Saturday, June 11, 2016

48 Hours On The East Coast

Since my work group is headquartered in Washington D.C., I have occasion to travel there for our group meetings.  However, since I'm the only one in my group who does what I do, the content of these meetings isn't always that relevant.  This was the case a couple of weeks ago with our latest meeting, but the trip was by no means wasted as there were a number of important dining highlights.

Landing at Reagan airport in DC I headed directly to Grace Garden Restaurant in Odenton, Maryland, located sort of between Baltimore and Annapolis.  Well, not directly, because due to rush hour traffic and pouring rain, it took 2 hours to drive what probably should have taken 50 minutes. I went to Grace Garden specifically for their fish noodles, which I had assumed to be like the fish noodles I had in New York, and which I wrote about for Menuism,  Those fish noodles were like eating rubber bands, so you can imagine my surprise when the waitress at Grace Garden brought their fish noodles out.  These had the consistency, as well as look, of real noodles.  It was a little bit like fish cake, but less dense.  Chatting with the waitress, I commented on the difference from other fish flour noodles I’ve eaten, and she said that there was no flour in these noodles.  I’m not sure whether this meant it was 100 percent ground fish, or whether there were other ingredients, just not flour.  Also since the restaurant was empty while I was there, I had assumed that Chinese families from Baltimore flocked there on weekends, but she indicated that they had few Chinese customers at anytime.  I found this startling since they had a separate authentic Chinese menu in addition to their Americanized tourist menu (though the Chinese language description of these dishes was unusually inconspicuous.)   The waitress’ explanation was that there were a lot of residents in the area who had eaten Chinese food in China (maybe diplomatic types?), so they were quite sophisticated.  But it blows my thesis that a good authentic Chinese restaurant needs a critical mass of Chinese clientele.    Also I asked her about other good Chinese food in the DC area, mentioning towns such as Wheaton, Rockville, Gaithersburg and Falls Church where I have eaten, but she said that the Chinese food there is on the decline and not very good, and you have to go to New York or California for good Chinese food.

I only had a smidgen of Chinese food in Washington D.C. itself which is not particularly known for good Chinese food.  I stopped by Zengo, an Asian/Latin fusion restaurant in the heart of Chinatown for their foie gras shu mai, which looked a lot better than it tasted.  Also had a taro bun at Joy Luck House.  It cost $2.25 and wasn’t very good, further testament to the low quality of food in DC Chinatown.

In my younger days I would have flown directly back to Los Angeles immediately after the end of my meeting, but I no longer can withstand cross country flights on consecutive days.  So I decided to drive to Philadelphia and stay overnight, then drive the next day to New York for a flight back to Los Angeles.  This gave me a chance to revisit Philadelphia after a 10 year absence and do some work for my Menuism article on Philadelphia Chinatown. In 10 years things had really changed. Actually the footprint of Chinatown seemed to be the same as before.  But there were many new restaurants and lots of young Chinese on the streets.  Philadelphia Chinatown has been invigorated by an influx of Chinese students like the places that I’ve written about.   I made quite a few notes about the new restaurants in Chinatown.  I was hoping to have a Philly Cheesesteak eggroll, but the one place that had it on the menu, Spicy C Hand Drawn Noodle, was out, so I had to settle for fried fish balls.  I also stopped by Dim Sum Garden, which actually is a northern Chinese restaurant, which was totally packed–with non-Chinese diners.  I ordered the chicken dumplings which were terrific as they were made with white meat, something you almost never see.  I also ordered Fujian fish cake soup to take back to the hotel from Ming River Sidewalk Café.  The Fujian fish cake soup was a real discovery.  It was a cross between fish meat and a rice cake!  The middle definitely had meat fibers, but the outside was smooth like a rice cake., and vaguely reminiscent of Grace Garden's fish noodles.  (In contrast, Grace Garden had no meaty fibers.)  I wonder if there was some link between the two dishes.  One negative about the soup was that it was quite sour, something symptomatic of Fujianese cooking.

The last day was the real adventure.  I headed to northeast Philadelphia to seek out what might be described as a secret second Chinatown.   Philadelphia is not like LA or many of the other cities that have a suburban Chinese community.   However I remember reading maybe 10 years ago about how Chinese priced out of New York had started moving to a lower end portion of Philadelphia and were starting to build up a community.  My only information was one authentic Chinese restaurant on Castor Ave., so I made my way out there.   A block on Castor Ave. with a Chinese restaurant, and Chinese jewelry store, a Chinese notary, and a Chinese construction contractor.  And down a couple of blocks was a Chinese grocery store and a Chinese real estate broker.  (And a few blocks away I found a Chinese computer store.)  Interestingly I could find no internet references to this Chinese community, not even the original article I had read.

I then headed up US Highway 1 towards New York.  If time permitted I could go to Flushing to eat before my late afternoon flight home.  While I have been to Flushing several times, the Chinatown has grown so much in the years since I started visiting it in the late 1990s such that there is a stretch on Main Street that is too far away from where I normally stay as it’s beyond walking distance.  So when I turned onto the south end of Main St., I saw all the places that I had been wanting to try–New Lake Pavilion, East Dim Sum, Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao and Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet.  There would be plenty of food for the airport and the long flight home, and then some!

The Flushing highlight was definitely the vegetarian chicken at Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao.  Equal to, if not better than the version at Homer’s Taste in Flushing, where I usually get that dish.   Like Mounds candy bars, it was indescribably delicious.  This is the one dish that Flushing does better than anywhere in California, and was the perfect ending to a great trip.  But honorable mention goes to the beef cheung fun from East Dim Sum, which was as good as it gets.  And special note goes to the giant steamed chicken bao from New Lake Pavilion, which was a meal in itself.  This is a version of an old Toishanese American item, a steamed bao with chicken, lop chung and egg yolk.  It was particularly widespread in old San Francisco Chinatown (one restaurant there sells it, calling it the Toishan bun), not so much in Los Angeles, and not particularly one of my favorites.  But this one was pretty good and well worth the $2.25 charge, which I did not initially understand.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My Life As a "Z" List Celebrity

So everybody has heard about "A" list and "B" list celebrities.  Then Kathy Griffin made light of this by proclaiming herself as a "D" list celebrity.  But now the attention paid to "celebrities" has gotten so out of hand that people like myself have become borderline celebrities, which I'll refer as being on the celebrity "Z" list.

I'm not sure what makes a celebrity in today's world, but there are celebrity doctors, celebrity dentists, and celebrity real estate brokers.  A former co-worker has been described as a celebrity real estate developer.  I wouldn't be surprised if there were celebrity plumbers and celebrity gardeners. Having been referred to as a "celebrity diner" seems to put me in a similar category.

While I'm not sure exactly what makes a celebrity these days, my own experience does provide some clues.  When Clarissa Wei wrote her profile about me for L.A. Weekly  I considered the piece to be something of limited interest, just to Los Angeles area foodies.  I had been corresponding with Clarissa about Chinese restaurants when I casually mentioned that I had eaten at over 6,000 of them. Immediately she jumped on the topic and asked whether anybody had ever written me up.  My response was "Why would anybody do that?"  In a week's time we had scheduled the interview, she wrote her article, and it was posted on the L.A. Weekly website.   Even when the article was reprinted the next day by the Huffington Post, I figured interest was still foodie centered, just without a geographic limitation.  But things really got weird by the end of the week when the story was picked up on as their lead current story.  That led to dozens of celebrity websites around the world reproducing the People article, even a Bollywood celebrity website in India.  I think that sequence was sufficient to push me onto the "Z" list, at least for 15 minutes.

Of course I would have quickly become a has been celebrity if not for intervening events. Those learning I had eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants presumed (though mistakenly so) that made me an expert on Chinese food,  Days after the 6,000 restaurant article was posted, I received a request from the Asia Society to do a listing of the top Chinese restaurants in the United States.  When I looked at the listing I came up with, each and every one was located in California, seven in the Los Angeles area and three in the San Francisco Bay area.  Knowing that such lists  usually published were invariably diverse geographically, I penned an aside to the editor explaining why my list only contained California restaurant, and including some fairly disparaging (though accurate) comments about the sorry state of Chinese food in New York.  To my initial horror, the Asia Society editor published not only the top 10 listing, but also my explanation of why all the restaurants were in California.  Well, the internet immediately blew up, with New Yorkers incensed at having their Chinese food insulted.  My name was mud on restaurant message boards such as Mouthfuls and Chowhounds, though a few brave California partisans defended my point of view.  Indeed, the furor was so great that I didn't bother following any of the aftermath.  Consequently, it wasn't until two years later when I sat down to meet with the editor, Tahiat Mahboob, at the Asia Society offices on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that I learned how wide the readership of that article was, including 3,000 Facebook likes and 300 tweets, including one by New York Times editor Sam Sifton.

All the publicity led to invitations to regularly write about Chinese food, answering random requests for Chinese dining recommendations, and an appearance in the movie The Search for General Tso. A year later, another biographical profile, this time by Frank Shyong in the Los Angeles Times, who came across my name while searching restaurant message boards looking for Chinese restaurants to take his parents to eat, spread my story to even wider audiences.  Then ABC news came calling with its own interview, going so far as to say they were also dispatching a Good Morning America television crew to do an in-person interview.  Unfortunately, in this post-9/11 world I knew that I would need to get clearance from the building management in the Century City office building I was working in, and by the time the film crew and building management had worked out the details (including insurance coverage), the window for the interview had closed.

There are a number of indications that I'm still a "Z" list celebrity even four years after Clarissa Wei's article.  I have "acting" credit listings on "The Numbers" website and the New York Times film credit database for my appearance in the Search For General Tso food documentary. Attending screenings for the General Tso movie at the Tribeca  Film Festival and in Hollywood, I was introduced in the post-screening discussion as a special guest in the audience.  And on both occasions I was approached by numerous attendees after the discussion wrapped up.  Oh and I do have people I refer to as my “agent” (Judy Isozaki), my “business manager" (Gordon Chow) and my “publicist” (Linda K).  But since I’ve never earned anything from being a Z list celebrity, their percentage of zero is zero.

I occasionally receive random media interview requests, including two in New York earlier this year from people who figured out I was in their town based on my current tweets.  I was twice asked by the same reality cooking show to be a guest cook on the show, premised on food critics presumably making themselves look silly by preparing their favorite restaurant dishes.   Another time, after a live presentation on Chinese food at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, a member of the audience came up to me and asked if he could pay me to speak at a family reunion. And even at work, when we had a department meeting in Washington DC, and a new hire in the DC office was introduced, when some of the other attendees asked me about any new developments in my eating career, the new hire said "Oh, you're the guy I read about!"   I was even referred to as a "guest star" in a comment about one of the interviews I gave earlier this year.

But the primary indication of borderline celebrity is that on a handful of occasions I have been approached by strangers who have read about me or seen the General Tso movie.  Some people assume this happens all the time, but in fact these encounters have been particularly surprising to me. While I know a lot of people have heard about the crazy lawyer who's eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants (now approaching 7,000 restaurants), I'm quite sure only a small percentage of them remember my name or know what I look like.  So to be at the same place and same time as one of these people, and have them both recognize and approach me spontaneously, is something that I wouldn't expect to happen. So to Sherwin Goo, Nate Gray, Jason Silletti, Vince Wong, Joe from Chubby Rice Restaurant in Hawthorne, CA, and Louise Yang, a tip of the hat for putting me on the "Z" list.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

My Most Surreal Chinese Restaurant Visit

Despite my great interest in American politics, I never discuss that topic in any of my writings, and seldom get into that topic too deeply in talking with family and friends.  Many people are very sensitive about their political beliefs, so I'm not about to alienate a friend, relative, or reader since I know anything I say won't change anybody's mind.

However, Hillary Clinton's being on her way to winning the Democratic Party nomination for president gives me an opportunity to recount one of my most memorable Chinese restaurant visits. Having set foot in nearly 7,000 Chinese restaurants, there is a certain sameness to these premises.  Yes there are fancy restaurants, dumpy restaurants, big restaurants, little restaurants, restaurants with large fish tanks, restaurants with steam tables, and so on, but after all these years I've seen them all many times over.   But nothing prepared me for the shock I received when I walked into East Market Seafood Restaurant on East Broadway in the Little Fuzhou section of Manhattan Chinatown that cold, damp February evening in 2008.

Actually, I previously wrote about my visit to East Market Seafood in my Menuism article on Monday night wedding banquets in Manhattan Chinatown, though I didn't mention East Market by name.  Little Fuzhou is that portion of Manhattan Chinatown that lies east of Bowery and is quite different from the main part of Manhattan Chinatown in that very few non-Chinese are visible anywhere as there are no gift shops, stylized buildings, or other tourist inducing attractions here.  Indeed, I remember walking around the shopping arcade on the first floor of the building where East Market was located.  The arcade was packed with people and little shops selling jewelry, telephones, phone cards, and who knows what else, and giving me the sense that I had been momentarily magically transported out of New York into Fujian province.

So making my way upstairs to East Market Seafood, I was still having the feeling that I was some place in Fuzhou,  That is until I noticed  "Hillary Clinton for President" posters in English and Chinese lining the wall of the stairway.  I walk up to the restaurant's front counter and see there is a picture of Hillary herself in the restaurant, standing next to the restaurant manager, in front of a large crowd of diners.   Obviously I wasn't in Fuzhou anymore.  But then I was transported back to Fuzhou when I was given a large menu that was almost entirely in Chinese.  Indeed, if there weren't a small number of pictured items with English captions on the inside cover of the menu I don't know if I would have been able to order anything.

Of course, I was now very curious as to why Hillary Clinton would have come to East Market Seafood, with no English language menu and no English speaking diners.  An internet search quickly cleared up the mystery.  Hillary Clinton had raised $380,000 at a fundraiser there.  However finding that article ended up raising more questions than it answered.  As this article and a subsequent article by Time Magazine detailed, that event drew numerous $1,000 donations to her 2008 presidential campaign from a motley legion of Chinese waiters, dishwashers, cooks, cashiers, sewing factory workers, street hawkers and other low-income residents of Chinatown.  John Edwards cried foul, sensing a violation of campaign donation limitations through the use of proxy contributors, but the controversy seemed to die as Barack Obama wrested the Democratic nomination away from Clinton.

But 2016 is another presidential election cycle and this time Hillary Clinton is in the lead. She's already been to Flushing Chinatown for her first boba drink. Will she be appearing at more New York Chinatown banquets this year?  It will be interesting to see.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Holy Grail Found--Chinese Chicken Dumplings

For the past 15 years or so, there has been an explosion of Chinese dumplings in the United States. Originally it was mostly pork dumplings, and pork mixed with other ingredients, either seafood or vegetables.  More recently fish dumplings, vegetarian dumplings and lamb dumplings have joined the crowd, and occasionally beef dumplings, too.  There were also scallop dumplings and sea cucumber dumplings at the pioneering Dumpling 10053 in El Monte, and the infamous Hai Ching dumplings at Beijing Duck House in San Gabriel.  Why were they infamous?  Well, when I saw them on the menu I asked what they were.  Unfortunately nobody in the restaurant spoke much English and they grunted something like "veggin", which I interpreted to mean vegetarian.  Not being a fan of vegetarian dumplings I passed in favor of fish dumplings and scallop dumplings.  That turned out to be a smart decision, as shortly thereafter I read a review of that restaurant which commented on their Hai Chang, or "sea worm" dumplings.  Sure dodged that bullet.

But the one thing missing from the list was chicken dumplings.  For some reason you just don't see Chinese chicken dumplings.  Well, that's not entirely true--for many years you have been able to get chicken dumplings at Americanized Chinese restaurants on the Westside of Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley, though oftentimes it's not jiaozi, but rather Japanese gyoza which is a different animal in my book.  It wasn't surprising to see chicken dumplings in these locales, since residents are more into healthful eating than Chinese diners in the SGV, and where traditional pork dumplings are a turn off.  Of course generally speaking these chicken dumplings weren't very good, as anyone who has had Americanized Chinese food in West LA or the SFV would suspect. At least for a period of time, I was able to get my fix of really good Chinese chicken dumplings at a restaurant called George's House in Inglewood (which for non-Angelinos, borders on South Los Angeles), but then they shut down.  (How they lasted as long as they did is a mystery to me since I never saw another customer there, though there were 4 Yelp reviews covering a span of 3 years.)  And finally there were the fantastic Chinese white meat chicken dumplings at Golden Wok in San Antonio, a restaurant with a mostly Hispanic kitchen staff, but a Chinese chef for the separate authentic Chinese menu,  but I only go to San Antonio once every 30 years or so.

 But in the San Gabriel Valley or other communities hosting authentic Chinese food, chicken dumplings were non existent.  They were on the menu at branches of 101 Noodle Express, but every time I tried to order them I was told they weren't available.  I thought my prayers had been answered about five years ago with the opening of Good One Restaurant in Alhambra, which made the first great chicken dumpling I had found in the San Gabriel Valley.  And they even sold them frozen in bulk.  But when I went back maybe a month after their opening to pick up some of the raw frozen dumplings, the restaurant was already gone.  Curses!

Since then there have only been a couple of local legitimate chicken dumpling sightings.  Fortune Dumpling in Monterey Park, the successor to Dumpling 10053 came up with a chicken wolfberry dumpling, which was OK, but didn't taste like a chicken dumpling.  Min's Dumpling House in Chino, out in the Inland Empire, has them, but who has time to drive out to Chino to get more?  (They just opened another branch--in Corona, even further away.)  And a few Bay Area restaurants have chicken with corn dumplings, such as House of Dumplings in Newark, but none are very good.

Failing to find restaurant grade Chinese chicken dumplings, I expanded my search to Chinese market freezer cases for chicken dumplings, but most of those sold are either gyoza type or mixed with mushrooms, which are my enemy.  For a while I was buying chicken dumplings from Costco, even though they were much too sweet.  To show my complete desperation, my most recent solution has been to rely on Russian pelmeni, their version of chicken dumplings, which I buy from the freezer at local Armenian markets.

But this is my lucky day.   I was at the Hong Kong Supermarket in Monterey Park, and walking by the freezer case I saw Wei Chuan chicken and vegetable dumplings, on sale, even.  While I had seen plenty of Wei Chuan dumplings before, this was a new product.  And as it turns out, exactly what I've been looking for these past 15 years, a yummy jiaozi suitable for frying.  Now, if I could just find a local version of those San Antonio chicken white meat dumplings, I'd be completely happy.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Yes Virginia, There Really Was A Strange Taste Cuisine Chinese Restaurant

One of the most unusual Chinese restaurant names I have encountered was Strange Taste Cuisine at 20 Henry Street in New York Chinatown which operated around 2007 and 2008.  I mentioned it in my interview in the theatrically released Chinese food documentary The Search For General Tso, as well as in my Menuism article on best odd Chinese restaurant names.  However in neither case was the restaurant actually shown.  In the General Tso movie they had to settle for a shot of whatever was at 20 Henry Street when they filmed the movie, while Menuism showed a third party menu that happened to have a dish called strange taste chicken on it.  I was slightly bothered by this, as a true skeptic might not believe that Strange Taste Cuisine ever existed.

Fortunately, I just inadvertently came across some of my random photographs, and being smarter than I realized,  I had taken taken a picture of Strange Taste Cuisine to preserve it for posterity.   I probably should have also photographed the delicious rice cakes I ate there, but I'll settle for the photographic evidence that I do have.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A February Visit To Manhattan

Almost every year since 2003 we've visited New York either the last week of January or the first week of February.  For native Californians it has been a learning experience, being introduced to sweater hats, scarves, gloves, wool overcoats and the occasional sweater mask.  But in a way, Manhattan in winter is the best time of year because there aren't the insane crowds you find the rest of the year.

Arriving in Manhattan Wednesday around 7 pm, we headed to Katz Delicatessen to compare their pastrami to that at Langer’s by MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, so we could join the national debate as to which is better.  After being so impressed by Langer’s pastrami a few months ago, that made me start to wonder about Katz.    Upon entering Katz you are given a ticket (one per person, not per group) which you have to give back when you leave.  Some kind of security measure, but I don’t exactly understand it.  My conclusion is that Langer’s is better because of the bread–the Katz bread was surprisingly bad.  The Katz meat may have been better, though.  The sides (steak fries, macaroni salad) were meh.  Also seeing the “Harry Met Sally” table there was quite interesting.

Since my seminar didn't start until 9 am Thursday morning, I was able to make a quick dash on the B train from the Bryant Park subway to the Grand St. station.  Quickly I made my way to Feng Cheng Yuan on Bowery for a tasty bbq pork bun, and arriving at both stations at the same time as the train, I made it back to my program in time.  (I tweeted my visit and by the time I got back to the PLI building somebody had responded and asked how it was.)  At lunchtime I went back to Chinatown for fried fish balls at Funny BBQ (restaurant #6900 on my cumulative list) on Bowery.   I also stopped for an onion pancake at Savory Kitchen on Grand St.  The latter restaurant was so incredibly busy between in person take out orders and telephone orders, I really felt sorry for the lady in charge.  Meanwhile, Funny BBQ made an amazing makeover of its premises, taking over for the well known, but notoriously dirty The Congee Restaurant.

We got tickets to An American in Paris which started at 7 pm, so we decided to skip dinner before the show.  I hadn’t realized that An American in Paris was a combination ballet and Broadway musical,  so there was a little too much dancing for my tastes.  But since I like Gershwin music, the show as a whole was OK.  Since the show ended relatively early around 9:30pm, we then caught the subway to Koreatown for dinner.  Having no idea which restaurants were good and which were not, we decided to play it safe and go to the BCD Tofu House (which had a 4 star Yelp rating).  We ordered the bulgogi, jap chae and beef dumplings, which were generally so so, and clearly not as good as the BCD in Los Angeles.

Snow prevented me from doing a Chinatown breakfast run on Friday, and I was stuck eating two breakfast bars and an apple from the seminar.  The snow wasn’t that heavy, but was a messy combination of rain and snow.  At lunchtime I headed straight to Chinatown to get something to eat.   I only got one dish, the noodles in peanut sauce from Min Jian Mini Cafe on Eldridge and Hester since I didn't know what Mrs. Chandavkl's plans might be.  I was happy to find that you could still get a good sized order of noodles, which I always considered the hallmark of economical dining in Little Fuzhou, for just $2.   Going back to my hotel room, I also helped polish off  a beef and chicken rice combo that Mrs. Chandavkl had picked up from the Halal Guys cart near the hotel.. Dinner was at Café Hong Kong on Bayard St. in Chinatown.   One of the waiters immediately recognized us as the crazy tourists from Los Angeles who dined there three consecutive days the previous winter.  We had a nice dinner, ordering garlic chicken, Chinese broccoli, sauteed beef with pineapples, and chicken salted fish hotpot, which were all pretty good.

Saturday was a very long day.  I had received an email a couple of weeks previously touting a Chinese New Year celebration on Madison Ave. on the Lower East Side, consisting of a parade on Madison Ave. from north to south and street fair at the south end.  Madison Ave. was a most unlikely locale for such an event, and the list of participating sponsors including Coach, Michael Kors, Bally, Fendi, Mulberry and other designers.  However, when we got to Madison Ave. there was no sign of anything, traffic as usual and no street closure.  We walked all the way up Madison Ave. and only at the north end did we hear lion dance music and saw a dragon on top of a bus.  The lion then started going up the street, presumably stopping at various participating merchants.  And that was the parade  Obviously an experiment in celebrating Chinese New Year on the UES (somehow the city of Shanghai was involved) and I wonder if they'll do it again.

Actually it wasn’t a wasted trip because it left us close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was one of our potential venues for the day.  As soon as we walked into the lobby, we heard–lion dance music.  Yes, the Museum was also celebrating Chinese New Year.    We stopped for lunch at the Halal trucks outside he museum–my chicken sandwich was one of the best I’ve eaten. At dinnertime it was back to Café Hong Kong.  Arriving at 5:50 pm we thought we were early, only to find it full up with the prospect of a long wait since most of the diners had recently been seated.  With nothing else any good in the immediate area, we waited out the 30 minutes until we got a table.  We decided to have all new dishes so we had lobster (2 for $30), snow pea leaves, fish and bean curd stick hotpot, and Singapore mei fun.  Everything was good except the mei fun, and this is a reminder that we should never order mei fun or chow fun at Café Hong Kong. After returning Saturday night to the Sheraton New York we heard the longest succession of loud booms from our room.  Meanwhile Mrs. Chandavkl happened to be in the lobby and the security guard thought it might be some kind of attack.  Since there weren’t any sirens I wasn’t particularly worried, just curious.  Later on the news we saw that it was a massive Chinese New Year’s fireworks show on the Hudson River.

Sunday morning was our usual departure day pattern, with noodles at our favorite noodle soup place on Lafayette St. in Chinatown, which once again changed names, this time from Hing Huang to Pang Huang  We also bought bakery goods for the flight home from our standby location,(which also just changed names from Dragon Land to Sweets Bakery).

An interesting sidelight to the trip was the fact that while in New York I was contacted with regards to two possible interviews.  One message was received from Eater New York, which is doing a series of videos on immigrant cuisines in New York.  However the series was being shot in March.  Also the morning we left I received a message from one of the Fung Bros. who wanted to talk about ethnic identity.  Just another reminder that you never know who is reading your tweets.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why I Don't Crave Vancouver Chinese Food Like I Used To

For over 40 years I have periodically travelled from Los Angeles to Vancouver in search of superior Chinese food.  My first trip was in 1970, which predates the "modern" era of Chinese food in the United States and Canada, as the effects of the repeal of discriminatory anti-Chinese immigration laws by both countries had yet to affect the local dining scenes.  The Chinese communities in Los Angeles and Vancouver were still essentially Toishanese/Cantonese, as were all other North American Chinatowns.  While the Chinese food we ate in Vancouver Chinatown in 1970 may have better than what we were used to in Los Angeles (as much due to L.A.'s tertiary status as a Chinese community back then), it was only marginally so, and indeed what impressed us the most was how much larger the portion sizes were in Vancouver Chinatown.

My next visit to Vancouver did not come until 1993.  Really there was no reason to travel to Vancouver as far as Chinese dining was concerned, until the panic that set in during the late 1980s as Hong Kongers realized that control of Hong Kong would indeed revert to Mainland China in 1997.  The mass exodus out of Hong Kong to Vancouver created an early 1990s Chinese dining nirvana in Vancouver that the entire Chinese community in Los Angeles knew about.  Tales of Angelinos returning from Vancouver detailed how every Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, and the suburb of Richmond, even the stalls in the food courts, surpassed the best Chinese food in Los Angeles.  So we all went to Vancouver whenever we could.  And indeed the tales were true.  Returning from Vancouver, we could not bear to eat the inferior Los Angeles Chinese food for weeks after our return, and we couldn't wait for our next trip to Vancouver to partake in the Chinese food.

Angelinos continued to make the pilgrimage to Richmond B.C. for Chinese food into the 21st century.  But in the past five years things began to change.  Fewer Angelinos made the trip to Vancouver, and those who did go came back not quite as impressed.  Yes, there were restaurants in Richmond B.C. which exceeded anything we had in Los Angeles, but a lot of others were now only "just as good", or "not any better".  So what happened?

What happened is two things.  The main factor is that Chinese food in Los Angeles has gotten so much better in the last decade.  But it's been a gradual process, such that we here in Los Angeles who eat Chinese food on a day to day basis aren't as sensitive as to how much the food has improved. This was driven home to me by two almost random comments made to me in the past couple of years.  One was made by the maitre'd at a Michelin starred Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong.  As you know, Hong Kong is ground zero for great Chinese food, and the best Chinese food there knocks the socks off of anything that we have.  Anyway the gentleman commented that he lived in the San Gabriel Valley for many years, had to return to Hong Kong for family reasons, and missed the SGV.  Then he commented that "the Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is very, very good."  To hear that from somebody tending one of the best Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong was quite illuminating.  More recently, I met a Chinese foodie from Vancouver who was in Los Angeles for a visit, and who told me that he was surprised at how good the dim sum was at Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights.  Given that I would rank Happy Harbor probably around #7 in the Los Angeles area dim sum pecking order, that also says a lot about the current state of our Chinese food.

In addition, Vancouver Chinese food has appeared to have plateaued in recent years.  There are two potential explanations for this factor.  First of all, there has been a degree of migration back from Vancouver to Hong Kong, as fears as to what would happen to Hong Kong under Chinese rule turned out to be largely unfounded so far.  Indeed we've encountered a number of these Canadian returnees in our travels.  And of course among some of the returnees were some of Vancouver's top chefs.  Secondly, like every Chinese community outside of Asia, the demographics are changing with non-Cantonese Mainlanders, many of them with tremendous wealth, now moving into North American Chinese communities.  Naturally they're bringing in their own regional style of Chinese food, but in this regard Vancouver is actually trailing other areas like the San Gabriel Valley, as the Chinese restaurant scene in the SGV shifted away from Cantonese food before Vancouver did.  As such, Vancouver is playing catch up to the SGV as far as many of these regional cuisines are concerned.  For example I had heard about a splash that a new Shandong style noodle house was making in Vancouver, which sounded like Vancouver's answer to the SGV's 101 Noodle Express group.  However, a scout who went up to try it reported back that it wasn't nearly as good.

I think the bottom line assessment is that there are some Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, Hong Kong style, Shanghai style, and hotpots, that are clearly better than anything in Los Angeles and an occasional visit up to Richmond B.C. is warranted.  However the number of such restaurants is diminishing.  Furthermore, top mainland Chinese restaurants that are starting to open up branches in North America are choosing to do so in California, where they perceive the action to be.  So as the focus in both cities turns to other regional Chinese cuisines, Vancouver loses its advantage over Los Angeles.