Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When Chinatown Dominated the Los Angeles Chinese Food Scene

These days it's a very rare occasion for us to eat in Chinatown.  The Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is so much superior, and unless you're traveling during rush hour, it isn't that much further away.  But there was a time when Chinatown was the place to go for Chinese food, and I don't just mean the time period before the Chinese started moving to the San Gabriel Valley.  As I previously discussed, the first noticeable movement of Chinese residents into Monterey Park occurred in the early to mid-1960s.  The Chinese population in the Los Angeles area began to swell in the late 1960s as the change in U.S. immigration policies took effect.  Yet, it wasn't until the mid to late 1980s that the San Gabriel Valley overtook Chinatown as the preferred locale for Chinese food.

As discussed before, the first traces of Hong Kong style Chinese food landed in Los Angeles Chinatown in the 1960s, shortly after the new Chinese immigrants started to arrive from Hong Kong.  In contrast, my recollection is that modern authentic Chinese food did not come to the San Gabriel Valley until the 1976 opening of Kin Kwok on Garvey Ave. in Monterey Park.  Other notable San Gabriel Valley openings in the late 1970s included Nam Tin, in Monterey Park, probably the first banquet sized restaurant to open, and House of Louie, also in Monterey Park.

Meanwhile, things were hopping in Chinatown.  1979 marked a significant step forward with the opening of the Food Center, the street to street, all food mall that opened between North Broadway and Hill St.  Patterned after "Sihk Gaai" in Hong Kong, the Food Center was stuffed top to bottom, end to end  with new restaurants offering the best Chinese food in the metropolitan area.  And these weren't Hong Kong  Low or Lime House restaurants.  These were brand new restaurants, with the large anchor spaces taken by Szechwan Palace and Great Shanghai, pioneering restaurants for their genre in Los Angeles. 

This is not to say that the San Gabriel Valley wasn't evolving.  The first Hong Kong style seafood restaurants opened up around 1980.  Sea Palace, which opened up in Monterey Park in 1980 may have been the first in the San Gabriel Valley.  Other  Hong Kong style seafood restaurants followed in Monterey Park, such as Sea Dragon, Champagne Restaurant and Fortuna Seafood.  But these were matched in Chinatown's Food Center by Hong Kong Jade Garden and Manning Seafood, later followed by Diamond Seafood,  and Regent Seafood on Main St. 

But it was Chinatown which brought us the first superior Hong Kong style seafood restaurant in 1984 with the opening of A B C Seafood.  Replacing the venerable but boring Lime House, this was the first knock your socks off Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.  This was the quality of Chinese restaurant that Angelenos used to drive to San Francisco to find, or even fly to New York City, only better.  For more than a decade, Chinatown's ABC Seafood would represent the best Chinese food in Los Angeles, if not the entire United States.  And in the ultimate ascendancy of Los Angeles to claim the title of having best Chinese food in the U.S., the opening of A B C Seafood was the initial round.

Ironically, the success of A B C Seafood in Chinatown also ultimately led to the San Gabriel Valley eclipsing Chinatown as the locus of Chinese food in the Los Angeles area.  A B C Seafood was  a rollicking success but its fewer than 30 table capacity limited its potential  Consequently, a sister restaurant christened N B C Seafood opened up in palatial sized premises in Monterey Park just two years later in 1986 in the space formerly occupied by the Golden Shark buffet, likely providing the tipping point for the San Gabriel Valley to become the premiere Chinese dining area in Los Angeles.  This was followed by the opening in the late 1980s of several shopping centers housing dozens of Chinese restaurants on Valley Blvd. in San Gabriel, including large numbers of non-Cantonese style restaurants, which would turn the city of San Gabriel into the epicenter of Chinese food (amazingly  until around 1983 there were no authentic Chinese restaurants in the city of San Gabriel); the opening of the first large Chinese mega shopping center in Rowland Heights in 1990, setting the eastern San Gabriel Valley up as a major player in the world of SGV Chinese food; the opening of Ocean Star Seafood in 1992 amidst unbelievable hype as the ultimate Hong Kong style food palace; the mid-1990s ascent of the SGV as the locus of the best Chinese food in the US, as Angelenos completely stopped driving to the Bay Area on weekends to get better Chinese food, and Bay Area eaters started coming down here to get their Chinese food fix; and the 2002 opening of Vancouver's Sea Harbour restaurant in Rosemead, marking the start of high level Chinese dining and widening the gap between Los Angeles area Chinese food and the rest  of the country.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Why Aren't There Great Chinese Restaurants In New York (Reprint of My Menuism Article)

I was commissioned recently to write an article detailing my choices for the 10 Best Chinese Restaurants in the United States, when I quickly realized I had a problem. No, it wasn’t that I felt unqualified to draft such a list, since I have eaten at thousands of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco, hundreds of Chinese restaurants in New York City, and a representative sampling of the best Chinese restaurants in Chicago, Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Honolulu, Dallas, and any other city having a decent sized Chinese community. The problem was that when I compiled my list, all 10 restaurants were in California — seven in Los Angeles and three in San Francisco, which didn’t look like the national list it was supposed to be. The article ran anyway, with the editor spinning the title to ask if all of the best Chinese restaurants were in California.

The response was immediate: Californians, particularly those who were familiar with New York Chinese food, in complete agreement, while many New Yorkers gave me the Bronx cheer and accused me of being biased towards my hometown food. That accusation is easily refuted by the fact that if I were to do a 10 Best list for Chinese food in North America, all my choices would come from Canada, either Vancouver or Toronto, and none would come from California. Note that many New Yorkers who had actually eaten the Chinese food in Los Angeles and San Francisco agree on California’s superiority, with most New York naysayers admitting they had not eaten in the San Gabriel Valley in suburban Los Angeles, home to the best Chinese food in California (and the country). A prominent food blogger for one of New York City’s newspapers referred to New York Chinese food as “crappy” compared to Los Angeles. So I believe the premise that New York clearly trails Los Angeles and San Francisco in the quality of Chinese food is a reasonable one.

So what is the reason for this gulf between California and New York Chinese food? After all, New York Chinese food did surpass San Francisco as America’s Chinese food mecca back in the mid-1980s, while we in Los Angeles would actually talk about specific Chinese restaurants we would like to try in New York. And the Chinese population in the New York area is comparable to, if not larger than, the Chinese populations in Los Angeles or San Francisco, so community size doesn’t seem to be the difference.

The real reason for the chasm between New York and California Chinese food is demographics. I have often said that New York Chinese food is stuck in the 1990s. Make no mistake — 1990s Chinese food was very good and there are many, many very good Chinese restaurants today in Flushing, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. But Chinese food has evolved significantly in the past decade and that evolution has largely bypassed New York. One major demographic difference can be seen in comparing the Chinese populations in New York and Los Angeles. As first brought to my attention in a Business Week article two decades ago and reinforced by a book and New York Times articles written by Jennifer 8 Lee, Chinese immigration to New York for over two decades has in large part originated from Fujian province. The Fujianese are largely working-class people, and many of them are undocumented. Check out Manhattan’s Chinatown, particularly the portion off East Broadway, and you can see this densely packed area is largely minimum wage territory. Obviously, the entire New York Chinese community isn’t working-class, but there is a heavier weighting in that direction.

In contrast, the Chinese population in Los Angeles skews more to the upper-middle class. Not to say there aren’t working class Chinese here, and indeed there are plenty. But there hasn’t been the large working-class immigration from China to California like there has been in New York. (There are virtually no Fujianese immigrants here). Rather, for over 30 years the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles has been marketed in Asia as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” Wealthy Chinese investors would buy houses in the San Gabriel Valley and send their families to reside while themselves continuing to live abroad. Meanwhile, a heavily professional technical upper-middle class Chinese community has spread across the San Gabriel Valley. Indeed the economic strength of the Chinese community is shown by the fact that there has been little residential real estate price erosion here during the great recession, and prices in the most expensive San Gabriel Valley city of San Marino are at historic highs. This is a community that demands and can afford the best Chinese food.

Furthermore, the San Gabriel Valley has spawned what the press has dubbed the “626 Generation”, referring to the San Gabriel Valley’s telephone area code. These are the upper-middle class twenty- and thirtysomething Asians who have developed a food-centric culture. For this generation weaned on the Food Network, good eating is king. They dine out a dozen or more times a week in local Chinese restaurants, and then head to the local boba shop for drinks and dessert.

One other demographic factor distinguishes California Chinese food from New York. If one takes what are often considered to be the best Chinese food centers in North America — Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco — and compares them to New York, there is one stark reality. The Chinese food in all four of these cities has a heavy Hong Kong influence, while New York does not. Chinese food continues to evolve and improve, and a major hotbed of this evolution is Hong Kong. While eating in Hong Kong knocks the pants off any Chinese food on this continent, there is enough of a presence to continually raise the bar in these Canadian and California Chinese communities.

Beyond The "X's" and "O's"--Why Stanford Beat UCLA in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game

Last night, Stanford beat UCLA 27-24 in a nailbiting conference football championship game that went down to the wire. This was just six days after the same two teams met at the Rose Bowl, with Stanford prevailing 35-17. While few people gave UCLA a chance to win the rematch, the oddsmakers favoring the Cardinal by 8 points (after opening as a 10 point favorite), I thought UCLA would win due to factors other than the physical matchup, which one might refer to as psychological or behavioral factors. However, as things turned out, Stanford won the game, and again for reasons beyond the X's and O's of game analysis, I fully accept the outcome.

There were two main reasons why I thought the Bruins would win. First of all, UCLA had played an atypically bad game against Stanford the week before. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley failed to scramble as he usually does when pressured in the pocket, his throwing accuracy was off, his receivers had uncharacteristic dropped balls, and the defense missed tackles. To me this was easily explainable. UCLA had just beaten crosstown rival USC the week before, for the first time in six years (and as statisticians point out only the second time in 13 years, though as most statisticians ignored, also the tenth time in 21 years), and I was sure that the team was still savoring that win. I know I was, and for the first time in memory I was sitting in the stands at the Rose Bowl, not particularly enthusiastic about the game unfolding in front of me. Plus Stanford really needed the win. Consequently I expected UCLA to play much better in the rematch.

The second reason was that Stanford had played three emotional, must win games in a row against Oregon State, Oregon, and then UCLA. It is my strong belief that no team can bring its "A" game four weeks in a row--it just isn't humanly possible. Just go back to UCLA's stunning 13-9 win over USC in 2006. Even though most observers had mailed in a USC win even before the game, USC had won three straight games against tough, ranked opponents, Cal, Oregon and Notre Dame, and was bound to have the letdown that they did. While the Bruins played a gutty game that night, SC's off night was also a major factor in the loss that knocked them out of the BCS championship game. As such, I did not expect Stanford to play their best game last night.

As things turned out, I was right on both counts. Where UCLA was unable to run the football the week before, this week they shredded Stanford's seemingly impenetrable rushing defense. And UCLA's defense really stepped up its overall performance against Stanford. Yet, in the end, Stanford won again despite a performance which upset Stanford coach Shaw throughout the game. Bruin fans lament the nearly "Pick 6" thrown by Hundley early in the game with UCLA leading by 14-7 and threatening to score again. UCLA fans also point to the Bruins' statistical advantage and declared that despite the score, UCLA was the better team that day. But while I was certainly extremely disappointed by the loss, I don't look at the "what if's" or think that UCLA should have won, though I agree that they could have pulled it out.

With regard to the apparently game changing interception, I don't think that changed the ultimate outcome. Through 50 years of watching football and other sports, I have concluded that some games are meant to come down to the wire, and that the details of the game coming up to crunch time are nearly irrelevant. Yes, if Hundley didn't throw the interception UCLA might have gone up 21-7 or 17-7, but under those circumstances I believe the game would have unfolded differently. Athletic contests are interactive events, and when one team does something, the other team responds. You can't assume that if you change the outcome of one play in a game that everything else would be the same. And in a what turns out to be a close game there is just going to be an ebb and flow.

My other behavioral observation from years of watching sports is that the "better" team is the one which performs when it counts. Statistically and aesthetically, UCLA did look like the better football team. But the important thing is who came through at crunch time. Last night, despite having the better offensive performance, UCLA did not score in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line, while Stanford scored 10 points, which was sufficient to give them a 3 point win.

So while I was terribly disappointed in the outcome of the game, I was pretty much over the loss fairly quickly. In hindsight, Stanford is a great team, significantly better than UCLA, and UCLA was fortunate in being in a position to possibly win the game at the end. It was a game that UCLA could have won if everything went right, but not one which they should have won.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bowl Championship Series Chaos--Wooden's Rule Rules Again

Every college football season I laugh when a month before the end of the regular season there are still several undefeated teams and pundits worry about what will happen if three or more teams remain undefeated at the end of the year. Yet, time after time, there is typically only one undefeated team left by season's end, which lends to its own controversy about which one of several one loss teams deserves the berth in the BCS championship game. Because what happens is that in the final weeks of the season, most of the undefeated teams fall victim to upset, quite often in a stunning manner, such as last night's loss by Kansas State to unranked Baylor, Oregon's shocking home loss to Stanford, and Alabama's previous week's loss to Texas A & M. Or back in 2007, when a whole parade of unbeaten teams suffered stupefying losses while on an apparently clear path to the BCS title game.

These stunning year end losses occur every year, and as I pointed out before, are easily explained by John Wooden's simple, yet not widely recognized observation, that being on a winning streak creates pressures that lead to the streak's demise. It is not clear why such is a case. Is is conscious or subconscious in nature? Do teams start playing not to lose instead of to win? I don't know, but it happens pretty much like clockwork all the time, in all sports. Now there are refinements that have to be made to the rule. A team that is vastly superior to all of its opposition can continue to win for an extended period of time, like the classic UCLA basketball and Oklahoma football teams. In contrast, a team that is not clearly superior, particularly when marked by a series of close wins, and particularly against mediocre oppostion, is much more susceptible to an unexpected winning streak ending loss.

However, there is one element to this rule which befuddles me. A lot of these streak breaking losses are inflicted by teams that on paper are quite inferior to the teams that they beat. Why do these teams rise to the occasion at the right time? Even if the streaking team concededly doesn't play its best game, the other team needs to play near its peak performance How does an average Baylor team rise up and dominate the #1 rated Kansas State team? Or do the same thing to Oklahoma State last year? How did a Miami team that had been stomped the week before come back in the last game of 1998 and knock UCLA out of the BCS championship game? Why did so many underdogs bite back at the end of the 2007season to derail teams headed to the BCS championship? It happens too often to be a coincidence, but I really have no good explanation why.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Spending The Night At JFK Airport

We've all see the news reports of passengers stranded at a closed airport, forced to sleep on the floor or on uncomfortable chairs until they could catch a flight out of town. Sometimes I would wonder why they don't just get a hotel room someplace, or perhaps they didn't budget for another night's hotel stay. So it was stunning last week when I found myself forced to stay overnight in Terminal 5 at JFK airport.

A couple of months previously we were booked to fly to New Orleans from Dallas on what turned out to be the day before Hurricane Issac hit that city, but properly warned, we instead flew home to Los Angeles from Dallas. When we flew out of Burbank last Wednesday morning to New York, and then connecting to Washington D.C., we were aware that a Nor'easter might strike the east coast, but the last reports the night before were that the storm was starting to veer away from the Atlantic Coast and the effects would not be serious. And when our flight boarded as scheduled at 7 am, I figured everything would be manageable. Now flying on Jet Blue, we had the advantage of watching TV while flying cross country, and the reports were worrisome. The storm had been given a name, Winter Storm Athena, and we saw that some carriers were canceling operations at JFK, prior to our scheduled landing time. However, we did continue on and landed on time at JFK, where it was raining with snow flurries. We waited for our flight to DC and even boarded the plane but it started snowing heavily. We were on the plane for a couple of hours, watching the snow blow horizontally and cover much of the window, before they eventually canceled the flight, due more to the winds that the snow. When we got to the front of the customer service line after an hour wait, it turned out the best alternative was to fly to Boston at 6:30 am, then from there to Reagan, rather than Dulles. However by the time that was settled, there were no hotel rooms by the airport so we had to stay overnight at the airport, essentially homeless. (I would have considered staying in Manhattan if we weren't booked for such an early departure in the morning.)

We really didn't sleep much at all overnight, since the seats in the terminal weren't made for sleeping, plus they didn't lower the lights, even though there were no flights after midnight. Also for some reason they kept running a general announcement about the pet walking zones once or twice every hour. And it seemed like a lot of the other stranded passengers didn't even try going to sleep, preferring to engage in animated conversation. So by 4:30 am we were up and walking around. And the airport at 4:30 am was a real revelation, seeing how busy it was with shops opening up and passengers (aside from those who were stuck in the terminal overnight) arriving for the flights. There was an incredibly long line of people buying coffee at the Dunkin Donuts and at the Cibo checkout.

A major issue in all this was our luggage. When they rebooked us for the New York to Boston to Washington Reagan circuit, I asked about our luggage. The agent told me it would stay on the original plane and be delivered to Dulles airport in the morning, where our cancelled flight had been scheduled to land, and that indeed it would be there before we landed at Reagan. I really didn't relish the thought of driving out to Dulles just to pick up our luggage, but it would be much better than losing your luggage completely. However during the chaos I heard a voice shout out of a speaker phone something like that there would be no rerouting of cancelled flights "except for the DC flight". At first I didn't understand what that meant. However later in the evening while perusing the flight departures board looking for an update of the morning's Boston flights, plus looking for clues or patterns from Thursday flights already cancelled, I saw that the Thursday morning Jet Blue flight from JFK to Dulles had been cancelled. Well if that flight was cancelled, how would would our luggage get to Dulles? Did the reference to "not re-routing except for the DC flight" refer to luggage, and were they going to track the replacement flights of the passengers on our plane and send those luggage along because there was no follow up flight to Dulles? So when we arrived at Reagan, I went to baggage claim and asked them if our baggage might be there. The agent replied that another passenger from our cancelled flight had already found his luggage so it could well be there. And by the time I caught up to Mrs. Chandavkl, she had grabbed our bags and I was happy that I pieced things together and didn't believe what Jet Blue had told us.

At the time all this transpired, it was certainly aggravating, tiring, and trying set of circumstances. But in hindsight, this turned out to be a very interesting adventure that was almost worthwhile.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How Americanized Food Came To Be (My Huffington Post Article)

If you visit any of today's modern Chinese American communities, such as the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, Flushing in New York, or numerous areas around San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and even Houston, you will find an interesting array of wonderful and delicious Chinese food. Yet when you compare that to what most 20th century Americans believed to be Chinese food, (and what still passes as Chinese food in many parts of the country to this day), there's absolutely no comparison. So what happened?

Of course, this is a complicated question with many factors at play. But the leading cause is the little known history of the immigration patterns from China to the United States. The Chinese first came to the United States during the Gold Rush, went on to build the railroads, then developed the agricultural industry. But few people realize that virtually all these Chinese came from one small part of China: the rural districts of Toishan outside of the city formerly known as Canton. The Toishanese came to America because of a combination of dire circumstances at home and easy access to the seaport of Canton.

Now everything else being equal, people from other parts of China would have eventually started coming to America. However, due to the racial enmity that built among the American populace, the United States passed a series of laws that made it illegal for most residents of China to come to the United States between 1882 and 1943. In 1943, China was given an annual quota of 105 legal immigrants. This is not to say that all of the Chinese who were in the U.S. were the descendents of pre-1882 immigrants. Rather, as the only nationality barred from coming to the United States, the Chinese resorted to various forms of illegal entry to come here anyway. But those who came surreptitiously were exclusively relatives or neighbors of Chinese already here, keeping the population homogenously Toishanese. Indeed, despite the Chinese exclusion laws, it was said that in many Toishanese villages, virtually all of the adult males were in the United States.

Suddenly, the difference between what Americans believed to be Chinese food, such as chop suey, chow mein, moo goo gai pan, won ton soup, and egg foo yung and what we know today as authentic Chinese food, becomes easy to explain. The Chinese who were resident in America until changes in American immigration policy in the 1960s were not geographically representative of the people of China, and furthermore, were rural, not urban, in origin. I like to make the analog that it's the same as if all of the Americans living in China came from someplace like Victorville, California. From this starting point, factor in the lack of availability of popular Chinese ingredients here in the United States, and on top of that throw in the need to adapt the food to make it palatable to Americans. Mix these all together and core 20th century Chinese food becomes understandable as a combination of authentic and modified food prepared by immigrants who came from a single small area of China.

Of course, not all Americanized Chinese food is traceable to Toishanese food and mutations thereof. A new wave of dishes destined to become Americanized Chinese standards arrived on the scene in the late 1960s with dishes such as kung pao chicken, mushu pork, General Tso's chicken, and hot and sour soup joining the pantheon. Once again, immigration was the key to these dishes, as America's doors opened up to more categories of Chinese immigrants beginning in 1965. The first wave of new Chinese immigrants came primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as immigration from mainland China would be years away, not until after President Nixon's historic China visit in 1972. But many of the Taiwanese newcomers were Nationalists who fled from the mainland, bringing with them their penchant for a spicier Chinese cuisine than that of the Toishanese or the Hong Kong peoples. Branding this new, spicy regime as Hunan or Szechwan style, and significantly tweaking the food to suit the locals, Taiwanese chefs took New York by storm and captured the imagination of Manhattan. But this was faux Hunan- and faux Szechwan-style food adapted to New York tastes, as true Hunan and Szechwan food from immigrants from those regions bringing their native foods to America would not arrive on our shores for decades. So once again, even these new style Chinese dishes were not particularly representative of the food actually found in China, but that didn't stop it from sweeping across the entire United States.

So really, what America has come to know as Chinese food for 150 years is really a combination of historical accidents and adaptation to American tastes. In contrast, today's authentic Chinese food in the United States represents not only advances in culinary sophistication, but more importantly, reflects that Chinese and their food from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and all regions of mainland China are now represented in the United States. And that's quite a difference.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Californians Are Special

As a proud Californian, I like to think we're ahead of the curve on a lot of things. This is the land of innovation where many national and international trends get started, so indeed we here in California are special. But not everything about being special is good. Last week I was in Las Vegas, where I paid about $3.60 for a gallon of gasoline. Then I come back to Los Angeles to find gasoline priced a dollar higher at $4.60 per gallon. Besides hearing rightfully outraged consumers being interviewed on the radio and television, the airwaves have also been full of politicians expressing their outrage and promising to get to the bottom of the mess, implying collusion, profiteering, and other dastardly behavior could be to blame.

However, there is no conspiracy theory to be proved. This is just a matter of California being special. Specifically, the problem is California special blend gasoline. California has mandated that only special blends of gasoline may be sold within the state to minimize air pollution. Indeed, there are two special blends, one for winter and one for summer use. Gasoline sold in most of the rest of the United States is unfit for use in California. What this means is that California gasoline is a specialty product, which is only manufactured by a small number of refiners. So if the regular source of gasoline sold in Nevada is knocked off line, it can be easily replaced by other gasoline on the market, with little disruption in supply or price. But when one California gasoline refinery goes off line, like the Chevron refinery in Richmond which has been closed for months by a fire, there is a measurable effect on supply and price. And when there is a second disruption like the Exxon plant power failure last week, the effect is magnified. So it's no mystery what caused the price spike in California gasoline--it's the mandatory special California gasoline requirements imposed by the state of California. The politicians all know this is what is going on, and they are just pandering to the public who is unaware of the economics involved.

Now given the precarious supply situation in California, the conspiracy theorists strongly suggest that California gasoline refinery problems are actually orchestrated to restrict supply and jack up prices. However, the fallacy in this assertion can be easily demonstrated by the fact that the producer whose facility goes off line does not benefit from the higher prices, since the producer doesn't have any gasoline to sell at the higher price. Does anybody really think Chevron is happy that their refinery is going to be closed for several months before reopening while everybody else's refinery is in full operation? [Update: Chevron's quarterly earnings were down 33 percent.} But everybody loves a conspiracy so this point is never raised.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Road To 6,000 Chinese Restaurants

The original L.A. Weekly/Huffington Post/People.com item on my visits to over 6,000 Chinese restaurants has generated all sorts of comments. One common reaction has been disbelief, with a number of commenters actually trying to do the math. How could I possibly have eaten at 6,000 different Chinese restaurants, since that would require trying a new Chinese restaurant every day for over 16 years? And even if you did one a day, wouldn't you run out of new Chinese restaurants to try?

Well the question is a valid one, but there really is an explanation. First of all, I've been doing this for more than 16 years, more like 35 years, though in the older days there weren't that many places worth trying. But more importantly, a good chunk of those 6,000 restaurants are located outside of my Los Angeles home base. When I'm home, I probably average at most maybe just two or three new Chinese restaurants a week, a pace which would indeed take forever to reach 6,000. However when I'm out of town I literally eat four or even five meals a day, each at a different restaurant. Consequently a four day trip to New York or San Francisco can easily add 20 restaurants to the listing, with most of my non-work hours devoted to scouting for food. I've perfected the breakfast and lunchtime subway dash between Midtown Manhattan and Chinatown (take the B or D train from under the Sheraton Hotel to Grand Ave.). And San Francisco is an especially fruitful destination, since besides the large quantity of good Chinese restaurants there, if I order a bad dish somewhere I don't have to finish it, but rather I can pack it up and give it to one of the homeless people that are ubiquitous around San Francisco Chinatown at night (where I always stay, though do not necessarily eat). That's what I call a win-win situation--leftovers for the homeless and I don't have to fill myself up on something that's not very good.

Once in a while I get even more ambitious, like the dim sum crawl through the suburbs of Toronto that I previously blogged about two years ago, where I hit up six dim sum restaurants one Sunday between 9 am and 3 pm. Or similarly the eight hour drive I took from Miami to Boca Raton (a straight line distance of less than 50 miles) as I zig zagged across South Florida to the scattered Chinese restaurants I had located in the Miami area Chinese newspaper.

Sometimes I'll drive, rather than fly to meetings in places like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Phoenix to sample Chinese restaurants on the way to my destination. (When else would I get a chance to try the dim sum in Palm Springs, Fresno or Bakersfield?) And when I do fly into the Bay Area for a meeting in San Francisco, I often fly into San Jose instead, so I may eat at restaurants in Silicon Valley or somewhere else between San Jose and San Francisco before making my way into the City. Attending a meeting in Washington D.C.? A couple of times I flew to New York and then rented a car, so I could sample some of the eateries between New York and D.C. Another out of town strategy is that I often make it a point to stay in a hotel closer to the focal point of Chinese food than my business site to maximize my access to Chinese restaurants. Also, that makes me feel more like a local as I drive 20 miles to my work destination, rather than staying on premises. Things like that are a necessary part of getting to 6,000.

A corollary to these rules is that when scheduled for a trip to one city, if that city doesn't have a large representation of Chinese restaurants, I'll look for relatively nearby (by my standards) localities that expand the pool. For example, after attending numerous meetings in Orlando and pretty much trying all of the worthwhile Chinese food there, I've driven at dinnertime to Tampa, St. Petersburg and even Gainesville and Cocoa Beach. A trip to San Antonio meant arriving in town two days early to enable side trips to Austin and Houston. And of course there were my driving marathons mentioned in previous blog posts, such as from Dallas to Houston and back the same day after taking the early morning flight from Los Angeles to Dallas. Or Monterey to Silicon Valley, twice--in the same day.

A corollary to the corollary is that aside from the Chinese food, my side excursions also provide an opportunity to see sights that I wouldn't otherwise get to visit, and which I have found to be quite enjoyable. Yes, that was a circuitous trip around South Florida, but I got to drive along the other Hollywood Blvd., and rode the entire length of Hypoluxo Road asking myself why would they name a major street after a chemical process? (Hypoluxo turned out to be a Native American chieftain.) And I saw how the urban area abruptly ended at the Everglades, and how they built way too many new houses in that metro area. I learned that most businesses in the Chinese suburbs of Toronto were not located in storefronts on the streets, but in giant shopping malls, often largely obscured from street view. So while the food was the immediate goal, there are definitely major non-culinary benefits.

And don't forget the phone books. Each year when the new Los Angeles Yellow Pages come out I check the restaurant listings to see if there are any new neighborhood restaurants I may have missed.

So yes, the road to 6,000 was real, but you just have to work extra hard to make it happen.



Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Election Is Over

Yes, I know the calendar says it's September and there are still seven weeks to go until election day. But the election is over and the Republicans will be taking a pounding. A year ago, Intrade futures pegged President Obama's chances of re-election at no more than 50 percent, and the prospects for a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate were riding at 80 percent. The first to turn was the presidential race, when this past spring some good economic numbers shot Obama's odds up to 60 percent. They receded two or three points this summer as the economy seemed to stall. However as it became clear that even though national polls showed a neck and neck race, the electoral numbers didn't add up for Mitt Romney, Obama's odds surged past 60 percent. Add to this Romney's remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax, and Obama's odds are now 70 percent.

Now unseating an incumbent president is always a difficult proposition so an upcoming Obama re-election would be far from shocking under any circumstances. However what is shocking is the evaporation of the prospect that the Republicans will control the Senate. Even last month the odds favored a Republican senate, but almost overnight the odds on Republican Senatorial control have plummeted to 20 percent. I'm not sure what triggered such a rapid reversal of fortune. Certainly, the pigheadedness of Rep. Akin in turning a certain victory in Missouri into a certain loss didn't help. More likely, Romney's comments about the 47 percent, while probably not that significant since he wasn't going to win the election anyway, possibly sets up an Obama landslide that will submerge a number of Republican Senatorial candidates in its wake.

Of course futures tradings in political events is highly volatile and it is possible that things may turn again. Indeed during election day of 2004, the odds on a Kerry victory shot up to over 60 percent, thanks to the release of exit polling numbers that eventually turned out to be inaccurate. But unless President Obama is photographed kicking kittens or punching first graders, such a reversal of fortune appears to be unlikely.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Adventures in Springfield Cashew Chicken

Sometime probably in the early 1980s I first heard of Springfield cashew chicken. This was one of a handful of regional Chinese American specialties that had developed over the years, including the St. Paul sandwich in St. Louis, MO; the chow mein sandwich of Fall River, MA and Woonsocket, RI; chicken fingers in Boston and adjoining areas of New England; and honey chicken in South Florida and other parts of the south. Over the years I had tried to think of ways to incorporate Springfield, MO into my travel itinerary, but had never been able to do so, and been resigned to the reality that I'd never make it to Springfield.

So when Clarissa Wei first interviewed me for her L. A.Weekly Squid Ink article, and she asked me what Chinese restaurant I hadn't been to that I would most like to go to, it didn't take deep thought on my part to reply it would be someplace in Springfield, Missouri to try their cashew chicken which was deep fried and served with gravy, rather than the typical pan fried version. Little did I realize that weeks later I would be in Springfield sampling five varieties of that dish, as the guest of Susan Wade and the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. To my surprise, I learned that there were direct flights between Los Angeles and Springfield, albeit only three days a week, on Allegiant Airlines. Also when I discovered that the airport in Springfield was called Springfield-Branson airport, that helped explain the existence of that direct route.

While the reason for the trip was the Springfield cashew chicken, the city of Springfield itself turned out to be most interesting, and in some regards, contradictory. In all of my post civil rights era travels, I have never seen an urban area so homogenous as Springfield. The entire time in Springfield I saw only three African Americans, and they were all hotel guests. All of the hotel maids were white. I saw no Latinos, and the only Asians I saw were inside of the Chinese restaurants. Yet, in this city of under 200,000 residents there are almost 100 Chinese restaurants. Springfield has the highest per capital density of Chinese restaurants of any city in the United States. The reason, in part, if not exclusively, is cashew chicken. Most every Chinese restaurant in town notes the availability of cashew chicken on their exterior signage. Vietnamese restaurants serve cashew chicken. I presume Korean and Japanese restaurants also serve cashew chicken. And non-Asian restaurants serve cashew chicken. Springfield cashew chicken is truly a phenonmenon in this city, where the other regional Chinese American dishes are merely oddities or varieties.

And this is not the only contradiction about Springfield. We were fortunate that among the 100 Chinese restaurants in town, we were taken immediately on arrival at Springfield Airport to Creasian Restaurant, which based on the name, I wasn't even sure served Chinese food. Consequently, when we went inside and the owner asked whether we would like to order off of the Chinese menu, as opposed to the regular menu, I was absolutely floored. Who would expect a Chinese menu in a town whose only Chinese population appeared to be a small number of Chinese restaurant workers? But there on the Chinese menu were Guilin rice noodles, cumin beef, marinated beef Chiu Chow style, braised whole fish, and a couple dozen other traditional dishes. The reason for the separate menu was that the restaurant was close to the Missouri State University campus, which unbeknownst to me has a sizable enrollment of overseas Chinese students. This just reinforced a corollary rule which I had discovered over the years that cities without a significant resident Chinese population can still support authentic Chinese restaurants if there is a large college campus with Chinese students nearby.

While we did have a taste of Springfield cashew chicken at Creasian, the marquee event (literally, since they put my name on the marquee outside the restaurant) was lunch at Leong's Asian Diner, owned by Wing Leong, the son of David Leong, who invented Springfield cashew chicken almost 50 years ago back in 1963. It may have seemed disconcerting to have to eat lunch with cameras from the local NBC television outlet rolling, and still cameras flashing away. But hey, we're from Hollywood, and Brad Pitt (who happens to come from Springfield) lives in our neighborhood near the Hollywood sign, so we're used to the attention. Besides the delicious cashew chicken, we also were treated to a tasty and inventive dish of lop cheung lo mein, Japanese udon soup with fish cake and pork belly, and siu mai with an interesting twist of a small shrimp on top.

Yet, the highlight of the trip for me turned out not to be the cashew chicken. It was meeting with 92 year old David Leong, the Godfather of Springfield cashew chicken whose proteges prepare the dish throughout the city of Springfield. Though he spoke a slightly different dialect than ours (and I only include myself in "ours" because I do speak a little bit of pidgin Toishanese), Mrs. Chandavkl and I shared a number of wonderful conversations with him during our four meals together. Mr. Leong came to the United States in 1940 as a 19 year old, survived as part of the fourth wave that landed on Normandy beach, and learned the restaurant business in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pensacola before setting up shop in Springfield. He ignored the advice of his Chinese friends in San Francisco who said it was silly to try to operate his business in Springfield. He overcame the adversity of applying for a loan to open his first restaurant in Springfield and being met with racial epithets by the bank officer who turned him down. He was resourceful in getting his Caucasian businessman friend to co-sign on the loan that enabled him to set up shop. And it was his genius to create a Chinese dish that reflected local tastes and has become the signature dish for the entire city.

As to the cashew chicken itself, it definitely is unlike anything I've ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, or anywhere else. You might think of it as a deep fried chicken nugget in a brown oyster sauce influenced gravy topped with cashew slices. Or perhaps like orange chicken but with a salty, not sweet sauce. But really, we had the dish at five different restaurants, including Canton Inn, Chinese Chef and Mr. Yen's, and each was different in its own way, and it's not surprising that the dish has become so popular throughout the Springfield area.

As for the possibility of the dish being served in Los Angeles, which I've been asked by both Springfield ex-pats in Los Angeles and people in Springfield alike, I have to say I doubt it. Heck, we don't even have Manhattan food cart style Halal chicken rice in Los Angeles and you have to really scramble to find New England style lobster rolls, so the chances of this kind of regional dish making it here in Los Angeles are remote. But the t-shirt I received in Springfield says it all. Springfield Bucket List - Cashew chicken with an "x" in the box. That's certainly the truth for me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Roots of Authentic Chinese Food in the San Gabriel Valley

Today the San Gabriel Valley is synonymous with its large Asian communities and the many hundreds of authentic Chinese restaurants representing multiple regional cuisines spanning from Monterey Park to San Gabriel to Rowland Heights. But it wasn't always that way. For over a century, due to the U.S. immigration laws barring most persons of Chinese descent from immigrating to America, the vast majority of Chinese Americans were us Toishanese with our roots in the rural villages outside of Canton. Our food was kind of boring and generally unrepresentative of Chinese food, though that's what America knew as Chinese food. And housing discrimination kept us largely bottled in various enclaves throughout the Los Angeles area, such as South Central Los Angeles and El Sereno on the eastside, with Asians (then called Orientals) not often seen in many suburban and outlying communities. While there was a significant Asian presence in the semi-rural agricultural San Gabriel Valley of the earlier 20th century, when that area urbanized in the mid-20th century there was no particular significant Chinese presence. Indeed, little or no Asian presence in a particular community was often the norm in mid-century Los Angeles. I remember cities such as Inglewood, Glendale and South Pasadena all being unabashedly 100 percent lily white even into the mid-1960s.

So how did the San Gabriel Valley and its wealth of authentic Chinese food come to be such an Asian food mecca? The obvious trigger was the mid-1960s change in immigration laws which began to allow large numbers of people to immigrate to the United States from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and eventually mainland China. And the literature credits visionary Chinese immigrant real estate developers in the 1970s and 1980s with founding the Asian community by selling Monterey Park as the "Chinese Beverly Hills" and using similar marketing slogans in campaigns in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But before these watershed events there was an important initial step in the Asianization of the San Gabriel Valley.

Growing up Chinese in Los Angeles in the early 1960s was a far cry from from today's world, something my children and their generation would not recognize. For one thing there weren't that many of us--we were well under one percent of the population. There was still residual racial discrimination against Asian Americans. I remember going with my parents while they were looking to buy a house in the Viewpark area of central Los Angeles (affectionately referred to by some as "Pill Hill" because of the concentration of Jewish and other Caucasian physicians living in the neighborhood), and hearing my dad being advised by the real estate broker to not even think about making an offer on a particular house, because all of the residents on the block had made a pact to keep their street white only. And there was workplace discrimination in many industries. For example, as my dad found out, certified public accounting firms would did not hire minorities or women. There was also employment discrimination against people who didn't speak unaccented English. That's one reason why I don't speak Chinese, as my parents were afraid that sending me to Chinese school to learn Chinese would affect my ability to speak perfect English and get a job.

Even in the early 1960s most of the Chinese population in Los Angeles was Toishanese in origin and significantly American born, as the initial post-World War II loosening of restrictions on Chinese immigration to America had yet to alter the demographics, with the real change in the mix of the Chinese populace being still a few years off. But it was 1962 and some things were changing on the civil rights front, so my family was able to move into one part of Viewpark. But more importantly, something was happening on the eastside. All of a sudden starting around 1964, a number of our eastside Toishanese family friends moved to Monterey Park, and specifically to the newly built Monterey Highlands community. (Apparently numerous Japanese Americans also moved into the neighborhood from places like Boyle Heights and El Sereno.)  We drove up to visit our family friends and saw new houses in a lovely hillside community, not too far from their familiar east L.A. haunts. Based on my vague recollections of the real estate markets at that time, those houses probably were priced in the $20,000 range. This was the perfect place for a Chinese American community to hatch.

However it took a while for real Chinese food to come to the Monterey Park area. Yes, the Los Angeles Chinese population swelled in the late 1960s with an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, thanks to the 1965 changes to the immigration law, but it's not like these new immigrants immediately made their way to Monterey Park. In the late 1960s and early 1970s you could sample the more modern style of Cantonese food brought by these new immigrants in L.A. Chinatown at places like Phoenix Inn, and find more progressive types of dim sum at Grandview Gardens. Heck, we'd drive to San Francisco to visit the iconic Nam Yuen in Chinatown, which also caught the new wave. But even into the mid-1970s, the primary option for Chinese food in Monterey Park was probably the old style Lum's Cantonese on Atlantic Blvd. Even Paul's Kitchen wouldn't open up its Monterey Park outpost for another few years. Eventually though, the new wave of immigrant Chinese did follow the steps of the Toishanese vanguard and found their way to Monterey Park.

To the best of my recollection, it wasn't until 1976 when Kin Kwok opened up at 500 W. Garvey in Monterey Park, with its thin Chinese egg noodles and other modern Hong Kong style dishes, that the tide of immigration that began a decade earlier would make its culinary mark on the San Gabriel Valley. And it would be almost another decade before the San Gabriel Valley would fully wrest the Chinese food mantel away from Los Angeles Chinatown.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

So How Far Would You Drive For A Meal?

I have a friend who lives in Monterey Park, in the heart of the Chinese food empire, and who is a big fan of Chinese food. She also won't drive more than a mile away from home for food. While that still gives her a decent array of Chinese restaurants to choose from, it also eliminates probably 95 percent of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, and correspondingly most of the best restaurants there.

On the other hand, there are virtually no limits on where I travel in search of food, which led me to wonder how exactly what was the furthest I've driven for food and how far other people might be willing to drive. Now I don't mean vacations that are devoted to or inspired by food, such as travelling to New Orleans or New York to sample various examples of the cuisine there.. Rather how far would you drive from a fixed point in search of a single meal? In my case it was 150 miles one way, 300 miles round trip.

As far as a single meal is considered, the furthest I travelled was 150 miles from Naples, Florida to St. Petersburg, Florida, plus the 150 miles back. And this doesn't count the 110 miles I drove from Miami to Naples earlier the same day. Here's what happened. A few years ago we had a firm meeting in Naples, FL, but the closest airport I could fly to was Miami. After landing in Miami I headed to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, where I grabbed a copy of the local Chinese newspaper which apparently covered all of Florida. Even though I don't read Chinese, I find that Chinese language newspapers are a great source for finding authentic Chinese restaurants in strange cities, and the ads always include the English name and street address. Anyway as I went through the Miami newspaper an advertisement for a Hong Kong style Chinese restaurant in St. Petersburg caught my eye. I had previously visited the adjoining city of Tampa where at the time I had great difficulty locating any Chinese restaurants at all, let alone anything good or authentic, so I was totally intrigued by the prospect of something authentic in St. Pete. So the next morning I drove from Miami to my hotel in Naples, checked in, and then immediately dashed out to drive to St. Petersburg and back. By California standards, the food at Lucky Star Hong Kong wasn't particularly good, but it was surely much better than anything I ate while I was in Naples.

Honorable mention for my longest drive goes to the time when I was attending a meeting in Monterey, California. Having a long lunch break I decided to drive to Silicon Valley for lunch. Yeah, that was only 75 miles one way and a 150 mile round trip. But I enjoyed the lunch adventure so much that I also drove back from Monterey to Silicon Valley that same night for dinner, which matches the same 300 daily mileage on the Florida trip. And not quite as ambitious was the 90 miles drive from Chicago to West Allis, Wisconsin, to eat at Fortune Chinese Restaurant (which incidentally was quite good). This was a perplexing one in that I had assumed some kind of suburban Chinese community must have developed in this Milwaukee suburb, akin to Monterey Park in California, to be able to support an authentic Chinese restaurant. However, when I got there and chatted up the owner, I asked how many Chinese lived in the Milwaukee area. He said about a hundred. Is that enough to justify an authentic Chinese restaurant?

Now if you count same day driving trips for multiple meals, my driving range is further. For example, a few weeks before 9/11, I flew from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., landing after 4pm eastern time. I immediately hopped in my rental car and headed to Philadelphia, where I hit up Philadelphia Chinatown. (You have to do things like that to reach 6,000 Chinese restaurants.) I finally got to my D.C. hotel a little before midnight. But my longest driving adventure was flying from Los Angeles to Dallas, landing around noontime, getting my rental car and driving to Houston, a one way drive of over 250 miles. I then headed to Houston's "Chinatown" on Bellaire Blvd., made the rounds, and drove back to Dallas, arriving back sometime after midnight. This time I almost bit off more than I could chew because I didn't account for arriving in Houston at the start of rush hour. For those of you not familiar with that city, they have traffic congestion which can hold its own with Los Angeles, so arriving there at the beginning of rush hour and leaving before rush hour ended led to an unplanned and frustrating encounter with traffic on top of a 500 mile plus round trip after a three hour airplane flight.


Friday, August 3, 2012

The Fundamentals of Investments

The most insane piece of investment advice I've ever heard was relayed by a friend who was taking an investments class at the local adult school. The instructor's key to investments and stock selection was to pick the stock of solid companies with which you dealt and trusted. The insane part of this advice is that it totally ignores valuation. Yes, Google may be a great company, but before you buy it shouldn't you ask whether it's currently selling for $50 a share or $1,000? And even if it's a good idea to buy stock in "good" companies, wouldn't it make sense that the current price already reflects the value that you have perceived?

Now this is not to say that people haven't made a lot of money in some stocks using this approach. and indeed this approach is so common to have a name--fundamental analysis. For example, fanatics of Apple products who backed up their product devotion with a financial investment have done well. On the other hand you could have paid $644 for Apple stock a few weeks ago and be down $27 a share. After all, no stock always trades at an all time high. And what about the devoted followers of Blackberry, or Palm Pilot or the Windows operating system or Farmville? You
would have lost big bucks if you backed up your fundamental analysis with cash.

Generally speaking, a stock's current price reflects what the investing public knows and expects about a company. (The term "investing public" does not refer to the man-on-the street public, but rather professional investors, and what you or I think about a stock's valuation doesn't matter.) Subsequent changes in value reflect how revised knowledge and expectations differ from the past. I'd say that many investors have owned Apple stock at some point in time in the past, but when their primary product was the MacIntosh computer, and it seemed to be losing ground to Windows based computers such that it would become extinct, a lot of people bailed out. Like me.

With all this in mind, it turns out that the recent public offering of Facebook capsulizes this discussion very well. There was a frenzy in the IPO as public demand under the fundamentalist approach (plus greed on the part of the issuer) sent the offering price way above the original expectation. While there was pro forma financial information issued, since Facebook had not been publicly traded there wasn't the history of company commentary and investment adviser analysis to determine if the $38 IPO price was realistic or not. As post-IPO trading first showed, and the first public quarterly earnings release emphasized, it was not by a long shot.

On the other hand, since future stock price movements are caused by subsequent changes in facts and expectations, who's to say that despite the negative fundamental news about Facebook that its current price of $20 might be an undervaluation? Only time will tell whether this fundamentally unsound stock is now actually a good buy.

And since I've brought up the subject of Facebook, I'll close with another dig at the way the state of California balanced its budget for the fiscal year that just started. It projected $1.8 billion in revenue from taxes paid by original Facebook shareholders who could monetize their investments once the company went public. At a sales price of $38 per share, that might have been a realistic number. But due to the lock up period, those insiders were not immediately permitted to sell their shares, and will have to wait until the upcoming weeks and months. So at $20 per share, the actual California budget deficit just got larger as California is not going to realize $1.8 billion. This also reinforces the underlying weakness of California's income tax system which disproportionately (much more than the federal government) relies on taxing the rich. While that strategy may work in good times, it's toxic when things don't go well since the income of wealthier taxpayers is much more adversely affected when times are bad, and makes forecasting revenues highly unpredictable.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Recommended Dishes--Full List

Thanks to Evan Kleiman for having me on her Good Food show on KCRW and having me put together a Google spotting map with recommended dishes from various Chinese restaurants on the KCRW website. Unfortunately not all of my picks made it on to the website map, probably because the restaurants were all bunched up in a tiny corner of the LA-OC metro area map (i.e., the San Gabriel Valley). So as to not slight the other fine restaurants, here is the complete listing.

101 Noodle Express (Alhambra) - Shandong beef roll
85°C CafĂ© (Irvine) - Taro bun
888 Seafood (Rosemead) - Four layer vegetables
Beijing Pie House (Monterey Park) - Beef xian bing
Beijing Restaurant (San Gabriel)  - Fried ge da
Boiling Point (Hacienda Heights) - Taiwanese hotpot
Cafe Spot (Alhambra) - Hong Kong pancakes
Capital Seafood (Monterey Park) - Seafood egg white fried rice
Chef Hung (Irvine) - Beef noodle soup
Chung King (San Gabriel - Water boiled fish
Class 302 (Rowland Heights) - Taiwanese shave ice
Dean Sin World (Monterey Park) - Crab roe xiao long bao
Din Tai Fung (Arcadia) - Crab and pork xiao long bao
Duck House (Monterey Park) - Beijing duck
Earthen Restaurant (Hacienda Heights) - Onion pancake
Elite (Monterey Park)- Shark fin dumpling in broth
Embassy Kitchen (San Gabriel) - Egg white with imitation shark fin
Four Sea (Hacienda Heights) - Taiwanese breakfast
Golden Spoon (Rowland Heights)  - Cats ears noodles
Happy Harbor (Rowland Heights) - Sweet and sour fish
Hunan Chili King  (San Gabriel) - Steamed fish head
J T Y H Restaurant (Rosemead) - Knife shaved noodles
King Hua (Alhambra) -Egg tofu
Lunasia (Alhambra) - Foie gras dumpling
Ma's Islamic (Anaheim)  - Sesame bread ring
Mama's Lu Dumpling House (Monterey Park) - Stir fried pancake strips
Mei Long Village (San Gabriel) - Shanghai rice cakes
Mission 261 (San Gabriel) - Deep fried fish balls
N B C Seafood (Monterey Park) - Lemon chicken
New Capital Seafood (San Gabriel) - Taro noodles with mushrooms
Newport Seafood (San Gabriel - House special lobster
Noodle Boy (Rosemead) - Fish ball noodle soup
Old Country Cafe (Alhambra) - Taiwanese pork chop
Omar Xinjiang Halal (San Gabriel) - Foot and a half long hand made noodles
Qingdao Bread Food (Monterey Park) - Fish with parsley dumplings
Savoy (Alhambra) - Hainan chicken
Sea Harbour Seafood- (Rosemead)  French style baked bbq pork buns
Seafood Village (Monterey Park) - Chiu chow fish pot
Shaanxi Gourmet (Rosemead) - Lamb with Chinese pita bread
Sinbala (Rowland Heights) - Taiwanese sausage
Southern Mini Town (San Gabriel) - Bean starch sheets
Steam Queen Rice Noodle (San Gabriel) - Guilin rice noodle soup
Tasty Garden (Monterey Park) -  Dry scallop egg white fried rice
Tasty Station (Rowland Heights) - French style fish fillet/French style filet mignon
Xi Guan Noodle House (Rosemead) - Fish fillet in corn sauce
Yunkun Garden (Monterey Park) - Crossing The Bridge Noodles

It's Not Neck and Neck

If you follow the national media, they would have you believe that this fall's presidential race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is currently neck and neck. All of the stories talk about the polls being a tossup, with either Obama or Romney with a small lead such that when taking into account polling error, results in a statistical dead heat. The problem is that at this point the race is not neck and neck, nor has it been so for quite a few months. The reason is that the media only focuses on national polls of the general electorate, where in fact the presidency is decided by the electoral college and who wins what states.

As previously mentioned, there are futures trading markets dealing in political, sporting and economic events which give a much truer picture of the probability of future events. And in this regard the Intrade futures markets shows that President Obama is at this point a heavy favorite for re-election. At this writing, futures trading for Obama's re-election are at 57 percent, while trading for Romney is at 40 percent. Note that these do not add up to 100 percent, as there are traders in any kind of market who will take a flyer on a remote probability event, be it a bankrupt corporation coming out of bankruptcy having positive equity for the old shareholders, that a third party candidate will win the election, or that somebody other than Obama or Romney will be the Democratic or Republican nominee. Note that President Obama was trading around 50 percent for most of last year, giving strong hope to the Republicans that they could take the presidency. However when the economic picture began to brighten this year, Obama's percentage rose to 60 percent, dropping to around 54 percent upon signs of the recovery slowing down, but more recently turning up again with Romney having to go on the defensive on his days with Bain.

Confirming this viewpoint of the presidential race are comments I heard on the radio from a Republican political strategist. Rather than being enthusiastic about the national polls reflecting a close race, he instead lamented the inability of the media to focus on the fact that how the candidates will do in the battleground states is the only thing that is important. Without coming out and saying it, he was telling us at this point things don't look that great for Romney in the battleground states.

One might speculate why the media only focuses on the national polls without addressing the reality that at this point in time President Obama is in fact a heavy favorite to be re-elected. My guess is that the national polls are safe to report on because they are verifiable, whereas documenting the actualities of the electoral picture would be more difficult. As noted before, the press seems to take the same tact in its unwillingness to make a call on upcoming Congressional votes, even where futures trading indicate that it's relatively clear what the ultimate outcome is going to be.

Of course it's a long time between now and November and anything might happen. But at this point, most Americans are misinformed as to the current state of the presidential race, thanks entirely to the inability or unwillingness of the media to go beyond the national polls.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

NCAA Slaps Penalties on....Caltech?

There's probably no organization this side of the Syrian government that is more reviled than the NCAA. Supposedly entrusted with safeguarding the purity of amatuerism in college sports, the NCAA has established a reputation for punishing jaywalkers while letting axe murderers go free. Here in Los Angeles the greatest venom against the NCAA comes from USC fans, incensed over the harsh penalties levied against their football program in connection with the Reggie Bush scandal. While not particularly sympathetic to USC's plight since there was a clear issue of institutional control, I do see an injustice when looking at the NCAA's treatment of Auburn in the Cam Newton affair and the $200,000 payoff to Newton's dad, though I hope that the NCAA will eventually levy sanctions there. Of course, USC may have gotten away with something with the Joe McKnight situation and who knows what else might be out there at USC, or for that matter, any other school.

What clearly is ludicrous is the fact that the NCAA has penalized Caltech for using "ineligible" athletes on its sports teams. Now Caltech is the epitome of amateurism in college athletics. Not only are there no scholarship athletes at Caltech, but many of its sports teams have participants who did not compete in sports at the high school level. Or putting it another way, Caltech's teams are inferior to many high school teams, or even intramural teams at large universities like UCLA and USC. When Caltech's basketball team broke a 26 year conference losing streak, it made national news. This is truly an amateur college sports program.

So what is the specific violation of NCAA rules by Caltech that led the NCAA to put Caltech on three year probation? Well the NCAA requires that to participate in intercollegiate sports, team members must be enrolled in a minimum number of units and be on track to make minimum progress towards their degree. This requirement is fair enough, as it prevents schools from "hiring" paid athletes who really aren't students to participate on their teams. So what is Caltech's transgression? Well, Caltech has a policy of permitting its students to audit a class for up to three weeks at the start of the school term before actually registering for the class. Clearly, this is not part of a plot to beef up its sport teams with ringers, but to give its students flexibility in deciding what classes to take. Well this results in some student athletes in failing to meet the NCAA minimum credit requirement, so Caltech goes to NCAA jail for three years. The fact that enrolling in 8 units at Caltech is probably multiple times more demanding than taking 15 units at Auburn is totally irrelevant to the NCAA.

Of course in this case, NCAA sanctions against Caltech might be a badge of honor for a school whose previous top athletic highlight was probably messing up the card stunts and scoreboard at the January 1 Rose Bowl game. Also the NCAA recruiting sanctions don't affect Caltech, which doesn't recruit athletes, and it has no wins to forfeit. But still, Caltech self-reported these "violations", an act which often is sufficient for the NCAA not to impose sanctions. So the NCAA seems to have gone out of its way to levy three years worth of irrelevant sanctions against the Beavers, for reasons known only to that Byzantine body.

And while we're on the subject of the NCAA, it will be interesting to see what comes of the NCAA investigation of the football program at Penn State in light of the Sandusky scandal. On the one hand a good case can be made for severe sanctions against Penn State given the concealment by the top levels of Penn State's school and athletic administration. On the other hand, with the NCAA's reputation for at times being a big bully, do college sport fans really want to see the NCAA expand the list of things they might get you for?











































Friday, July 13, 2012

California vs. New York Chinese Food Gap—The Gap Widens as 3 Of New York’s Leading Chinese Restaurants Close

It appears that the comment in my 10 Best Chinese Restaurants article (which actually wasn't written for publication, but was a prefatory aside accompanying the article submission) that New York Chinese food is mired in the 1990s has rankled a lot of observers on the East Coast. But as I have subsequently explained, anybody familiar with the San Gabriel Valley will understand the breadth and depth of Chinese food here, and in contrast anyone who hasn't been to the San Gabriel Valley cannot imagine what it's like. But it's not like 1990s Chinese food in the U.S. was bad. It was quite good, just not as good as what you can get in California these days. So my comment was not meant to say that New York Chinese food isn't any good.

Actually I have been waiting, indeed expecting for quite a few years, for something like Koi Palace or Sea Harbour or Elite, or heck even Happy Harbor or Mission 261 to open up in New York. And perhaps it did. A few years ago a heralded restaurant called World Tong opened up in Brooklyn, and reports indicate that it was of the same ilk as the top Chinese restaurants in California and perhaps worthy of a Top 10 berth. However, by the time I made it to World Tong, chef Joe Ng was gone to Chinatown Brasserie in SoHo, and it certainly could not maintain Joe Ng's magic. And now World Tong is gone altogether. Chinatown Brasserie did turn out to be the best Chinese restaurant I had eaten at in New York City, but its split clientele seems to have prevented it from achieving true greatness.

But while Chinatown Brasserie at least gave New York a contender for a destination Chinese restaurant, I learn that it has closed down as of a couple of weeks ago, replaced at its Lafayette St. location by a non-Chinese eatery. It is supposed to re-open in the near future at another location, but such a proclamation, like the statement that a Chinese restaurant "is closed for remodeling" often turns out to mask a fatal condition. And Chinatown Brasserie's closing isn't the only blow to the standing of New York Chinese food. Earlier this year, Manhattan Chinatown's South China Garden, fka Cantoon Garden, fka New Pearl River, closed down because it lost its lease. South China Garden was truly a San Gabriel Valley quality restaurant, one which Mrs. Chandavkl looked forward to eating at multiple times every time we visited New York. (And even in the San Gabriel Valley, Mrs. Chandavkl finds relatively few restaurants to her liking.) And oh yeah, my next favorite Chinese restaurant in New York, Yogee on Chrystie St., also closed down recently due to a rent hike. So with my personal top three rated Chinese restaurants in New York all having closed this year, the gap between California and New York has grown, even though one would otherwise expect the gap to narrow.

At this point, if you asked me to recommend one or two Chinese restaurants in New York, I'm not sure if I could single any out. Perhaps Szechwan Gourmet in Midtown, as it does surpass any Sichuan style food in California. Maybe Hunan Manor, but I am highly skeptical of the combination of “Hunan” and “New York” for a couple of reasons. First of all, New York unleashed the faux “Hunan” style food in the 1970s, which is something that continues to plague Americanized Chinese food throughout the United States to this day. Secondly, authentic Hunan style food is such a new concept in New York, having been present for just a couple of years, compared the 20 years’ experience for that cuisine in Los Angeles where it is currently served in 10 or more locations, such that I’m not sure it has had time to season. (Pun intended.) And possibly Red Farm, with the Joe Ng tradition, though the only time I made it to their location they were closed.

And it's possible that things will get worse. The food blog Lauhound has recently identified Danny Ng's Restaurant in the 50 Bowery building as a possible successor to South China Garden as a go to destination in New York Chinatown. However it turns out that Danny Ng's sits on the same parcel of land as was occupied by South China Garden on Elizabeth Street. And that site is where a 27 story hotel and condominium complex is being readied for development starting next year. Not only would that also take Danny Ng's with it, but possibly some other fairly decent Chinese eateries along Bowery and Elizabeth. Also, with what strikes me as a Fujianese dominance of a good portion of the Chinese restaurant industry in New York, perhaps that breakthrough in Chinese cuisine might not be forthcoming after all.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

California Goes From Smoke, Mirrors and Wishful Thinking to Fantasyland

By this time the state of California's budget deficit is legendary, ballooning at times to a third more than total state receipts. The deficit was borne of the dot com boom, which preceded the dot com bust, at a time when state coffers swelled with the recognition of capital gains by dot com millionaires. Eager not to be caught with a budget surplus, California responded (in a bi-partisan manner, I may add) by committing itself to permanently spending these surplus amounts, largely by pumping up government worker pensions. As soon as the dot com boom busted, California was in deep trouble with what is euphemistically referred to as a structural imbalance of spending and income.

California reacted to its budget woes by kicking the can down the road, and not very far at that. Budgets became balanced through a combination of accounting tricks and unrealistic economic assumptions regarding tax revenue forecasts. A simple example of the accounting tricks used was to not pay government bills at the end of the year, but delay payment into the first week of the following year. Presto, the deficit had been reduced by the amount of the delayed payment. Of course nobody said anything about increasing the next year's deficit by a like amount, so the problem was only solved for a year. And once you pulled an accounting trick, you had to do the same thing every year thereafter just to keep from losing ground.

But alas, smoke and mirrors can only hide the truth for so long, so not having made much progress at attacking the structural budget deficit, particularly the cost of public employee pensions, other methods must be used to balance the budget. Unfortunately, Governor Brown has chosen to resort to the truly preposterous to balance the upcoming budget. I can see counting the $8 billion of revenues which would be raised from this November's tax increase ballot initiative, as the possibility of passage of such an initiative is "iffy" and not out of the question. But what takes us to Fantasyland is a projected receipt of $2.3 billion of revenue from the federal government in anticipation of a change to the federal estate tax which would share estate tax revenues with the states. Given that there are (1) no credible proposals in Congress for any such revenue sharing and (2) the federal government needs every drop of tax revenue it could theoretically generate from increased estate taxes under existing Congressional "pay for" rules, the chances of California reaping this $2.3 billion are as good as my becoming the next Justin Bieber. By 5 pm today. I guess this is just a reminder that Governor Moonbeam was and continues to be an appropriate nickname for the leader of our state.

It is also ironic that California has turned to possible changes in the federal estate tax to balance its books, if only on paper, as the estate tax has its own history of recent incredulity. In 2001, in a climate where it was conceded by all that the estate tax needed to be updated, and contended by some that it should be repealed altogether, Congress reached a bizarre compromise. They enacted a series of reforms that would phase in gradually until the year 2009, which by itself made tremendous sense. However, they then provided that the tax would be repealed in 2010, but then revert in 2011 to its pre-2001 antiquated state. While on the surface such legislation was beyond comprehension, there actually was a logical explanation. It was presumed by all that sometime between 2001 and 2010 the law would be changed to either make the reforms permanent, or perhaps make the eventual repeal permanent. Now if you ask why they didn't do this in the first place, it has to do with arcane legislative rules regarding the measurement of lost or increased revenues from tax law changes, as well as a "kick the can down the road" attitude. What nobody counted on was for Congress to be so gridlocked that unless action needs to be taken immediately, no action is taken before then. So the bizarre 2001 tax changes stayed on the law books.

A temporary fix was made in 2010 where the 2001 act changes were extended and enhanced for two additional years, but once again the deadline is looming. And faster than you can say gridlock, even though Congress must act on the estate tax by December 31, 2012, it has been conceded that no action will be taken until after this November's elections. But whatever action Congress takes, you can bet your Justin Bieber that they're not going to send $2.3 billion California's way.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

It's Not Just About The Food

My sense is that many people are disappointed finding this blog, expecting a site devoted to food, with pictures of luscious fish dumplings, crispy shrimp mashed potato cakes, or lamb rolls with avocado. But the fact is that I'm not a foodie like many of those who write their own food blogs, or populate Chowhound or even Yelp. For starters, I ate very little Chinese food growing up. First of all my parents were both born in Los Angeles, and I didn't eat a whole lot of Chinese food aside from the occasional banquet at the Lime House on Ord Street in the Spring Street district (which was a distinct area close to, but separated from New Chinatown). Secondly, Chinese food back in the 1950s and 1960s wasn't that good. Most all of the Chinese who came to the United States prior to World War II were poor villagers from Toishan, a small rural area outside of the city formerly known as Canton, China. (To set up a reverse analogy, think of it as if all the Americans living in China emigrated from Victorville, California.) As such, Chinese food as Americans knew it in the first part of the 20th century, which had been brought by rural villagers from a single concentrated locale, was quite unrepresentative of Chinese food as a whole.

The event that ultimately triggered my interest in Chinese restaurants and Chinese food was the ethnic studies movement that was born in the late 1960s. In my last quarter as an undergraduate at UCLA, they offered the very first Asian American studies class. Indeed, that was so long ago, it was titled "Orientals In America". Immediately I was captivated by the topic of the experience of Chinese people in the United States. There was a dearth of material on the topic, such that a novice in the subject matter who was principally studying accounting could write a term paper on the history of the Chinese of Los Angeles and immediately have it published in the budding ethnic press. That same person could then go on KNX radio, KCBS television and speak at conferences as an "expert" on the subject, quite laughable given that my credentials consisted of having taken all of two university level classes in Asian American studies, plus doing leisure time reading in the library.

My interest in Chinese food only developed after the convergence of three factors when I started to work and travel. First of all, I made the acquaintance of friends at work from Hong Kong, who showed a passion for food that I had never encountered before. Secondly, my Hong Kong friends had been the vanguard of the late 1960s immigration of Chinese from Hong Kong to the United States. Previously, for many decades, US law barred most persons of Chinese heritage from immigrating to the United States. Even in the 1950s virtually the only Chinese in the US were the rural Toishanese immigrants and their children. Chinatowns and Chinese food in the US had stagnated. But then the immigration spigot opened with the mid-1960s change in American immigration laws, and the new residents brought their food with them. This upgrade in Chinese food sparked an interest in me, as this new and exciting form of Chinese food was so much better than what I was used to. Finally, I started to travel around the United States, and made it a point to eat at Chinese restaurants to the extent possible, as part of a greater interest in seeing what Chinese residents and communities were like throughout the United States. Indeed my one and only printed restaurant review, of Hong Kong Restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa (for the old East West Chinese weekly newspaper out of San Francisco) was as much about the milieu as the food itself. And to this day, eating at Chinese food while traveling is part of my greater desire to experience various Chinese American and Canadian communities.

So as you can see, in the beginning it wasn't at all about the food, and even today the food is only part of the story.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cantonese vs. Non Cantonese Food

Since my article in the Asia Society's Journal on the Top 10 Chinese Restaurant in The United States has caused some controversy, particularly for being heavily tilted towards Hong Kong style/Cantonese food, I need to expand on that point a little, particularly my comment that most Chinese agree that Hong Kong/Cantonese cuisine is the superior regional style of Chinese cuisine.

I agree that generalizations can be dangerous, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be true. My comment is based initially on the old Chinese saw identifying the best of everything Chinese includes “to eat in Guandong”. Of course personal tastes differ, and I’m not saying that there isn’t good non-Cantonese Chinese food in the U.S. The San Gabriel Valley has hundreds of outstanding Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai, Taiwanese, Beijing, etc. etc. style restaurants and I've eaten at almost all of them.

But if this preference for Cantonese food isn’t true, why is the biggest and best Chinese restaurant in any American community having a sizable Chinese community, but few Hong Kong/Cantonese people (e.g., Dallas, St. Louis, Atlanta) still a dim sum/Hong Kong seafood palace? What is a fact is that most non-Cantonese Chinese enjoy Cantonese food. And the flip side, which someone without Cantonese family or friends would not be aware of, is that most Cantonese Americans refuse to eat non-Cantonese Chinese food. That’s the case with most of my family members and most of my friends from Hong Kong. In that regard I’m the black sheep in that I do appreciate non-Cantonese Chinese food. If Chinese food is a one way street for Hong Kong/Cantonese people, but a two way street for non-Cantonese, that is either a sign that Cantonese people are stubborn or that Cantonese food is better. And given the love of all Chinese people for food, I doubt if stubborness would stop Cantonese food lovers from enjoying non-Cantonese Chinese food if they thought it was better.

I might as well also comment on the objections to the lack of any New York Chinese restaurants in my listing, along with my comment that New York Chinese food is mired in the 1990s. I have heard many, many Californians comment (indeed, complain) that New York Chinese food is clearly inferior to that back home. This wasn't always the case. In the mid-1980s New York did surpass San Francisco for the best Chinese food in America and I would discuss with my friends what New York Chinese restaurants should be visited similar to our discussions of where we should eat when we went to San Francisco. But that all changed in the 1990s when Los Angeles leaped past New York and San Francisco in terms of Chinese food.

On the other hand, I have heard many New Yorkers comment on how much better California Chinese food is than what they get back home. However, I have never heard a person who has eaten in the San Gabriel Valley say that the Chinese food is better back home in New York. You have to visit the San Gabriel Valley to understand the breadth and depth of Chinese food there. Think of a Chinatown probably the size of Manhattan in acreage, with 600 or 700 or 800 authentic Chinese restaurants reflecting the continuing influx of cuisine from Hong Kong, Taiwan and what we used to refer to as Mainland China. That's what New York is up against, and as good as the Chinese food is in Flushing (though Mrs. Chandavkl, who is also Cantonese, found nothing there to her liking), it doesn't have a chance.



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Return to National Harbor

Two years ago when our group held its annual meeting in National Harbor, Maryland, I wrote here about the mystery of this development, consisting of convention sized hotels, trendy designer stores, but the streets of which were a Twilight Zone like ghost town. I attributed this to conventioneers staying within the confines of their facility during unbearably hot and humid days, and the lack of local residents to support everyday retail activities, such as large grocery or chain drug stores.

Two years later we're back at National Harbor, and I need to modify my observations and conclusions. First of all, walking outside for about two blocks at lunchtime, I actually saw people on the streets. About ten of them in a two block area. Also, there is now a CVS drug store, a gourmet food market, and even a dry cleaners. In addition, all of the trendy stores that were here two years ago are still here, and it looks like a few more have been added. So it's no longer proper to call National Harbor a ghost town. On the other hand, the weather is much more comfortable than two years ago, so if that only draws ten people onto the street at lunch time, this is still a pretty deserted place. Also, I had previously suspected that things picked up at night time, especially in the restaurants, but when I drove out last night at 9 pm, things were fairly dead. I do presume that there is more activity here on weekends, but on weekdays this town is still pretty dead. I guess this means that the conventioneers still stay inside their hotels, and nobody actually seems to live here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

President Obama Visits My Old 'Hood

Though I moved away 20 years ago, I have lived a majority of my life in what is now referred to as South Los Angeles. Consequently, when I heard that President Obama was going to have a fund raising breakfast in my old View Park neighborhood, where we still have our old family homestead, I was very intrigued even though I'm not a particular fan of his policies. And when I found out that the venue was just a block away from the old home, on Kenway Drive, I thought about staying there overnight just to see what it would be like this morning. Unfortunately that was totally impractical, but I was able to convince my son that the house was not haunted, and that it would be fun for him to stay there. So earlier this morning he went down to the event site and was able to take in the festivities and see the presidential motorcade.

What I found interesting was the impact of the Obama motorcade on traffic. Prior to this morning's visit speculation was that the president would travel from the Beverly Hilton to View Park via surface streets like Robertson or La Cienega, or perhaps the Santa Monica Freeway to La Brea Ave. It was also funny to see the listing on a traffic website of "Stalker Ave." as a street that could potentially be blocked off. (It's Stocker St., named after Lucky Baldwin's son-in-law.) However, they ended up taking the San Diego Freeway south to Slauson Ave., which is the exact way I travel from the Westside to the old home. While it was possible that route could actually take him in front of the old home, Eric said it did not go that way. The president may have gone by, however, when he left View Park for LAX.

Strangely, the real impact on traffic was felt greatest in the San Fernando Valley. As the president traveled to View Park, the San Diego Freeway was shut down for a half hour in both directions between Wilshire and Slauson. For those who keep score, the San Diego Freeway is the primary transit route between the Valley and the Westside, so cutting this off for a half hour during morning rush hour obviously backed traffic well into the Valley. And it backed up the northbound 405 to Long Beach. But of equal impact was the domino effect on other freeways. For example, as I drove from the Hollywood Hills to Century City this morning, I crossed over the Hollywood Freeway near Hollywood Blvd. and saw traffic was totally stuffed, far worse than normal, as cars avoiding taking the San Diego Freeway out of the Valley chose to take the 101 instead. All in all it was a mess. And it's a good thing for the president that California is a safe state for him in this November's election, since his numerous fundraising trips to Los Angeles and the ensuing traffic jams have irritated a lot of motorists.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Pac 12 Athlete Bill of Rights - What Would The NCAA Say?

The great thing about living in California is that you are in the forefront of so many things. Proposition 13. Hot new fashion trends. Cap and trade. Medical marijuana. Plastic bag ban. For better or worse, California is ahead of the curve and is the trendsetter for the rest of the country in many ways. A lot of this involves poking the governmental nose where it hasn't gone before. Depending on your point of view, that may be a good thing or a bad thing.

Which brings me into California's latest attempt to establish new ground. The California State Senate has just passed the Pac 12 Athlete Bill of Rights. It would require the four California members of the Pac 12, UCLA, Cal, USC and Stanford, to provide additional financial and educational support for injured and low-income athletes, such as payment of healthcare premiums for low income athletes, protection against medical costs from sports injuries, financial skills workshops, and immediate approvals of transfers, among numerous other provisions.

Personally I don't have an objection to these provisions, but what I'm wondering is how this would play with the NCAA? As all sports fans know, the NCAA is an organization which is known for triviality in its enforcement of its rules of amateurism in some circumstances, while it is often accused of looking the other way with potentially major violations. Schools have been punished for giving away too many T-shirts to prospective recruits or picking a recruit up in the wrong kind of car. Athletes who walk on to a sports team without a scholarship have to pay the cost of team meals out of their own pocket. On the other hand, there is the likely payoff of $200,000 to Cam Newton at Auburn and oft rumored payments to Kentucky basketball players under John Calipari, which have drawn little response from the NCAA.

At the core of these possible violations, both minor and major, is the extra benefits rule imposed by the NCAA. Simply stated, the rule is that student athletes cannot be provided any benefits by a school that aren't available to the student population as a whole. It appears that a lot of the mandates of California's pending legislation fly in the face of the NCAA's extra benefits rule. So if the legislation is enacted, a number of very interesting scenarios may arise. The schools comply with the new state law, whereupon the NCAA places heavy sanctions on each of the four schools for violating the extra benefits rule. Or the schools don't comply with the new state law and are punished civilly or criminally by the state of California. Or the schools extend the benefits to all of their students. I can see it now--National Collegiate Athletic Association vs. State of California in the United States Supreme Court. How will it end?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fishing YouTube Videos Out Of Your Browser Cache--YouTube Fights Back

As I mentioned a couple of years ago, when you watch a video on websites like YouTube and Dailymotion, the file is actually downloaded to your computer, instead of being streamed. This allows the viewer to replay the video immediately after the initial viewing, even if the first viewing was sporadic because of slow download speeds. This allows you to salvage the video itself from your browser cache. I figured this out when YouTube was in its infancy back in 2006, enabling me to assemble a music video compilation of over 3,000 items.

Now you may wonder why I would want to keep the flash video file itself when you can always go to YouTube and replay the item on demand. There are at least three reasons. First of all, it lets you play the file even if you're offline. Secondly, when you have the file you can navigate forward or backwards through the video as you wish. But most importantly, not everything is forever on YouTube. Indeed, probably most of the music videos that were on YouTube back five or six years ago have been removed as account holders remove files or close their accounts, or more likely, as copyright holders force the removal of the videos.

Unfortunately, actually fishing the file out of the cache has become more difficult of late. Updated versions of Firefox no longer have a central cache file that you can locate and isolate downloaded files. A third party created a Firefox add-on called Cache Viewer that solved the problem, but a subsequent version of Firefox rendered Cache Viewer useless. Had I realized this was the case, I would have not upgraded to the new version of Firefox, but I didn't find out about this until it was too late. At that point I was forced into relying on the Internet Explorer cache, which can be accessed through an arcane series of internet option choices that make your temporary internet files visible, but which is a little less reliable. Then in the only time that a full computer crash turned into a blessing, I was forced to reinstall Firefox and discovered that I had kept a version of Firefox that could still use the Cache Viewer add-on, so I reverted to that version and have been happily harvesting videos in the cache.

However, due to recent changes at YouTube, I think my ability to fish their videos out of my cache may have been thwarted. Recently, I noticed that videos in the browser cache have been divided into multiple files of 1.75 megabytes each, none of which is usuable. Firefox users blame the updated version of that browser for this, but the same thing occurs with Internet Explorer, too, and furthermore this does not happen with other video sites, so I'm guessing that YouTube is behind this. I don't know whether they did this to thwart people like me trying to save a copy of Katy Perry's latest video, or whether it facilitates the upload and play of much larger video files than the old days to accommodate higher quality videos. However it looks like I am now stuck with other video sites, like Dailymotion and Metacafe, which don't divide the files, but which don't have the same selection either.

Note:  If you use Firefox, the video-downloadhelper add-on should work.