Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Return To Rancho Cucamonga

The expansion of the Chinese community in the Los Angeles area which started roughly 60 years ago as Chinese Americans broke out of segregated housing within the City of Los Angeles into newly constructed suburban homes in Monterey Park, has been one incessant eastward march.  I don't know about other geographic areas, but Chinese Americans in Los Angeles have a fixation on recently developed housing communities, and over the decades the path of new upscale housing community construction has been decidedly eastward, because that's where the vacant land has been.  And in particularly, a sizable portion of this development has been along the San Bernardino Freeway and Pomona Freeway corridors, resulting in an ongoing eastward march in the development of Chinese communities.  

One slight outlier to the overall pattern has been the Rancho Cucamonga area, which while definitely east of Los Angeles, is further north, straddling the 210 (Foothill) freeway corridor instead.   Rancho Cucamonga is the city made famous by Jack Benny’s mythical train route that stopped at Anaheim, Azusa and Cooocamonga. Though people in Los Angeles are familiar with those cities, apparently the radio audience across the US found those names wildly hilarious and the names were a running joke for years.  There's even a Jack Benny Drive in Rancho Cucamonga today.   Like virtually every town in California in the late 19th and early 20th century, Cucamonga did have a Chinatown.  But if there were any Chinese residents there back when Jack Benny had his show, they would have been farmers or farm workers as residential housing was highly segregated in LA into the 1960s and 1970s. 

Rancho Cucamonga first came on my Chinese food radar around 20 years ago, when the 99 Ranch Market Chinese supermarket chain opened up a branch on Foothill Blvd.  (Indeed, I"m in awe of the market research capabilities of the 99 Ranch Market in their ability to be the first Chinese business to open up in new burgeoning Chinese communities across America.)   At that time just a couple of Chinese restaurants opened up nearby the 99 Ranch store serving authentic Chinese food, but also with a menu friendly to non-Chinese locals as there wasn’t the critical mass of Chinese residents for dedicated authentic Chinese restaurants. But it was probably four or five years ago that the Chinese influence in the area really began to grow, with anecdotal information that perhaps 75 percent of the residents in a particular housing development in Rancho Cucamonga called Bella Vista were Taiwanese.  That warranted a return visit to the area to check out more new Chinese restaurants.

After that visit I began to hear more and more about authentic Chinese restaurants opening in Rancho Cucamonga, so I decided a couple of weeks ago to make a side trip on my way back from Orange County to Los Angeles via Rancho Cucamonga.   Mindful of the Taiwanese bent of the new Rancho Cucamonga Chinese community, I marked off Jo Jo's Kitchen: Taiwan Eats as a must visit location.  However as I drove along Arrow Highway I was a little puzzled because I didn't see any kind of storefront that would contain a Taiwanese restaurant.  But I did see something with a large parking lot called Haven City Market, so I pulled in and got out.  That's when I learned that Haven City Market was a large food hall, where Jo Jo's Kitchen: Taiwan Eats was located.

Of course the problem with doing a food crawl 50 miles away from home is that you have to limit what you can order.  Even with a relatively short menu, making a choice at Jo Jo's Kitchen: Taiwan Eats was difficult.  Beef noodle soup?  Fried pork chop?  Taiwanese sausage?   Tomato and egg?   Actually for me the choice was clear--popcorn fish, which is something I really like, and don't see on too many menus.  And of course it was great and I’m wondering when I can get back to try more items from the menu.


Actually the entire Haven City Market was a revelation to me.  Indeed, finding this food court here was downright shocking on a number of levels. There are 30 vendors in a spacious and bustling hall, most of which are ethnic and many of which are Asian. 


And most unexpected is Saibadee which serves Lao and Thai street food.  I'm not sure where you could find anything like this food alternative closer to Los Angeles.  Why it's available here puzzles me.

Rancho Cucamonga had other surprises, too.  When scouting out restaurants, I came across China Republic, which I saw from its menu had an impressive selection of dim sum.  Once again I was surprised by the venue, which turned out to be different from any of the dim sum restaurants I patronize in the Los Angeles area.  As you can see, the clean lines and subdued lighting are something you don't see in the dim sum palaces in the San Gabriel Valley or anywhere else in Los Angeles.


The dim sum was good quality, higher than I would have expected in Rancho Cucamonga.  This is their scallop dumpling.


Baked custard buns.

Baked bbq pork buns.

The bar area is consistent with the upscale ambiance.

Once again, an unexpected encounter and something quite different from what I was used to.

I was also able to visit Dumpling Village.  Interesting to find an entry for beef pies on the menu, an indefinite term which can mean different things at different Chinese restaurants.  In this case, the reference is to beef bings, which are a little more difficult to find in the San Gabriel Valley these days ever since the demise of the premier purveyor, Beijing Pie House, followed by the rebranding of the next best supplier, Tianjin Feng Wei into Ace Burgers, specializing in knock offs of the spicy chicken sandwiches produced by the Shanghai branches of KFC and McDonalds.  This was a good version.

Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga may have been a big joke to national radio audiences many decades ago, but the Chinese food in Rancho Cucamonga these days is certainly no joke.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

What We Ate In San Francisco (In Addition To Eight Tables)

While last month's posting gave a detailed look at our wonderful dinner at George Chen's Eight Tables in San Francisco Chinatown, there were a number of other dining highlights on the trip.  On our previous trip last October, we had planned to eat at Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown, only to find that they had not reopened from their pandemic closure.  However right before leaving on the trip I saw a news items saying they had indeed reopened, so this was a logical first stop.  The restaurant used their hiatus to do a remodel, the most obvious changes being moving the main entrance to the other end of the building closest to Broadway, and the insertion of a banquet type backdrop on the back wall.  While I have noticed that some restaurants that have reopened after a long layoff have suffered a major drop in quality, Lai Hong Lounge has not.  This is their tofu vegetable trio.  The trio was three different items, a tofu eggplant, a tofu mushroom and an egg tofu variety.  

Meanwhile, the coffee ribs have migrated from the dim sum menu to the dinner menu.  A heavy dose of coffee, which actually affected my sleep.

While looking for new Chinese restaurants that may have recently opened up accessible to my meeting in downtown San Francisco, I ran across bao, in the Mission District, which had an extremely interesting modern dim sum menu.  It was not within walking distance, but before I left Los Angeles I was checking San Francisco transit information and found that they had changed to an app based system where cash fares were actually charged a premium over buying online tickets.  It took this dinosaur a while to figure out, but I did download the app.  And when I jumped on the Muni at Mission and First, I also placed an online order at bao.

The bus stopped on just about every block, so it took almost twenty minutes to get to 16th and Mission.  I then walked the two blocks to 17th and Valencia.  That actually was not much faster than if I had walked!   By the time I got to bao, my order was ready.  The baked Malaysia chicken curry bun was huge!


They also had my favorite crispy baked bbq pork buns.   Only some of the restaurants have this in Los Angeles, but they're all over the Bay Area.

My original plan was to stop by the newly opened G & Y Bakery & Cafe on Clay Street, which opens very early in the morning, on the first of my three daily morning walks from Chinatown to my downtown meeting site.  Imagine my surprise when I dropped by and saw that there were no baked goods for sale, and that G & Y was essentially a Hong Kong style cafe.  So I had to wait until dinnertime.  This is the corn in fish sauce, which is offered in either deep fried with batter or pan fried without.  Both this and the broccoli beef were excellent.


After dinner I went on an evening stroll through Chinatown to check out to see if there were any more new developments in Chinatown since last fall's trip.   It was great being back at the Royal Pacific Motor Inn, which had closed for two years because of the pandemic.   For last fall's San Francisco trip we ended up staying at the Sam Wong Hotel on the same block.  While similarly located to be in the middle of Chinatown, it can't match up with the Royal Pacific's free parking.  Indeed our bill for four nights at the Royal Pacific was less than the room rate for the Hilton on Kearny St. for just one night, without parking.


It was interesting to walk by the House of Nanking.  As usual, business was booming and the outdoor seating was full.  House of Nanking has been the most crowded Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for decades, with nary a Chinese patron for most of the time.  Well, I did eat there once back 20 years ago, and there is an occasional Asian face in the audience.  But generally when you go by the House of Nanking, you might as well be in Copenhagen based when looking at the faces of the diners.  Not to say that the food there is bad, even though it's probably in my bottom 10 for Chinese food in San Francisco Chinatown, but combined with their pricing, most Chinese diners have enough sense to avoid this place.


Looking for a snack during break time downtown, I found two nearby branches of the same boba chain, Happy Lemon, one of them apparently a block away at 425 Mission St.  However, when I got to the spot that Google Maps indicated was the location of Happy Lemon, it was 555 Mission St., and no signs of anything looking like boba.  So I went up the block to manually find 425 Mission St., which based on the numbering would be slightly north of First St.  But the first address with a “400" number was 415 Mission St., and the numbers went down from there.  So I turned on Google Maps and asked for directions.  I’ve always had trouble following Google Maps for walking directions, and I didn’t know if it was going crazy or I just didn’t understand.  But I ended up going east on First Street and being directed to something called Minna Street, a short block east of and parallel to Mission Street.  Dubiously I kept going, and magically there was Happy Lemon!  And I could see it was directly behind a building on Mission Street.  555 Mission Street, to be exact.  

Anyway, I ordered what they called a Bubble waffle, which is merely a fancy name for a regular Hong Kong Waffle.  The waffle itself was OK, but I ordered the salty cheese topping which made all the difference in the world.  It was delicious, though it was sweet, not salty.  Afterwards I discovered the mystery of the street address.  This branch of Happy Lemon was in a complex known as the Salesforce Transbay Transit center, which included not only office space, but a transit center, and a third story, blocks long park.  The main entrance to the complex is on Minna Street, but for some reason carries a 425 Mission Street address, and any part of that complex carries the 425 address.

The next dinner was at Grand Harbor in Burlingame, which I chose for the wonderful view of San Francisco Bay on top of the food.

Dinner started out with an exceedingly rich chicken broth.

This is the salty egg yolk deep fried shrimp and pumpkin.  The shrimp is separate from the pumpkin, so you had to pay attention to which one you were eating.

An interesting pairing was diced filet mignon and broccoli with fried egg tofu.


The best dish was an old favorite of mine, egg whites on a bed of fried glass noodles.

This was a simple looking vegetable dish, but the gingko nuts turned it into something outstanding.

I thought dinner was over when they cleared the table, but then these red bean buns showed up.

I would have been puzzled by this life sized photo of Guy Fieri in the lobby had I not seen the episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives that visited Grand Harbor.  I am puzzled, however, that Grand Harbor was featured on that program, since it is neither a diner, drive-in nor dive.

Looking to pick up breakfast on my way to my downtown seminar, I passed by Yummy Dim Sum on Stockton St. at 7:50am just as they were rolling open the gate.  I inquired if they were open for business and the lady said yes.  I saw that an order of three baked bbq pork buns was only $1.80, and I got two orders.  I actually had to wait a couple of minutes as they pulled the buns out of the oven, and then brushed on the glazing.  And I don’t think that these buns were better than those at other neighborhood bakeries.  But so hot and fresh out of the oven, they were fantastic.

Right on the edge of Chinatown, where Clay Street meets the financial district, I stumbled onto a new Taiwanese cafe called Yilan Bento.  I ordered the popcorn chicken, which was the biggest order of that item I had ever seen.  It was equal to a full sized entree at a regular Chinese restaurant and I struggled to finish it. 

Another find in the heart of Chinatown on Grant Avenue was the newly opened Jade Chocolates.  Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine a Chinese eatery with “Chocolate” in the name, as any kind of dessert had historically been a deep afterthought in a Chinese restaurant.  However, the 21st century has seen a proliferation of dessert shops, though Jade Chocolates is the first I know of to include an emphasis on chocolates.  I picked up a gigantic baked bbq pork bun for $6 or $7 which was absolutely horrible.  Mostly bread, little filling, and the bread wasn’t even sweet.  

On getaway day I picked up a couple of items in Chinatown before checking out of the Royal Pacific for the drive back to Los Angeles.  At Blue Sky Cafe on Powell Street, I had orders of har gow and pork with vegetable dumplings.

And a block further down on Powell Street I was at a grocery store called Wendy & Moon, which I had read also had prepared foods, such as this chicken banh mi.

It was then over the Bay Bridge to our final stop of the trip at the recently opened Pearl Bay in Fremont. The first thing that struck me about the restaurant was the wall of seafood.


Then came the giant video screen, not showing sporting events or music videos, but rather some of their top dishes, amazingly gigantic.

Of course we had to order my favorite crispy baked bbq pork buns.

Fried pork dumplings were excellent as well as visual.

Spinach and shrimp dumplings.

Guangzhou style pork dumplings.

And finally for dessert, mango pudding.

A great way to end the trip.  Pearl Bay has rocketed to the top of my list of favorite large Chinese restaurants for combining food and setting.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

A Meal Of A Lifetime At Eight Tables in San Francisco Chinatown

Having eaten at nearly 8,000 Chinese restaurants I had reached a point where I actually wrote that every new Chinese restaurant I visited had a certain sameness.  Yes, there were wide variations in the restaurants I ate at, from giant Hong Kong style seafood palaces to buck-a-plate Americanized Chinese express food in the inner city to small town Chinese buffets to mom and pop regional Chinese cuisine restaurants where mom or pop had to ask a bilingual English speaking customer to find out what I wanted to order, to everything else in between.  But I had been to so many Chinese restaurants in whatever categories may come to mind that most new restaurant visits were a case of deja vu all over again.

So with this background, to find a Chinese restaurant where I would have a number of different Chinese first experiences means that restaurant is something special.  And that was certainly the case with Eight Tables on Broadway in San Francisco Chinatown.  

Eight Tables is located in the China Live complex conceived by chef and restauranteur George Chen.  My earliest recollection of the three story China Live space was back in the 1980's when the historic 644 Broadway location was rebuilt, and then occupied by Ocean City, one of the grand Hong Kong style seafood restaurants and banquet facilities of the day.  Ocean City's owners also became perhaps the most notorious Chinese restauranteurs in American history when they literally folded their tent in the middle of the night, moving out anything they could carry before daybreak, stiffing the restaurant's creditors and employees.  

The space subsequently became Gold Mountain Restaurant, a banquet facility so popular that even as a Los Angeles resident, I attended a number of banquets there.  The closing of Gold Mountain a decade ago was indeed ominous, perhaps portending tough times ahead for San Francisco Chinatown, and in hindsight marking the beginning of the decline of Cantonese banquet facilities as the venue of choice for Chinese American weddings.   Not surprisingly, George Chen's proposal to take the old Gold Mountain location and convert it into something like a Chinese version of Eataly was met with skepticism.  However, both China Live and Eight Tables have proven Chen to be prescient.

The clearly unique thing about Eight Tables is that it has taken the Chinese concept of private chateau dining, making the diner feel more like they are eating at somebody's residence, albeit a fancy one, than at a restaurant, and brought it to the Western Hemisphere.  (Yeah there have been restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley named Private Kitchen and Private Party, but they were regular Chinese restaurants operating in shopping centers.)  So obviously on these grounds, Eight Tables was a new experience for me.  But even beyond that, as I have written about in the past, there isn't a lot of high level fine Chinese dining in the United States, and I've certainly never had any.  And hand in hand with that, I've never experienced a tasting menu at a Chinese restaurant.

For now access to Eight Tables is made through the front entrance of China Live and up the stairs, rather than from the pre-pandemic entrance on Kenneth Rexroth Pl. off Vallejo St.  This takes you into a parlor with walls that are adorned with old photos of what turns out to be George Chen's family.  From there you enter the dining room that literally has eight tables, partitioned off into semi-private spaces, with a well appointed staff in designer suits.  The restaurant has been painstakingly decorated with such features as white Chinese wedding dress lace wallpaper.  No wonder Time magazine named Eight Tables as one of the best appointed dining rooms in the world.


The nine course tasting menu dinner is preceded by Da Hong Pao, a premium oolong tea.  Wine lovers can get an optional wine selection paired specifically with each dish.

Dinner begins with one bite selections representing the nine essential flavors of Chinese cuisine.

Starting at the top, the nine flavors are:  SWEET - Red jujube date with mochi; SALTY - taro root with shiitake mushroom; SOUR - tangerine with fingerlime; BITTER - bitter melon with seafood farce; NUMBING - puffed beef tendon with Sichuan chili oil; SPICY - boneless chicken wing with spicy eight treasure sauce; FRAGRANT - tempura congee with periogord truffle; SHARP - hiramasa yellowtail with Buddha's hand fruit and jalapeno; SMOKY - cherrywood trout.  

We thought the fingerlime in the sour dish was fish roe, but as you can see from the interior of the fingerlime, it was actually fruit based.


The first regular dish was the asparagus with Kaluga caviar, on a bed of tofu and with bracken fern, which like most of the dishes were locally sourced.  In this case, even the caviar.


An interesting element of the tasting menu at Eight Tables is some of the dishes are elevated versions of otherwise common Chinese dishes.  For example, here is their foie gras xiao long bao.

A nice combination of Monterey steamed squid, fried oyster on top of a squash blossom with sweet and sour sauce on the side.

Here's a better look at the fried oyster and squash blossom deconstructed.  The meat from the squid is incorporated in the squash as are fish eggs..


Another riff on a more traditional dish is this shrimp toast.   There are separate layers of shrimp and langostino paste, and the sauce is a uni based emulsion.

This steamed egg pudding may look like simple fare, but is a powerhouse dish.  Slices of porcini mushrooms, abalone and ginseng chicken top thin layers of silky smooth steamed eggs served with wonderfully rich chicken and abalone broth.  And the balls of medjool dates add a fantastic touch.

This is the partially deboned osmanthus smoked squab with glutinous rice, dried scallop and garlic chive.

Stir fried cumin lamb belly with pea shoots and snap peas.

Another elevated Chinese classic is the Iberico pork char siu with fish fragrant eggplant and fiddlehead fern.  The inclusion of fiddlehead fern is interesting since it is a vegetable that is foraged locally in the San Francisco Bay area.


Continuing with the theme of elevated Chinese classics, this fried rice (which was brought as a side dish to the char siu) is the best fried rice I've ever eaten.  And that's saying a lot because in my youth when I transitioned from eating only soy sauce and rice at Chinese restaurants to slightly more diverse dishes, my favorite was fried rice.  So what makes this fried rice so great?  For one thing, it's made with Carolina Gold rice, imported from South Carolina, which retails from between $5 to $10 per pound.  That price reflects the fact that many people consider Carolina Gold to be the best rice around. In addition, while the dish is made with only Carolina Gold rice, it is a mixture of rice that has been pan fried, deep fried, and puffed/popped.  What a combination!


Dinner came to an end with this wonderfully refreshing dessert, called jasmine tea rice pudding.  But again the simple description belies the beauty of this dish, with an ironic pairing of jasmine tea foam and jasmine rice, hibiscus sorbet, and diced dragon fruit.


We were honored during the dinner by the presence by Eight Tables Executive Chef George Chen, the man who took a white elephant structure in a neighborhood facing an uncertain future and had the vision to conceive and then sucessfully bring the entire China Live project to fruition.

Thanks also to Chef de Cuisine Floyd Nunn for the tour of the stunningly large kitchen.

For somebody who thought he had seen it all with respect to Chinese dining in America, dinner at Eight Tables was definitely the meal of a lifetime.