Sunday, December 4, 2016

36 Hours in The Bay Area

Though the ostensible reason for flying up to San Francisco was for a football game, this was really an eating trip. Landing a little after 9am Saturday, first stop was iCafe on Waverly Place in Chinatown for the poor man’s giant crispy top bbq pork bun for only $1.35.  This compares to the admittedly better but much smaller versions which you can get at some of the dim sum houses for $5 for an order of three.  I then headed to one of the two full service Chinese restaurants that had opened in Chinatown since my last visit, Hanlin Tea Restaurant.  I had their boneless fried chicken, kind of a cross between a chicken nugget and a chicken strip, with a very crunchy batter.  It was similar to something I remember eating a long time ago, and my best guess is that it resembled cracker meal. 

While it stopped raining before I landed, it started to rain lightly when I got in the car to drive to Berkeley around 12:30pm.   I would get lunch first at the Pacific East Mall in Richmond, where I knew there was at least one restaurant I hadn’t tried, Sichuan Fusion.    It rained fairly hard part of the way to Richmond, so I decided on a leisurely lunch in the mall and wait for the rain to break.  I had the tofu with crab and egg yolk, which I had only previously eaten as a dish with gravy.  This was actually a soup dish, and the large tureen contained about six bowls worth, which I struggled to finish.  When I finished lunch I left the mall to find the sun shining. However as soon as I started on the short drive from Richmond to Berkeley the skies darkened and it started to rain again.  Fortunately, by the time I got to Berkeley the rain stopped and once again the skies lightened.  For some reason I stopped by 85 Degrees on Shattuck to have something to eat later in the afternoon.  With so many branches of 85 Degrees in Los Angeles,  I don't know why I went there instead of something local.  I guess old habits are tough to break.

Driving back from Berkeley to the city after the game was pretty much bumper to bumper the whole way and took well over an hour.  Actually I didn't mind because in recent years my night vision has deteriorated and I was apprehensive about driving at night so far away from home.  But with traffic creeping along there was no problem  After the long drive back to Chinatown, I headed to Chong Qing Xiao Mein.   I had the Guilin rice noodle soup with stew meat and peanuts, and it was very good. 

The main reason I went up north was to try Hong Kong Lounge II, to compare its crispy bbq pork with Hong Kong Lounge 1, Lai Hong Lounge and Dragon Beaux.  While Chinese food in Los Angeles is clearly better than San Francisco, the crispy bbq pork bun, made famous by Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, isn't available in Los Angeles except at Golden Valley in City of Industry.   Hong Kong Lounge II, Hong Kong Lounge I, and Lai Hong Lounge, were all once commonly owned, and consequently have very similar crispy pork buns.  However, the ownership of all three have since been separated.  Hong Kong II is the smallest of the three, and if it was the best of the bunch as some observers have indicated, I was worried that I might have trouble getting into the restaurant, particularly since I’ve seen the problem you have (i.e., an hour’s wait) if you miss the first seating at Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown.  So with a 9:30am opening time, I was dismayed that I couldn’t get out and over there until 9:15am.  However I was surprised to see when I drove by that there were only a handful of people waiting in line.

Needless to say I went wild at Hong Kong Lounge 2, spending $50 on two orders of crispy pork buns, plus also their famous coffee pork ribs, fish cheung fun, pea leaf and chicken dumplings and chicken potstickers.  My verdict?  Dragon Beaux, part of the Koi Palace group, still had the best crispy bun, followed by Hong Kong 1, Lai Hong Lounge, and then Hong Kong 2.  The Hong Kong 2 crispy bun wasn’t as crisp and was a little too sweet for my taste.  The coffee ribs were very good and very interesting, but since I’m not partial to the taste of coffee I wouldn’t order it again.  The pea leaf dumpling was ordinary and the fish cheung fun was OK.  The chicken potsticker was very good, one of the best I’ve eaten, but for $7 for five small potstickers, the value is lacking.  But I’m so happy to have tried all of these places.  The big surprise about Hong Kong 2 was that there was not the huge crowds I had imagined.  It didn’t fill for perhaps 20 minutes after opening, and even when I left around 10:30am, an hour after opening, there were only a handful of people waiting to get in.  (In contrast, when I walked by Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown a couple of hours later, there was a mob waiting to get in.)  Not sure what the reason is.  Perhaps it’s too pricey, or perhaps it’s a little further east of where the Chinese live in the Richmond district.

I then headed back to Chinatown where I did a last sweep around just to make sure there weren’t any new restaurants I had missed.  I then drove out to the Sunset district, on the way passing Hong Kong Lounge 2 again and still seeing only a small group of people waiting to get in.  My target was a place called i Wonton, but when I got there I couldn’t find it.  Checking my Blackberry I saw it was closed.  At first my plan B was to stop for a regular baked bbq pork bun at a nearby places called Donut House, which supposedly had one of the best versions around.  It was good, but the truth is there are a lot of good places for that item in San Francisco.  At that point it occurred to me that I was near San Francisco State University and I vaguely recalled that an authentic Sichuan restaurant had opened up in a shopping center near campus, part of the trend I’ve written about how the current crop of Mainland Chinese students have spawned new Chinese restaurants near campuses all over the country.  I had assumed the restaurant was in the Stonestown shopping center, but when I got there I saw it was too upscale (Macy’s etc.) to be the right place.  Though I didn’t remember the name of the restaurant I Googled the right details to pull it up and found that it was a half a mile away  on a side street in a residential area near the SFSU campus.   I ordered the pepper salt fish at Fang Yuen which was pretty good and made for a nice dinner at the airport.

All in all this was a very enjoyable trip. My room at the Royal Pacific was only $96, parking included, but an extra $15 in taxes, compared to as much as $240 when staying there during prime convention time.  So this was the perfect weekend to come up to San Francisco, especially with a beautiful sunny Sunday after the rainy Saturday.  


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Technology Leaving Us Old Diners In The Dust

Heaven knows it's tough enough ordering at an authentic Chinese restaurant if you don't speak Chinese. Throw in a technological hurdle and it's a gauntlet. I'm not talking about putting in your order on an iPad. I've kind of gotten the hang of that. But walking into Dasheng  BBQ in Monterey Park, I notice no menus. I asked the guy behind the counter for a menu, he says they don't have one. He then pointed to a poster on the wall and said you need this. "What that?" I asked. He then whipped out his smart phone and pointed to one of the apps. As it turns out their menu is only accessed somehow via the Chinese language WeChat app, with the menu only being in Chinese, though I had no idea of the mechanics since I didn't have We Chat on my phone.  

Coincidentally the Los Angeles Times recently ran an article by reporter David Pierson about how vendors of home made dumplings and other foodstuffs were selling their wares on WeChat    Pierson actually contacted me while writing this article as he was searching for someone  (even someone anonymous) who had purchased home made food items on WeChat to see if I knew anybody.  I couldn't help him except to give him the name of another person who might know.  But if you read his article you can see he did indeed manage to interview an end user.

The article quickly led to a thread on the Food Talk Central message board from people curious about how they could use WeChat to partake of these home made Chinese goodies.  Going to the WeChat application provides no apparent entry into this part of the foodie world.  There is nothing to indicate the existence of an equivalent to Facebook's Marketplace.  But where questions about the local food scene are normally quickly and easily resolved on this and other local food message boards, there has been no definitive answer posted.  

This silence actually isn't surprising.  When you read Pierson's article, strangely, depending on the particular food product involved, these WeChat sales may or may not be illegal.  It depends upon whether the food contains any meat or not, meat making it illegal.  Consequently, sellers certainly want to keep a low profile, while consumers don't want to put their food source at risk.  This is reminiscent of more than a decade ago when we used to buy frozen dumplings from a house in Monterey Park, from a "dealer" that we had heard of by word of mouth.   That operation was mentioned in a thread on the then vibrant Chowhound Los Angeles message board, but then the thread soon mysteriously disappeared.  Interestingly, that household operation subsequently became Mama Lu's Dumpling House.

I have since installed the We Chat app on my phone, though I'm still not sure what the drill is.  It probably has something to do with the QR Scan feature in WeChat.  Coincidentally, I just received an email with a Chinese language solicitation regarding Burberry products. The email had a QR Code embedded in it. On a hunch, I opened up WeChat's scan function, then put the QR Code image in the view box. and snapped it. That created a message link with the name and picture of a person who I presumed to be the seller, with the direction to first send a friend request to that person. Once you are friends then you can communicate with the person.  In conjuction with an article I found that incidentally noted that WeChat was a pioneer in a nascent business to customer direct messaging marketing approach, I'm thinking the answer lies is getting the vendor and the customer to identify and message each other on a one to one basis.  I'm guessing scanning the QR code is the facilitator in bringing the parties together, as opposed to something more organized like Facebook's Marketplace.  So I'm guessing when you go to Dasheng BBQ they give you a QR Code that you scan into WeChat which sends you their menu on your phone.  Or something like that.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Two Days in Phoenix

I've had a very strange relationship with the city of Phoenix (or as the stewardess on a recent flight I took from LAX to Phoenix repeatedly pronounced it, Fennix.)  It's only 400 miles from my home in Los Angeles, meaning a short one hour flight or an eight hour drive.  Yet after first visiting Phoenix in 1966 while still in college, my next trip there wasn't until 2004.  And since then I've been there 10 times, so I'm now fairly familiar with their Chinese food scene as reflected in my Menuism article on Chinese food there.  

Recently, a newly opened (well actually, new ownership of an old restaurant) called House of Egg Roll (sic) in suburban Chandler has made such a splash that it made one publication’s list of the top 50 Chinese restaurants in the U.S.  My guess is that the current owner purchased the predecessor Americanized Chinese restaurant and didn’t bother changing the English language name, since it’s irrelevant to Chinese speaking clientele.  So as soon as I picked up my rental car at Sky Harbor Airport on Sunday morning, I made a bee line to Chandler.   House of Egg Roll is now a Shaanxi style restaurant  and their pita bread lamb soup was the best I’ve had.  It was better than Shaanxi Gourmet in Rosemead in the San Gabriel Valley,  the best of several Shaanxi style restaurants in the SGV, which is saying a lot.  Before heading to the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch, I also picked up a nice order of pork bing from Chengdu Delight to eat in my hotel room.  Just as good as in Los Angeles.


Shortly after I arrived in Scottsdale, I received a message from my friend and former co-worker Dave Isaac.  Somehow, Dave had parlayed his CPA practice with a secondary career as a radio talk show host.  Indeed, Dave once had me on his radio show to talk about Chinese food and our working days together..  Since my hotel was in Scottsdale and Dave lives in Peoria, we couldn't meet in the Chandler/Mesa area where most of the good Chinese restaurants in the Phoenix area are located. Fortunately, while I was in Chandler I was able to pick up Chinese newspapers with restaurant advertisers and I found some new restaurants that I hadn't tried, and luckily there was one new advertiser in north Phoenix,  Ann’s Asian Bistro, in the city of Surprise, some 30 miles west of the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale.  I had driven through Surprise once, eight years ago when I last drove from LA to Phoenix, and considered Surprise to be at the edge of nowhere.  It was even west of Sun City, America’s first retirement community which I actually remember opening up around 1960.  Nowadays the western part of Phoenix flows seamlessly into Sun City, and now Surprise, so it met Dave the next night for dinner.  Ann’s is one of the few new Cantonese restaurants in Phoenix, as with most Chinese communities in the US, the bulk of the new Chinese restaurants are non-Cantonese.  At Ann's we ordered the beef chow fun, garlic string beans, and salted fish tofu casserole, all of which were reasonably good, particularly the salted fish casserole.  And we practically had the entire restaurant to ourselves as there was only one other diner there the whole evening.

After my meeting ended late Tuesday morning, I headed down to Mesa to try some other new restaurants that I saw in the Chinese newspaper.   First stop was B J Noodles, where I was expecting to have some dumplings or perhaps noodle soup.  But then I saw something on the menu described as “grains fish”.  I asked what that was, but the waitress was unable to explain it.  Since it wasn’t marked spicy I decided to try it.  That was a good choice because it was an absolutely delicious dish of sliced fish in a white sauce with sauteed sliced cucumbers and wood ear fungus.   I wolfed it down in record time.  In the same shopping center was another new find, Chili Rush.  Needing more food for later in the afternoon until my evening flight home, I searched for nonspicy, nonmessy dishes and came up with the national dish of Taiwan, stinky tofu.  Interestingly the restaurant's menu didn’t say Chili Rush, but rather Magic Chili Garden instead.  As a Google search later revealed, the ownership entity is Magic Chili Garden, but they operate under the name Chili Rush.  And strangely, the receipt for my food had neither name, but rather said Henry’s Private Kitchen. Last stop was Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House for some extra thick hand made noodles in peanut and garlic sauce.  

I have to say that most all of the Chinese food  these two days I ate was extremely good, generally comparable to the San Gabriel Valley.   It just reinforces my conclusion from my prior trips to Phoenix that pound for pound, authentic Chinese food in Phoenix is better than that in New York.  Not to say that there aren't more and better Chinese restaurants in New York than Phoenix.  But the average authentic Chinese restaurant in Phoenix is better than the average authentic Chinese restaurant in New York City as it is closer in quality to what we get in Los Angeles.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Chinese Restaurant 7,000--Dim Sum Inn in Salinas

So I've been seriously searching for Chinese restaurants to eat at for 40 years now, simultaneously with my starting to travel the United States, and also developing an interest in the newfangled authentic Chinese food that began to appear in the United States.  At a fairly steady pace for 40 years, I've managed to hit the 7,000 restaurant mark.  In logging in my restaurant visits, I consider each round hundred milestone to be special, and what makes a Chinese restaurant more special than not being easily able to go to a return visit?  As a result, each "hundred" restaurant has been located some distance away from my Los Angeles home.

Of course keeping this convention requires quite a bit of advance planning.  It's not that my restaurant count hits, say, 6,499, and I can hop on a plane and fly someplace for number 6,500 (which for those keeping score was the oddly named Fei Tenc in Manhattan Chinatown).   No, instead I look at my upcoming planned trips and then change the pace of my new restaurant visits accordingly, either rapidly accelerating or decelerating my current additions as needed.  And in some cases, accelerating my pre-travel restaurant visits may not be good enough as I've also needed a large count at my destination to hit the magic hundred.  Fortunately, multi-day trips to dining centers such as San Francisco and New York can provide two dozen new restaurants for a trip, where eating as many as four meals a day, each at a different restaurant, can increase the count.

Now hitting 7,000 proved tricky because that magic mark was on track to be reached this summer, but we did not schedule a summer vacation this year for various reasons.  Every one of the first six "thousand" milestones was at an east coast restaurant.  1,000 was at Bo Bo China in Niagara Falls NY, 2,000 was at Eat First in Washington DC, 3,000 was at House Fortune in Gaithersburg MD, 4,000 was at Sun Dou Dumpling House in Manhattan, 5,000 was at Miu Kee in Falls Church VA and 6,000 was at Zheng's Family in Manhattan.  However with no east coast trips planned until 2017, I had to settle for the Monterey, CA area, where we were going to attend a wedding.  The problem with Monterey, however, is that I had already eaten at all of the Chinese restaurants in Monterey.  Not that I'm a frequent visitor there, but Monterey is one of those cities where the turnover of Chinese restaurants is negligible.  The same restaurants that were there 20 years ago are there today.  So I needed to focus my attention on Salinas, which was somewhat conveniently located on our drive home back from Monterey.

I consulted my master national list of Chinese restaurants that I would like to eat at if I ever visited a particular city.  There are hundreds of restaurants on this list, most of which I'll never get to since the chances that I'll return to, say, Little Rock, AR are remote.   The list did have a couple of entries for Salinas but they may have been outdated.  In checking the Yelp reviews for these restaurants, I stumbled across a stunning suggested Chinese restaurant in Salinas, Dim Sum Inn.  Dim sum in Salinas?  While Salinas may have had a Chinese community that included a physical Chinatown in the early to mid 20th century, certainly not enough of it remained today to justify anything remotely authentic.  Yet, late last year, Dim Sum Inn opened up in north Salinas.

I must admit that after the initial excitement of learning about dim sum in Salinas, the excitement wore off as I figured they were reheating dim sum peddled by Sysco or one of the other food supply companies. However, when I got there on Sunday morning after the wedding festivities in Carmel Valley had ended, I  discovered that this was indeed a real find.   For one thing, this wasn't Sysco stuff, but in-house made dim sum. How did I know? Well, for one, they had several dim sum varieties that I had seldom, if ever seen. Chicken shen jen bao, which I only encountered at Imperial Seafood in Concord and Old Sichuan in Manhattan Chinatown. Chicken cheung fun, which I've only remember eating at Century Plaza on the edge of Oakland Chinatown. Chicken siu mai, also a rarely seen item and last seen at King Valley Seafood in Pinole, CA. Chicken taro dumpling and onion bun, which I have never seen anywhere. And these oversized, oddly colored baked bbq pork buns, unlike anything I've ever seen before. Also it took a good 20 minutes for these items to come out of the kitchen. Not to say this was the best dim sum I've eaten, but given that I wouldn't expect to find any of this stuff within a 75 mile radius this was a real treat. The one downside is that everything is $5.50 an order, which is more expensive than the fanciest dim sum in Los Angeles. 

 Of course, the question is why is there dim sum in Salinas.  I asked the guy behind the counter if there were many Chinese residents in Salinas and he said there weren't. He did indicate there were Chinese scattered around the Monterey area so I presume that's their core audience for the dim sum menu. When I was in the restaurant, clientele was primarily non-Asian, ordering off the Americanized Chinese menu (the dim sum menu is separate), with just a few Chinese diners.  But whatever the reason, thank you Dim Sum Inn for being there.



Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Best Chinese Restaurant In Los Angeles You Probably Never Heard Of

People have always been on the lookout for those hole-in-the-wall, under the radar dining gems.  But these kinds of restaurants seldom exist these days with every millennial being a foodie, and food discoveries instantaneously disseminated on social media, Yelp reviews and message boards.  Having said that, one of the best Cantonese restaurants (and probably the one with the most different array of dishes) in Los Angeles is one that most people haven't heard of, Embassy Kitchen in San Gabriel.

Everybody knows the top tier Hong Kong style restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley--Sea Harbour, King Hua, Elite and Lunasia top most lists, with China Red, Happy Harbor, Grand Harbor and Shi Hai mentioned in the next tier.  Embassy Kitchen is different because it is not a giant seafood palace with conspicuous tanks of live seafood.  Indeed, it was probably an afterthought when it opened up in 1999 as Embassy Billiard, reflecting the fact that it was in front of, and adjunct to the pool hall of the same name.  And seventeen years later, while "insiders" know about the gems served here, it's still under the radar.

It's hard to describe what makes Embassy Kitchen so good, aside from the fact that the food tastes good and there are many seldom seen Hong Kong style dishes served here.  And the different dishes here are hard to categorize, as they range from homestyle to the upscale, some of which need to be ordered a day or two in advance.  But perhaps what obscures the food here is the fact that there is an extensive Chinese language only menu supplement, not translated into English as the owner admits because he doesn't know how to correctly describe the dishes.  These dishes are listed on the inside front and back covers of the menu, and I think the best thing to do is just to list them here.

Inside front cover:
Tilapia rolls with picked vegetables and whole bone carcass
Boneless chicken stuffed with shrimp paste
Boneless chicken stuffed with sticky rice
Pan fried tilapia
Pumpkin with burdock
Spare ribs in vinegar
Bitter million crab meat omelet
Mustard green with chicken and sausage
Spare rib hot pot
 Celery with pork and peppers
Pan fried chicken/sausage/chestnut patty
Vegetable goji berry soup
Clear rice noodles with cabbage, egg and dried scallop
Pork and Japanese yam in X.O. sauce
Beef with string beans in Maggi sauce
Steamed eggplant with dry scallop and ground pork
Fatty beef with mixed mushrooms in Korean bbq sauce
French style tenderloin

Inside back cover:
Baked crab in clay pot
Melon with fresh bean curd skin
 Ground pork/bok choy/dried bean curd skin soup
Pork neck with celery
Spare rib with preserved mustard greens and dried shrimp soup
3 ingredients chicken with chestnuts
Japanese style sea bass
Sea bass with tofu with shrimp paste
Sea bass mustard green soup
 Steamed eggs with tofu and mixed seafood
Abalone mushroom with spinach
 Garlic spare ribs
Chinese sausage with napa
Stuffed chicken wings
Sea bass with mushroom and tofu
Steamed tilapia with sliced pork and lemon
Lamb with two mushrooms

 English menu highlights:
Crab fried rice
Imitation shark fin with egg white
House special chicken
Stuffed duck
French style beef stew
Fried pork leg
Boneless stuffed tilipia




Reviving Windows XP Mode and Recovering My Two Years Lost Address List

When I upgraded computers several years ago from Windows XP to Windows 7, I found to my horror that a number of my computer programs would no longer run on the Windows 7 upgrade.  Fortunately the nice people at Alice Computer in San Marino told me that if I upgraded to the professional version of Windows 7 for something under $100, part of the package was a Windows XP emulator mode, which made me a happy camper.

But then a couple of years ago things started to fall apart.  I was still using a DOS based address list, and one day it became inoperable.  Then a year ago all of the icons on my Windows XP virtual computer screen went similarly inoperable, only making a clanging sound when I clicked on the icon. Given that the Windows XP virtual mode itself wasn't widely well known, attempts to look for a fix were fruitless.  But my XP mode start menu was still operating, so running programs off of that was a satisfactory workaround.

But then the other shoe dropped the other day, when I tried running the Windows XP virtual computer, and while it launched, everything was dead as a doornail.  I decided to take one last search on the internet, and found a discussion which seemed to say that a single file deletion could get Windows XP up and running again.  Breathlessly I looked for the file as directed and found it and deleted it.  Then running the Windows XP virtual machine, while having to clear a dialog box which indicated not everything was perfect, it ran beautifully--my Key Mailer DOS program was running again as was my Microsoft Access.  So if it happens again, here is the magic file:  Windows XP Mode.vsv in the folder C:\users\\appdata\microsoft\Windows Virtual PC\Virtual Machines.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Week In San Francisco (Sort of)

Going to San Francisco for a week sounds like the blueprint for a wonderful time.  But when our Monday through Friday trip entailed driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Monday, spending three full days in a seminar on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and driving back to Los Angeles on Friday it sounds a lot less enticing.  But despite the lack of sightseeing, the opportunity to try out some restaurants did make the trip very enjoyable.

Driving up Interstate 5 and then I-580, we stopped for dinner in Dublin.  Originally I thought about going to the Mayflower Restaurant which was supposed to be pretty good, but which was a chain that I had eaten at in a number of Bay Area locations,  So we headed instead to Golden Sand Harbor on Amador Valley Blvd.  The waitress there was a little pushy and she directed us away from the dishes we asked about initially, ending up with seabass with garlic and rib eye with mushrooms, along with seafood soup. Seabass was quite good, rib eye and soup were so so.  Pricey at $63 before tip. Exchanging messages with my son back home who had recently eaten at Mayflower in Dublin, he indicated that Mayflower was likewise pricey with food also far below San Gabriel Valley quality.

My seminar was conveniently located on Market Street and just a couple of blocks from our San Francisco office so I shuttled between the locations all week.  On Tuesday morning I walked across the street to make a dinner reservation at Hakkasan.  On my way there I spotted the sign that seemed to say "Nepalese food" on this trailer sitting in front of one of the Market St. office buildings.  It turned out to be Bini’s Kitchen where I ordered a batch of turkey momo with spicy tomato cilantro sauce.  (See below.)  Wow!  I'd be a regular if I worked in downtown SF.   After class let out at 6pm and it was across the street to Hakkasan.  This was my first dinner at Hakkasan after trying the lunchtime dim sum at their Manhattan and now-defunct Beverly Hills locations.  There were lots of interesting items on the menu, and we ended up with the fried silver cod, the home made tofu with soybeans and dried scallops, and the Sanpei chicken. Everything was so perfectly prepared and tasty.

Pickings were slim at Wednesday’s seminar breakfast so I was hungry by 10am and coincidentally the Nepalese restaurant opened at 10 am, so I went across the street to get another order of the turkey momo. Wednesday’s dinner was another highlight, as we met my nephew for dinner at our favorite, Cooking Papa in Foster City.   We had an excellent dinner of two types of fish broth noodle soup (egg noodles  in one order, thick round rice noodle in the other), duck cheung fun, egg tofu, lotus leaf sticky rice,  white ong choy and pepper beef chow mein.

Thursday was my one lunch exploration day, since the late morning session turned out to be not useful  It was an eight block walk to Let’s Jam Café in the tenderloin, one of the few Mongolian restaurants in the US.  The huushur (beef dumpling) was huge.  Kind of like a hamburger patty in a pita bread, sliced in half.  Five of these dumplings for $10 was a good deal and kept me full the whole day.  For a change I thought it would be a good idea to have Italian food near the hotel. for dinner  We wanted to eat at Capps Corner, where we ate a few times.  We liked it because the meals are reasonable and came with soup and salad included.  However, when we got there the storefront was empty with a For Rent sign.  As it turns out, after 40 years the restaurant got in a dispute with the landlord and shut down.  As a result we ended up at North Beach Restaurant at Stockton and Columbus, another Italian restaurant that had been there for decades, with a jolly, throwback maitre’d.   We had the spaghetti in vodka sauce and the linguine with clams.  Both were pretty good.

Friday we picked up various types of dim sum for the trip back.  Highlights were a poor man’s version of the crispy top bbq pork bun for $1.25 from iCafe Chinatown and the sticky rice from Good Mong Kok, not wrapped in lotus leaf, but rather a wonton type of skin.  And perhaps the most interesting sight on the drive back to Los Angeles was the innovative strategy to deal with the drought and the cutback in irrigation in the San Joaquin Valley--a nopal (large edible cactus) farm.





Fighting Wool Eating Moths

You can imagine how upset I was when I opened up the closed suit bag holding my Oleg Cassini suit and found that moths had eaten a couple of holes in the pants.  Figuring it still would be cheaper to reweave the holes, rather than buying a new suit, I shelled out something like $15 to have each hole filled.  But a couple of years later, the moths struck back and there were new holes.  Since my original reweaver had gone out of business, I found a new one.  I lamented to my new launderer/tailor about battling moths and wondered why they chose to eat up my best suit which was in a suit bag, but not touch my other suits which were not.

His response was very interesting, one that I hadn't heard before, but which I have since confirmed to be accurate.  For clothing to be susceptible to being eaten by moths, it has to be 100 percent wool.  If the material is a wool blend, the moths don't care about it.  That's why the moths concentrated on my good suits.  Interestingly, subsequently I purchased a very heavy winter overcoat in the Bronx, paying only $75 for this item which had most of its tags removed.  I was puzzled when the moths attacked this item, though it was so thick that it was still usable despite a little damage.  Turns out that unbeknownst to me, until I took it to the cleaners, this was a pure wool overcoat.

Even after learning the distinction between wool garments and wool blends,  I wondered why encasing the suit in a nice suit bag didn't protect it from the moths, while my cheaper everyday suits that I never bagged survived.  He explained that the danger was not from moths flying around your closet.  Rather the danger was from moth eggs that are deposited on the wool garment.  So if your wool suit already has moth eggs on them, sealing it in a bag provides no protection.

Furthermore, he added two important points.  Moth eggs are everywhere, so leaving my wool suit outside insures that it would attract some eggs. But if you actually go out and wear the suit, as opposed to leaving it hanging stationary in the closet, somehow the broader airing prevents the moth eggs from hatching.    So it was the act of bagging it that ensured my suit would provide a meal for hungry moths.

The last piece of useful information is that dry cleaning a suit will kill the moth eggs, so if you bag the suit as soon as it is cleaned, you can safely store it away.  Another launderer I spoke with indicated that this will protect the suit for at least a year.  So for seasonally worn wool clothing, annual cleaning and bagging will let you outsmart those pesky moths.




Saturday, June 11, 2016

48 Hours On The East Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My Life As a "Z" List Celebrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

My Most Surreal Chinese Restaurant Visit

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Holy Grail Found--Chinese Chicken Dumplings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

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






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

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


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A February Visit To Manhattan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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