Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Enter The Dim Sum Contender (Illustrated Version of My L.A. Weekly Article)


The past decade or so has produced a sea change in Chinese dining in Los Angeles, as well as the rest of the United States.  Decades of Cantonese dining dominance have nearly evaporated as regional cuisines representing the entire breadth of Chinese cooking has come to the United States in great numbers, reflecting the migration of Mainland Chinese residents and money to our shores.  Indeed, in recent years, new Cantonese restaurant openings in the San Gabriel Valley have dwindled to roughly 10 percent of total new Chinese restaurants opening in the SGV.

However, while Cantonese food may be down, it is not out in our local Chinese community.  The toughest ticket continues to be the most popular dim sum palaces on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, and the greatest wish among Chinese diners is that despite the high quality of our local dim sum purveyors, some new dim sum player, equal to or better than the existing dim sum leaders, will open their doors.  In this regard, the past few years have been a disappointment in that we have had the same leaders of the dim sum pack for several years.   As it has for the past 15 years, Sea Harbour in Rosemead is on the top of most people’s dim sum list, followed variously by Lunasia and King Hua in Alhambra, Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights and Elite in Monterey Park, all of which date back 2008 or earlier.  The only newcomer in the top tier of local dim sum is Arcadia’s China Red, which opened in 2013, and it sits at the bottom of this top tier.

Not that new operators haven’t tried to crack the top group.  In 2014, Shi Hai opened up in Alhambra with the express purpose of becoming the top dog, dim sum wise, in the San Gabriel Valley.  However that endeavor gave up unsuccessfully last year when Shi Hai rebranded as World Seafood, with a new, lower price point menu.  Other dim sum palaces have opened in the same time period, such as Shanghai #1 Seafood Village in San Gabriel, Grand Harbor in Temple City and Pleasure Ocean in Hacienda Heights, but while certainly purveying good dim sum, they do not match up to our historic leaders.

However, a newly opened restaurant in Temple City may prove to be the new contender that everyone has been hoping for.  Xiang Yuan Gourmet opened up last month (9556 Las Tunas) and is already showing great promise. 


First of all, it serves its dim sum from a menu, as does every other restaurant listed in this article.  While romantics may gush about dim sum carts representing the true dim sum experience (although there was no such thing as a dim sum cart in Los Angeles until introduced by Miriwa Restaurant in Chinatown in 1976), the best dim sum comes from a menu since it arrives fresh and cooked to other.  Secondly, Xian Yuan Gourmet shows a creativity and imagination in some of their dim sum creations that is consistent with that found at the top tier dim sum restaurants noted above.  While it is important that a dim sum restaurant gets it har gow, bbq pork buns, beef cheung fun rice noodle rolls, siu mai, and other favorites right, it is the unusual dish that sets the top tier dim sum restaurants apart.

Here is Xiang Yuan Gourmet’s crispy bamboo shoot paste ball.



This is their mushroom filled mushroom bun (complete with partial stem at the bottom)





Deep fried shrimp rolls



Egg and seaweed rolls







Other interesting dim sum items include sauteed chicken feet with chili and ginger, crispy seafood cheung fun, spare rib cheung fun, pork blood jelly with chives, and baked almond cream bun.


One unique thing about Xiang Yuan Gourmet is their dinner menu.  Every other dim sum restaurant in this article serves Hong Kong style seafood at dinnertime, with the except of Shanghai #1 Seafood Village.  However Xiang Yuan Gourmet’s dinner fare is a mixture of Hong Kong style seafood and “Traditional Hunan Cuisine.”  Which merely shows the direction of Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley these days.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Where’s The Chinese Food in Brazil and Argentina?



Having just returned from a 10 day tour of Brazil and Argentina this is my obligatory summary of the Chinese food portion of my trip.   And let me say at the beginning that this is going to be a very short write-up, because I only saw three sit down Chinese restaurants during the entirety of the tour of Brazil and Argentina, and I ate at all three of them.  And the only other Chinese food I saw were the two branches of Magic Dragon, a Chifa (Peruvian Chinese) chain located in the food court of two large shopping malls in Buenos Aires. 

Such a paucity of Chinese restaurants was a real surprise, as on past trips all over world, just looking outside the tour bus window or walking around our hotel would lead to numerous Chinese restaurant sightings.  But not on this trip.  When we arrived in Rio de Janeiro at our hotel on Copacabana Beach, I asked the tour guide whether there were any Chinese restaurants in the vicinity.  She said there weren’t.  However during a stroll across from Copacabana Beach, I did spot Restaurant Chinese Palace about four blocks from our hotel, and I returned one night for a late snack of dumplings which were better than I would have expected, though certainly nothing exceptional on an absolute basis.  I subsequently spoke to other tour group members who ate at Chinese Palace who indicated the food was passable for someone longing for Chinese food, but there was a clear problem with the availability of ingredients.  For example, the chow mein dish was made with dry ramen noodles.  And that was it for Brazil.

Similarly, no Chinese restaurants were seen during our bus tour of Buenos Aires or walking the area near the Panamericano Hotel on the incredibly wide 9th of July Ave.  However, returning to the hotel one afternoon, I grabbed a street map which included an advertisement for Bao Kitchen Taiwanese Bistro.  Taiwanese food in Buenos Aires?  Who would have thought that?    And it was less than a mile away from the hotel, so I walked on over there.  Sure enough, Bao Kitchen served Taiwanese items including pork gua bao, chicken gua bao, curry bao, beef noodle soup, three cups chicken along with other items.  The curry bao, with a panko crust was different and extremely good., while the gua bao were OK  The lady running the place proclaimed that Bao Kitchen was the best Chinese restaurant in South America.  She also indicated that Buenos Aires had a small Chinatown that was about 3 blocks long, around 20 minutes north of town, but that all the Chinese restaurants there were terrible.  I later read that the small Chinese community in Buenos Aires was dominated by Taiwanese, which would explain the existence of a Taiwanese restaurant downtown.  However, all of the other customers while I was at Bao Kitchen were non-Chinese, presumably ordering off of the Argentinianized part of the menu.


The last Chinese restaurant of my trip was Lung Hung, a Chifa restaurant across the street from the giant Abasto shopping mall, which we found after deciding to see what things looked like outside the mall.  I suspect it's no coincidence that three of the four Chinese eateries I encountered in Buenos Aires were Peruvian, as that's the only concentration of Chinese in South America that I'm familiar with.  The menu at Lung Hung was puzzling, as even though Mrs. Chandavkl is conversationally fluent in Spanish from her days teaching Central American students in East Hollywood, she wasn't familiar with the words describing most of the dishes.  So we decided to play this one safe, settling for the Chaufa chicken (chicken fried rice) and my requested “pollo con fideo” dish.  The rice was pretty good (of course, it’s hard to mess up fried rice) while the chow mein was so so, as it was not made with the thin noodles that I have had at Chifa restaurants in Florida.   None of the staff was Chinese, and maybe only one of the customers was Chinese.  Perhaps the most memorable part of the visit was live music, a guy playing "El Condor Pasa" on his recorder.





Monday, July 10, 2017

Italian Food Magazine Thinks David Chang Is Me (Not The Other Way Around)


few years ago I was interviewed by the Italian food magazine, Fine Dining Lovers, about my thousands of Chinese restaurant visits.   It is actually a very strange article in that while the writer interviewed me in English, she wrote the article in Italian.  Then the finished article was translated back into English, leading to some very strange wording.  (You might say something was lost in the double translation.)  However, what upset me when I first saw the finished article was that they got my name wrong, calling me David Chang, the name of the renown New York chef and restauranteur. I immediately pointed this out to them, and they dutifully made the change on their website, making me happy.

However, what I didn't realize is that at the same time they changed "David Chang" to "David Chan" in the article about me, they also had an existing page compiling all the articles they had written about David Chang, the celebrity chef, and they added my interview to that page.  So they also dutifully changed the heading on that page from "David Chang" to "David Chan."  This mixup isn't terribly important since it only matters if you're looking for stories about David Chang on the Fine Dining Lovers website.  But it is funny that all their articles about the famous David Chang are catalogued under the name of the little known David Chan, which is the opposite of how things like that usually occur.

A good example of the latter type of confusion comes from my non-existent listing in the Internet Movie Data Base.  Yes, the IMDB did pick up my appearance in the movie documentary, The Search For General Tso.  However, they added it to a listing for another David Chan, who gained some level of notoriety for being in the cast of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.   Contrast this to the other internet movie websites like The Numbers and the now defunct New York Times movie database, which gave me a separate listing for being in the General Tso Movie.  And I presume the real David Chan actor is wondering what the heck General Tso is.

Fortunately other websites containing my compilations don't confuse me with anyone else.

My Menuism Chinese Restaurant Articles

My L.A. Weekly Articles

WaCowLA Taiwanese Chinese Language Tag Page

(And thanks to PorkyBelly on the Food Talk Central message board for the ironic back reference.)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My Embassy Kitchen LA Weekly Review With Full Pictorial Coverage

My LA Weekly review of Embassy Kitchen did not contain the pictures of the dishes I highlighted.  To fill that void, here's the original version of that article, fully illustrated.

Crowning a restaurant as the “best” Chinese or any other category of restaurant is a tricky thing, given the subjectivity of such a determination and the varying tastes among diners.  While this is certainly the case in trying to anoint a best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, most discussions of the topic tends to involve the same group of contenders, like Sea Harbour in Rosemead, Chengdu Taste, Lunasia, King Hua and Szechuan Impression in Alhambra, Newport Seafood and Mian in San Gabriel, and Din Tai Fung in various mall locations.  (Or if you’re Yelp, then it’s Americanized restaurants like Sea Dragon, Yang Chow and Wah’s Golden Hen. [Link to my L.A. Weekly Yelp article.])  However, the best of the bunch may well be Embassy Kitchen in San Gabriel, located directly in front of Embassy Billiards pool hall on San Gabriel Blvd., and from whence it derives its name.

Besides the improbability of Embassy Kitchen being one of the best Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles despite its status as the Chinese equivalent of bowling alley dining, equally surprising is the fact that Embassy Kitchen is still under-the-radar despite having been around for 20 years, making it senior to all the other top non-Yelp contenders except Newport Seafood, which opened in San Gabriel a year earlier in 1996.  Embassy Kitchen started as a small adjunct restaurant to the billiard parlor around 1997, even using the Embassy Billiards moniker.  It then moved to the large restaurant space in front of the billiard parlor around 1999.   

Like other top Chinese restaurant contenders Sea Harbour, Lunasia and King Hua, as well as most all of the other banquet sized Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, Embassy Kitchen serves Hong Kong style cuisine.  But aside from that, Embassy Kitchen diverges from these other Hong Kong style restaurants in many ways.  There are no tanks in the dining room full of live seafood, nor is the dining room huge, loud or boisterous.  There is not a gaudy menu with so many choices that the menu could be made into a movie, and they gladly take reservations.

But what distinguishes Embassy Kitchen from the pack is the food selection.  Yes, you will find Cantonese favorites like rock cod in corn sauce, walnut shrimp, fish maw crab meat soup, e-fu noodles, and steamed chicken with ginger and scallions, all superbly prepared.  But what you also find at Embassy Kitchen are two extremes not typically seen at most Hong Kong style restaurants in Los Angeles—complex dishes that require day in advance ordering and wonderful homestyle dishes.  To some extent most of these dishes are obscured on the Embassy Kitchen menu as they are only found on paper inserts on the inside cover of the permanent menu.  On the other hand, that might not make much of a difference, since non-Chinese faces are indeed rare at this restaurant.  There is no nefarious intent in keeping these dishes in a Chinese language supplement, as the owners indicate that they just weren’t sure how to accurately describe these dishes in English.

Perhaps the best exemplar of the complex advance order dishes is the boneless chicken stuffed with shrimp paste.  The chicken skin is light and crispy, the chicken is tender, and the shrimp paste provides a savory contrast.



Then there’s the tilapia rolls with whole carcass, one of the most unique and visual dishes you will find at a Los Angeles area Chinese restaurant, though from a taste point of view the re-stuffed fish (where the bones are removed and the fish is filled back up with fish and ground pork) might be a better choice.

One of the special items that does not necessarily need an advance order is the eight treasures stuffed duck.


Other signature dishes include the chicken stuffed with sticky rice (a traditional Cantonese dish still popular in the San Francisco area, but difficult to find in Los Angeles), and the fried rice with whole Dungeness crab or lobster.  Note that all of these dishes are large and run in the $50 range, and hence are more suited to large parties.  Indeed Embassy Kitchen has a larger quotient of large size tables compared to most other Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles.

At the other end of the spectrum are the many uncommon homestyle dishes on Embassy Kitchen’s menu.  However, be aware that these dishes are not inexpensive, as there are few items on the Embassy Kitchen menu that are under $15 and many are $20 or more.  But these dishes are generally well worth the price, particularly when considering the subtleties and complexities in the flavor of the dishes here.  At most popular Chinese restaurants, experienced diners can discern visually and by taste the main ingredients of a dish.  Yes, this dish contains dried orange peel, or five spice, or bean paste or fish sauce.  But at Embassy Kitchen this is not necessarily the case.  For example, our party was stumped by the steamed egg with tofu and seafood topping, so we had to ask them what was in it.  They replied “shrimp roe.”  Such ingredients also explain the higher price point.


Many other down-to-earth, and seldom seen at restaurant dishes are also real winners.   Steamed eggplant with dried scallop and ground pork may sound fairly pedestrian, but it is one of the best dishes on the menu, with it seemingly being a mystery how the ground pork can be cooked in such a light and fluffy manner.  

Similarly outstanding but unlikely dishes include clear rice noodles with cabbage, egg and dried scallops; stir-fried beef with flour crisp; French style beef stew (which comes with noodles at lunch time but not at dinner); and imitation shark’s fin with egg whites.   


Many people say that Embassy Kitchen is as close to actually eating in Hong Kong as you can get in Los Angeles.  However, more than any Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, Embassy Kitchen’s quality is driven by its owner-chef, Chef Yu, which probably explains in part its lack of widespread acclaim, with the stellar reviews of his cooking being offset by pedestrian reviews by diners who happen to eat there when he isn’t in the kitchen.  But in the long run, for those who dine at Embassy Kitchen on a recurring basis, this is a restaurant, the closest thing to artisan Chinese cooking that you will find in Los Angeles, that deserves to be considered among the best Chinese restaurants in the area.



Monday, June 19, 2017

Chinese Bakery Riots Return to Los Angeles

Everybody knows how much Chinese people like their food, and nowhere is this any more true in the United States than in Los Angeles.   While there really weren't Chinese bakery riots in Los Angeles, we did come close with the opening and then spread of the Taiwanese 85°C Bakery and Cafe chain as it rolled out throughout the Los Angeles area.  When they had their sole store in Irvine, CA, it would not be unusual to spend an hour waiting in line to get inside the bakery and make your purchases, and as the first branches opened up, opening day waits were two hours, and one could imagine some people became testy while waiting in line.  However, there are many branches of 85°C in the Los Angeles area these days, so the days of Chinese bakery conflict in Los Angeles seemed to be a thing in the past.

Until this weekend, at Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park.  Atlantic Times Square was conceived of nearly a decade ago as an attempt to bring a mainstream block long shopping center housing national brands to Monterey Park, the original "Chinese Beverly Hills" marketed overseas in the 1980s.  As things have turned out in the past couple years in the retail industry in general, and shopping malls in particular, that attempt was equivalent to trying to jump onto the Titanic before it set sail.  Fortunately, the attempt to attract mainstream tenants pretty much failed, except for Johnny Rocket's (since closed), the AMC theaters, and perhaps a couple of other places.  This left Atlantic Times Square to the Asian business community, which in the end turns out to be the best thing that could happen to that center

This past weekend  Sunmerry, a small Chinese bakery chain, like 85°C originating out or Irvine, opened up a store in Monterey Park, offering Grand Opening specials.  According to eyewitness reports, it was a near riot.  One account said "I was in a crowded, angry line for an hour and a half!! And that's not because there was a bunch of people in front of me. I was 4th in line for the most part. There was just no products coming out...Some older ladies were even starting to argue about their place in line...The only organizational part I appreciated was when the new batch came out. They realized that an angry mob would have started if they placed the items on the shelves, so they took each tray and offered a piece to each person down the line to make it fair. I was glad because I really didn't want to end up arrested for assault over bread." 

Another report said "Waited for over 45 minutes in the hot sun! At last got to the entrance then waited another 15 minutes before the manager let a crowd of customers including myself to go get the bread. However, there just isn't enough bread for the batch of customers that they allowed in, By the time it's my turn, there are basically nothing! I asked the manager to let me wait until next round of bread to come out, he said "No, you have to go back outside all the way to the last in line again"  WTF?? I waited over an hour for you to tell me to go back out to the hot sun waiting in line again when you didn't bring out enough for the customers??  F*** this!"

And then there was "I got a tray and went straight to chocolate croissants and I was surrounded by crazy people."  Nothing like specials to bring out the crazy in Chinese shoppers!





Friday, June 9, 2017

My Week of Dining in San Francisco (Or Who Abducted Martin Yan?)

One of our family traditions since the kids were little has been a June visit to San Francisco.   Even though Los Angeles Chinese food is a bit better than what they have in the Bay Area, I still look forward to trying the newest Chinese restaurants around San Francisco and revisiting our favorites. This year's June trip was particularly anticipated because it would be our first visits to the recently opened China Live and Mister Jiu's, both in San Francisco Chinatown.  But I can't help but lead off with my chronicle of June's trip with the disaster that was our dinner at Martin Yan's M Y China Restaurant in Westfield San Francisco.

Don't get me wrong.  Since it opened four years ago, M Y China has been one of our favorite Chinese restaurants anywhere, so much so that in our many visits here we pretty much exhausted their menu items.  Some of their items have been superior, such as the Peking duck, the crab, the xiaolongbao, and the roast chicken.  And while not every dish was high quality, we never had a bad one. Consequently we were looking forward to this meal, our last dinner of the trip.  All of which made the poor meal we had especially disappointing.  Granted, since we wanted to continue to work our way through the menu we ordered a couple of items we had never considered before, the Chairman Mao crunchy spicy chicken and the venison chow fun.  Crunchy is one thing, but Chairman Mao was more like a jawbreaker, hard and dry.  The venison chow fun was one of the worst chow fun dishes we ever had, having no flavor with zero wok hei.  Being charitable perhaps we could say since we never considered these dishes before, we shouldn't have ordered them this time.  But then there was the roast chicken, one of the few dishes we've ordered multiple times in the past.  This time, the chicken skin was like paper and the chicken was as dry as sawdust.   Don't know what happened this time. We asked the server if there had been a change in the kitchen, but she said there hadn't been.  But in any event, a restaurant of this quality and price level should consistently operate at a high level, and there was no excuse for this meal.

Meanwhile, the good news is that dining may be back in San Francisco Chinatown.  Things have been so discouraging in Chinatown in recent years such that we almost never eat dinner in San Francisco Chinatown anymore, just breakfast and lunch.  But things are on the upswing with the opening of China Live and Mister Jiu's.  China Live occupies the space that was once home to banquet restaurants Ocean City (whose owners still live in infamy for stiffing their employees by folding their tent and carting everything out of the restaurant sometime one night between midnight and 6 am) and Gold Mountain, but which has been empty for years.  China Live is a multi-million dollar project, intended to be the Chinese equivalent of Eataly in Manhattan, the large Italian market and restaurant complex.  Only the first floor of China Live is currently open, and its opening several weeks ago was so late compared to its original schedule that many people had assumed it would never open.   We had the Peking duck sesame pouches, the wok fried filet mignon, the crab egg rolls and (pictured below) the Marco Polo noodles.  The food was expensive and honestly not particularly good.   The contiguous but separate open kitchens for Peking duck, dumplings, and wok cooked items are an interesting feature.  And the restaurant was bustling both the night we ate there, a couple of nights later when we checked out the market area, and at lunchtime on our last day there, which is a very encouraging sign and which would be a shot in the arm for San Francisco Chinatown.



The highlight of the trip was our dinner at Mister Jiu's. I had made a reservation for dinner at Mr. Jiu in Chinatown a full month in advance, as the restaurant is very popular.  It’s the creation of a well known Bay Area chef named Brandon Jew, who took three years preparing the space that used to house Four Seas Restaurant upstairs on Grant Ave., but redesigning the space so that the entrance to the restaurant is on ground level at the back on Waverly Place, which sits up the hill from Grant Ave. The restaurant opened a year ago, and initially they were doing five course banquet menus for almost $100 per person.  However that concept wasn’t well received and they went a la carte late last year.  One theme of the restaurant is local sourcing, so in line with this we had the Dutch Crunch baked bbq pork bun, (below) patterned after San Francisco's unique Dutch Crunch bread.  It was fairly good, although not nearly as good as the various crispy bbq pork buns at Bay Area Chinese restaurants such as Dragon Beaux, Hong Kong Lounge 1 and 2, Koi Palace and Lai Hong Lounge. At $13 for three small bao, it also was about twice as expensive.  The crab and caviar cheung fun was excellent, and was definitely worth the $17 charge for the two rice rolls.  The McFarlane Springs salt baked trout from Central California was excellent, having the look, taste and texture of salmon, which made it worth the $48 tab.   Indeed it was a bargain compared to the $60 you'd pay for a live whole fish at a Chinese seafood restaurant.  Truly a meal that any foodie would enjoy.



Other trip highlights included the tomato cilantro Tibetan bison momo at Bini's Kitchen on Market Street in the Financial District, the variety of rice noodle rolls and other excellent Hong Kong style dishes at Cooking Papa in Foster City,  the crunchy pork buns, fish cheung fun and coffee ribs at Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown, the hotpot (below) at Little Sheep at their Union Square location, the pizza-like bacon and tomato bun at Fancy Wheat Field on Stockton St., and even the $1.25 crispy baked bbq pork buns at iCafe Chinatown on Waverly Pl.  But in the background, my memory of this trip is still haunted by the images of Martin Yan in a little room somewhere being held against his will.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

What's In A Name (Card)?

Since I have been churning out an increasing number of articles relating to Chinese restaurants in the United States for Menuism, and occasionally L.A. Weekly, I've been contemplating printing up business cards identifying myself as some kind of food related writer, and listing the websites where my writings can be found.    But even though this thought came to me some time ago, I hadn't acted on it, and for one particular reason.  That is the fact that I couldn't come up with a description that adequately described what I wrote about.  I have been described in a number of ways in the five years that I have been writing about Chinese food, but technically, none of them are correct.  I'm not a Chinese food expert or maven , just a guy who's eaten at a lot of Chinese restaurants.  I'm not a Chinese food blogger, since in my writings, the food itself is peripheral, indeed often highly peripheral to what I'm writing about.   Foodie is way off the mark since I never photographed my food until my Twitter followers complained about the lack of pictures accompanying Tweets describing my meals, and I still delete those photos from my camera and picture collections as soon as they're uploaded to Twitter and Instagram. "Celebrity diner" and "iconic eater" are probably more descriptive, much are much too pretentious.  And while my personal favorite was the time I was called the "Batman of Chinese Dining," I never did figure out what that meant.

However a recent Chandavkl blog post about my past life from the mid-1970s to early 1980s speaking and writing about elements of the history of the Chinese in the United States has provided the answer.  As I and others have previously written, my interest in Chinese food was merely an extension of my interest in the overall Chinese experience in the United States, and my current writings are just as much a reflection on the historical experience of Chinese Americans, as it is about the food that I am ostensibly report about.  So ladies and gentlemen, this is what my new business card looks like.