Saturday, June 11, 2016

48 Hours On The East Coast

Since my work group is headquartered in Washington D.C., I have occasion to travel there for our group meetings.  However, since I'm the only one in my group who does what I do, the content of these meetings isn't always that relevant.  This was the case a couple of weeks ago with our latest meeting, but the trip was by no means wasted as there were a number of important dining highlights.

Landing at Reagan airport in DC I headed directly to Grace Garden Restaurant in Odenton, Maryland, located sort of between Baltimore and Annapolis.  Well, not directly, because due to rush hour traffic and pouring rain, it took 2 hours to drive what probably should have taken 50 minutes. I went to Grace Garden specifically for their fish noodles, which I had assumed to be like the fish noodles I had in New York, and which I wrote about for Menuism,  Those fish noodles were like eating rubber bands, so you can imagine my surprise when the waitress at Grace Garden brought their fish noodles out.  These had the consistency, as well as look, of real noodles.  It was a little bit like fish cake, but less dense.  Chatting with the waitress, I commented on the difference from other fish flour noodles I’ve eaten, and she said that there was no flour in these noodles.  I’m not sure whether this meant it was 100 percent ground fish, or whether there were other ingredients, just not flour.  Also since the restaurant was empty while I was there, I had assumed that Chinese families from Baltimore flocked there on weekends, but she indicated that they had few Chinese customers at anytime.  I found this startling since they had a separate authentic Chinese menu in addition to their Americanized tourist menu (though the Chinese language description of these dishes was unusually inconspicuous.)   The waitress’ explanation was that there were a lot of residents in the area who had eaten Chinese food in China (maybe diplomatic types?), so they were quite sophisticated.  But it blows my thesis that a good authentic Chinese restaurant needs a critical mass of Chinese clientele.    Also I asked her about other good Chinese food in the DC area, mentioning towns such as Wheaton, Rockville, Gaithersburg and Falls Church where I have eaten, but she said that the Chinese food there is on the decline and not very good, and you have to go to New York or California for good Chinese food.

I only had a smidgen of Chinese food in Washington D.C. itself which is not particularly known for good Chinese food.  I stopped by Zengo, an Asian/Latin fusion restaurant in the heart of Chinatown for their foie gras shu mai, which looked a lot better than it tasted.  Also had a taro bun at Joy Luck House.  It cost $2.25 and wasn’t very good, further testament to the low quality of food in DC Chinatown.

In my younger days I would have flown directly back to Los Angeles immediately after the end of my meeting, but I no longer can withstand cross country flights on consecutive days.  So I decided to drive to Philadelphia and stay overnight, then drive the next day to New York for a flight back to Los Angeles.  This gave me a chance to revisit Philadelphia after a 10 year absence and do some work for my Menuism article on Philadelphia Chinatown. In 10 years things had really changed. Actually the footprint of Chinatown seemed to be the same as before.  But there were many new restaurants and lots of young Chinese on the streets.  Philadelphia Chinatown has been invigorated by an influx of Chinese students like the places that I’ve written about.   I made quite a few notes about the new restaurants in Chinatown.  I was hoping to have a Philly Cheesesteak eggroll, but the one place that had it on the menu, Spicy C Hand Drawn Noodle, was out, so I had to settle for fried fish balls.  I also stopped by Dim Sum Garden, which actually is a northern Chinese restaurant, which was totally packed–with non-Chinese diners.  I ordered the chicken dumplings which were terrific as they were made with white meat, something you almost never see.  I also ordered Fujian fish cake soup to take back to the hotel from Ming River Sidewalk CafĂ©.  The Fujian fish cake soup was a real discovery.  It was a cross between fish meat and a rice cake!  The middle definitely had meat fibers, but the outside was smooth like a rice cake., and vaguely reminiscent of Grace Garden's fish noodles.  (In contrast, Grace Garden had no meaty fibers.)  I wonder if there was some link between the two dishes.  One negative about the soup was that it was quite sour, something symptomatic of Fujianese cooking.

The last day was the real adventure.  I headed to northeast Philadelphia to seek out what might be described as a secret second Chinatown.   Philadelphia is not like LA or many of the other cities that have a suburban Chinese community.   However I remember reading maybe 10 years ago about how Chinese priced out of New York had started moving to a lower end portion of Philadelphia and were starting to build up a community.  My only information was one authentic Chinese restaurant on Castor Ave., so I made my way out there.   A block on Castor Ave. with a Chinese restaurant, and Chinese jewelry store, a Chinese notary, and a Chinese construction contractor.  And down a couple of blocks was a Chinese grocery store and a Chinese real estate broker.  (And a few blocks away I found a Chinese computer store.)  Interestingly I could find no internet references to this Chinese community, not even the original article I had read.

I then headed up US Highway 1 towards New York.  If time permitted I could go to Flushing to eat before my late afternoon flight home.  While I have been to Flushing several times, the Chinatown has grown so much in the years since I started visiting it in the late 1990s such that there is a stretch on Main Street that is too far away from where I normally stay as it’s beyond walking distance.  So when I turned onto the south end of Main St., I saw all the places that I had been wanting to try–New Lake Pavilion, East Dim Sum, Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao and Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet.  There would be plenty of food for the airport and the long flight home, and then some!

The Flushing highlight was definitely the vegetarian chicken at Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao.  Equal to, if not better than the version at Homer’s Taste in Flushing, where I usually get that dish.   Like Mounds candy bars, it was indescribably delicious.  This is the one dish that Flushing does better than anywhere in California, and was the perfect ending to a great trip.  But honorable mention goes to the beef cheung fun from East Dim Sum, which was as good as it gets.  And special note goes to the giant steamed chicken bao from New Lake Pavilion, which was a meal in itself.  This is a version of an old Toishanese American item, a steamed bao with chicken, lop chung and egg yolk.  It was particularly widespread in old San Francisco Chinatown (one restaurant there sells it, calling it the Toishan bun), not so much in Los Angeles, and not particularly one of my favorites.  But this one was pretty good and well worth the $2.25 charge, which I did not initially understand.