaggeration).  So snow in the Valley in 1962 isn't something that would register with me at that time.

Obviously being the subject of any kind of discrimination is no fun.  But to have felt its effects does provide an interesting perspective on one's life.