Friday, October 1, 2021

Tso'l Food Los Angeles

It was a fun day in Chinatown last month as I did a four hour video shoot for the China Global Television Network's US arm out of Washington DC and their video series Tso'l Food (as in General Tso) surveying Chinese food in different American communities.  They contacted me a few weeks previously saying they were coming to Los Angeles and found my restaurant list and my knowledge of the local Chinese restaurant scene to be interesting topics, so I said I'd be happy to participate. 
Preliminarily I had been corresponding with the producer, a guy named Lionel Lim who indicated their thought was to interview me at two different Chinese restaurants where we would eat the same dish, except that one would be at a traditional Chinese restaurant and the other would be at a modern Chinese restaurant.  Since they were from Washington DC and not that familiar with our Chinese food, I first suggested that the modern restaurant could be Pearl River Deli in Chinatown.  They were somewhat familiar with Pearl River and bought off on that idea right away.  I am slightly acquainted with the owner, Johnny Lee, and offered to approach him about participating, and Johnny agreed, requesting that we come late in the afternoon when the restaurant was the slowest.  
With that in mind, I figured if that would be the second meal of the interview, we should decide on the specific dish well in advance, so we could locate a suitable nearby restaurant that served something similar, so we chose the charshu noodles off Pearl River's standing menu, rather than something more adventuresome off the ever rotating menu.  At that point I needed to figure out who in Chinatown served charshu noodles for the traditional rendition of the dish, which baffled me for a while, since there are no dedicated Chinese noodle shops in LA Chinatown (just Vietnamese).  However I did figure that there would be regular Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown that served that dish as part of their larger menu.  But I really wasn't that familiar with the restaurants in Chinatown, nor did I know any restaurant owners.   Then I remembered I had developed an internet relationship with Hop Woo restaurant, when I Tweeted about their Go Fund Me effort during the depths of the pandemic and they thanked me for it, and again likewise when I bought a copy of their vanity fundraising books and posted a picture on Instagram.  So I took a peek at their menu and saw they had charshu noodle soup.  And very coincidentally the next day I made an infrequent solo trip to Chinatown to pick up some food for guests who were coming over to our house, so I dashed over to Hop Woo to see if they would participate, and they agreed.

Wednesday was the day selected for the interview because Pearl River closes on Monday and Tuesday.  By this time, Lionel and the program host, Gerald Tam, had learned enough about Pearl River that they decided to do a profile of that restaurant for their LA program.  Mrs. Chandavkl dropped me off at Hop Woo at 11:30am and both Lionel and Gerald were waiting.  Though I had only dealt with Lionel previously, essentially when it came down to the program itself it was almost dealing exclusively with Gerald, who clearly was in charge of the show once they were on the ground.  In speaking with Gerald he revealed something which was interesting, and actually quite shocking.  You see I thought they were systematically investigating Chinese food in all the major cities and that Los Angeles was their next choice, but Gerald said that their primary objective was to come out to LA was to interview me, and only after I accepted their offer to be interviewed did they plan out other segments to shoot in Los Angeles to fill out the program.  How flattering!

Besides Gerald and Lionel, there were two Caucasian camera operators  (one was Dan Criswell) and a Chinese production assistant.    It turned out that food was a sideline topic for this crew and they covered all categories of news stories, all around the world.  Even though Hop Woo no longer had outdoor dining, it was determined that our interview would be best conducted outdoors, presumably for lighting purposes.  It was interesting doing an interview with all the traffic noise (not to mention the occasional screaming homeless person walking by), but from their point of view it just added ambiance to the soundtrack.   Basically we spent three hours at Hop Woo, discussing various topics about Chinese food in Los Angeles and America, over two bowls of charshu noodle soup.   The crew kept apologizing for the various factors that made the shooting time so long, but I told them I was quite used to the process   (As I recall my KCET taping with Clarissa Wei ran five hours and our on screen time was under five minutes.)  I did feel sorry for the waitress, however, whose delivery of our meal had to go through four takes.


At the end of our discussion of our meal and my eating history, I learned had one additional function in the program.  The program visited four different Chinese eateries that week, and on top of my personal interview, they essentially asked me to do a short monologue on each of the four--Pearl River Deli, Phoenix Bakery, Bistro Na and a restaurant called Xiang La Hui.  Fortunately I was able to do that satisfactorily off the top of my head, each in one take.
Finished at Hop Woo it was time to go the two blocks down Broadway to Pearl River Deli.  Strangely they asked me if they should call a cab for me instead of walking.  Uh, no, Mrs, Chandavkl and I go on five mile hikes.  Good thing I didn't take a cab, since they actual filmed the last block of our walk down there. 
At Pearl River Deli we sat down and discussed how Hop Woo represented traditionally prepared Cantonese food and how Pearl River Deli represents the second generation of Chinese American chefs, most of whom either had developed culinary skills in the western cooking world, or in some cases pivoted from investment banking or other non-restaurant related fields.  

When the charshu noodles came out, Gerald started gushing about the mere visual appearance of the charshu.  When he bit into the charshu, he raved about it.  And when he started eating the noodles he was literally stunned by the flavor.  I was happy I made a good choice, though I certainly didn't consider the food that overwhelming.  Indeed, Gerald shared most of his charshu with the other crew members and they all went wild, too.   
Since the series is named after Tso of General Tso's Chicken, Gerald asked for my opinions of the dish.  I think he was surprised when I told him that General Tso's Chicken is not very common in California, having been pre-empted by orange chicken.  Indeed, Panda Express, which probably pre-empted General Tso's Chicken from being widely found in California, did subsequently add General Tso's Chicken to its menu, but then quickly removed it.  I recounted how when we were setting up my interview several years ago for the In Search of General Tso movie, the director initially wanted to film at a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley that served General Tso's Chicken, I had to inform him that such a restaurant didn't exist for two reasons.  First of all there were virtually no Americanized Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.  And secondly, General Tso's Chicken was not commonly found in California.
At this point they said my part was over and I could leave. After that I left, while the rest of them went into the kitchen to shoot their feature on Pearl River Deli. 
In addition, during the Hop Woo portion of the shoot, Gerald mentioned that they were planning an additional taping session on Sunday morning for all of the people they would be interviewing during the week, sort of an informal wrap-up of the Tso'l Food edition from Los Angeles.  They first suggested someplace in Chinatown, but I commented that the food in Chinatown really paled to that in the San Gabriel Valley, so they agreed a San Gabriel Valley venue would be more appropriate.   However, as I then pointed out it would be difficult finding a Chinese restaurant which would reserve you a large table around 11 am on a Sunday morning, probably the primest of prime time for large Chinese restaurants, plus permit the disruption of their business with the camera crew.  A couple of days later, they sent me a message that they were able to reserve a table at Mr. Champion, a Hong Kong style breakfast restaurant in Arcadia, so I was glad they figured that part out.
Arriving at Mr. Champion Sunday morning, I wondered how many people would show up.  For sure Johnny Lee wouldn't since Sunday was one was one of the four or five days a week that Pearl River Deli was open.  Though I arrived a little after 11am, I was the first guest to arrive, and was told to sit at a card table sized table set up in front of the restaurant.  Then Gay Yuen, Chair of the Board of the Chinese American History Museum of Los Angeles, who had done a video segment on the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles came a few minutes later--and that was it.  Not surprisingly, all of the other interviewees for the week were hard at work that Sunday morning, so it was just Gerald and the two of us.   I introduced myself to Gay, who said "I know who you are!"   I knew who she was, too, since she went to Marshall High School at the same time ("Yay, Marshall! she said) as Mrs. Chandavkl, and they shared common friends.  We had a very nice conversation about the Chinese in Los Angeles, Chinese food, our meal of fish cheung fun, dried shrimp cheung fun, you tiao, a.k.a. Chinese crullers and beef brisket lo mein (see Gerald's Instagram post below), and other related topics.  (Gay also gave everyone enough pu-er tea to produce several pots, in a tangerine peel wrapper.) I asked Gerald how they would manage to put all the raw tape together into a coherent product, and how long it would take.  He said the first step would be for the production team to transcribe the entire audio, then they would start snipping and putting things together, going through numerous drafts and kicking around ideas, a process that would probably take weeks.  It will be interesting to see what portion of that conversation makes it in to the final show, as well as all the other tape they shot with me.   The session ended when Gerald and his crew had to pack up to do a shoot by the Hollywood sign, ironic since I headed home in the exact same direction.


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

What We Ate In Honolulu

The great thing about having foodie kids is that they can take you to great restaurants that you never would think of going to yourself.  This was doubly so if you go with them on a food eating vacation like we did with my daughter and her husband a few years ago on an eating trip to Hong Kong.  This time we tagged along as they went to Honolulu on a six day eating expedition.  Due to COVID issues and the rush for mainlanders to visit Hawaii, many restaurants were reservation only.  Upon landing on a Tuesday, and after battling our way through Honolulu Airport's COVID clearance process, we arrived late for lunch at our first destination, The Surfing Pig in the Waielae-Kahala area east of Waikiki.  It was in an interesting neighborhood with a nice mix of Asian ethnic restaurants.  Before they seated us, they took our temperatures and had us fill out what turned out to be a contact tracing form, which turned out to be a routine part of most of our restaurant visits, though this one was the most elaborate.  The Surfing Pig is part of the Kono Group, a small chain of restaurants in Hawaii which also has a location in Las Vegas.

The loco moco was terrific, as was the bed of fried rice.

The chicken waffles were also very good.


Tuesday dinner was on King St. at Sushi Izakaya Gaku, set at 5pm like most of our dinners because of baby Jemma's schedule.  Given that lunch ended after 2pm because of our airport delay, plus slow service at lunch, that left a small gap until dinnertime.  Nevertheless the dinner was great starting with the kanpachi.

 Don't remember ever eating sushi better than what was served here.

 Equally tasty was the miso butterfish.  Of course this wasn't ordinary food but the $65 per person was well worth it.


Wednesday's lunch was at Wagaya Ramen, one of the few unreserved meals on the trip.  We arrived at the restaurant early to sign in, then waited until the restaurant opened, at which time there were almost enough patrons to fill the small restaurant. This was the best of the best as far as trip meals were concerned.  The Wagaya ramen shiro was out of the world, even better than Tsujita in Los Angeles.  


And the tempera corn appetizer was certainly something we've never seen.


At dinner time we drove to the nearby Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin, which was reserved two months in advance, for their signature Kurobota pork tonkatsu.  They only prepare only 10 portions of this dish every day, so it pays to reserve an early table.  Frankly, the tonkatsu was great, but the Kurobota pork loin was too fatty for its own good.

The regular pork tonkatsu platter was actually much better.  


After dinner we headed to Ice Monster, the only US branch of the Taiwanese shaved ice chain, which we had been dreaming of since our November, 2019 trip to Taiwan, and in my pre-trip scouting had discovered was only 250 feet away from the Hyatt Centric where we were staying.  Ice Monster's shaved ice is unique since it is made from a block of ice that already has the flavoring infused.  Better than Matsumoto's north shore ice.   The mango and strawberry ices were a hit with everybody.


Thursday's lunch was a short drive away at Jade Dynasty in the Ala Moana Shopping Center, my designated Chinese restaurant for the trip.  We started off with their crispy baked bbq pork buns, which were hot out of the even and as good as anybody's.  

The rest of the dim sum was passable by San Gabriel Valley standards, with the deep fried green shrimp chive balls being the most interesting.  

The seldom seen scallop cheung fun were just ordinary.

Another seldom seem variety, deep fried fish balls, were quite good.

Jade Dynasty may have overdone it with the deep frying, as I did not expect the tiger shrimp bean curd rolls to be deep fried.  Not that they were bad.

Likewise Jade Dynasty's Seafood Corn Pancakes were deep fried.


Thursday night was our night to babysit Jemma so we went to find ramen for Jemma to eat around the hotel.  This turned out to be more difficult than anticipated.  The ramen stall at the Kuhio Food Hall in the International Marketplace (now an upscale shopping mall rather than the outdoor bazaar it used to be) never reopened from the pandemic.  Then there was the Japanese food court across the hotel on Seaway, but that entire operation shut down, too.  Apparently while Waikiki seemed as busy as always, most of the current tourists are domestic, with few international tourists from Japan who would be looking for ramen.  Fortunately, a clerk at one of the stores mentioned a ramen place in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Mall which I had visited earlier in the week while scouting out the local branch of Tim Ho Wan, so I was able to kill two birds with one stone.  However, the ramen from Kazan Ramen Express wasn't very good.

I am definitely not a fan of the US branches of Tim Ho Wan, which aside from their signature crispy baked BBQ pork buns has nothing else on the Manhattan or Irvine branch menu that approaches what you get in the Hong Kong locations of the restaurant.  Of course there are always the crispy baked BBQ pork buns, so I was certainly looking forward to these.  While good, strangely I found myself slightly preferring the similar item from lunchtime at Jade Dynasty.  No complaints though.

I had heard that the Tim Ho Wan lava custard buns were pretty good, too.  So never having ordered that dish previously, I decided to try it.  It was quite good, though there are a lot of Chinese restaurants that make this dish as well or better.

The real surprise was the char shu chow mein which I ordered basically just to complete the dinner order.  It was actually quite good, with the highest quality cha shu I've had in that dish.

Friday's lunch was scheduled for Marukame Udon's original Honolulu branch, and since this was a stand-in-line restaurant we planned to arrive at 10:45am and wait in line.  Leaving the hotel at 10:25am, I decided to check out the location first just to see exactly where it was, before walking around the area.  That was a lucky decision because as we walked by there were already three dozen people in line, so we jumped in right away.  By the time the restaurant opened at 11am there were probably 80 or more people in line.  Though we had not been overly impressed by the Los Angeles area branches, the udon at Marukume in Honolulu was great and well worth the wait.  Both the regular beef and curry udon were fantastic. 
Friday's dinner was early because it was a late afternoon luau at the Experience Nutridge, at the Nutridge Estate on Round Top Drive in Honolulu.  We arrived late at 4:30pm, but did arrive in time for the official start of the event.  They had shows and demonstrations which were very interesting, with tales of wild pigs eating everything in sight and having to protect the macadamia nuts with metal wraps on the tree trunks.  Menu was short but very good with pulled pork, bbq chicken, Lau Lau, sweet rolls and coconut jelly highlighting the dinner.  From what I was told thus was unusually good quality food for a touristy luau.

Saturday was a pleasant surprise for me because while there were no Chinese meals planned for the trip except Jade Dynasty, both meals ended up being in Chinatown.  Lunch was at a Korean fusion restaurant called O'Kim's Korean Kitchen.  Waiting for food to be served I took a quick walk to Hotel St. and Maunakea St. in hopes of finding a shop selling manapua, the Hawaiian version of a baked bbq pork bun, slightly different from what we get here.  I did quickly find Bread House, but unfortunately they were sold out of manupua so I had to settle for a coconut tart.  Interestingly this picture received more Instagram "likes" than most of my non-Chinese food postings.

O'Kim's had an interesting menu.  This was the Korean fried chicken with gnocchi nuts.

This was the pork belly confit.

Kalbi beef.

Surprisingly the best entree was the unassuming looking seaweed salmon.

But the real highlight was corn on the cub which really wasn't, but rather corn ice cream made with a mold that looked like corn on the cob.


For dinner we headed back to Chinatown and Lucky Belly, literally around the corner from O'Kim.   Lucky Belly had an interesting complement of appetizers with the signature dish being the oxtail dumplings.

 Personally I was more partial to the crispy duck tacos


The pork belly buns were a decent version of gua bao.


Here's the lobster siu mai.  


I thought all the appetizers were better than their signature monster ramen bowl with brisket and oxtail won ton, which was pretty good though. 


Sunday lunch was at a Vietnamese restaurant, Piggie Smalls, the second branch of the acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, The Pig and The Lady. The main attraction as Piggy Smalls was the french dip pho, a brisket on a french roll, with the dipping sauce being a flavorful pho broth with optional pho.  Certainly an innovative and delicious dish.  

 The giant chicken wings looked better than they tasted.  


Since this was our last full day in Honolulu, I wanted to find a li hing/crackseed store before going home, if I could.  As it turns out, the only one anywhere close to the hotel turned out just a block away from Piggy Smalls.  So after lunch it was a quick walk to Lin’s Hawaiian Snacks which was full of products like li hing gummy bears, powdered li hing, mui, ginger and other dried snacks.   


And just a half block away was It's Tea, which had some interesting flavored drinks including lilikoi green tea and pineapple Earl Gray.


Dinner was at Roy’s, which was much better than the Mainland branches.  Dinner started with an absolutely fabulous appetizer, particularly the ahi poke tuna, shown here with the Hong Kong crab cakes.


The salmon, and macadamia crusted catch of the day were quite good.  But by far the star of the show was the signature misoyaki butterfish.  The most delicious fish dish I have ever eaten.

However the recommended mochi crusted catch of the day was entirely ordinary.  A real disappointment and it's hard to figure out why it was recommended so highly by the waiter.

Since it was my birthday earlier in the month I was rewarded with this birthday dessert.

All in all a great meal at Roy's, though probably not worth the almost $100 per person.

Last food in Honolulu before flying out Monday was ahi poke from the Coco Cove store on Kalakaua Ave.  First, spicy.

Then non spicy, much better.

And don't forget snacks on the plane from the imaginary Pau Hana Cafe, the brand name used by Hawaiian Airlines for their onboard food.  Hey, any free airline food on a domestic flight is appreciated.