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.