Monday, December 14, 2015

Best Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown? It's Back To The Future!

Before talking about what might be the best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown, we first need to make it clear that we're talking about a "Tallest Midget in the Circus" type of topic.  It's been 30 years since the best Los Angeles Chinese food was located in Chinatown, and over 15 years since there has been a destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.  Still sometimes you want a Chinese meal and it's too late or traffic is too bad to trek on over to the San Gabriel Valley, so knowing the best Chinese food around Chinatown is a useful thing.

That last destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown was ABC Seafood, which opened up in 1984 as the first high quality Hong Kong style seafood restaurant in the Los Angeles area, and for the first decade of its existence was the best Chinese restaurant in the United States.  Indeed, we probably showed up there for Saturday night dinner three times a month.  While ABC Seafood is still there, the owner-chef retired in 1999, selling it to a group headed by one of the waiters, Jackie Liao.  Two or three changes of ownership later, ABC Seafood is an also ran in the very pedestrian collection of Chinese restaurants operating today in Los Angeles Chinatown.

Now when the new owners took over ABC Seafood in 1999, they tried to continue to operate the business as usual.  The menu was completely unchanged, and visually the dishes were identical.  But the old owner took his recipes with him, and the food was not the same.  Apparently a couple of the cooks from ABC landed at the sister NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, so the food there was the next best thing to the old ABC, though it wasn't quite there.  A few months later in 1999, a larger group of former ABC Seafood waiters got together and bought the Dragon Inn location at Spring and Ord, christening their new enterprise CBS Seafood.  They declared that they were the true successor to ABC Seafood, and indeed their menu was also completely identical to that of ABC Seafood, except that the menu covers were green instead of red.  But they didn't have the original ABC recipes either, and while we continued to dine there regularly for a while, it was because we knew the waiters, and not because of the food.  And as the food began to spiral downward, we stopped going there altogether.

Well actually we never stopped going to CBS Seafood completely.  You see it has one thing that no other Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown has--a large and convenient self-parking lot.  So once in a great while when parking is the most important consideration, we end up at CBS Seafood.  This was the case last month, when we went there for dinner, perhaps for the first time in four or five years.  A couple of the old waiters and manager David Ho were still there and they greeted us like the long lost friends that we were.  We ordered with little expectations, though we wondered why the prices were equal to or greater than in the San Gabriel Valley.  But guess what?  The food was pretty good.  Not San Gabriel Valley good, but a fairly decent imitation.  Indeed, the French cut filet mignon ranked with the best, and a number of other dishes were quite good.  A return visit a couple of weeks later confirmed the tallest midget classification.

As far as a runner up restaurant is concerned, it's even more retro than CBS.  Phoenix Inn may have been the first Hong Kong style restaurant to open up in Los Angeles Chinatown in the post-1965 immigration reform era.  They subsequently opened up in Alhambra, and then a few years ago started the pioneering Phoenix Boutique dessert chain in the San Gabriel Valley.  The Chinatown Phoenix Inn seems to have revived itself by patterning itself after the San Gabriel Valley operations, including a display case full of dessert items.  The Chinatown branch also has the greatest concentration of millennial aged Chinese clientele of any Chinatown eatery aside from the boba shops, certainly a good sign.

And for those of you who are wondering about the revived Empress Pavilion, my assessment is that the old Empress Pavilion closed in part because the food wasn't very good, and the new owners really haven't improved on that.  Hopefully the need for a banquet facility of that size in Chinatown is so great that Empress will survive.  But I certainly can't recommend anybody go there for anything other than a banquet where somebody else is paying.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Flushing Update

As I wrote a couple of years ago in my Menuism article on Flushing Chinatown, Flushing's Chinatown is the most vibrant Chinatown in the United States, making it one of my most favorite Chinese communities.  Unlike touristy Chinatowns that roll up the carpet earlier in the evening, the streets of Flushing remains full of activity well until late at night, and without the gift and souvenir shops and other tourist trappings that mar other Chinatowns.

Since it had been two years since my last visit to Flushing, I was pleased to be able to take a long lunch break while working in Manhattan and take the 7 train to Flushing.  So much had changed in Flushing in just two years.  One Fulton Square, the retail and hotel complex which was under construction during my last visit (and which I remember from my first Flushing visit 20 years ago as being the semi-paved and somewhat sketchy parking lot to Golden River Restaurant) was complete and in full swing.  Meanwhile, across the street, Flushing Mall, which was constructed after my first visit to Flushing, but which had the ambiance of something built in the mid-20th century, was in the process of being torn down.

Perhaps the main attraction for me was to see the recently opened New York Food Court on Roosevelt St.  With roughly 20 spaces, I was surprised to find a new eatery operating at each space. This was truly amazing given that the New World Mall with its 30 or so eateries had opened up just three years previously.  True, the closing of Flushing Mall did eliminate the occupants of that mall's food court.  But when you take into account the fact that New World Mall, New York Food Court, and the Golden Mall combined play host to over sixty eateries, that is truly mind boggling as that number of restaurants is by itself half as many as all of the Chinese restaurants in San Francisco Chinatown.

I was quite intrigued by the recently opened Happy Food Court on Main St., taking over the location formerly occupied by Corner 28 and it's mini-Peking duck bites.  Food court might be a misnomer since this is a single restaurant operation.  But then again maybe it isn't because there are nearly as many food choices here as you find in a legitimate multi-tenant food court.  

One thing that made me especially happy was finally being able to find my single most favorite Chinese dish, fish dumplings, in New York.  Fish dumplings came to Los Angeles more than a dozen years ago, and since being introduced have spread widely throughout the Los Angeles and San Francisco Chinese communities.  But as if to validate my comment from a few years ago that New York Chinese food is still stuck in the 20th century, fish dumplings were unavailable and unheard of in New York, with the closest thing I previously found being the fish won ton at New Bo Ky in Manhattan Chinatown.  However earlier this year a tipster sent me a note that a new restaurant called Dumpling Galaxy was serving fish dumplings on Main St.   Unfortunately my lunch break time did not stretch long enough for me to visit Dumpling Galaxy.  But as I was making the rounds at New World Mall to see what may have changed in the past two years, there I saw the sign touting fish dumplings at Szechuan Dish in stall #25.  Light and fluffy as just as good as back home in Los Angeles!

A couple of other things worth noting at New World Mall.  There was a lot of turnover in the lineup at the mall from my last visit there.  In addition, I noticed that a lot of the eateries there now had Chinese language only signage.  (I found this distressing since how could I catalog a restaurant for my Chinese restaurant spreadsheet if it didn't have any English language signage?).  Chinese only signage isn't normally an issue since Chinese businesses throughout the United States generally are required to have an English language name for public safety purposes (i.e., so non-Chinese police and fire responders know where they're going).  But that's not an issue when you're in an enclosed food court.  And aside from Flushing, Chinese food courts are not particularly common in the United States.

I don't get to Flushing as often as I like.  The food doesn't match up to that in the San Gabriel Valley, but it's the most exciting Chinatown in the US because it's a true community that doesn't go to sleep with the chickens.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thank You, NIMBYs

Los Angeles is a wonderful place to live.  With the climate, geography, glamour and amenities it's no wonder that people from all over the world, from rich Chinese and other investors, to pro athletes who don't play for LA teams, have been flocking here.  But there are downsides to living in paradise.  Housing costs are incredibly high, traffic congestion is ridiculous (it takes my co-worker about 2 hours each way to commute a little over 20 miles), and people are forced to live long distances from where they work.  Interestingly,  the three problems I just mentioned have all been greatly acerbated by the "activist" community.  Typically we think of activists as being progressive and standing up for the little guy.  And in the case of NIMBY (not in my back yard) activists, they think they are taking that path.  But in the way the world really works, they have created a world 180 degrees apart from what they intend.

The latest act of NIMBYism was just chronicled in the newspaper, where activists are pushing a ballot measure that would have the effect of stopping high rise residential construction in Hollywood.  The idea behind the construction boom is to build high rise apartment buildings near transit stops is to move people off the freeways and onto public transit, to ease the housing shortage which makes rents and home prices so high, and to generally revitalize the center part of the city.  But the activists want nothing of this, saying high rise residential construction will destroy the character of their neighborhoods.  Now if there were just one group in NIMBYs in town there wouldn’t be a societal problem.  But there are NIMBYs all over Los Angeles, creating what is referred to as high barriers to entry for the development of new residential housing in Los Angeles.   This NIMBY created restriction on the supply of housing means a shortage of housing, high prices, and long commutes for people who are relegated to moving into the boondocks in search of affordable housing.

Indeed, the contrast between housing supply and prices in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, as opposed to parts of the country, like Texas, where there are no restrictions or opposition to the development of new housing stock, and developers are free to build new projects, is stark.  I remember being on vacation a few years ago and having breakfast at Denny’s.  I was talking to my waiter and learned that he was originally from Los Angeles, but left because of the high cost of housing.  His next revelation floored me.  He had just bought a three bedroom house with a pool.  On his salary from Denny’s.  Of course there is a flip side to living in a city where there is a plentiful housing supply.  The value of your house will only keep up with inflation, and generally not appreciate above that rate.  In contrast my house in Los Angeles is worth at least four times what I paid for it.  Oh wait.  Thank you, NIMBYs.  I love you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The David R. Chan Collection at Stanford University

You could imagine my surprise last night when I stumbled upon a reference on the internet to the David R. Chan Collection at Stanford University.  The two most likely reactions are (1) it's a joke or (2) it's another David R. Chan.  But, as it turns out, the reference really is to yours truly.  Now I have no real connection to Stanford aside from the fact that I dropped a big bundle there sending my son to law school on The Farm.  So obviously there's a twisted path here.

As I have previously written, I was finishing my undergraduate studies at UCLA right at the time that the formal study of the history of the Chinese in the United States was just beginning.  I hadn't even dreamed of logging in Chinese restaurant visits back then, but I was always a collector of things.  And back then, materials on the Chinese experience in America were so precious that I tried collect everything I could on the topic.  I spent probably hundreds of hours photocopying articles, and even books, from the UCLA library, and I subscribed to any English language Chinese American publication I could get my hands on, including the weekly East West newspaper out of San Francisco.

Of course after the years things really piled up, particularly the newspapers.  In a way it was fortunate that East West ceased publication in the 1980s, stopping further additions to that collection.  The historian in me prevented me from tossing the newspapers out, but I didn't want to be stuck with storing them forever.  I approached the UCLA Asian American Studies Library about taking the newspapers, and they were receptive, saying they would get back to me.  However they never did.  Meanwhile, my daughter enrolled at UCLA so I sent her to the Asian American Studies Library to follow up.  She actually found the person I had spoken with a few years previously (who had gone on medical leave in the interim), who was again receptive.  But once again there was no follow up.

A few years later my son moved to the Bay Area to go to law school.  At the same time, the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco hired their first professional curator, Anna Naruta, and I told her about my newspaper collection.  Anna said there was no known collection of East West newspapers (only a curator would know that) and that CHSA would gladly take them.  Of course there's the question of how you transfer 20 years of newspapers from my house in Los Angeles to the CHSA building on Clay St. in Chinatown.  Now I always did look for excuses to visit the Bay Area, and with my son in school there, I had the perfect excuse to regularly drive north.  Indeed in three years of law school, I made the trek 18 times.  And during 2006 and 2007, a number of those trips were made with boxes of newspapers in my trunk.  Actually, the hard part was the parking in S.F. Chinatown.  Basically there isn't any.  On some occasions Anna gave me access to a parking spot on their premises.  But when Anna wasn't around, I was reduced to carrying the newspapers from my car parked at the Royal Pacific Motor Inn on Broadway to the CHSA building five blocks away.

After delivering the newspapers (and receiving my charitable contribution tax receipt) I didn't give any further thought to the newspapers except to be glad to have found a good home for them.  Consequently it was a bolt out of the blue when I saw the "David R. Chan Collection" referred to in the latest CHSA Bulletin, announcing that Stanford University Library was making available four listed CHSA  "archival collections to researchers, in its Department of Special Collections in Green Library", which had apparently been transferred by CHSA to Stanford some time before.  (It would have been nice if somebody had told me what was going on.)    But I'm happy to make this contribution to academic research.  And happy as I am at this turn of events, I have one regret.  I probably should have taken a larger charitable contribution deduction in 2006 and 2007.

Monday, October 12, 2015

My Chinese Food Articles and the 40th Anniversary of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

In the three years since Clarissa Wei indirectly launched me on an avocational career writing on Chinese American restaurant topics, I've written a few dozen history and cultural laced Chinese food articles.  (For the uninitiated, most of those articles aren't here on my blog, but rather can be found at this link to the Menuism website. )  But writing these articles has not been a brand new experience for me, but rather a revival after a 30 year writing slumber.  Indeed, the period of writing inactivity was so long that I almost forgot about my previous writing bouts, and really was just reminded of it now as I was just interviewed in connection with the upcoming 40th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

During that interview it was brought to my attention the forgotten fact (as far as I was concerned) that I was CHSSC member number 8,  At that point in 1975 I was a couple of years out of law school and had written a number of articles on Chinese American history in the six years since I received my undergraduate degree from UCLA.  My specialty areas were the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles and the Chinese Exclusion laws.  Back then the field of Chinese American history was so undeveloped that a rank amateur like myself  could make real contributions to the literature of the day.  My term paper from the undergraduate "Orientals in America" class at UCLA on the Chinese in Los Angeles was immediately published in the pioneering Asian American movement newspaper Gidra, and other iterations of that topic appeared in Bridge Magazine out of New York Chinatown, and in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce 1975 Chinese New Year souvenir program.  My magnum opus, so to speak, was my piece also from 1975 entitled "The Tragedy and Trauma of the Chinese Exclusion Laws", presented to the bicentennial related conference The Life, Role and Influence of the Chinese in America, sponsored by the Chinese Historical Society of America, and included in the proceedings from that conference that they published.

I then went on to a different area of concentration--American Chinatowns as depicted in turn of the century post cards, as well as cards from later eras.  I took some of my duplicate postcards (didn't want to risk the originals) and put together a display and presentation, first given at a meeting of US government employees in the San Fernando Valley at the Van Nuys Federal Building (at this point in time I have totally forgotten how they got a hold of me--I think the guy's name was Hyman Lee), and later to the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and the Chinese Historical Society of America's second conference on the Life, Role and Influence of the Chinese in America held in 1980.  A paper was published in connection with the CHSA conference, though the book wasn't actually published until 1984.  I think that was the last of my historical articles to be published, though probably not the last I had written, as I did write some articles for both of the Chinese Historical Societies between 1980 and 1984.

I guess there was a precursor of my current Chinese food writing activities back in 1977 when I wrote my one and only published restaurant review, of Hong Kong Restaurant in Sioux City, IA for East West, the Chinese American Journal, a weekly newspaper out of San Francisco.  But even then, the review was as much about the setting of the restaurant, as the food that they served, particularly the fact that I ended up driving by the Sioux Bee Honey Factory before reaching the restaurant..  After the early 1980s, life got too busy to continue my writings on Chinese-American topics.  But in 2012, thanks to the publicity resulting from Clarissa Wei's write up on me and my 6,000 Chinese restaurant visits, I received offers to write on Chinese food.  Well meaning people contacted me under the presumption that having eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants I was an expert on Chinese cuisine and had the knowledge to be a Chinese restaurant critic.  Nothing was farther from the truth--I was like the guy my co-workers once talked about, who had 15 years experience in taxation, but which did not impress them because they said it was like "fifteen 1 year experiences".  Nevertheless I have taken the ball and run with it, using the opportunity to bring out the themes I used to write about decades ago--the Chinese Exclusion Laws, racial discrimination against Chinese Americans, and to tell these stories to new generations who had little idea of such events that had transpired in the past.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Déjà Vu All Over Again for Los Angeles Chinatown Dining

With the arrival of Roy Choi’s Chego, Little Jewel of New Orleans, Scoops, Pok Pok Thai, and Champ Ramen and the forthcoming large Pok Pok, Chinatown is once again a dining destination, albeit not particularly for Chinese food.  But this is not Los Angeles Chinatown’s first dining renaissance as once before it had emerged from its dining slumber to be a culinary hot spot.

While it is natural to lump Los Angeles Chinatown with other historic core city Chinatowns like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Vancouver and many others, in reality Los Angeles Chinatown is uniquely different.  That’s because today’s Chinatown in Los Angeles began as a Hollywood set like tourist only attraction with wishing wells, touristy restaurants and gift shops in a plaza like setting, but virtually no Chinese people actually living in the area.   Yes, Los Angeles did once have a real historic central city Chinatown, but that was leveled in 1933 to make way for the Union Station.  While civic do-gooders thought they were providing two separate suitable replacements in New Chinatown on North Broadway and China City on North Spring, virtually all of old Chinatown’s residents moved out of the downtown area, leaving Los Angeles without a real Chinatown for a good three decades.  From its opening in the late 1930s through the 1960s, New Chinatown dining was largely tourist oriented.  As I kid the only time I ever went to Chinatown was for an occasional banquet at one of New Chinatown’s or Spring Street’s (the two districts had not yet merged to form today’s Chinatown) larger restaurants such as Hong Kong Low, Lime House, General Lee’s, Grand Star, New Hung Far, Golden Pagoda or New Grand East.  We otherwise didn’t go to Chinatown to eat.  Rather whenever we ate out it would be in one of the San Pedro St. City Produce Market (the real Chinatown of that era that few outsiders know about) Chinese restaurants such as New Moon, Man Fook Low, Paul’s Kitchen or Moon Palace (which subsequent became On Luck).

Then came the game changer, the 1965 repeal of the restrictions on Chinese immigration to the United States.   With the influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, New Chinatown saw its first critical mass of Chinese residents, and restaurants serving a more modern type of Cantonese food sprang up in Chinatown in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Phoenix Inn, Won Kok Center and Golden Dragon.  Meanwhile, Grandview Gardens captured the imagination of Angelinos, both Chinese and non-Chinese, who swarmed the restaurant on Sunday mornings for their dim sum service.   Miriwa upped the ante by opening  its newfangled dim sum service on carts in 1976 on the second floor of Chunsan Plaza (currently occupied by Ocean Seafood).    

Los Angeles Chinatown reached its first culinary zenith in the 1980s as restaurants filled the street to street Food Center between Broadway and Hill St.  Mon Kee on Spring Street may have been the first Chinatown restaurant to serve Hong Kong style seafood, though it was soon left to the downtown lunch crowd.   But in 1984 ABC Seafood stepped in and introduced advanced Hong Kong seafood cuisine in the old Lime House location, for over a decade serving the best Chinese food in Los Angeles, if not the nation.   However later in the 1980s Monterey Park, and then the rest of the San Gabriel Valley gradually overtook Chinatown, to the point that there is nothing close to a destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown today.  Indeed, as far as Los Angeles Chinatown is concerned, the best known restaurant may be the touristy Yang Chow with its slippery shrimp, which annually wins  the "Best Chinese Restaurant" award from downtown office workers.. 

Ironically ground zero for Chinatown’s second renaissance is the old Food Center complex, since renamed Far East Plaza, as over the years fewer and fewer eating places populated the center’s premises.  But now, housing Chego, Pok Pok Thai, Scoops and Champ Ramen (as well as the pop-up cat cafe), it really has become a food center again.  Or like Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.    

Monday, August 3, 2015

Me And General Tso

Monday, July 6, 2015

Stumbling Onto Chinese Food in New Zealand

While I intended to dine on some Chinese food during our recent trip to New Zealand and Australia, I knew that being part of a tour group would severely hamper my ability to do any real exploration for Chinese food since free time was limited and I would be restricted by the location of the tour hotel.  Indeed, I assumed my best, and perhaps only opportunity would be on a free day in Sydney, where our hotel was going to be within walking distance of Chinatown.  Never did I expect to register successful Chinese meals in three of the five nights we spent in New Zealand.

The first meal literally dropped into our lap as it was our tour group welcome dinner at Eight Restaurant in the Langham Hotel in Auckland.  Now, Eight could be the name of a Chinese restaurant, since eight is a lucky number to Chinese, with numerous 88 and 888 Restaurants in existence.  However it was unlikely that the only restaurant in Langham’s Auckland location would be Chinese.  Furthermore, they explained that “eight” refers to eight different styles of preparation the restaurant used.  The tour guide said it was all you can eat, but not a buffet because your food was cooked to order.  But as it turns out the tour guide was wrong, because it really was a buffet, and the cook to order component was really just the teppan grill we see at many Chinese buffets in California.  And while it was technically not a Chinese buffet since that term wasn’t used and there were Chinese and non-Chinese food items, it was technically a Chinese buffet because it was full of items that Chinese people like, and restaurants with a similar food lineup do call themselves Chinese buffets.  It was no surprise therefore that at least three-quarters of the customers were Asian.  Most obviously was the dim sum station, with one of my favorites, the now seldom seen beef siu mai. There was the meat grill with prime beef and pork cuts in addition to alpaca, kangaroo, ostrich and venison choices.  There was a separate seafood grill with six kinds of fish, as well as clams, shrimp and other kinds of seafood.  There was an Indian station too, with goat masala, as well as lamb, chicken, and vegetarian choices.  Other stations served  raw oysters, mussels, and a decent dessert spread.  But while it was fun eating there, at about $75 US per person it really wasn’t worthwhile, because the flavor of the food was not at all outstanding.   But that sure didn’t stop all those Chinese diners.

The next meal in the tourist town of Rotaruo was even more improbable.  At least Auckland has a large Chinese population and indeed we drove through their budding Chinatown on the way from the airport into town.   But Rotaruo did not have the same concentration of Chinese residents, and what Asian influence there was in that city appeared to be heavily Korean.  Having walked through most of the downtown area early in the day, we were actually headed to Carl’s Jr. for dinner as that seemed to be the most likely venue near the hotel.  But on the way over there we passed a place called Hong Kong City Takeaway, so I stopped in poked my head in thinking I could supplement my Carl’s meal with something from here.  My attention was drawn to a picture of crab with black bean sauce, which indicated this wasn’t a typical tourist Chinese spot.  Then I looked up on the wall and saw a blackboard with several dozen items written in Chinese without translation.   As it turned out, we had stumbled into an authentic Chinese restaurant.  We were lucky that it was very early and the restaurant was empty, as that enabled us to talk to the guy behind the counter and get an idea of exactly what he served.  When we asked him about what kind of vegetables he had, he went back in the kitchen and brought out gai lan and on choy to show us.  When we asked about what kind of fish he used, he reached under the counter, grabbed a supermarket ad, and pointed to the basa ad.  We ended up staying and had the curry fish, tofu chicken, and Chinese broccoli with beef.  All three dishes were quite good, and as we ate our meal we saw numerous Chinese patrons coming in for takeway.  Interestingly a couple of doors up the street was a place called Chopsticks Restaurant, which we had actually spotted at a distance at lunch time, which had extensive Chinese writing on a signboard outside of the restaurant.  But passing this restaurant after finishing our meal, we saw that Chopsticks was totally empty, so Hong Kong City was clearly the real find;.

Our last New Zealand stop was the ski resort town of Queenstown, which personally reminded me of Vail, CO.  I was walking down the street when I spotted the sign “Queenie’s Dumplings” which made me wonder whether there might be an authentic Chinese restaurant in this ski resort.  A couple of the other Chinese restaurants in town, Madam Woo and Lakeside Palace seem to be westernized, but dumplings aren’t normally associated with westernized Chinese food.  And indeed, Queenie carried a full line of dumplings, as well as noodle soup dishes.  The mixed Asian and non-Asian kitchen staff did raise some questions, but the majority Chinese clientele was sufficient validation.  The chicken and corn dumplings (which can hardly be found in Los Angeles) and the beef dumplings were both pretty good.

If anything this experience shows how Chinese are expanding their footprint in places like New Zealand just as they are back home in California.  Which from a culinary perspective is just fine with me.

1976 Rose Bowl Game

One of my all time favorite football games, and most likely my favorite not involving the UCLA/USC rivalry was the January 1, 1976 Rose Bowl between UCLA and Ohio State.  Ohio State was the only unbeaten team in the country and had thrashed UCLA at the Coliseum earlier in the 1975 season.  The score was 41-20, but the final score was misleading because Ohio State ran out to a 41-7 lead before coasting to victory.  All Ohio State needed to win that season's national championship was to beat UCLA again, which everyone assumed they would do quite easily.  Oddsmakers installed Ohio State as a 15 point favorite.   Most of us thought that Ohio State would win by a bigger margin than that.  Indeed I'm not sure why I even bothered to go to the game.  And as the game approached things appeared to get worse.  The UCLA team almost mutinied because Coach Dick Vermeil cracked the whip so hard during the practices leading up to January 1.

Ohio State took the opening kickoff and rolled down the field with little resistance, just as everybody suspected.  But when they got inside the UCLA 30 yard line, Ohio State stalled (aided by some questionable play calling) and had to settle for a long field goal to go up 3-0.  Meanwhile, whenever UCLA got the ball they couldn't do a thing.  They didn't get their first first down until the end of the first half and only had about 40 yards total for the half.  But after the initial drive, the UCLA defense stiffened and the half ended 3-0, in what seemed like an unbelievable moral victory.

But then more unbelievably, UCLA's offense caught fire in the third quarter.  What didn't work in the first half, running and passing, started to work, even though UCLA's best offensive lineman, Randy Cross, was lost for the game at the end of the first half.   UCLA took the opening kickoff, marched down the field, though having to settle for a tying field goal.  Two subsequent Bruin touchdown drives and it was 16-3 UCLA in the third quarter, and UCLA was on its way to a 23-10 win with highlight plays by John Sciarra, Wally Henry and Wendell Tyler, and Coach Woody Hayes memorably trudging over to the UCLA sideline before the game ended.   

But as the years went by my memory of the game started to grow dim, since it predated the introduction of home VHS machines in the United States in 1977.  Consequently I wasn't able to re-watch this game like some of my other later favorites.  I had resigned myself to never reliving that game until I met the star of the game,  John Sciarra, sometime in the 1990s at a presentation he gave on pensions and retirement plans.  He said that after a great deal of effort, he and other members of the team were able to obtain copies of the videotape of that game directly from NBC, which gave me hope that the game tape might some day be made available to the public.  Sure enough, a few years later a collector friend came across a copy and made a duplicate for me.  Unfortunately my copy was a third or fourth generation copy and wasn't conducive to watching on a recurring basis, though it was better than nothing.  Then about 10 years ago ESPN Classics showed the game, and while I didn't get that cable channel, a relative did and taped it for me.  But while it was a good quality picture, it was highly abridged, so I never watched it too often.

However it is now the age of YouTube, and ever since they got rid of their relatively small maximum file size limits, all kinds of older sporting events have been uploaded, including decent copies of both halves of the 1976 Rose Bowl game.  Now I can finally watch the game in its entirety and relive the magic moments that I thought would someday fade away.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Reviving Crunchy Baked BBQ Pork Buns

When I was a kid, the only Chinese bbq pork buns in circulation were the steamed ones, much larger in size than the current buns served in orders of three buns, and referred to back then as "hom bao".  Then somewhere along the line somebody invented the baked bbq pork bun, baked to a golden brown on top with a smooth top having a sweet glaze.  I'm guessing these arrived first in Hong Kong, maybe in the 1980s, though frankly I can't tell you where I first encountered this item in the United States.

But the real gem in this collection is what might be referred to as the crunchy top bbq pork bun.  It's most associated with Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, the world's most inexpensive Michelin starred restaurant and seems to have been replicated only by a handful of Chinese restaurants in the United States, most notably Hong Kong Lounge and Lai Hong Lounge in San Francisco. (Strangely, a small bakery in San Francisco Chinatown, AA Bakery on Stockton St., produced them for a while, but seems to have stopped.)  Also, Sea Harbour in Rosemead, CA has a similar item they call a French top bbq pork bun.  The Tim Ho Wan version is the best, but the Lai Hong Lounge version is a good substitute.  Indeed so good, we once ordered four orders of three buns at Lai Hong Lounge, one to eat at the restaurant and the others to take back to Los Angeles.

But the problem with taking these things home is that a dim sum item that starts off with a crunchy top soon turns into a soggy and soft bun that doesn't taste so good.  Microwaving one of these cold buns only makes it hot--it's still soggy.  However after experimenting I figured out how to revive these things at home.  A double passing through a toaster oven cycle gets the top nice and crunchy again.  Unfortunately, that's not enough to warm up the inside fully, and more time in the toaster oven will burn the top.  But after the double toaster oven treatment, 20 to 25 seconds in the microwave, and voila!

Note that this treatment also works to revive pineapple top bbq pork and chicken buns, too.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Upscale Chinese Dining in the East San Gabriel Valley

As Clarissa Wei recently highlighted a lot of the new developments in Chinese dining are concentrated in the eastern portion of the San Gabriel Valley, as opposed to the more established west San Gabriel Valley communities such as Monterey Park,  Alhambra, and San Gabriel.  For those looking for microtrends in this advancement of Chinese dining, I've noticed in the Rowland Heights-Industry-Hacienda Heights area a disproportionate number of recent openings of more upscale Chinese restaurants.

When I say upscale, I mean both in terms of restaurant decor and design, as well as a higher price point that what we're used to seeing. Immediately coming to mind are Zheng's Fusion, Southern Gourmet, Lobster Bay and Taste Guizhou, and I'm sure there are quite a few others. I guess with a newer and less pricey real estate stock, it's easier to spend a few extra dollars on the decor than in the denser west San Gabriel Valley and its older real estate inventory. And in these new restaurants, many, if not most of the dinner entrees  run in the $20 and more category.  Hardly pricey by typical foodie standards in the Los Angeles area, but quite a departure from the value pricing that most Chinese diners in the San Gabriel Valley have typically been looking for.

It's not like there's any overall loss of interest in reasonably priced Chinese food in the west San Gabriel Valley.  Indeed, one now finds the best and more expensive west San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants like Sea Harbour, King Hua, Shi Hai and Elite only half  full on Saturday nights, while restaurants like Mama's Lu Dumpling House (hardly anything on the menu over $10) and 5 Star Seafood (entrees nudge over $10, but you get an allegedly 3 pound lobster for $5.97 with a minimum $30 purchase) packed to the gills with long waits during the same Saturday night timeframe.  So value certainly is still king in the west San Gabriel Valley.

It's clear that these new upscale east San Gabriel Valley eateries are being driven by the nouveau riche Chinese mainlanders descending on the San Gabriel Valley.   One observer commented that these nouveau riche seen in restaurants in and around Rowland Heights are very conspicuous, particularly the women, by their obviously expensive designer clothing and accessories which are just as obviously mismatched.   But why in the eastern area?   Super rich Chinese mainlanders have typically been identified with the communities of Arcadia and San Marino, and not especially with Hacienda Heights and points east.  Yet the new upscale restaurants don't seem to have made their mark around Arcadia and San Marino, except perhaps the spacious and pricey Spring Bamboo Seafood which took over space formerly occupied by a large piano store.   And yes, there is Hai Di Lao in the Santa Anita Mall, but that IS a shopping mall.  Perhaps the east San Gabriel Valley has its own share of rich mainlanders who are still operating under the radar, or maybe that's just where it's easier to build out a large and upscale restaurant venue.  But at the moment it's a bit of a puzzle.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Almonds Almonds Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink

Since my first car trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco over 50 years ago, I've made the trek dozens and dozens of times.  The first trip was up old Highway 101, which was the old style US highway that ran through the middle of city after city, mostly near the downtown areas.  That made the trip 10 hours long or more, such on that first trip we actually stayed overnight the first day, in Salinas at the Sandstone Motel.  Since Interstate 5 was completed in the 1980s, that has been our primary route up north, but though the route has changed, one thing has stayed the same--driving past miles and miles of farmland, often wondering what crop was growing there.  (One of my friends came up with the practical comment that a law should be passed requiring farmers to label their crops for the benefit of passing motorists.)

However after a recent trip to San Francisco and back on Interstate 5, I came to the realization that in one respect everything has suddenly changed.  There really is no wondering what's growing alongside the highway, now, as it's now mostly almond trees.  Actually almond trees have been around at least a few years, and at one time I did wonder what kind of tree it was.  Pistachio? Peach? Apricot?  Then the only time we ever drove up north in late February, we witnessed all the trees in full bloom.  Doing a quick internet search disclosed that the almond trees were in bloom, and we were fortunate enough to see them during the very short period each that the blossoms were out.

But while blooming almond trees were a marvelous sight, as everybody seems to know now, all those almonds along the highway have a nefarious side.  Almond trees are water hogs compared to other crops, and as such they are proliferating as our water supply, both runoff and ground water, is greatly diminishing.  In the old days we used to see (well, I'm guessing because the farmers didn't label their fields) growing corn, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes and citrus trees, among crops along the highway.  While there are still some other crops growing, it's more and more almonds all the time.

The problem is that what we think of as normal rainfall for California for the past century and a half, dating back to the beginning of California's agriculture industry, may have been an aberrant rainy period, and today's drought could be the old normal coming back, at least in the opinion of some climatologists.  If this is true, there just isn't going to be enough water around for everyone.  For those who drive the Interstate 5 corridor, you've doubtless seen for many years the political billboards put up by farm organizations talking about how water for farms means jobs and food production.  I used to feel sorry for the farmers as I passed those signs on the highway.  After all, they are growing a majority of the produce consumed by the United States.  But with almond trees, these products aren't being grown to meet an existing demand.  Rather, the almond growers have created their own demand that didn't exist before, to the point that almonds account by themselves for 10 percent of all water consumption in California (or if you believe  the almond growers, 9 percent).   It's not that the water shortage has suddenly snuck up on us from behind.  So those growers who rapidly expanded their almond production knowing about potential water issues are in no position to ask for sympathy.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Seeds of My Chinese Restaurant List and A Childhood Puzzle Solved After 50 Years

I don't think that anybody familiar with my Chinese restaurant list would be surprised to learn that I've been making lists since I was a kid.  What may be surprising is that while I have only been keeping my restaurant list for a little over 25 years, I just discovered a connection to the first lists I remember making as a grade schooler in the late 1950s.

As a kid I was what might be described in today's parlance as an American geography and history geek.  So much so that when I was in the third grade, they sent me up to a sixth grade class to talk and answer questions about US history and geography.  And the first lists I kept were of the cities with the largest population, by state.  Not only based on census data which came out every 10 years.  But I also kept track of annual unofficial updates as reported by the Britannica Yearbook and other publications.  So what does this have to do with visiting and recording trips to Chinese restaurants?  Well in one way,  quite a bit.  Because of my fascination with American cities as a kid, when I finished school and started working and traveling on my own, I decided I wanted to visit as many of these cities and states as I could, and in large part regardless of whether there were any particular tourist attractions of note.  For me,  I was excited to visit Paducah, KY, just because it was Paducah, KY.  And from the beginning, as I had explained in numerous interviews and presentations, my interest in things Chinese American which I picked up in college led me to dine in Chinese restaurants whenever I  could.  While I didn't actually eat Chinese food in Paducah, that first solo out of state trip did lead me to two Chinese restaurants in Memphis and one in Clarksdale, MS, and I was on my way.  Indeed the very next year led to restaurant visits in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Sioux City, Hopkins, MN, Bloomington, Fargo, Houston, Washington DC and Philadelphia.

All this has come to my attention due to a happenstance event which reminded me of my old city population lists.  Sometime in the early 1960s I came across a puzzling listing of the most populous cities in Arizona.  Coming in fourth place after Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa with an estimated population of 10,000 was Amphitheater.  I had never seen a reference to Amphitheater in any previous population listing, and in those pre-internet days, a search of library materials for Amphitheater, Arizona came up with absolutely nothing.  I eventually gave up, assuming perhaps it was somebody's idea of a joke to list some stadium with 10,000 seats as the fourth largest city in Arizona when filled.  And occasionally in years subsequent, I would think about Amphitheater, but eventually resigned myself to treating this as a mystery that would never be solved.

But then just the other Saturday, it was a beautiful sunny day and I worked a half day in my Century City office.  I decided to take a slight detour from my usual path home over to Hollywood Blvd. just to gawk at the tourists taking in the sights on such a quintessential Southern California day.  And as I drove by the Madame Toussaud museum, there it was on the message board.  "Welcome Amphitheater High School."  As soon as I got home I dashed for my computer and did the search.  Amphitheater High School is in Tucson.  A further search showed Amphitheater, obviously not a separate incorporated city, had been used to describe an area of north Tucson since the late 19th century because the natural layout of the area was like an amphitheater.  Strange that in two visits to Tucson I never came across any reference to that community even though my visits to that city were well planned in advance.  I guess it just shows how much more difficult it was to access information of all types back in those pre-internet days.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Kentucky's Final Four Loss As Explained By John Wooden

Like everybody else I was surprised by Kentucky's 71-64 loss in the NCAA basketball championship semi-final game.  They were a perfect 38-0 this season, ranked #1 in the polls since the first week of the season, and had talent comparable to some NBA teams.  But I wasn't as surprised as most people, as I told my friends all week that there was one factor that could stop Kentucky from going all the way--that 38 game winning streak.

Everybody knows legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden both as one of the greatest coaches ever, and also as one of the most insightful minds ever associated with athletics with sagacious observations both as to life and athletics.  In my opinion the most insightful thing he said, and probably considered heretical by most people with associated sports is that under the proper circumstances, a loss may actually be a good thing for a competitor's experience.  In particular, when a team is on a long winning streak, he noted that the quality of its performance begins to diminish.  Wooden referred to winning streaks as becoming burdensome, which often leads up to an unexpected losing performance. It's not clear exactly why, but it's probably a combination of different factors.    Maybe the team starts playing not to lose, rather than trying to win, with keeping the streak alive becoming a distraction, whether conscious or not.  Maybe the team becomes overconfident.  Maybe opponents dig down deeper.  Maybe it's something totally subliminal.  And even if the team with the winning streak continues to win, quite often it's clear that the team is laboring under the pressure of the streak.  (Perhaps an explanation of Kentucky's close win over Notre Dame in its previous game.)  But whatever the reason, it is not unusual for teams on long winning streaks to stub their toe against an opponent that seemingly doesn't match up.

Now if the loss is suffered in a relatively meaningless game, the loss can be beneficial, as in today's parlance it's like hitting a reset button and you can again return to your former level of excellence.  But if that loss occurs in the sudden death NCAA tournament, it can't be remedied.  To me it's clear that if Kentucky had suffered a loss, say during the SEC tournament, that there's no way that anyone would have come close to them during the NCAA tournament and they would have sailed to the championship.

Of course things are a little more complicated than saying teams are more susceptible to a loss when on a winning streak, as there have been some impressive winning streaks in sports history.  One corollary rule is if you are vastly superior to your opponent, that opponent won't beat you no matter how badly you play.  Given that the college basketball season ends with the sudden death NCAA tournament, entering the tournament on a long winning streak is not a good thing, as the team will be facing a string of high calibre opponents.  No wonder why there hasn't been an undefeated NCAA basketball champion since 1976. (Remember that great unbeaten early 90s UNLV team?)  Another corollary is that consecutive wins from a prior season probably shouldn't count because each year's team is a different entity.  And of course, if two teams with long winning streaks meet, one of them will have to win.

Indeed one sees the effect of the winning streak phenomenon every year in college football.  Around the eighth week of the season there are often several unbeaten teams, many of which project out as going unbeaten for the rest of the year based on the calibre of their remaining opponents.  "Oh my gosh," pundits exclaim.  "It will be chaotic if the regular season ends with so many unbeaten teams."   But every year the season ends, and there's usually no more than one unbeaten team left, the others suffering upset losses at the hand of underdogs.

So yes, a loss can be therapeutic.  In John Wooden's last season as UCLA coach in 1975, they suffered a humiliating 21 point loss to a mediocre Washington team near the end of the regular season.  Now they weren't on a long winning streak at the time. But after that loss many observers concluded that the 1975 UCLA team wasn't that good and it wasn't going far in the NCAA tournament.  But indeed that team did win it all with some great play in the NCAA tournament.

John Wooden was also remarkable because he really didn't care whether his teams won or not, just that they played to their potential, so different from the winning is everything mentality we see all over sports.  And perhaps it is this mentality that obscures the truth that a loss might just do you good under the right circumstances, and help you win when it really counts.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Best Chinese Restaurant Names

Since Los Angeles Times Reporter Frank Shyong's Analysis of Chinese restaurant names in my Excel Chinese restaurant listing has just been republished, this is a good time for me to recount some of my favorite Chinese restaurant names.  Despite the safety zone that Frank referred to in his article, there are also a number of Chinese restaurants with unusual, if not inexplicable names.  Sometimes things get lost in translation.  For example, in my interview in the food documentary The Search For General Tso, I mention the oddly named Strange Taste Restaurant which operated for a number of years at the intersection of Henry St. and Catherine St. in New York Chinatown.   I presume they were using "strange taste" in a good manner, to distinguish themselves from run of the mill Chinese restaurants, not knowing that strange tasting food was never good.   Along the same lines is Smelly Pot in Industry, in the San Gabriel Valley.  The name describes the restaurant's signature dishes which are all infused with the Taiwanese favorite, fermented, a.k.a. stinky tofu. But to us native English speakers, somehow that just doesn't do it.  And in a similar category are the departed Burrrp Cafe in Alhambra, Quantity and Quality Kitchen in Temple City (later shortened to Q&Q) and Fuzhou Manual Fish Ball in Rowland Heights (they meant hand made fish balls).

One recently closed restaurant I wonder about was Porkaroma, a food court based pork specialist in nearby Rowland Heights.   My initial thought was that they were using the "rama" suffix (e.g., Futurama), but got mixed up.  But would an immigrant restaurant owner be familiar with "rama", and perhaps might they really be enticed by the aroma of pork?  I guess we'll never know.

Then there are those Chinese restaurants whose names would ordinarily imply anything but Chinese food.  My favorites in this category are Bavarian Garden in Oakland, O'Toole's Roadhouse in Rowland Heights, and The Viking's Table in West Los Angeles, again all now closed.  But these restaurant names are easy to explain.  Whoever opened these restaurants merely kept the name of the previous restaurant at that location.  This is not an unusual practice, motivated perhaps by the desire to minimize the costs of changing signage or printing new business cards.  This may also explain why Hong Kong Palace in suburban Washington DC serves top notch authentic Sichuan style food despite the apparent incongruity in the name.   Indeed, some Chinese restaurants take this a step further, by taking over an existing restaurant location, changing the name of the restaurant on legal records, menus etc., but NOT changing the exterior signage on the building.  We've seen that occur with relative frequency, again most likely as a cost cutting measure, at least until the success of the restaurant has been ensured and it pays to have the correct name outside.  But it sure makes it difficult for those of us searching for newly opened restaurants, as a simple drive-by isn't sufficient to indicate that a new restaurant has opened.

Of course, we've all seen Chinese restaurant menus mangle the English language, but you would expect that somebody would advise a restaurant to use real English words in the name.  But that didn't stop Authletic Dumpling House from opening up in New York Chinatown or Noodl Cafe in San Gabriel.   In one case they got the individual words right, but somehow when put together, Bake Are We Cafe in Artesia, CA doesn't work.  They may have avoided a lawsuit from Toys R Us, but it probably wasn't worth the resulting head scratching.  Of course, a nonexistent word can turn out to be clever, as was the case with Cuisineer Six in the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino.

Then there are the names which are inexplicable, perhaps randomly chosen because an English language name is required for legal purposes.  How would you explain the Shanghai style restaurant in Rowland Heights called Suit Ur Buds, the Taiwanese restaurant in San Gabriel, Why Thirsty, Auction Chinese Food in Colton, CA, or Go Believe in Manhattan Chinatown?   

But my favorite Chinese restaurant name of all is the seemingly innocuous Rivera Cafe, which operated in San Gabriel.  Yes, Rivera is a fairly commonplace name.  But why would a Chinese restaurant call itself Rivera, which is a Hispanic surname?  My best guess is that they didn't know how to spell Riviera.  But there's always the possibility that they were big fans of Geraldo. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Are There So Many Chinese Restaurants Named Fuleen? And Why Haven't Most Of You Ever Seen One?

Fuleen Restaurant, on Division Street in Manhattan Chinatown, is one of the better Chinese seafood restaurants in New York City, and one of the more enduring restaurants in the Little Fuzhou section of Chinatown east of Bowery.  When I first went there a dozen years ago I didn't pay any attention to the name, since Chinese restaurants often have odd names, particularly when not catering to non-Chinese diners.  Then about 10 years later I ran into Fuleen Palace in Howard Beach in Queens which serves Americanized Chinese food, and I started to wonder--did this restaurant have a common owner with the one in Manhattan Chinatown?  However that theory went down the drain when  I started seeing similar variations, such as Chen Fulin Kwok in Brooklyn Chinatown and Fully Bakery in Elmhurst.  At that point the question of what Fuleen or its variations stood for started to drive me crazy on two different accounts.

Besides these Fuleen restaurants, an internet search then pulled up many, many other "Fuleen" Restaurants  as well as its phonetic equivalent, "Fulin".   There's actually a chain of Chinese restaurants with that name in Tennessee and Alabama.  And there are other variations, such as FuLoon, Fullin, and who knows what else.  The first strange thing is that the word Fuleen only seems to be associated with Chinese restaurants in the eastern United States.  Mention Fuleen to anybody on the West Coast and you get blank stares.   The second factor is the dozens of Fuleen, Fulin, etc. restaurants  all seem to have opened quite recently, certainly just in this century.

The fact that all of the Fuleen restaurants are located in the eastern United States does provide a major clue to the origin.  As I wrote in my Menuism article on Monday night wedding banquets in Manhattan Chinatown, there is a network of Chinese restaurant owners and workers tethered to the Fujianese community in the eastern part of Manhattan Chinatown.  Quite possibly, the name Fuleen and its deriviations is an indication of ownership by Chinese originally from Fujian Province in China, who passed through Manhattan Chinatown and rode the bus network from there to places all over the eastern half of the United States. Since the Fujianese did not make their presence felt in the United States until the 1990s, that would explain the lack of pre-existing use of the Fuleen name.  This was a good theory, but was this really the answer?

In search of a solution I asked for thoughts from the participants of the Chowhound message boards. 
It turns out that the Chinese name for Fuleen Restaurant 富臨 has no English equivalent, but is a term that connotes wealth and joy.  There is nothing particularly Fujianese about the use of the term, but for whatever reason it now appears to have been adopted by Fujianese restaurant owners, much like previously generations of Chinese restaurant owners gave names like Golden Palace or Silver & Gold Amazing to their eateries.  While there is no smoking gun confirming this conclusion, given that Fuleen doesn't have a specific technical meaning, it's consistent with the current domination of Fujianese restauranteurs in the east, south and midwest.   And at this point there's really no other explanation.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

If The Government Only Had A Brain

We live in an area of the Hollywood Hills called The Oaks.  It’s a community of over 300 homes, adjacent to Griffith Park, between the observatory and the Hollywood sign.  Thanks to a rockslide in Griffith Park some 25 years ago, there is no access to the San Fernando Valley on the other side of the Hollywood sign, so there are no Waze driven commuters going through the community.  Brad Pitt has his US compound in the Oaks, and over the decades notables from Will and Ariel Durant to Cary Grant and Randolph Scott’s bachelor mansion to Diane Keaton, Vince Vaughn, Jason Priestly, Flea, Nicolas Cage (before his real estate empire crumbled) and Adam Levine have rotated in and out of the neighborhood.

There are two main entrances to the Oaks, the Fern Dell Griffith Park entrance on Los Feliz Blvd., and Bronson Ave. at Franklin Ave. on the western end.  While there are other streets which could be theoretically used for access to the Oaks, only the two main entrances have traffic signals, and without a traffic signal it’s nearly impossible to cross Franklin Ave.   Recently the Bronson Ave. entrance has seen extreme traffic delays at times, leading to a community outcry for amelioration.  I’m guessing that the increase in traffic might be from cars using Bronson Ave. as an access route to the Hollywood sign, which despite traffic signs to the contrary, can be reached by turning up Hollyridge Dr., and which GPS toting tourists have finally discovered.   That and all the hipsters hanging out at the Oaks Gourmet, jammed whether it's 10:30 am or 2 pm (don't those people have jobs?), plus Gelsons and the Scientology Center at the same intersection. 

The neighborhood and city councilman Tom La Bonge came up with a perfect solution–install a traffic signal at Van Ness Ave and Franklin Ave. to provide a third entry point.  Besides relieving pressure on Bronson Ave., Van Ness Ave. ends right at Hollywood freeway onramp, which would give Oaks residents a straight shot onto the freeway.  Congratulations were in order, and all that was needed was approval by the Los Angeles City Traffic Department.  So guess what?  The Traffic Department turned down the signal request because there wasn’t enough traffic to justify the signal--nobody was crossing Franklin Ave. on Van Ness.  Well d’oh.  Of course not.  Because without a signal you’d wait forever to cross Franklin at Van Ness, so few drivers are stupid enough to take that route.  But government is too stupid to figure that out.    

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Proof Los Angeles Chinese Food Is Superior To That Of New York

As anybody who has eaten Chinese food both in the San Gabriel Valley and in New York knows,  San Gabriel Valley Chinese food is far superior.  However, there are numerous New Yorkers who have never been in the San Gabriel Valley, and hence find it implausible that anything can be better than their Chinese food.  I tried to tell them that in my Top 10 Chinese Restaurants in the United States article that included no New York restaurants, and ended up with the internet version of being tarred and feathered by irate New Yorkers.  Furthermore, given that New York has a greater Chinese population than either Los Angeles or San Francisco, the thought of either of those California cities being superior in Chinese food to New York is that much more unbelievable to the doubting New Yorkers.

Fortunately, renown food writer Clarissa Wei has come to the rescue in her article "How Los Angeles Became A Powerhouse For Chinese Food".   Her well written and thoroughly researched article documents the underlying reasons why Los Angeles has the best Chinese food in the country and why New York doesn't.  Interestingly, my first contact with Clarissa was around three years ago on this precise topic.  Clarissa was a Californian who had gone to Manhattan to attend New York University, and who began writing food stories for The Village Voice in New York and L.A. Weekly back home.  While she had a general sense that New York Chinese food was inferior, that's not exactly the type of article you'd want to submit to The Village Voice.  In the course of our correspondence concerning the comparative status of New York and Los Angeles Chinese food, I happened to mention to Clarissa about my 6,000 Chinese restaurant visits and accompanying Excel schedule and she immediately jumped on that topic, interviewing me in person and writing the L.A. Weekly profile that quickly jumped to Huffington Post, and then news and celebrity websites not only in the United States, but also Asia, Europe, Africa and who knows where else around the world.

Three years later Clarissa has written the definitive article on the topic.  In my short Menuism article on why New York Chinese food lagged California I briefly mentioned demographic factors distinguishing the New York and Los Angeles Chinese communities, such as the presence of large numbers of wealthy Chinese immigrants and their food centric "626 Generation" progeny.  Clarissa fleshes out these topics and discusses other factors, such as the arrival of highly trained chefs from China, a Chinese language foodie social media network (one Chinese language Facebook group devoted to spotting new Chinese restaurants has 4,800 members),  and competition of multiple emerging regional cuisines which raise the Chinese food bar in Los Angeles on an ongoing basis.  Clarissa notes that the 626 Night Market attracted a crowd of 40,000 on its opening night, and I may add gummed up Los Angeles freeway traffic for hours.  

While I certainly didn't need any convincing, Clarissa's article paints a picture which shows the stark difference between Los Angeles and New York Chinese food, and while there is unquestionably lots of good Chinese food in New York, and the Chinese food is particularly diversifying in Flushing, there is more and better outstanding Chinese food in Los Angeles.  We are literally in the midst of a Chinese food frenzy in Los Angeles, so the Chinese food in Los Angeles had better be the best in the country.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Wonders Never Cease--The Search For General Tso in Theaters and Video on Demand

When I happened to be in New York last April when The Search For General Tso played at the Tribeca Film Festival, as I was looking at myself on the screen I tried to savor the moment thinking I might never view the film again.  After all, it appeared to be a struggle to get the film completed and onto the festival circuit, and I imagined the most we could hope for was an eventual DVD release, and I considered that a longshot.  Consequently it was a pleasant surprise last month to learn that the film had been picked up for limited distribution by Sundance Select, to begin showing in theaters starting on January 2, as well as video on demand.

Of course I still wondered whether the movie would play anywhere near me, so I was pleased that Arena Theater, a small art house in Hollywood near my home, was showing the movie from January 2 through January 8.  Furthermore, they scheduled a special screening this past Sunday with a bonus Q&A session with film producer Jennifer 8 Lee, hosted by KCRW food personality Evan Kleinman and Midtown Lunch blogger Zach Brooks.  It was a sold out crowd (which meant about 100 people in this small venue) and a great event.  I had been interviewed by Evan on her Good Food radio show a couple of years ago, right after Clarissa Wei's L.A. Weekly piece on my Chinese restaurant adventures  and had a nice chat with her before the screening.  Also I was looking forward to meeting Jennifer 8 Lee and Zach Brooks, but I didn't get to speak with either before the screening.

Watching the movie for the second time was in a way more interesting, since at Tribeca I was preoccupied waiting for my three minute appearance to arrive,  while this time I could give full attention to the movie's content. At the start of the post-screening Q&A I was surprised that Zack Brooks said he wanted to introduce a "celebrity" in the audience (which I did figure out was me, since I'm in the film), since I still hadn't spoken to him yet.  So even though the theater was fairly dark, I stood up and waved.  One guy in the audience yelled out "How do you stay so slim despite going to so many Chinese restaurants?"  I gave my standard "exercise and portion control" response.

After the Q&A, while most everybody else headed straight for the General Tso's chicken being served in the patio, I went on the stage to speak with Zack Brooks and Jennifer 8 Lee.  While waiting for Jennifer to free up, one of the other people waiting to talk to her asked me how I managed to eat at 6,000 restaurants, since that seemed to be such a daunting number.  Since it's a common question, I replied that if you do the math that's a restaurant a day every day for 17 years, but that I've been doing this for a lot more than 17 years.  I also explained that I eat up to four meals a day when I travel out of town, each at a different restaurant.  When I finally got to talk to Jennifer she gave me a warm greeting, and while I'm sure most people compliment her on her Fortune Cookie Chronicles book, I told her how much I enjoyed her New York Times articles on the Chinese community in New York ten years ago, and how they gave me such an insight.  After the screening, I got to meet Chowhound posters Mr. Taster and Dommy! and chat with a number of audience members on things like my most interesting restaurant find (Creasian in white bread Springfield, MO).  I would have liked to stay longer, but we had a family dinner scheduled and had to rush off.

Being in this movie was truly an adventure.  It was illuminating in seeing the process of making a movie, documentary or otherwise, which is such a time consuming and unpredictable process.  Two years after being interviewed for two hours, three minutes of the interview makes it to the screen, and which three minutes are included was from my point of view a random thing, so random that until the second viewing I couldn't tell you what I talked about in the movie.   I'm certainly not complaining at all since when I was interviewed by Ian Cheney and his crew at Mission 261 restaurant in San Gabriel, they arrived after I did because they had  just come from a prior interview in Pasadena with the founders of Panda Express at their headquarters--which didn't make it into the movie at all.

An interesting sidelight was that after the Tribeca screening, the movie was catalogued in the Internet Movie Data Base and I was given credit as being part of the "cast", and even being mentioned by named in the Variety review of the movie.  Unfortunately, IMDB confused me with a real actor named David Chan, who gained a small measure of fame in the 1990s Ninja Turtles movies, so I'm sure  he was puzzled to find The Search For General Tso listed as one of his credits.  However, with this year's theatrical release the IMDB entry cut out most of the interviewees from the cast listing, so it's off his resume now.  However the movie industry site The Numbers got it right, giving me my own page and listing me with one "acting credit".