Thursday, October 19, 2017

How Sausage and Laws Are Made--Behind Today's LA Weekly Review of Noodle(s) Time(s)

In the course of writing dozens of Chinese restaurant related articles, most of the articles are written over an extended period of time, from a few weeks to several months, though the actual total elapsed writing time is not that great.  But once in a while the timing for inception to publication is rapid, sometimes breathtakingly so.  A good example of this is my article in today's LA Weekly on Noodles Time restaurant.  I had no idea Noodles Time even existed until 2 pm on Tuesday, and it was a fluke that I found it.  While I often drive through Chinatown, I seldom actually stop because parking is so problematic, particularly on weekdays.  Occasionally I need to visit Cathay Bank, but typically go to Monterey Park or Alhambra where there's convenient parking.  But  on Tuesday I decided go to the Chinatown branch which does have parking, albeit with an inconveniently located parking entrance.  Anyway, road construction sent me off track and right by Alpine Plaza where I noticed the strange sign saying "Vegan."  So after visiting the bank I decided to stroll down the block where I found this restaurant with its unusual menu and setting.

After leaving the restaurant I decided that it was interesting enough to share, but certainly there wasn't enough for any extended kind of writeup.  I was just going to do a paragraph on the food message board about how Noodles Time had been open for a year in Chinatown and hadn't been noticed by myself or anybody else, and how remarkably different it was.   However, when I started writing on Tuesday evening it got a little bit too long for a message board post, so I decided to do a post on this blog.  But the post didn't read very well so I put it aside.

The next morning I decided to update the post to make it flow a lot better.  At this point, remembering the admonition of LA Weekly food editor Katherine Spiers as to why I hadn't submitted a prior Chandavkl blog post item to be run as an LA Weekly article, I started to think about what would be needed to make it suitable for outside publication.  Since what I had written was way short lengthwise of what would be needed, I did some additional background research about Alpine Plaza.  That's when I found out about plans to build a Blossom Plaza like project on the current site of Alpine Plaza.  Initially this was a bad thing, because it contradicted the tone of my article about how the area around Alpine Plaza had yet to be affected by the boom in Chinatown.  Furthermore, it seemed to make the story less interesting and less likely to be published since it raised the possibility that the restaurant's existence might be transitory.  However, I managed to rework the article with the new information, and into something that not only was coherent, but much better than what I had originally written.  So I sent the article in to LA Weekly on Wednesday afternoon, and it published on Thursday morning, less than 48 hours after I first became aware of the restaurant.

And that's how sausage and laws are sometimes made.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

An Afternoon In Iowa City

On my recent visit to Chicago, I took a side trip to visit Des Moines and Omaha, two of a relatively short list of large American cities that I have never visited.  Indeed, my list of target cities that I have not visited is now down to three locales--Pittsburgh, Charlotte and Kansas City.  Also, when I was a kid my mom once received a package with crumpled newspapers used as packing material, and one such newspaper was the front page of the Des Moines Register which I saved for many years.  It would be fitting if I could one day visit Des Moines and purchase my own copy of the Register..

However, the highlight of the side trip was clearly Iowa City.  Many of my Chinese dining articles have made reference to the proliferation of authentic Chinese restaurants in college towns across the country, which have arisen to meet the demands of the hundreds of thousands of Mainland Chinese college students now in the country.  While I have observed exemplars of campus adjacent Chinese dining in the past, I had not visited a true college town affected by the surge of Mainland Chinese students in the past decade.  I was especially intrigued by a lengthy CNN article  that focused on the University of Iowa in Iowa City with its student body of thousands of Chinese students.  So seeing Iowa City was on the way to Des Moines and Omaha was a bonus that overshadowed the original purpose of the trip.

I had done my homework and determined that the best Chinese food in Iowa City was at a restaurant called Food Republic, so I made a bee line there.  Unfortunately as I drove by, I saw the windows papered over with a “temporarily closed” sign.  Fortunately I remember passing a restaurant on the same street with a “Hotpot” sign, so I turned around and went to Uncle Sun instead.  I was surprised when I saw Uncle Sun’s menu because I had assumed they would have an Americanized section for the locals and non-Chinese, and a Sichuan section for the Mainland Chinese students who are largely from that area.  While there was a separate Sichuan section in back, labeled ‘Hometown Dishes”, the front part of the menu was also quite authentic, too.  At first we ordered the chicken dumplings, the fish with preserved cabbage, and the Chinese broccoli.  But when we ordered the broccoli, the waitress warned us that this was a white vegetable, which made no sense to us.  We told her we wanted the green broccoli, and she said OK.  However, when the dish came out, it was American broccoli.  Starving for vegetables, we kept the dish and it turned out to be quite good, along with the other stuff.  Still puzzled by the Chinese broccoli, I pulled up a picture of it on my Blackberry and showed it to them. They said they didn’t have that dish.  So what was their “Chinese broccoli”?  Napa?  The fish dish turned out to be a soup dish, which I had a few times in California, and was so good that I threw rice into the leftover broth to use it up.  Anyway, we were so impressed we ordered more American broccoli to take for dinner  plus fish with wood ear fungus, as this seemed to be a safer bet than looking for food when we arrived at the day's final destination of Des Moines.

We then crossed over from downtown Iowa City across Clinton St. to the University of Iowa campus, which for some reason seemed reminiscent of Cal Berkeley.  The campus was huge and we only saw a small part of it.  But I was very happy to visit the campus since I had been to all of the other original Big 10 campuses.  (Note that there's a curve ball to the statement.  I have never been to Michigan State--but that school was added to the Big 10 only after the University of Chicago dropped out, and is not one of the original Big 10.  I have been to the Chicago campus.)  Crossing back later into downtown, we passed another restaurant called Dumpling Darling, which I had assumed to be a typical Chinese dumpling restaurant.  However while there was a mix of Chinese and white customers, and served Pan-Asian dumplings, it was manned by a couple of white guys.  I decided to add to my dinner cache with an order of bison momo and steamed chicken artichoke bao.  We then stopped by Encore Life, a Chinese boba shop, for a mixed fruit drink.

Downtown Iowa City was very illuminating for me, having written about campus town Chinese food, to see how it manifests itself today, but seeing the Mainland China version for the first time.  As one of the workers at Uncle Sun, a theater arts major from Yunnan put it, there’s no “Chinatown” there, but rather the Chinese businesses were spread throughout downtown.  I guess I had expected a greater physical concentration of Chinese eating and drinking places based on the CNN story which talked about Iowa City having three times as many boba shops as Starbucks.  While a true statement, that was slightly misleading because there were 3 boba shops and 1 Starbucks in Iowa City when that was written, now 4 boba shops and 2 Starbucks, so it’s not like there’s boba on every corner.   And I suspect this is what the Mainland Chinese student presence is like in other college towns--subtle, but also unmistakable.

What's My Sign? Here It Is: "Road Closed"

A couple of years ago I wrote this piece about L.A city government stupidity dealing with traffic issues caused by people looking for the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory in and around my Los Feliz Oaks neighborhood, which is adjacent to, but does not provide access to these attractions.   More recently the Los Angeles Times described the inability of the city to implement safety improvements in our neighborhood even though residents raised the funds for the improvements themselves.  Or, as I titled my original piece, "If The Government Only Had A Brain."

My previous piece dealt with the western access to our neighborhood along Franklin Ave. and Bronson Ave., but we had more egregious city government stupidity on our eastern flank along the Fern Dell Dr. entrance.  Fern Dell Dr. is one of two access roads to the Griffith Observatory, and indirectly, the Greek Theater.  The other access to both is Vermont Ave.  Fern Dell Dr. is also the western border to Griffith Park.  Griffith Park closes daily at sunset.  The Observatory does not.  But in order to enforce the closure of the main park, at nightfall Fern Dell is blocked at Red Oak Dr., just north of Los Feliz Blvd.  However there was nothing to alert travelers along Los Feliz Blvd. who want access the observatory that Fern Dell Dr. is blocked ahead, so every night legions of unsuspecting drivers hit the road block and are forced to either make a U-turn and head back to Los Feliz Blvd. or turn left onto Red Oak Dr. into our neighborhood, where they wander like lost ants through our residential streets, perhaps never to be heard from again.

This has been going on for quite a while, and we had actually gotten used to it, though how difficult would it be to inform drivers turning onto Fern Dell Dr. that they are taking the road to nowhere?  Then one evening there were encouraging signs.  There were two traffic control officers in the area, one on Los Feliz Blvd. and one on Fern Dell Dr.  At last!  The officers were going to inform drivers that unless they were headed into the Los Feliz Oaks, they should not turn onto Fern Dell Dr. because it was blocked ahead!  Well, not really.  The officers were actually throwing gasoline onto the fire because they were directing traffic to make it EASIER for cars to turn from Los Feliz Blvd. onto Fern Dell Dr. and running into the dead end.

All this led me to contact the 4th District Los Angeles City Council office in an email I entitled "Traffic Control Insanity."  While I had no illusions that this would improve anything, at least it made me feel better.  But a funny thing happened.   After a few weeks I was contacted by a sympathetic city bureaucrat who suggested I contact my homeowners association to sponsor a request to the city.  I demurred, indicating that I didn't want to get involved with a long, drawn out process.  But she responded that she would contact the homeowners association, which she did.  The homeowners quickly agreed and guess what?   They put up a sign on Los Feliz Blvd. and Fern Dell Dr. that alternately flashed "Road Closed At 6 pm" and "No Observatory Access."   Hooray!  You can fight city hall!  And the government does have a brain.

Unfortunately my euphoria only lasted a few weeks.  For some reason, while the signs were still there, they were turned off.  And then the signs were carted away.  Perhaps they thought the signs had done their job, though obviously even before the signs went up, it was a new bunch of drivers lured into the trap of driving into the road closure every day.   So it's not like having the sign up there for a few weeks would permanently stop cars from trying to access the Observatory on a closed road.

Then suddenly the signs came back!  You think that would make me happy, but it doesn't, and for one simple reason.  The signs were not replaced at the corner of Los Feliz Blvd. and Fern Dell Dr. where cars could see the warning before they turned onto Fern Dell Dr., and avoid the roadblock.  No, the new signs have been placed just a few feet in front of the roadblock.  Which means that by the time you see the signs, it's too late to avoid the road closure.  And you'll have to make a U-turn, or wander around our neighborhood like lost ants, perhaps never to be heard from again.

Alas, if the government only had a brain.