Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Lazy Man's Way To Attend The Rose Parade

The Tournament of Roses parade on New Year's day is indeed one of the great spectacles of Southern California.  It probably has singlehandedly brought more migrants to the Los Angeles area than any other factor.  As I previously wrote, it might rain on December 31, it might rain on January 2, but it never rains in Pasadena on January 1 when the parade is telecast to an otherwise freezing country.  (OK, it did rain once in the last 60 years on January 1.)

But as worthy of an event the parade might be, it can truly be a hassle to see it in person.  I remember once getting up in what seemed to be the middle of the night, driving to Pasadena,  looking for parking on the residential streets, then being totally confused when looking for my seats, barely being seated before the parade started.  And many thousands of others camp out overnight to watch the parade from the curb.   (Despite the sunshine at parade time, temperatures can still get quite nippy overnight.)

However, as I subsequently learned, there is another way to see the parade in person, which is almost laughable as to the lack of time and effort that it requires.  The parade route is quite long and I believe it takes almost two hours for the parade to reach the end. If you catch the parade route after it turns north from Colorado Blvd. onto Sierra Madre Bl., you'll find that the crowd is only a few people deep. And the start of the parade doesn't reach that point until 10 am which means you can sleep in and still go to the parade.

A couple of times we actually watched the first half of the parade on TV, then drove over to the end of the parade route and saw the whole thing in person. At that time of day it was clear sailing on the freeway since it was too early for Rose Bowl game traffic, while everyone attending the parade arrived a long time before and was safely parked.  Parking at this part of the parade route was pretty good.  We parked on the streets north of Colorado and west of Sierra Madre Bl., and probably had no more than a three block walk to the parade.

So if you've been deterred from seeing the parade after watching the TV news interviews of people camped out on the sidewalk, or the cost of grandstand seats, there is a better way.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Best Chinese Food In the U.S. Is In Las Vegas? I Don't Think So.

Recently I’ve seen comments made that the best Chinese food in America can be found in Las Vegas.  While I agree that Las Vegas serves the most expensive Chinese food in the US, and that some of this expensive food is quite good, one cannot say that Chinese food in Las Vegas' restaurants tops that in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, or even a few other cities. 

My suspicion that the comments elevating the status of Las Vegas Chinese food are attributable to a comment made several years ago by Ruth Reichl of the New York Times.  In an interview she did say that the best Chinese food in the US was in Las Vegas.  However she qualified her statement significantly by saying she was referring to private invitation dinners provided by the casinos to their high roller Chinese clientele.  And clearly at the time she made that statement, the high quality Chinese food designation clearly did not extend to Chinese restaurants open to the public, nor does it do so today.

Now there is good and authentic Chinese food to be found in Las Vegas, particularly since the construction of the Las Vegas Chinatown mall on Spring Mountain Blvd. in 1995.  Actually there had been better than average Chinese food available in Las Vegas for quite a while.  At one point probably 25 or 30 years ago it had been noted by the L.A. Times that a number of casinos served top notch Chinese food, but only after midnight.  Presumably this was to satisfy Chinese high rollers who gambled through the night.  Then as the Las Vegas Chinese community grew in the early 1990s, a few authentic Chinese restaurants started to open up away from the Strip, such as Emperor’s Table on Decatur and Chinese Garden on Sahara.  With the opening of Chinatown Plaza with its roster of  Los Angeles based Chinese restaurants including Sam Woo BBQ, 1 6 8, Plum Tree Inn and D.D.’s CafĂ©, Las Vegas had truly arrived as a city having a selection of authentic Chinese food choices.

Interestingly, Las Vegas continues to attract Los Angeles area Chinese restaurants that set up branches there.  And we’re not talking about large, widely known Chinese restaurants, but rather smaller, niche players, like Shaanxi Gourmet, Dong Ting, Kim Tar and Yunnan Garden.  Meanwhile, in the casinos on the Strip, virtually every hotel has opened at least one, if not two Chinese restaurants on premises.  An interesting concept was the establishment of branches of well known existing Chinese restaurants in the casinos, such as Cathay House, K J Dim Sum, Sea Harbour (via Vancouver and Los Angeles) and Royal Star (via Santa Monica, and known as Ocean Star in Monterey Park).   However, the experiment seems not to have worked as K J Dim Sum in the Rio appears to be the only one still operating.    

I'm sure that existing restaurants were used by the casinos to attract Chinese Americans familiar with these restaurants, which seemed like a winning strategy.   Indeed, opening a branch of Sea Harbour, likely the best Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area and one of the better Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, in Caesar’s Palace seemed like a sure thing.   One can only speculate what went wrong as the restaurant never had much success from day one.   The reviews were bad from the start and the complaints about the pricing were loud.   My guess is that they tweaked the menu to appeal to non-Chinese diners and marketed it as a highly upscale restaurant.  In so doing they alienated their core followers as to both quality and price.  Meanwhile the brand name was meaningless to the non-Chinese who had never heard of them. 

In the casinos the question is whether any of the upscale Chinese restaurants that have opened up are authentically good.   In at least one case, Hakkasan in the MGM, the answer is yes.  Since its rollout in Manhattan a couple of years ago, Hakkasan has advanced the concept of upscale but authentic Cantonese food in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas, and has done it so well it makes one wonder why nobody did it before.  Whether this will be a growing trend in Las Vegas or not is the $64 question.   Wing Lei which opened up in the Wynn a few years ago has a Michelin star, but its menu is decidedly inauthentic, plus apparently they lost the star chef who originally opened up the restaurant.  So for now, we’re still waiting for great Chinese food to arrive in Las Vegas at multiple venues accessible to us mere mortals.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chinese Foodie Night Comments

For those of you who could not attend SCCLA's Chinese foodie presentation, here are my remarks.

Now I know that some of you have read about me as the crazy lawyer who’s eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants, but I’m sure that a lot of you have not, so I will make my remarks on the presumption that you haven’t heard about me.  I had been dining in anonymity for decades.  Then last year, a food writer named Clarissa Wei, who’s sitting right here, found out that I kept an Excel schedule showing the 6,000 Chinese restaurants I had eaten at.  She asked me if anybody had ever written me up and I replied no, why would anybody want to?  She interviewed me and the story ran on the LA Weekly website.  That item was quickly picked up by the Huffington Post,, went viral  around the world, including the Chinese language press, and a whole bunch of celebrity gossip websites, all of which I found quite befuddling except to wonder if there was a new category of public figure called celebrity diner. 

That led to an all expense paid visit to Springfield, Missouri for me and my wife Mary to sample Springfield’s signature cashew chicken at several Chinese restaurants and have our picture taken with the restaurant owners, plus the mayor of Branson gave us the key to the city.  Eventually the furor died down, until this past April when the Los Angeles Times ran its Column One story written by Frank Shyong on my spreadsheet, complete with interactive timeline map of where I ate over the years.     This was followed a feature on the Yahoo News and Good Morning America websites leading to another 15 seconds of fame.  The end result is I have 850 Twitter followers, a Chinese restaurant column on a restaurant website called Menuism, and field requests from strangers asking questions like what’s the best Chinese restaurant in Cincinnati.  To my horror, casual responses to three such short questions ended up as newspaper articles, or in one case, an article on the Canadian Broadcasting Company website so I've learned to always be careful to watch what I say.

At this point I need to issue a disclaimer.   People hear that I have eaten at 6,000  Chinese restaurants and they all assume I’m a foodie and Chinese food expert.  I am not a foodie.  Eric Chan here is a foodie—he takes pictures of all his restaurant meals.  I do not.  My daughter Christina, who is also a lawyer, is a foodie.   When she went to Asia last year and sent us the link to her photos, I found that 80 percent of the pictures were of food.  When I travel, I only take pictures of the scenery.   And I’m no Chinese food expert as sometimes I don’t even know what’s in the Chinese food I’m eating.

Now the fact that I am not a foodie is quite significant, because when I started this journey, it certainly wasn’t about the food and in many respects it still isn’t.  Rather, as the L.A. Times article focused on, it was about a different kind of search.   Because as a Chinese American I grew up in a Los Angeles far different from what most of you are familiar with.  A Los Angeles where Asians, or as we were called back then, Orientals, were under one percent of the population, a mere  20,000 Chinese, not 500,000 like today.   We were such a rarity that when I started my first job one of the other new hires thought I was Mexican because he had never met a Chinese person before.   It was a time when, because of decades of anti-Chinese immigration laws, virtually all of the Chinese residents in America had roots in the seven counties of rural Toishan outside of the city of Canton.  A Chinese community largely comprised of illegal immigrants and their descendants, like three of my grandparents who came to America illegally.  A Los Angeles where many neighborhoods, not just San Marino but places like Glendale, South Pasadena, Inglewood, and parts of the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles were off limits to Chinese Americans and other minorities.  And a Los Angeles where as a little boy I didn’t eat much Chinese food because I found the Chinese food of the day to be largely unpalatable because it wasn’t particularly good. 

For me the triggering event on my journey was the ethnic studies movement that was born in the late 1960s. In my last quarter as an undergraduate at UCLA, they offered the very first Asian American studies class.   Immediately I was captivated by the topic of the experience of Chinese people in the United States. There was a dearth of material on the topic, such that a novice like myself who was studying to become an accountant could write a term paper on the history of the Chinese of Los Angeles and immediately have it published in the budding ethnic press. That same person could then go on KNX radio, KCBS television and speak at conferences as a so called "expert" on the subject, and even be keynote speaker at one of the very first Asian Pacific American Heritage month events in Los Angeles, quite laughable given that my credentials consisted of having taken all of two university level classes in Asian American studies.

My interest in food  developed a little later, after the convergence of three factors when I started to work and travel. First of all, I made the acquaintance of friends at work from Hong Kong, who showed a passion for food that I had never encountered before.   My Hong Kong friends had been the vanguard of the late 1960s immigration of Chinese from Hong Kong to the United States, when the American immigration laws changed to permit Chinese to come here in large numbers, and the new residents brought their food with them. This upgrade in Chinese food sparked an interest in me, as this new and exciting form of Chinese food was so much better than what I was used to. Finally, I started to travel around the United States, and made it a point to eat at Chinese restaurants to the extent possible, as part of a greater interest in seeing what Chinese residents and communities were like throughout the United States. Indeed my one and only published restaurant review written in 1977, of Hong Kong Restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa was as much about the setting of the restaurant near the Sioux Bee Honey factory as the food itself.   And to this day, eating  Chinese food while traveling is part of my greater desire to experience various Chinese American and Canadian communities.

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My 15 Seconds Of Celebrity

These days it seems that new categories of celebrities are popping up all the time.  Celebrity doctors, celebrity chefs, celebrity real estate agents, celebrity plumbers, you name it, fueled in good part by reality TV shows.

The reason I mention this is that I've been swept up, at least peripherally, by the current cult of celebrity.  In a way it's appropriate since I live in a neighborhood populated by celebrities, with my next door neighbor being the director of "Dancing With The Stars".   When I yelled at a guy for blocking the street in front of my house his response was "Do you know who I am?"  (No, I didn't.)   Eva Mendes lives a few hundred yards down the hill as the crow flies, and from my bedroom I can see Selma Blair's baby daddy's house.  (His wi-fi connection sometimes shows up on my computer.)  In our same tract Brad Pitt has his Hollywood compound, Nicolas Cage had one of his pre-liquidation homes, and Adam Levine just sold his property.    And years ago Cary Grant and Randolph Scott shared their bachelor estate not far away.

So where do I fit in with all this?  Well unless you accidentally came through the door or are one of my family or friends, the reason you are reading this can be traced to food writer Clarissa Wei who wrote her LA Weekly food section article on me as the crazy lawyer who had eaten at 6000 Chinese restaurants.  Fine, I could see how that would be mildly interesting to foodies.  Even when Huffington Post picked the story up that made some sense since they have a dining section.  What didn't make sense was when picked the story up on their homepage, having it as top item in their headline section for 2 hours until it was bumped by a story about Britney Spears.  That in turn led to numerous celebrity gossip websites republishing the story.

So for 15 seconds I was a celebrity.  But what kind of celebrity could I be considered?  Well when you think about it, I'm not a food critic as I've only published one restaurant review in my life, and that was 35 years ago.  I'm not a Chinese food expert as I often have no idea what's in the Chinese food I've eaten.  I'm not even a foodie because I don't photograph any of my meals.  So what does that make me?  Apparently, America's first celebrity diner!   Only in Hollywood I guess.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Gentrification of Manhattan Chinatown

Ever since Chinese immigration to the United States was once again legalized nearly 50 years ago, the Chinese population in this country has skyrocketed.  A byproduct of this has been the growth of the existing American urban Chinatowns well past their original boundaries, such as in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Manhattan.  The effect has been especially evident in Manhattan as Chinatown has gobbled up territory formerly part of a number of other neighborhoods, particularly Little Italy and the Lower East Side. 

Until recently, it appeared that this territorial expansion might be never ending.   But all of a sudden, it appears that Manhattan Chinatown is no longer growing, but in fact is giving back some of its territory.  While I just realized this during my recently completed trip to New York, it appears this trend has been percolating for at least a short while.  My focus on this change was brought forth by my stay at the Wyndham Garden Hotel on Broadway, at the edge of the Little Fuzhou portion of Manhattan Chinatown.  Somehow I had missed the fact that this hotel opened up last November, even though I walked by there in February, March, and again in June.  But the fact that this new hotel was built still didn’t signal any alarms, even though a low income Chinese apartment house was torn down to make way for the Wyndham..  What did ring the alarms was staying in the hotel, and realizing that only a small portion of the guests were Chinese, with the largest portion of the guests being European tourists.  Now there’s nothing wrong with European tourists staying in Chinatown, as my favorite place to stay, the Royal Pacific in San Francisco Chinatown, has plenty.  But the Royal Pacific has as many, if not more Chinese guests than non-Chinese guests. 

Walking in and out of the hotel several times and seeing the activity in the lobby and lounge, the vibe of the hotel was clearly SoHo, not Chinatown.  And the Wyndham is not the only new hotel in the area, with newly built Howard Johnson and Fairfield Hotels on Allen St. near Broadway at the eastern edge of Little Fuzhou.  After staying at the Wyndham, I’ll bet those hotels also have few Chinese guests.  But the bigger tell tale sign as to what’s going on in this hood appears across the street from the Wyndham at the newspaper shack, where they now sell copies of the New York Post and New York Times.  Words cannot express my shock at seeing these publications being sold in Chinatown.

Meanwhile, changes are also occurring at the other end of Chinatown.  With the Canal Street counterfeit merchandise trade being decimated by action by both the police and the designers whose merchandise was being ripped off, the north side of Canal Street between Broadway and Lafayette has gone through a stunning change.  Not only did Bank of America take over the northeast corner of Broadway and Canal, which was ground zero for fake Louis purses, but a large Verizon store has moved next door.  And in the middle of the block, a large So Ho style store has been opened,  called Necessary Clothing.  Word is that real estate developers have plans to turn the entire block into an extension of SoHo (or perhaps more accurately, reclaiming territory previously lost to Chinatown). For those who remember all the narrow, deep storefronts on that block of Canal St. with the good stuff hidden way in the back or upstairs, this is a development that is hard to fathom.  A few of those stores are still left, but for how long?


Monday, August 26, 2013

My Good Deed For The Day

Recently I received a call from a friend of mine whose son just moved to New York City as an entry level employee at the Manhattan office of my firm.  When my friend called and asked for a personal favor for his son, I thought it was some kind of personnel issue.  However, as my friend explained it, he received a distressed call from his son, who went downstairs to the eatery in the bottom of his Times Square building, and found to his horror that a small fruit cup was selling for $8.  At that rate, his son said couldn’t afford to eat out at work, so could I provide some tips on finding affordable food?

I told my friend that the good thing about being Chinese and liking Chinese food is that the Chinese believe that even poor people deserve to eat delicious food.  Consequently, despite a much greater concentration of poorer people in New York Chinatown than any other Chinese community in North America, you can get good and economical Chinese food in New York Chinatown, probably cheaper than anywhere else in the US.  Indeed there are decent Chinese restaurants in Little Fuzhou where nothing on the menu is greater than $5.

But first I had to explain there are really two parts to New York Chinatown.  First is the original, Cantonese, tourist imbedded Chinatown, south of Canal St. and west of Bowery.  Then there is Little Fuzhou, east of Bowery and centered on East Broadway.  Little Fuzhou is populated almost exclusively by immigrants from Fujian province.  There are virtually no Fujianese in California, the reason being that most of them came to the US illegally, making their initial landing in New York.  Being undocumented they can't travel anywhere by airplane, and are forced to travel by bus in and out of Little Fuzhou.  The Fujianese probably run the majority of Chinese restaurants east of the Mississippi River.

From Times Square you could take the Q, N or R trains to Canal Street and find yourself on Canal and Broadway in Chinatown.  However, that puts you at the west end of the original part of Chinatown, several blocks away from any concentrations of Chinese restaurants.  The better option is to walk east on 42nd St. to the Bryant Park subway station to catch the B or D train.  It's probably just a 10 to 15 minute ride to Grand St., and when you come out of the subway station you're on the corner  of Grand St. and Chrystie.  There are probably at least 300 Chinese restaurants and bakeries in Chinatown so there's plenty to choose from.  If you walk east on Grand a couple of blocks over to Eldridge, you will find a number of dumpling shops that sell fried dumplings at four for $1, along with all kinds of similar items (e.g., onion pancakes, flat bread sandwiches, etc.).  Prosperity Dumpling at 46 Eldridge is the best of the bunch, but there are many others.  Panda Dumpling House, 67 Eldridge has a nice selection of dumplings and Chinese sandwiches.  Spicy Village, 68 Forsyth (quite near the Grand St. station) has been discovered by hipsters for their hand pulled noodles.  Spicy Village is probably a little more expensive because they have been discovered.  There are many cheap hand pulled noodle places in the area, too.

If you head  south from the Grand St. station, you can check out Lee Chung Cafe and Poon Kee, mentioned in my recent article on new restaurants in Manhattan Chinatown, for good and very inexpensive eats.     Nearby along Market St., south of East Broadway, I found two restaurants with ridiculously cheap food.  Both Bamboo Restaurant and Good Good Taste offer a full sized order of peanut sesame noodles (fills a standard sized styrofoam container), plus a cup of soup, for $2.00.  (And it was delicious.)   I'm sure there are many other places like that in the immediate area.

Also worth trying are a couple of places in the article that are on Mott St., Cha Chang Tang and Noodle Village.  And an old favorite on the border of old and new Chinatown is Great N. Y. Noodletown at 28 Bowery.   

This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as New York Chinatown goes.  Some of the places, even in Little Fuzhou, can be expensive.  But there is a lot of less costly and good food to be found there too.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Chinese Stomach Changing The Face of High End Los Angeles Shopping Malls

Among the communities in the Los Angeles area where one would not expect to find authentic Chinese food are Glendale, Costa Mesa, Century City and Culver City.  This is because of the relatively sparse numbers of Chinese residents in the immediate area that would appreciate more authentic Chinese food.  Yet, within the next few months, all of these communities will have purveyors of authentic Chinese food, and all within the confines of the regional shopping mall in these areas, a far cry from the days when we went to the mall for an Orange Julius.

In my recent Menuism article, I discussed the phenomenon referred to as the Chinese stomach.  The Chinese stomach describes the situation where Chinese tourists traveling abroad will seek out local sources of Chinese food, even bad Chinese food, rather than eating the cuisine of the host country.  The Chinese stomach is something that has always existed and you can read that article for the possible reasons.

But what has changed in recent months is the surge of upscale Chinese tourists visiting the shopping malls of Los Angeles.  At the fanciest area shopping malls, such as South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Chinese tourists have become so conspicuous that every upscale designer store has one or more Chinese speaking staff to serve these tourists.  And as the Los Angeles Times reported last year, these Chinese tourists were vociferous about the lack of Chinese dining options in the mall.  In order to placate their Chinese clientele, South Coast Plaza sought to establish an authentic Chinese restaurant in their mall, and came up with a real prize, Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese based chain best known for its xioalongbao, sometimes known as soup dumplings.  Din Tai Fung only has three American locations, two in Arcadia, CA within yards of each other, and the third in Seattle.  Chinese Americans in the San Francisco Bay area and in New York City have been clamoring for their own branch of Din Tai Fung.  But the next Din Tai Fung is coming to South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

Mere days after the announcement of Din Tai Fung's upcoming branch in Costa Mesa came the announcement of  another Din Tai Fung--in the ritzy Americana Shopping Mall in Glendale.  By ordinary standards this announcement was stunning.  While there were no authentic Chinese restaurants in Costa Mesa, reflecting the demographics of the immediate area, there is a large Chinese population in nearby Orange County communities.  But there is no Chinese community anywhere near Glendale, and the only authentic Chinese restaurant that dared to open up in Glendale, Chang Woo BBQ, shut down years ago.   But the Chinese stomach explains it all.  Strangely, however, the Glehdale Din Tai Fung apparently will only serve xiaolongbao on weekends.

Not to be outdone, the Century City Shopping Mall has lined up Meizhou Dongpo to open up in the next few weeks.  Meizhou Dongpo is a Chinese restaurant chain based in Beijing, and their Century City mall branch will be their first American location.  Since Meizhou Dongpo specializes in the spicy food of Sichuan province, it will be interesting to see how their menu will or will not be altered.  And props should be given to the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, hardly in the same upscale category as South Coast Plaza, the Americana or Century City mall, which two years ago had the foresight to open up a branch of San Gabriel Valley's 101 Noodle Express on their premises, despite the lack of any critical mass of Chinese constituents in the area.

And the Chinese stomach is marching beyond the regional shopping mall.  Universal Studios in Universal City has added Chinese selections to the menus at many of their restaurants.  Like the regional malls, Universal Studios wants to make sure that their Chinese tourists don't leave the premises in search of a Chinese meal, and not to return.  And a nondescript Chinese restaurant in Los Feliz has a separate Chinese menu for Chinese tourists visiting nearby Griffith Park.