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.