Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can The Westside of Los Angeles Support Great Authentic Chinese Food?

One of the factors in my becoming willing to drive significant distances for Chinese food was working for 30 years on the Westside of Los Angeles.   When I first showed up for work there it was a wasteland as far as Chinese food was concerned.  Chinese food was defined by restaurants such as Wan Q, Kowloon, Madame Wu, Twin Dragon and Jade West.  Consequently I became quite used to making the trek from my Century City office to Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley at lunch time back in the days when it was a breeze to drive across town at lunch.

More recently it has been posited that if a signature San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant were to open somewhere in West LA, that they would clean up.  This is based on a perceived increase in the sophistication of Westsiders towards Chinese food, as well as a larger Chinese Westside presence including a large Chinese student population at UCLA.  However, others have replied to the contrary with words like don't be fooled by the number of knowledgeable Westsiders who understand and appreciate San Gabriel Valley Chinese food as indicated by their participation in Chinese restaurant discussions on message boards such as Chowhound.   In reality, the argument goes, there really aren't enough such Westsiders to actually support a branch of a high quality authentic Chinese restaurant on that side of town.  This position seems to be supported by the fact that while there is certainly a large amount of discussion of top San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants by non-Chinese commentators, if you actually walk into any of those restaurants, the presence of non-Chinese diners is negligible.

Thus it was with great anticipation that Newport Seafood, one of the very most popular Chinese (actually Chinese/Vietnamese) restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley was opening up a branch on La Cienega's Restaurant Row.  To Westsiders, the impending opening of the restaurant was earthshaking news, and would prove that the Westside's taste for Chinese food had matured to the point where one no longer had to make the trek to Monterey Park or San Gabriel to get the real thing.  Perhaps New Port Seafood (notice the variation in the name of the Beverly Hills branch) would be followed by other San Gabriel Valley heavyweights.  Din Tai Fung?  Sea Harbour?  Why not?

However, so far, things have not gone as planned.  It was widely expected that when it opened, New Port Seafood would be one of the toughest tickets in town.  But even at the very beginning the restaurant was never full.  In fear of the crowds, I had deferred my first visit until a month after opening.  When I arrived, was I surprised.  Only one or other two tables were occupied the entire time we were there.  Subsequent reports indicate crowds have not improved on weekday afternoons, despite the fact that the food at New Port Seafood in Beverly Hills is quite good.

This is not to say that there is not good authentic Chinese food on the Westside.  Certainly Hakkasan in Beverly Hills is as good as it gets, but it's also as expensive as it gets and seems to be aimed at the expense account crowd.  A number of other authentic Chinese restaurants are doing OK on the Westside--Meizhou Dongpo, the first branch of a Beijing based chain, in Century City, Mandarin Kitchen and Qin West on Westwood Blvd., ROC and M J Cafe Express on the Sawtelle corridor, and Formerly California Wok on Wilshire, to name some of them.    But the disappointing reaction to New Port Seafood still seems to indicate that the Westside still isn't ready for prime time.

Note that about 20 years ago there were similar hopes for authentic Chinese food on the Westside.  J.R. Seafood, a true Hong Kong style seafood restaurant opened up on Santa Monica Blvd., followed by VIP Harbor Seafood (a branch of San Gabriel's Harbor Seafood) on Wilshire Blvd., and Royal Star (a branch of Monterey Park's Ocean Star) in Santa Monica.  Indeed, those three restaurants were of equivalent quality to the existing Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, and in fact observers thought VIP Harbor Seafood was better than the San Gabriel original.   But alas, VIP Harbor and J.R. Seafood have been replaced by watered down successors, and the Royal Star location is no longer even a Chinese restaurant.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Congress Shouldn't Be Allowed To Pass Tax Laws

Yes, I know that sounds silly since it's Congress' job to enact all kinds  of legislation, including tax laws.  However the manner in which they have done their job when it comes to taxation indicates a basic inability to properly carry this out.  Today, they enacted legislation governing the treatment of several dozen tax items for the year 2014.  Yes, two weeks before the end of the year they establish the rules that apply for the entire year.  Or to put it another way, affected taxpayers did not know during most of 2014 what the tax law treatment would ultimately be for these items. 

Making this more ridiculous is the fact that many of these tax provisions are incentives, intended to encourage taxpayers to make certain types of expenditures.  This includes credits and deductions for spending money on research and development, to develop alternative energy sources, to invest in new equipment, and so on.  And what kind of incentive is it if you award it after most of the year has passed and taxpayers have already decided to incur or not incur those expenditures?  Perhaps the most egregious example is this year's tax credit for energy efficient windows.  Not only is this "incentive" given retroactively to purchases already made in 2014, but almost every window sold in the United States today qualifies for the tax credit.  Talk about money for nothing!

And oh yeah.  Because it was well known that Congress might or might not enact these provisions, the IRS can't issue tax forms for 2014, and until the tax forms are issued, taxpayers can't file their tax returns.  Is this any way to run a tax system?  Of course not.  But does Congress care?  Of course not.  They do this at the end of every year.  Today's changes expire at December 31, 2014.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Are There So Few Chinese Buffets in Los Angeles?

People in Los Angeles may not be aware of it, but there aren’t a lot of Chinese buffets in Los Angeles when compared to other parts of the country.  Yes, there are probably a few dozen Chinese buffet restaurants in Los Angeles county.  But when one sees the numbers of Chinese buffet restaurants in other parts of the country and compares them on a per capita basis to Los Angeles, the differential is startling. 

Recently visiting Gainesville, FL, I passed a half dozen Chinese buffets in my half hour drive around town.  With a population of 120,000, that would project out to 500 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, based on a population of 10 million in Los Angeles county.   Or about 10 years ago, when in Kilgore, TX, I saw three Chinese buffet restaurants in this town of 15,000.  That ratio would result in 2,000 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, a number which likely would exceed the total number of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles, which has a half million Chinese residents.

So why are Chinese buffets so relatively scarce in Los Angeles?  Offhand I can think of a few reasons.  First of all, to a large extent, a Chinese buffet is a lowest common denominator as far as Chinese food is concerned.  Many of these Chinese buffets are in cities having a small Chinese population, and where the local residents are not as sophisticated as to Chinese food.   As such, Chinese buffets are well suited to serve the types of dishes that unsophisticated diners are used to, like chow mein, fried rice and broccoli beef, and as such represent a higher percentage of Chinese restaurants in those communities.   Indeed, if you look at other locales with larger Chinese populations and a higher level of community sophistication as to Chinese food, such as San Francisco and Manhattan, you find that Chinese buffets are also not as common.     Also, buffets are part of the longstanding image that equates Chinese food with economical dining with their emphasis on low cost ingredients, which was one of the initial appeals of Chinese food to American audiences.    Less obviously, geographic areas with a higher density of Chinese buffets are also within the Fujianese restaurant worker diaspora, with an extremely large supply of willing Chinese restaurant workers and restaurant owners.

Still it’s surprising not to see more Chinese buffets in Los Angeles.  With a large Chinese population sporting a culture that both enjoys food and getting your money’s worth, one would expect to find a good number of Chinese buffets serving authentic Chinese food.  But while such restaurants do exist, there are but a handful of them.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Proponents Of Sharply Higher Minimum Wage Are Incredibly Naive

Here on the west coast a number of cities are talking about increasing the minimum wage substantially over current levels, with amounts of $15 an hour or more being bandied about.  The simplistic argument is that raising the minimum wage means minimum wage workers will have a lot more money to spend, boosting the economy.  However, somehow having earned a bachelors degree in Economics eons ago, I can tell you that things are not that simple. 

First of all, for the most part, businesses are conduits for costs, i.e., the prices they charge are equal to their costs plus a small profit margin.   While many people have this idea that business profits are a large percentage of how much businesses charge for their products and services, that is usually not the case.  For example, historically supermarkets earn a net profit of 1% to 2% (i.e., 1 to 2 cents per dollar of sales).  Restaurant net profits run 3% to 5% of sales, and averaged about 1% of sales during the great recession.  (And how many people know that in the entire history of the airline industry, commercial airlines have a cumulative net loss?)  The corollary to this is that a significant increase in the minimum wage will by definition be passed on in its entirety to consumers in higher prices.  So any increase in the minimum wage will in reality come out of your pocket and my pocket.

Of course there's nothing necessarily wrong with that scenario.  It might me worth it for you and me to help finance a higher wage for low paid workers.  But alas, things are more complicated than that.  In economics there's a concept of marginal utility.  Basically economic inputs, such as labor, are priced at how much they are worth, and there is a limit as to how much any particular economic input is worth.  And frankly there are a lot of jobs out there that aren't worth $15 an hour to the employer, so for these jobs raising the minimum wage to $15 will not raise that worker's pay, but rather will send him straight to the unemployment line.  If this sounds like economic gobbledygook, check out this article on potential changes in the fast food industry.  While McDonald's is one of the major targets of the $15 minimum wage advocates, the fact is that McDonald's is hurting with unprecedented declines in earnings.  And raising the minimum wage sharply will mean that technologies that didn't make sense with a $8 minimum wage will suddenly become a no-brainer with a $15 minimum wage.  Or how can a hole in the wall family owned Chinese restaurant afford to pay its dishwashers and busboys $15 an hour?  Maybe they can't and they'll be driven out of business with a higher minimum wage.

So as the old saying admonishes, be careful of what you wish for.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Yelp Star Ratings For Chinese Restaurants Don't Fly

In my previous posting on the best Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles according to Yelp, I pointed out how the two highest Yelp ratings went to two hole-in-the-wall nondescript restaurants in mid-City Los Angeles that served Americanized Chinese food.  Granted that most of the really good Chinese restaurants in the region are outside of the city of Los Angeles, located in the many cities of the San Gabriel Valley.  But the fact is that Wah's Golden Hen on Virgil and Sea Dragon on Vermont  with 4½ stars each score higher on Yelp than most all of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.  This is what I described as the comparability fallacy on Yelp, i.e., the people rating Wah's Golden Hen were a completely different group from those rating Sea Harbour in Rosemead, likely the best Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area.

But the fact is that people giving ridiculously high ratings to places like Wah's Golden Hen are only half of the equation.  The other part of the equation is that while the San Gabriel Valley has many of the great Chinese restaurants in the United States, the best of these do not have more than 3½ Yelp stars.  From my listing of the top 10 Chinese restaurants in the US, I rate Sea Harbour in Rosemead at #2 (and likely #1 in the dim sum category).  But it only has 3½ Yelp stars.  Numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6 in my national list, Elite in Monterey Park, and King Hua, Lunasia and Chengdu Taste in Alhambra?  All 3½ stars.      

This is not to say that there are no higher rated Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.  Newport Seafood and Boston Lobster rate at 4½ stars, while New Bay Seafood garners 4 stars.  But all three of these restaurants are lobster specialists, which may well indicate that lobster is its own demographic when it comes to Yelp ratings.   And there are a number of other 4 star Yelp rated Chinese restaurants in the area, including the well deserved Savoy in Alhambra, but also in Alhambra the horrid Sam Woo BBQ.

So why are the ratings for many San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants lower than should be expected?  It's hard to say but a few things come to mind.   First of all there are low reviews from non-Chinese diners who may not know what to order, or who do not appreciate truly good authentic Chinese food.  There are people who downgrade for non-culinary reasons such as service (what do you expect at a Chinese restaurant?), higher than average price, or parking.   But what I think might be the hidden key is that while the Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is the best in the United States, it does not compare to Chinese food overseas.  As a result, I'm guessing many of the Chinese diners in the San Gabriel Valley are giving ratings when comparing to food they've eaten in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and other locales.   But whatever the reason, be aware that Yelp ratings for Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles are badly off kilter.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lights! Camera! Action!

I just had the opportunity to be interviewed for an upcoming documentary series on the current state of Chinese cuisine in North America titled "The Way of the Wok."  This six part series is being produced by Lucent Media of Canada, in conjunction with New Tang Dynasty, a Chinese language television network in Canada.  The producer hopes to also distribute the series also to public television stations in the US and Canada.  The six part series consists of an overview of Chinese food in North America, and separate shows on what are sometimes referred to as the five great cuisines of China--Cantonese, Huiyang, Shandong, Dongbei and Sichuan, and their current status in North America.

Like other interview requests, this one was attributed to the publicity I've received as the 6,000 Chinese restaurant diner.  In this regard, I really didn't read the fine print about the program's content until I arrived at the filming site, Chua Ren Bai Wei Restaurant, a newly opened restaurant in Temple City on the site of the former Beijing Duck House.  When I arrived there the film crew had also just arrived as was setting up.  It turns out there were 6 of them--the production assistant Carmen Poon, who was my contact, the producer Theresa Kowall-Shipp, the hostess Christine Cushing, a well known Canadian chef who had her own self-named cooking show on Food TV Canada, two cameramen and one sound technician.   At this point in time I started to panic a little, particularly when I heard them talking about "Lu" cuisine which I never heard of, and when I realized that the series was focused on the intricacies of Chinese regional cuisines, which as a non-foodie I never paid particular attention to.  Fortunately it took them 45 minutes to set up, so I used the time to do a little background reading on my Blackberry on regional cuisines.  In addition I had also brought a print-out of my restaurant list for potential use as a prop, so while they were setting up I went to my car to check the list for when the various regional cuisines made their first appearance in the US.

As it turns out, we shot three separate segments for the show, for the overview of Chinese food in North America, on Shandong cuisine (which includes Peking Duck and which is a specialty of the restaurant) and on Sichuan cuisine, which is the main focus of Chua Ren Bai Wei.   We started with the overview segment and immediately Christine started asking about my restaurant list, and my motivation in visiting Chinese restaurants and in keeping the list. I talked about my initial interest in the budding ethnic studies movement of the late 1960s and how I became fascinated by the tale of Chinese American immigrants, and how visiting Chinese restaurants in my travels gave me the chance to see Chinese American communities wherever I traveled.   I mentioned how two decades later going to work for a national employer and attending meetings all around the country really accelerated my ability to explore Chinese restaurants.  A well placed leading question enabled me to segue into the fact that Chinese Americans and Chinese food in the US and Canada was exclusively Toishanese from 1850 until the 1960s, so what was known as Chinese food in North America during that period was really an accident of history, geography, and the enactment of Chinese exclusion laws that produced a fairly homogenous Chinese immigrant community from a single, small rural area of China.  This resulted in a narrow subset of Chinese dishes to proliferate in the US and Canada, that would be unrecognizable by most residents of China.  I altered my usual example to say it was as if all the Canadians in China were from some small town in Canada, where Christine volunteered that would be like if a particular obscure Canadian dish were found all over China.

We then went into the changing face of Chinese food in North America where Cantonese food is in decline, at least in relative numbers, as new Chinese restaurants are heavily dominated by Sichuan, Shandong and Northeastern styles reflecting the current immigration patterns and the rise of wealthy Chinese from these regions who are making their presence felt locally.  I also commented on the blurring of regional lines in San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants due to two separate factors.  One was the existing infrastructure of popular dishes, demonstrated by the very restaurant we were eating at, which while self-described as a Sichuan restaurant, also served Peking Duck and Dongbei dishes that are currently popular in the community.  I also pointed out the existence of the American born "626 generation" which is much more open to regional variations than their foreign born parents which further encourages mixed regional cuisine Chinese restaurants.

I also was able to disclaim early on that I am not a foodie, pointing not only to not photographing my meals, but also avoiding large categories of dishes for dietary and personal taste reasons, and that I will even try reputedly bad restaurants just to see for myself.  This disclaimer was helpful when later asked specific questions dealing with the different cuisines (Are there 8 Chinese or 5 Chinese cuisines?  I said 8 just because I noticed Hunan and Fujian missing from their list. What are the popular Shandong dishes in Los Angeles?  What spices are used in Sichuan cooking?)   Fortunately I didn't have to pass completely on any question, but I think it made my short answers more acceptable.

The second segment focused on Shandong style food, with two pre-ordered dishes served to us, Peking Duck and braised sea cucumber.  Christine asked me whether Peking Duck or Beijing Duck was the proper terminology.  I said even though the name of the city officially changed decades ago, Peking Duck is still the more common usage.  I also pointed out that there are East Coast and West Coast versions (like rap and the Bristol Stomp) with mantou buns used on the West Coast, pancake crepes on the East Coast.  When asked about Peking Duck in China, I said they used crepes, but what I had there wasn't very good because I went with a tour group.  Also when asked about the best Peking Duck I've eaten, I replied M Y China in San Francisco.  Christine was happy because she knows Martin Yan and their next filming stop is San Francisco so they'll stop by there.  The scene of us eating the Peking Duck was staged in that they knew I don't use chopsticks but that's all the provided me.  So when Christine said to dig in I had to say I needed a fork.    During the shoot the cameraman said he liked me because I was funny.  I also used the sea cucumber dish to interject how texture is so important in Chinese food, in contrast to other cuisines.

The third segment dealt with Sichuan style food.  This time they had us go through the restaurant menu to choose dishes. I think it was part of the plan to have me look at the menu of a restaurant that I had not eaten at previously, as after setting the venue they asked me not to go there until the interview.  I had previously mentioned in a prior segment that I had typical Cantonese taste buds and couldn't take typical spicy Sichuan dishes.  The restaurant's menu did not indicate how spicy individual dishes were, and the producer wanted to focus, obviously, on Sichuan dishes, so Carmen had the restaurant prepare non-spicy Sichuan dishes, double cooked pork and pork with garlic sauce.  We also ordered pork and shrimp dumplings to demonstrate how today's Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles overlap cuisines.

The conversation turned to the extent to which and whether non-Chinese were beginning to appreciate authentic Sichuan (and other regional) cuisines.  I gave a two part answer--when foodies talk there are a fair number of non-Chinese who seek out and appreciate these cuisines, but if you walk into a typical San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant you will see few if any non-Asian diners at any point in time, showing what a small percentage of non-Chinese diners seek out authentic Chinese food..  I then pointed out Meizhou Gongpo's first US branch in Century City, which is largely authentic, but where they have toned down the spice level for the Westsiders.  This led Christine to comment how more pragmatic Chinese chefs seem to be compared to Western chefs who are more likely to stubbornly stick to doing things the way they want.  I replied that's because for most Chinese restauranteurs, it's a business proposition.

After the interview they had me film some filler scenes.  They moved me and the food to a table by the window and filmed me eating.  They had me go down the street, then walk into the restaurant, stop to peruse the menu, then walk all the way in.  They gave me a dummy bill to pay.  I ad libbed by asking the cashier whether they took credit cards.

All in all it was a pleasant experience.  It took only about 3 hours of time, which was so much more efficient than the 4 hours it took to get 2 minutes of air time on KCET.  There were no retakes, just pauses where the producer suggested an additional line of questioning.  Since we were there from about 2 pm to 5 pm, there weren't a lot of other customers there.  But I did notice one restaurant employee, and later one diner, head in our direction to take their own smartphone or iPad shots of the festivities.   I guess the diner mistakenly thought I was somebody notable.   The project will be complete in spring, and hopefully they can get English language distribution in Canada and the US.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My 10 Best Chinese Restaurants in the United States - 2014 Update

Like most serious food observers, I am not a big fan of Top 10 type lists of best restaurants.  Different people have their own reasons for disliking these lists, with my personal objection being the tendency to place geographical or other correctness over the merits of the listed eateries.  National lists include restaurants in cities where I wouldn’t be caught dead eating Chinese food, and local lists include Chinese restaurants from parts of town that don’t have good Chinese food.  But the fact is that Top 10 listings on television and the internet draw a greater audience than other food related stories, so they’re not going away anytime soon.

Indeed, my one and only Top 10 listing,  the Asia Society piece on the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States, was far and away my most widely read piece.  The 3,200 Facebook likes for this item probably are a hundred times the amount for all of my other written articles combined.  Of course the reason for the huge readership of this article was that I stayed true to my principles and did not come up with a geographically correct listing, but rather a listing of restaurants all located in California.  This in turn created a massive dustup which generated the ultimate large numbers, with mostly New Yorkers condemning the listing and Californians applauding it.

Since it’s been over two years since my Asia Society listing, I feel it’s time to revise the listing to reflect new restaurants that have opened up in that time period and changes in quality in existing restaurants.  However I am not writing a third party publication article, nor am I even giving a critique of the revised Top 10 listing.  This is for a couple of reasons.  As I previously mentioned I’m not a fan of Top 10 listings so I don’t want to overemphasize it.  Also, the top half of the listing is pretty much the same as two years ago, so I didn’t want to rehash the same information.
One commentary on the revised Top 10 listing is worth mentioning, however.  While I had attributed the lack of New York restaurants in the original top 10 listing to the fact that New York Chinese food was a cut below that of Los Angeles and San Francisco, it was also because of a quirk in that star New York chef Joe Ng happened to be between restaurants when the 2012 listing came out.  A Top 10 listing in previous years would have listed World Tong in Brooklyn when he was in charge of that kitchen, or Chinatown Brasserie in Manhattan, when he landed there.  And now that he is back with Red Farm and Decoy (I know they are separate restaurants, but I rate them in tandem since they’re like Siamese twins, being in different floors of the same small building), New York is represented in my latest Top 10.  In order, here they are.

1.  Koi Palace, Daly City, CA
2.  Sea Harbour, Rosemead, CA
3.  Elite, Monterey Park, CA
4.  King Hua, Alhambra, CA
5.  Chengdu Taste, Alhambra, CA
6.  Lunasia, Alhambra, CA
7.  Din Tai Fung, Costa Mesa, CA and Arcadia, CA
8.  Hakkasan, New York, NY and Beverly Hills, CA
9.  Red Farm/Decoy, New York, NY
10.  Jai Yun, San Francisco, CA

Friday, August 22, 2014

And, The Best Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles Is...

Well when I say "Best Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles" don't be misled, because I'm talking about Los Angeles itself (zip 900**) and not any suburban areas.  As I said last year in a couple of Menuism articles, 300 of the top 300 Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles county were located in the San Gabriel Valley, which is outside of the city limits of Los Angeles.  Consequently we're not necessarily talking about elite eateries.

So in looking for the best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles where better to look than Yelp's reviews?  (The sarcasm in that statement will be quickly apparent.)  According to Yelp, the highest rated Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles are Wah's Golden Hen on Virgil Ave. in East Hollywood and Sea Dragon on Vermont Ave. in what essentially is Pilipinotown, each with an average rating of 4½ stars.  (Wah's would get the nod based on a larger number of reviews.)   Now let me start off by saying that I have a soft spot for both of these restaurants, Wah's for the oldtime Cantonese food with a nice lady running the place and Sea Dragon being a big step over the mostly Korean style Chinese restaurants or steam tray places that dominate the area west of downtown.

But highest rating in Los Angeles?  Puhleeze.   There are at least 25 Chinese restaurants in L.A. Chinatown better than these two, and those of you who know me know that I have a fairly low opinion of food in Chinatown, though an occasional meal at Master Chef, Pho Broadway or J. R. Bistro is acceptable.   The recently opened Meizhou Dongpo in the Century City Mall, the first US branch of the mainland Chinese restaurant chain cracks the Los Angeles county top 300 list.  Huang's BBQ House on Melrose (which actually exceeds Wah's and Sea Dragon with five Yelp stars, but only has six reviews and isn't considered by Yelp in their ratings) at least serves Chinatown quality food.  And there are other scattered decent Chinese restaurants having Los Angeles zip codes, including Hong Kong Cafe and ROC Kitchen on Sawtelle in West Los Angeles, Pingtung on Melrose, Bao on Beverly Blvd., the restaurant formerly known as California Wok (it's not quite clear what the current name of the restaurant is) on Wilshire in West Los Angeles, Pine & Crane in Silver Lake, Mandarin Kitchen on Westwood Blvd.  and The Palace on Wilshire and Barrington.  And in downtown one can't overlook Peking Tavern, another newly opened top 300 entrant and perhaps the best of the bunch.

So why do Wah's and Sea Dragon rise to the top of Yelp's list?  The answer is the basic flaw in Yelp's star rating system, which I refer to as the lack of comparability.  For example, Sea Harbour in Rosemead was my choice as second best Chinese restaurant in the United States in my controversial Asia Society article that generated 300 Tweets and 3,200 Facebook likes.  Some observers even say Sea Harbour has the best dim sum in the US.   But while Wah's and Sea Dragon rate 4½ Yelp stars each, Sea Harbour only garners 3½ stars.   Now there are many defects in the Yelp star system, most of which are to be left for another day's discussion.  But the issue I want to focus on here is that the diners who give Wah's 4½ stars are a completely different demographic from those who give Sea Harbour 3½ stars.  For the same reason you see high ratings for generally disdained Chinese restaurants such as P.F. Chang, not really a Chinese restaurant in my book, and Mr. Chow.  So while Yelp appears to be objective to the extent that people refer to numerical stars and only eat at 3 or 4 star Yelp restaurants, it's truly an apples to oranges comparison.

So for those of you who believe in Yelp, Wah's Golden Hen is the place to go.  The rest of us should really wonder about Yelp.

Francis Wai Finally Elected To UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame

It took a long time, but Francis Wai was finally elected to the UCLA athletic hall of fame.  Wai was the "Asian Jackie Robinson", replicating #42 as a four sport athlete at UCLA and ethnic sports pioneer.  However, Wai's athletic accomplishments faded into the pages of history as he was killed during World War II.  Then his name resurfaced in 2000 when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime heroics.

As a rabid UCLA football fan, I first became aware of Francis Wai when I started to collect old UCLA football game programs.   I noticed that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, UCLA had three players named Wai on the football roster, who turned out to be the Wai brothers from Honolulu via Sacramento.  An interesting sidelight was that UCLA's all time football letterman list had shown Francis Wai lettering in three years, but in fact that was the combined accomplishment of the Wai brothers.  I actually wrote the UCLA athletic department to point out the error.

I didn't become aware of Francis Wai's wartime accomplishments until reading a story about an Asian American UCLA student who went on a campaign to gain recognition for Francis Wai.  After reading about his heroics I thought Wai would be a natural for the UCLA athletic hall of fame, particularly in light of the ever growing Asian American student population at UCLA.   Consequently, I sent in hall of fame nomination papers for Francis Wai in consecutive years, but receiving no response.    Then a UCLA friend of mine mentioned that he had just joined the selection committee for the UCLA athletic hall of fame.  I thought to myself "Ha!  Finally I have an in to the process."  However, my friend told me that the hall of fame selection process was a very political one.  Many former UCLA athletes actively lobby for admission and all sorts of political pressure is exerted in choosing each year's class.  At that point I gave up hope of Wai ever making it to the hall of fame, so I was extremely pleased to read UCLA's announcement yesterday that Wai is in this year's class.

Recently, the Honolulu Star Advertiser printed an interesting article on the UCLA football team's visit to play at the University of Hawaii in 1939.  These days there's nothing at all unusual about mainland college football teams scheduling a game at Hawaii, so I never gave a second thought about UCLA's game there in 1939.  The article tells how the 1939 UCLA football team went to Honolulu by boat, which was a four day trip each way.  Besides two Wai Brothers, the 1939 UCLA football team had an unprecedented four African American football players, including three stars in Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode (later a well known character actor).  In contrast, most universities had zero black athletes in those days.  While USC had one black football player in the 1920s, they had none in the 30s or 40s decades.  So it was an interesting and historic visit which allowed Francis Wai to play before his hometown fans.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Rich Get Richer--New Dim Sum Contenders In Los Angeles

As far as the United States goes,  Los Angeles is hands down the best metropolitan area for dim sum.  Eliminating Hakkasan, which has locations in Beverly Hills,  Manhattan and San Francisco (though a lot of Hakkasan's dim sum has been eliminated in LA and New York due to lunch time closures), Los Angeles has the standout Sea Harbour, Elite, Lunasia and King Hua, San Francisco has Koi Palace and Yank Sing, and New York has nothing beyond Hakkasan in this category.  (Red Farm is excellent but it isn't dim sum.  The predecessor Chinatown Brasserie was in this class but was closed to make way for Red Farm.)

Now add two top notch dim sum contenders, both to the Los Angeles area collection.  China Red in Arcadia actually opened last year, but only converted to a full dim sum lunch service recently.  Indeed because of this two step path to dim sum service, China Red was off most people's radar until unmasked by Kristie Hang, the other 626 Foodette to Clarissa Wei, when she wrote her Ultimate Guide To San Gabriel Valley Dim Sum and listed China Red at the top.  Immediately everybody made the mad dash to Arcadia to see what Kristie was talking about.  And indeed, the dim sum at China Red was outstanding, particularly the golden lava bun, the baked bbq pork bun, the Macau egg tart, and the giant dumpling in soup.  Not as good as Sea Harbour, but certainly in the next tier.

More recently Shi Hai opened in Alhambra at the site where Blue Ocean (literally) blew up some three years ago, the original fire which landed emails in my inbox mere seconds apart and garnered live helicopter coverage on the TV news and posts on Chowhound.  Apparently Shi Hai was conceived with the goal of being top dim sum dog in town immediately upon opening.  While they failed in that quest, it still ranks up there near China Red, Lunasia and King Hua.

In doing a city to city comparison, New York is not in the conversation since they only have the ultra pricey Hakkasan (one LA food blogger who moved to New York doesn't even bother with dim sum there and saves his dim sum stomach for trips back home).  Of the other two cities, Los Angeles is far ahead of San Francisco.  The main reason is that all of the top Los Angeles area dim sum restaurants serve their wares off a menu, not carts.  While from historical/nostalgia point of view, many diners prefer cart dim sum, those only interested is the quality of the product unanimously go for menu dim sum for freshness.  In contrast, both Koi Palace and Yank Sing serve off carts, which is indeed a tribute to them for being able to produce such a high quality cart product.  A small number of Bay Area restaurants serve dim sum off the menu, with Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown being one of the best.   But in looking at the best dim sum restaurants in California, even the next lower tier of Los Angeles area restaurants such as Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights, Capital Seafood in Monrovia, Mission 261 in San Gabriel, and J Zhou in Tustin (all menu restaurants) are better than what's next best in the Bay Area after Koi Palace and Yank Sing.  Likewise, menu dim sum is almost unheard of in New York, but it's not surprising that the places that don't have carts (Hakkasan, Red Egg, Dim Sum Go Go) top the local options, though the latter two rank below even the third tier of California dim sum houses.

While nothing in California matches up to the best dim sum in Vancouver (Richmond BC) or Toronto (Richmond Hill-Markham-Scarborough) it's good enough to keep me very happy and isn't that far behind the Canadian rivals such that I no longer think about planning trips to Canada.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hungry For Chinese Food In Hungary

In my Menuism article from a year ago on the proclivity of many Chinese and Chinese American tourists to seek out Chinese food wherever they travel, even bad Chinese food, instead of sampling the local cuisine, I asked the rhetorical question "Who wants to eat Chinese food in Hungary?"  Having just returned from Hungary, I must now admit that I in fact ate Chinese food while I was there.

However, in so doing, I was not suffering from the "Chinese Stomach" which I described in the Menuism article.   Rather, it was due to combination of factors that happened to come together.  First of all, being known for racking up a large number of restaurants, I knew people would ask me about how much Chinese food I ate on our recent trip to Austria, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.   So while not going out of my way to eat Chinese food in lieu of local cuisine, I did want to try a Chinese restaurant or two on the trip.  Then, for our only meal on our own in Budapest, we ended up at a modern shopping mall, West End mall, since we figured there would be a food court with many choices.  However our selection was narrowed by the fact that we carried a negligible amount off Hungarian forint, requiring us to find an eatery that accepted credit cards.  And it would be helpful to find someplace that had an English language description of their offerings.  So when I found that Wok N Go Noodle House satisfied both counts, that was the place for me.

In addition, it really had the most attractive spread in the food court.  Probably a dozen and a half different choices in large steam trays, some of which where visually quite enticing.  The sesame chicken was extra large pieces of deep fried battered chicken with a glistening sauce and the breaded chicken cutlet were particularly noteworthy.  I ordered the stir fried turkey with vegetables, though as things turned out I'm thinking that might have been chicken, not turkey, and perhaps there was an error in translation (though other chicken dishes were properly described).  Strangely among the vegetables in the dish was wood ear fungus, something I've never ever seen in an Americanized Chinese fast food eatery.  I also ordered the sliced marinated tofu, again an item only found at authentic Chinese restaurants back here in the USA.  The surprising thing is that this meal was probably better than the food that you would get at many ordinary Americanized Chinese eateries.  I mean it wasn't Panda Express which is pretty good for what it is, but I've had a lot worse, particularly in locales with few, if any Chinese residents.

Interestingly there were two other Asian restaurants in the food court, a Thai restaurant and a generic Asian restaurant, and they both had similar breaded chicken dishes on display.  And a good portion of the non-Asian eateries had deep fried items for sale, including one which had something that looked like an entire deep fried sandwich.  I can only guess that these were all schnitzel related or inspired, and that the Asian chicken dishes just fit right in.   That plus the fact that after decades of deprivation during the communist years, Hungary seems to have adopted western fast food as their national cuisine.  (Or as our tour guide said, the best Hungarian food these days is in New York City).

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Las Vegas Chinese Food Revisited

Most of you have read the original posting on this blog, later expanded for the Menuism blog, dispelling the myth that the best Chinese restaurants in America are in Las Vegas.  The popularity of that item has been puzzling to me.  It was later republished by the Huffington Post, even though I didn't think there was anything particularly noteworthy about the article, and indeed less worthy of publication there than a number of other  Menuism articles that were not reprinted.  Then on their Las Vegas annual convention website, the American Library Association included a prominent link to the article on the list of things for their attendees to do while in Las Vegas.  And now the article has been picked up by Scribd, the noted online digital library website.  My only explanation is that this article has garnered interest because it represents the intersection of two very popular topics, Las Vegas and food, as opposed to being particularly interesting or well written in its own right.

I do want to add an addendum to this article to reflect my subsequent visit to Wing Lei Restaurant.  I seldom write about restaurants that I  had not actually eaten at, but I felt compelled to mention Wing Lei because of its general renown, plus the fact that it was a Michelin one star restaurant.  Also,  I was fairly comfortable with my comments about Wing Lei, since its menu was wholly Americanized with items like egg drop soup, sweet and sour pork, and General Tso's chicken, a clear indication that this restaurant would do nothing for the reputation of Chinese restaurants in Las Vegas.

Finally having had the opportunity to eat at Wing Lei, I am pleased to confirm that my suspicions about the restaurant were correct.   I will say just like Michelin, I did give Wing Lei one star, though mine was on a scale of five, on the Opentable website.  As taken directly from that site:
Wing Lei

  • "Wing Lei is probably the only Michelin starred Chinese restaurant in the western United States. Wonderful setting and great service, but the food is borderline awful. Unless food is secondary to you, save your money and go to Panda Express. Or if you insist on a pricey Chinese meal, head to Hakkasan."
Actually, my comments above were relatively kind compared to how I really felt.  I had ordered the General Tso's chicken and the duck salad, the former in honor of my cameo in The Search For General Tso and the screening at the TriBeCa film festival.  It is possible to make Americanized Chinese food taste good in an upscale setting.  I've experienced that at such places like Tommy Toy's and the Empress of China in San Francisco (even some of the stuff at Ruby Foo's in New York was tasty) and that's what I was sort of expecting at Wing Lei.  What I got was awful (there was no borderline).  I've had better gloppy chicken at buck-a-plate Chinese fast food steam table outlets in South Central Los Angeles than what they served at Wing Lei.

Virtually all the other diners give Wing Lei four or five stars, some praising the General Tso's chicken in particular.  So it's clear what the profile of their targeted diners are, and how little they know about Chinese food.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Cleaver Quarterly

I had the honor and privilege of being interviewed for the inaugural edition of The Cleaver Quarterly, an illustrated international English language journal dedicated to various aspects of Chinese cuisine, published in Beijing.   This appears to be the first print magazine devoted solely to Chinese cuisine.   The interview is more like a round of 20 questions (in this case 23 questions)  about my experiences in seeking out Chinese restaurants throughout the United States and Canada.   While my previous L.A. Weekly and Los Angeles Times interviews would seem to have covered most of the territory that would be of any interest to readers, the 20 questions format did give me the opportunity to recount some tidbits from the past, such as what turned out to be the culinary awakening at Kim's Restaurant in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1976, my surprise in finding authentic Chinese food at Creasian Restaurant in Springfield, Missouri during my Cashew Chicken tour, as well my statement that Chinese food in Houston is better than that in Manhattan. 

One question which would have been better answered if the interview occurred just a little bit later dealt with the Chinese tradition of fighting for the restaurant tab at the end of the meal.  They asked me about any memorable fights and frankly I don't recall any.  However, after dinner a few weeks ago the customary fight broke out.  However a person at the table abruptly stopped the proceedings by saying "This is not a Chinese restaurant.  You're making a scene by fighting for the check."  Yes, the fight was at a European deli.

Since The Cleaver  Quarterly is an English language publication produced in Beijing, the exposure will be regrettably limited, since it is a fine, high quality publication.  It can be ordered online for $10 plus $7 handling at

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Decor Matters - At Least Just This Once

When it comes to eating at restaurants for me it’s all about the food and never about the decor.  Until now.  But it’s not a case of finally appreciating an exquisite decor, but rather being annoyed by an incredibly unbelievable dining setting..

Philippe Chow has to have the most weird and bizarre layout of any restaurant I’ve been to, so much that it detracts from any dining experience there may be (and which itself is very limited).   When you step through the doors you are confronted by an interior alley (actually more like a back alley) without a rooftop, with the podium on the left, the bar and small dining area on the right.  Continuing down the alley there is a mess hall like dining room painted in black and white on the left, and the kitchen door on the right, so as you sit at your table you get a great view of the wait staff coming in and out of the kitchen, and if you go to or leave your table, you have a great chance of bumping into a server.   There appears to be a private dining area at the end of the hall.

Instead of paying more attention to the meal, I was sitting there wondering what they were thinking when they designed the place.    Maybe they thought painting everything black would hide flaws, but that's not the way it works. If they were trying to be Beverly Hills hip they completely missed the mark. Maybe would have been hip back in the 70's but I can't get away from the tackiness and sloppiness of it.    All this might be unforgivable if we were talking about a hole in the wall dive that serves fantastic food.  But this is Philippe Chow in Beverly Hills, where the menu items run three times the price of what you would pay for Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley that is three times better. 

Of course I’d rather not dwell on the negative so I would like to say some positive things about Philippe Chow.  The food wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected and the $20 lunch special was reasonably priced for Beverly Hills, if they hadn’t run out of dessert and for which they gave us a raincheck, as if we’ll ever go back to this house of horrors.  Indeed the entrees, breaded fried salmon and velvet chicken, were quite interesting even if the dishes themselves missed the mark. And the satay chicken was actually pretty good, though the deep red batter was a little disconcerting. 

Also, I was happy to get the chance to eat here because when we arrived for our 11:45am reservation the restaurant was locked tight, which led me to assume they were out of business.  Fortunately we saw a construction worker inside and when we waved at him, he came to tell us that they didn’t open until noontime, which makes you wonder why they accept 11:30 and 11:45 am reservations.  And since the wait staff didn’t arrive until the noontime opening, he let us in, brought us menus and solicited our orders.  (It turns out he was part of the dinner crew and was daylighting as a handyman.  Nonetheless I had never been served at a restaurant by somebody dressed like one of the Village People.)  

Perhaps our thoughts about the decor were overly influenced by the fact that we were there in the daylight, where based on the fact that there were no other lunchtime diners the entire time this may well be a dinner restaurant, and at night the cheap and sloppy look of the premises is obscured by darkness.  But then I read that at night the interior is lit up in red lights, so it's probably even sleazier.

Finally I want to reiterate how happy I was to finally eat here, since a previous attempt to dine at Philippe Chow two months previously was postponed by rain--literally since we arrived to a flooded restaurant after a brief late winter rainstorm, without being timely notified that our reservation was cancelled.   (Whoever designed this restaurant without completely enclosing it must have listened to "It Never Rains In Southern California" one too many time.)    That's why my heart sank when the restaurant appeared to be locked up when we arrived for our reservation.    After all, based on these comments, this place could easily go out of business at any time.

[Thanks to Judy Isozaki who was equally taken aback by the premises and co-authored portions of this piece.]

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ten Thumbs Up! The Search For General Tso, the movie

As I have mentioned in the past, despite all my musings about food I have written a grand total of one restaurant review about a specific restaurant, and that was back in 1977.  So I’m now matching that number for movie reviews in this short review of the new film The Search For General Tso, which opened last month at the TriBeCa film festival and will be making its way around the independent film festival circuit.  My feelings about this movie are unrelated to the fact that I’m one of the interviewees–it’s a fantastic movie even (or perhaps especially) without me.  

For my California friends, I do need to make this prefatory remark.  General Tso’s Chicken is a sweet, spicy, savory dish made with deep fried chicken nuggets.  It is seldom seen in California.  Indeed Mrs. Chandavkl and her cousin who saw the movie with me at TriBeCa had never eaten the dish before, until we found Chinese Fast Wok Restaurant around the corner from the screening in Chelsea after we watched the movie.  Few, if any of my family and friends in California have ever had the dish, as it seems to have been pre-empted out here by the sweeter orange chicken dish, popularized by Panda Express.  But if you move east from California, General Tso’s Chicken is one of the most ubiquitous dishes found in Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

Ostensibly, The Search For General Tso deals with the mystery of the origins of General Tso’s Chicken, a standard Chinese restaurant dish in much of the United States, and the ultimate success in ascertaining where the dish came from creates a highly satisfactory conclusion to the movie.  Yes, in a progression from New York to China and back, even involving one of the descendants of General Tso, the creator of the dish is found and interviewed, as is the restauranteur who took the dish and ran with it, creating perhaps the signature dish of the secondary, non-Cantonese wave of Americanized Chinese food. 

But the movie is much more than that.  It is the story of the struggle of Chinese Americans against racial hatred and enmity to ultimately find a place in America.  Of immigration laws which prevented Chinese (singled out over every other nationality) from migrating to the United States for decades.  Of the Cantonese roots of the Chinese American community and Chinese food in America which only diversified to include Chinese of other regional origins after the repeal of Chinese Exclusion.  A story of how Chinese restaurants and Chinese food developed in the United States, and how the Chinese evolved from mass targets of scorn to a measure of acceptance.  Ask David Leong, Springfield, MO’s creator of the regional favorite Springfield cashew chicken, how long it took to gain that acceptance, as when opening his first restaurant in the 1960s his restaurant was bombed before it even opened.  (Not to mention local bankers who refused to loan him the money to start his restaurant.)   Through interviews with academics, writers, chefs, restauranteurs, food critics and more, Ian Cheney concludes the search for General Tso, in a tale that tells a much larger story.

In bringing author Jennifer 8 Lee’s search for General Tso to the movie screen, filmmaker Ian Cheney has done so much more.  As I told him at the post-screening Q&A in front of the sold out audience at the Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea, “As a Chinese American, I want to thank you for telling our story.” 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Search For General Tso--The Saga Ends

Shortly after my first 15 minutes of fame that followed from Clarissa Wei's piece on the crazy lawyer who had eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants, I was contacted by Lily Spottiswoode, associate producer at New York based Wicked Delicate Films (and unbeknownst to me at the time, the granddaughter of actor Jack Palance), regarding a documentary film they were shooting on Chinese restaurants.  The film was titled The Search For General Tso and was based on a segment of Jennifer 8 Lee's book, the Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which searched for the origins of General Tso's Chicken, an Americanized Chinese dish commonly found in the eastern United States.  The filmmakers' plans were eventually to travel out to the west coast to shoot some interviews and they asked if I was available to speak about regional differences in Chinese restaurants across the United States.

It took six months for the interview to take place, where I met with Lily, along with film director Ian Cheney and producer Amanda Murray.  At first they wanted to shoot the interview at a local Chinese restaurant that served General Tso's chicken.  However since General Tso's chicken is as rare in Los Angeles as it is common in New York, we ended up at Mission 261 in San Gabriel.  Our interview lasted over two hours, well in excess of what the film's running time would be, so it was clear to me that most of what I said would never make it into any film.  Since my interview was one of the last they conducted, they indicated that they would soon start the editing process.  I don't know anything about filmmaking, but I figured it would take maybe 6 to 9 months to pull the film together.  I did get a short informational request four months after the interview.  However, as the months rolled on I started to suspect that the film would not get finished, my guess being funding problems being the culprit.   Not only did I not hear from anybody, but the General Tso account on Twitter fell silent.

So it was a bit of a surprise that last month, a little over a year after the interview, the General Tso Twitter account revived to announce that the movie would be screening at this month's TriBeCa film festival.  The movie really has two parts--the successful search for the origins of General Tso's chicken, and an account on the Chinese restaurant landscape in the United States. The movie premiered two days ago before a sellout crowd of 500 viewers at the Bow Tie Cinema in Chelsea.  This Thursday's showing is also sold out, and I'm looking forward to seeing the film with great anticipation.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Thanks To The Asia Society For Expanding The Audience

It’s been nearly two years since food writer Clarissa Wei plucked me from obscurity to profile me as the crazy attorney/CPA who had eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants.  Within days I was contacted by the Asia Society to do an article on my picks as the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States.   Eating at so many Chinese restaurants didn’t make me an expert on Chinese food, as my knowledge was about Chinese restaurants, which is a completely different thing, but I gladly accepted the challenge.  The Asia Society article led to the opportunity to write articles on Chinese restaurants on the Menuism website on a recurring basis.  This has opened the door for me to publicize the Toishanese roots of Americanized Chinese food and the Chinese community itself, along with important facts about Chinese American history, such as discriminatory immigration laws that barred Chinese from coming to the United States for decades, and the post-immigration reform shift in the mix of Chinese immigration.  There’s not a single traditional restaurant review among my writings.

However, it’s only at this point almost two years later that I recognize what an opportunity that the original Asia Society article has provided me.  First of all, it’s given me an insight I would not have otherwise had into how the internet works.  No, I’m not talking servers and stuff like that, but how content originates on the internet, and then how that content speeds its way around the world.  Secondly, I also now just realize what a chance that first article provided to reach so many people with what I had to say.

When I wrote my Top 10 Restaurant story I had no idea as to the attention and controversy that would follow.  And it’s really all thanks to the Asia Society because my intended article was merely a listing and description of 10 restaurants, hardly anything to garner a wide audience.  The one thing that I wanted to explain to the editor when I submitted the article was that my list was different in that I made no effort to be geographically correct, and explaining in detail why all the restaurants were in California, and specifically why none were in New York.  These comments were meant solely as an aside to the editor and not for public consumption, so when I saw that the raw introductory comments were included at the start of the article, I cringed at seeing my unfiltered comments in public. 

What I didn’t realize, but Asia Society’s editor did, was that the purpose of internet content is to drive traffic, and nothing drives traffic like controversy.  And in those terms, the article turned out to be a blockbuster.  Through well placed links in social media and on restaurant message boards, a firestorm of commentary ensued, much of it negative from outraged New Yorkers who felt that had been dissed.  Indeed, reaction was so negative that I didn’t bother to re-read my Asia Society article again until just recently.  And when finally visiting the article again I was shocked to see the statistics on the page–3,200 likes on Facebook (probably an even larger number of dislikes, if there were such statistics kept) and over 300 tweets on Twitter.  Given that a minuscule percentage of web surfers bother to affirmatively interact with a like or tweet, the readership for that article must  have been staggering.   I could only dream about reaching those kinds of numbers again.   And it was due entirely to the inclusion by the Asia Society editor of what I intended to be off the record remarks.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Miracle of Glucosamine

We often hear about dietary supplements which supposedly are effective at dealing with various health conditions.  Gingko biloba for memory loss, St. John’s wort for depression and echinacea for the immune system are examples of supplements which seem to have lost some of  their following after becoming fad favorites, and it's not clear as to whether they in fact have any value.  However there is one supplement which I eagerly will stand for as the poster boy, glucosamine for the relief of arthritic knee pain.

It was 15 years ago and I began to experience extreme kneecap pain from prolonged sitting.  Football games, airplane trips, and even automobile rides of over an hour were events of extreme discomfort for me.  Then I heard of glucosamine, so as much as out of desperation I started taking two pills daily.  The very next day my knees felt better, though that was either coincidental or the power of suggestion, as my pain quickly returned.  And after more than two months, I saw no results and was about to stop taking the pills.  But I decided to stay with it a little long, and am I sure glad I did.  For in that third month, the knee pain disappeared.   Now I can sit for hours on a transoceanic airplane ride or a sporting event and not go through the agony that I did 15 years previously.

About the same time that I conquered that pain, I also bought a treadmill and started running daily 7 to 8 minute miles.  However, while my kneecap pain from sitting was cured, I was now beginning to experience pain from running, particularly on the outside and back of the knees.  I just chalked this up as part of the cost of running on a daily basis, perhaps the onset of arthritis, and didn’t think any more of it.

Indeed, I went along like this for 10 years, living with the minor knee pain, and skipping my run on more painful days.  Obviously I’m a slow learner, for it wasn’t until after 10 years of relief from my kneecap sitting pain that I asked myself the question as to why the glucosamine pills didn’t alleviate the pain in my knees from running.  So I thought about it and I concluded that maybe it was because my dosage wasn’t large enough.  So I doubled my intake of glucosamine to four pills a day.  And guess what?  The pain from running also completely went away.  I now run my daily mile (slower than I did 10 or 15 years ago) and never have any knee pain at all.  That is certainly proof of the miracle of glucosamine.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Great Chinese Restaurants Continue To Open

As many of you know a couple of years ago I came out with a Top 10 Chinese Restaurant in the United States listing for the Asia Society   , and which was reproduced as a sidebar to the Los Angeles Times article about my quest for 6,000 Chinese restaurants.   Unlike most best restaurant listings seen in print or on the air, I made no attempt to balance the list for geographic locale, regional cuisines, or any other factor to make the article more palatable to a wider group of readers.   Rather I gave my personal opinion as to what were in fact the best Chinese restaurants in the country.  As a result my list consisted of restaurants all located in California, the majority of which represented Cantonese style cuisine.  The reaction from two quarters was swift.  I was pilloried by New Yorkers, incensed that no New York restaurants were included, with innumerable internet comments that I was obviously a “homer” who was biased towards California food.  A lesser degree of complaint came from supporters of Sichuan and similar non-Cantonese Chinese food who made similar allegations based on my Toishanese/Cantonese ancestry.

As to the status of New York Chinese food it appears that while it had been previously unspoken, many people were thinking what I said.  After the original wave of outrage from New Yorkers, it is common to see concessions from New Yorkers on the restaurant message boards that New York Chinese food is behind the curve compared to California and Canada.   And my more recent comments on the second class state of New York Chinese food draw little negative reaction.  All this is not to say that Chinese food in New York is bad.  There are many excellent Chinese restaurants in New York, and I look forward to visiting Manhattan Chinatown and other venues in New York City to sample Chinese restaurants.  My only point is that, to use a boxing term, pound for pound the Chinese food in New York is clearly inferior to that in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.

With regard to Cantonese vs. non-Cantonese food, the analysis is slightly different.  No question, there is outstanding Sichuan, Shanghai, Beijing, Dongbei, Taiwanese and other regional Chinese style restaurants to be found in California, New York and other locales.  However, at the time that the original Top 10 listing was published, there just weren’t enough signature restaurants in those categories to make a large dent in the Top 10, though some of the Sichuan style restaurants in various parts of Manhattan outside of Chinatown definitely deserved honorable mention.

However supporters of New York Chinese food and Sichuan style Chinese food can rejoice in that they now have recently opened restaurants that clearly are of Top 10 caliber.    Just weeks before my Top 10 list was published, the London based Hakkasan chain opened its first US branch in midtown Manhattan at 310 W. 43rd St.   At the time, many people assumed it was just another expensive Chinese restaurant that served Americanized Chinese food a la Mr. Chow.  However, it did not take long for observers of Chinese food to realize that Hakkasan was the real thing, and that their mantra of offering modern authentic Chinese food was a valid description.  While some of their fare may not seem like authentically Chinese fare, such as Peking duck with Kaluga caviar, it is certainly consistent with modern Chinese food trends in places like Hong Kong and other Chinese food centers.  Hakkasan has since opened branches in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Beverly Hills.

Meanwhile , in the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, since its opening less than a year ago, Chengdu Taste has taken the food world by storm, becoming the hottest ticket in town both in terms of taste and buzz, and even capturing the attention of New York food writer Ruth Reichl.  With its mouth numbing Sichuan menu full of complex flavors, the lines at this relatively small restaurant at 828 W. Valley Bl. in Alhambra are ridiculous.  Prime time waiting time may be upwards of two hours and if you can get in with a wait of under an hour at anytime, consider yourself fortunate.  To accommodate its crowds, Chengdu Taste extended its closing time by two hours and is hastily opening up a second location a few miles east on Valley Bl.  As I have said many times before, Chinese food continues to evolve and the next great restaurant is waiting to raise the bar once again.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

What We Ate In Hong Kong, Part IV - The Pictures

As regular readers know from reading this this blog, I am not a foodie and do not photograph my meals.  However, the descriptions of the food we had in Hong Kong last month has led to requests to see what some of the items described look like.  Fortunately my daughter, Supertina, is a foodie and does photograph her meals.  So since she was on the trip, we do have photographic coverage on my Picasaweb page.  The pictures are at

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What We Ate In Hong Kong, Part III

Lung Hing Keen, Four Seasons Hotel, Central.  Needed to have somebody pull some strings to get us off of the waiting list for a reservation.  This was a definitely different type of upscale dining.  Tables widely spaced throughout the dining room, without the fuss or clatter typically associated with dim sum restaurants.  The look and the taste of the food was exquisite.  The steamed scallop dumpling came with a green wrapper and was almost creamy.  The gold leaf seafood dumpling in a brown wrapper was unique, though I can’t say that the gold had any particular taste.  We also had siu mai, pan fried beef buns (visually like Shanghainese shen jen bao), xiaolongbao (perhaps the most ordinary of the dishes), roast goose XO puffs, ha gow, abalone chicken puffs, crispy spring rolls with shrimp, mushrooms dumplings in a brown wrapper, XO rice noodle logs (incredibly delicate), egg puffs, poppyseed jello, steamed fois gras with abalone sauce and lobster fried rice.  Truly a meal to remember and surprisingly only $70 per person.

Pak Loh Chiu Chow, Grand Century Shopping Mall, Mong Kok.  The best shark fin soup I had ever eaten.  We also had the Chiu Chow appetizer plate (shrimp ball, crab ball, jellyfish and roast goose), gai lan, fried arugala with chicken, shrimp lettuce wrap, bamboo pith tofu casserole and two desserts, green bean taro and taro bars.  Not a Michelin star meal, but quite good, though at $70 per person (likely due to the shark fin) nothing close to Lung Hing Keen.

Aberdeen Fishball and Noodles, 242 San Yeung Choi St. S, Mong Kok.  Another random choice near the hotel.   The fish broth was by far the tastiest I had ever eaten.  The fish balls and noodles themselves were good, not great, in line with our previous experience of random Hong Kong restaurants. 

Tasty Congee in the Elements mall in the western part of Tsim Sha Shui.  We had fresh carp jook, shrimp dumpling soup, you tiao cheung fun, dark fish balls, gai lan and turnip cake.  Another excellent meal, though at $15 per person a little expensive for this category of food. 

Tsui Wah, 2 Carnarvon Road, in Tsim Sha Shui, another one of those restaurants with long lines of people waiting to get in.  Tsui Wah is a popular café chain and we had several favorites including curry beef brisket, milk buns, gai lan, vegetables with fish, mixed vegetables, tomato beef with egg, hot almond egg white drink, and Singapore mei fun.  Reasonably priced at $10 per person.

Other eats.  The egg tarts at Tai Cheong were fantastic.  But other bakery fare was a little disappointing.  In our last Hong Kong visit in 2009, I was impressed by the quality and variety of the buns and sandwiches.  But at least at the places I tried near the hotel it was like being back home.  I’m guessing that this shows that Los Angeles has closed the gap with newcomers like 85° Bakery and its imitators leading the way.   One morning I decided to drop by the neighborhood grocery store for a no carb breakfast, hoping to get some cold cuts.  Unfortunately they apparently haven’t heard of chicken or turkey lunch meat in Hong Kong.  Everything was pork except for chicken hot dogs, one from France, the other from California.The problem was that the French hot dogs indicated that they were uncooked.  While the California hot dogs made in Fresno had no indication that they needed to be cooked, could it be that Hong Kongers expected all hot dogs to be uncooked?  So having to choose between pork cold cuts or possibly uncooked chicken hot dogs, I chose the latter, guessing the California hot dogs were already cooked.  Fortunately, they were cooked.

Every scheduled meal was better than the food back in Los Angeles, so we finally achieved our desire to experience the superior brand of Chinese food.  Where Hong Kong excels is at the high end (there are no Michelin star Chinese restaurants in California) and the low end (who thought noodle soup or egg tarts could taste so good?).    Also Hong Kong has a superior variety and quality of fresh ingredients.    Otherwise there is a vast middle where the food is comparable to Los Angeles Chinese food.    In Hong Kong as demonstrated by the long lines outside of many of the restaurants we visited, the people know where the good food is.  But as the waiter at Ming Court, who had been a longtime resident of the San Gabriel Valley said, the Chinese food in Los Angeles is also very good, so Hong Kong’s advantage is in spots, not across the board.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What We Ate In Hong Kong, Part II

Our first venture onto Hong Kong Island and Michelin star restaurants.  

Kau Kee Restaurant, 21 Gough St., Central.  We got there 10 minutes before opening and there was a block long line waiting to get in.  The beef brisket noodle soup was fabulous.  The curry version not so good, though some people prefer that one to the plain.   Priciest of the street eats at about $7 per person.
Fish Ball Chong Chai Kee, 2 Kau U Fong, Central.   This was probably the least outstanding planned meals of the trip, perhaps magnified by the fact that we came here immediately after the fantastic noodles at Kau Kee.  The highlight at Fish Ball Chong Chai Kee was the fish balls that had a crunch (if that’s possible) unlike that of any other fish ball we’ve had.

Gyu Jin,  a hotpot restaurant in the iSquare vertical shopping mall in the Tsim Sha Shui district.  The Gyu Jin hotpot was all you can eat, with the price depending on the particular grade of beef chosen.  Ours came to $40 per person.  There were also serve yourself items consisting primarily of vegetables, fish balls, and tofu and noodle items.  The broth was very flavorful and much better than what is typically found in Los Angeles

Seaview Food Shop, 72 Bute St., Mong Kok.  Another random eatery by the hotel.  Jook was quite good.  Cheung fun wasn’t. 

Tim Ho Wan, MTR Hong Kong Station, Central.  Though it’s a one star Michelin restaurant,  it was not a fancy place with a fancy menu, indeed being located in the shopping area of a transit station.  Very tasty, though common dim sum items.  The selections included fried beef rolls, beef balls, ha gow, chicken feet, the star-of-the-show a baked cha siu bao that looked like a biscuit, tofu wrap, egg roll, lotus leaf chicken rice, turnip cake, spare rib, ham sui guk, beef cheung fun, siu mai, malay cake, spinach shrimp dumpling, preserved vegetable with ground ground pork, lettuce and gojiberry jello.  Despite the lack of exotic varieties, the Michelin star was well deserved and many of the common items were the best versions we had.  Cost about $10 per person.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab, 421 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai.  On the menu were black bean clams, their signature crab, seafood soup, fried rice, mantis shrimp, egg soup, steamed turbot and shrimp in the nest.  By far the highlight was the deep fried garlic served with the crab and the mantis shrimp.  That garlic was totally delicious.  Particularly popular with tourists.

Lan Fong Yuen, 36 Nathan Road (inside), Tsim Sha Shui.   Another long line.  The menu at Lan Fong Yuen, a Hong Kong style café, is quite compact.  When we asked a waiter about  vegetable dishes he said there weren’t any.   We had all of their signature dishes–chicken on a bed of ramen, both with ginger sauce and also in lobster sauce.  Hong Kong style milk buns, and Hong Kong style French toast.  All of these items were terrific.  They only dish that wasn’t very good was the pork chop rice. 

Ming Court in the Langham Place Hotel, Mong Kok.  Two star Michelin.  The traditional Cantonese dinner at Ming Court was outstanding.  The Peking duck was the best I’ve eaten, with a delicious pancake wrapper (as opposed to the Mantou buns that we Californians are used to), as was the rest of the duck with pine nuts in lettuce cups.   The other entrees were all winners, steamed minced Australian waygu beef with tangerine peel, crisp vermicelli with minced waygu, tomato, and egg; and tofu with wild mushrooms in black truffle sauce.  The complimentary shrimp balls were also excellent.   About $40 per person.