Monday, April 16, 2018

The Taste of Sichuan Peppercorns Comes To Downtown Los Angeles

As I’ve noted before, Los Angeles Chinatown is the only Chinese community in the United States that lacks an authentic Sichuan dining option.  (For those who may point out Washington D.C. Chinatown has having a similar lack of Sichuan style food, I would point out that there are so few remaining Chinese living in the area that it doesn't qualify as a Chinese community.)  And with the proximity of Los Angeles Chinatown to the downtown core, there are not very many Chinese restaurants to be found in downtown Los Angeles itself.   Indeed, the only downtown restaurant serving authentic Chinese fare is Peking Tavern, the dumpling and Beijing style food specialist, though Triple 8 restaurant by L.A. Live does have some authentic items on its menu.  Consequently anybody looking for true Sichuan food in or near downtown Los Angeles has been out of luck.

All of this makes the recent opening of Li Orient, operated by the owners of Triple 8, midway up the US Bank Tower downtown ,rather significant.  (You may remember the US Bank Tower as originally being called the Library Tower, since air rights from the downtown Los Angeles public library were purchased to enable the addition of some of its floors.  President George W. Bush subsequently referred to the building as Liberty Tower in describing how Al Qaida had plotted an attack on the building shortly after 9/11, understandably not realizing that a skyscraper could be connected to a library.)

Li Orient is not a dedicated Sichuan style restaurant, but rather features various types of Americanized, as well as authentic regional Chinese foods.  Yes, it does have a Panda Express type takeout section for the locals, as well as orange chicken, egg drop soup, broccoli beef, walnut shrimp, garlic kale and kung pao chicken,.  But it does have a good selection of authentic Chinese dishes, too.  These include stir fried lobster balls with XO sauce, Hainan chicken, honey glazed char shiu, various types of dim sum, minced duck lettuce wraps, jellyfish, and Peking duck. 

Then there is the Chinese breakfast served from 7:30am to 10:30am, featuring jian bing (filled Chinese crepes), egg and cucumber pancakes, soymilk and Chinese crullers and varieties of congee.  But the big news is the handful of Sichuan style dishes including Szechwan spicy beef, Szechwan spicy fish, numbing cold chicken, Szechwan cold noodles and Szechwan spicy noodles. This is real Sichuan peppercorn action, not watered down stuff for downtown office workers.   Not surprisingly, most of the diners in the sit down portion of the restaurant appeared to be Chinese.  

Li Orient also has its fusion side, particularly with the rainbow array of seven different types of colored xiaolongbao, with each color having a different filling.  Yellow is for spicy chicken, red is for shrimp, green is for tofu/pork, white is for crab, orange is for chicken and cheese, black is for squid and brown is for truffle and chicken.

Li Orient is kind of pricey, though, with entrees starting at $18. The spicy fish dish below, as well as the spicy beef are $20 items, while the Zha Jiang Mein is $15, certainly well above the price point for the comparable items in the San Gabriel Valley.  And don't expect San Gabriel Valley quality food here, just as you don't expect to find that quality of food in Los Angeles Chinatown.  But it provides an alternative that has been missing from this part of town.

The premises are tastefully decorated with a spacious open feeling.

The bar era is the highlight of the interior.

Interestingly the restaurant is closed from 10:30am to 11:00am as they transition from breakfast to lunch.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Guandong Based Ooak Restaurant Opens First US Branch in Culver City

Barely two years ago I had written about the exciting new trend of Mainland China based restaurants setting up shop in the Los Angeles area.   However Mainland Chinese branch restaurant openings in the LA area have since become so commonplace that it's no longer newsworthy if that Chinese restaurant that just opened up in Rowland Heights happened to be headquartered in China.  However this wave of Mainland Chinese restaurant openings was confined to operators headquartered in places like Beijing or Chengdu, representing regional cuisines often referred to in the past as "Northern" Chinese cuisine.

With this background, the recent opening of Ooak Kitchen, a Guangdong based Cantonese vegetarian restaurant chain, with nearly 50 branches is rather noteworthy.  Guangdong is a hotbed of Cantonese dining, but with Cantonese cuisine on a relative decline here in the United States, we haven't seen any recent openings here in Los Angeles of Guandong based restaurant chains, though H L Peninsula did open up earlier this year in South San Francisco.   

Obviously, the first question is why Culver City and not the San Gabriel Valley?  Not that a Westside beachhead was entirely unprecedented, with Meizhou Dongpo making their debut in Century City, though they may have had more mainstream designs when they opened.  Indeed the question of why Culver City become more obvious when looking at specific items on the menu.  For example their signature dish appears to be their vegan duck, something quite familiar to people who consume vegetarian duck/goose in the San Gabriel Valley, but certainly not to Culver City locals.

Or how about vegetarian shaking beef, carved marvelously out of a giant black mushroom imported from China? Shaking beef? For the Westside crowd wouldn’t broccoli beef be something more familiar?


Vegetarian sweet and sour chicken cutlets bear no resemblance to what most people know as sweet and sour chicken.  I saw a strong similarity to the house special fish dish at Seafood Palace.

After the dinner I sought out the manager and asked about the choice of location.  He felt that the Westside was  more appropriate on several counts.  For example the vegetarian shaking beef was carved out of a single gigantic mushroom, imported from China like many of his ingredients.  He implied that with the competitive pressures in the San Gabriel Valley he wouldn't be able to prepare his dishes the way he wanted, presumably because he couldn't charge enough.  He indicated that a second location had already opened up in Buena Park, with other branches planned soon for Santa Monica and  Malibu, which seemed to indicate there were more of their targeted diners (freespending vegetarians?) in these communities. 

It'll be interesting to see if Ooak is able to find traction, particularly on this side of town.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

My Favorite Chinese Dishes Over The Years

While thinking about my favorite current Chinese dishes, my thoughts turned to my previous favorite Chinese dishes over the decades.  Besides finding this exercise to be an interesting one, it turned out to say a lot about how Chinese food in the United States has evolved over the years. as well as how my own tastes have changed . 

As I have mentioned in my articles, interviews and presentations, I did not eat much Chinese food as a little boy growing up in 1950s Los Angeles.  First of all, the Chinese food of the day, essentially dishes imported by rural Toishanese immigrants from southern China, wasn't particularly good.  Furthermore, the homestyle version of that food was even worse.  Even though my dad was American born, culinary wise my mom described him as a "China Jack" so she cooked nothing but Chinese dishes for him.   In my opinion this homestyle Toishanese food was gross--things like steamed eggs with ground pork, which my mom cooked and served in a large glass vessel, ox tail, pig feet in tomato sauce, bean thread in a horrid milky sauce, and preserved turnip strips with ground pork, the thought of which made me nauseous.  There was only one Chinese dish that I enjoyed eating--rice with soy sauce.  And even when we went to multicourse Chinese banquets at places like Lime House (in the old Spring Street Chinese district, before it merged into the rest of Chinatown), the only thing I ate was rice with soy sauce.  (The only dish that I consumed more than rice with soy sauce was spaghetti with soy sauce.)

My culinary horizons expanded just a little bit in the early 1960s when I started to spend my summer vacations at my grandfather's small grocery store on 24th St. near Ellendale Pl. just a bit north of the USC campus.  My grandfather was an excellent cook, learning his trade at the Beverly Hills Hotel in the 1920s at a time where that hotel was a resort destination for Easterners on the far outskirts of Los Angeles, and was staffed largely by Chinese laborers.  In the back quarters of the store, he would fry up these giant chow mein pancakes made from what we called "Chinese water noodles", the eggless fresh Chinese noodle of the day.  The fried noodle pancake was intended to be cut up  into squares and doused with sauce, but I was content to eat the whole thing, without any topping.

The late 1960s saw the first real modernization of Cantonese food in Los Angeles with the first Hong Kong influences appearing in our Chinese restaurants.  The first restaurant of this ilk to open up in the City Produce Market neighborhood where my dad worked was On Luck Restaurant, founded by George Cheng, whose family owned Hong Kong Noodle Co., the Los Angeles contender that claimed to have invented the fortune cookie. (Another purveyor in San Francisco claimed the same honor, and in a kangaroo mythical court in San Francisco, the San Franciscans were ruled the true inventors.) Meanwhile, I was developing a reaction to highly fried foods, so Mr. Cheng concocted friendlier versions of his dishes for me, tomato beef lo mein instead of chow mein, and duck juice "fried" rice, instead of fried rice actually fried in oil.   (Mr. Cheng also asked if I wanted to pen some fortune cookie fortunes for him, but I was a busy college student and declined the invitation.)

My graduation from law school in 1973 and entering the workforce triggered my fried rice period, which may sound almost silly now, but back then was a critical element propelling my lifelong quest to eat at Chinese restaurants.   Having been largely confined to California until then, I had a desire to explore the United States and started a series of fly and drive vacations.  Meanwhile, I developed a keen interest in Chinese American communities when taking pioneering ethnic studies classes at UCLA.  And I wanted to spend time exploring and not waste time looking for three square meals on these trips.  So rolling all these objectives together I found that taking most of my meals at Chinese restaurants, topped by a gigantic dinner, was a way to fill my daily food quotient for an economical price and interact with Chinese communities around the country.  In most of the places I visited, however, authentic Chinese food was unheard of, so I ended up eating lots of fried rice and chow mein, such that for a while I became a connoisseur of fried rice.  (The one exception to inauthentic Chinese food on the road--Kim's Restaurant in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which introduced me to Hong Kong style chow mein in the mid-1970s.)

The real modern era in Chinese food in the United States started in the mid to late 1970s with the explosion of Hong Kong style Cantonese cuisine, and particularly in the early 1980s with the opening of Chinese seafood restaurants and dim sum palaces. with a wide variety of new dishes we now take for granted from chow mein made with thin Hong Kong egg noodles, to new varieties of dim sum like cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) and baked bbq pork buns.  The quintessential seafood/dim sum restaurant of this era was ABC Seafood, which opened in LA Chinatown in 1984 at the former Lime House site.  But interestingly their signature dish was neither seafood nor dim sum.  Rather it was a heavenly version of lemon chicken with an incredible combination of perfectly cooked lightly battered chicken cut into strips with a lemon sauce having the right combination of tang and sweetness.  For 15 years until the cook retired, I and everyone else that we knew made frequent regular pilgrimages for ABC's magical lemon chicken.

When the owner/cook of ABC Seafood moved on, I needed a new favorite Chinese dish which turned out to be Shanghai style rice cakes.  While Chinese food in the US started evolving after the late 1960s immigration reform, the new food was still predominantly Cantonese, with a healthy dose of Taiwanese influence thrown in.  It wasn't until the late 1980s that other regional Chinese cuisines appeared in Los Angeles, largely starting with Shanghai style food, and expanding my world beyond Cantonese food.  And the great thing about rice cakes was that you could cook a version at home that was just as good as what the restaurants served.

Rice cakes were then replaced as my favorite Chinese dish by fish dumplings, which I first encountered about 15 years ago at Dumpling 10053 Restaurant in El Monte.  The 21st century is definitely dominated by non-Cantonese regional Chinese food and while there were random Chinese dumpling restaurant openings in the Los Angeles area going back to the late 1980s, the early 21st century marks the start of their proliferation.  Interestingly, for many years, fish dumplings were unheard of everywhere in the United States outside of Los Angeles.  As recently as 5 years ago, I was being interviewed in New York by South China Morning Post correspondent Jeff Chu.  He asked me what my favorite Chinese dish was and when I responded fish dumplings, I was met by a puzzled look.  He had never heard of fish dumplings because they didn't exist in New York at that time.  It wasn't until just two or three years ago, that fish dumplings showed up in New York.

But for the past five years my favorite Chinese dish has been the crispy baked bbq pork bun, generally made with both a crispy round top and a crispy flat bottom.  I first encountered a variation of this item at Sea Harbour Restaurant in Rosemead, with what they called their French style baked BBQ pork bun which was absolutely fantastic.  (And I don't know why they subsequently took it off their menu, only reinstating it quite recently.)  Four years ago in Hong Kong we went to Tim Ho Wan, the restaurant that invented the dish, where I had their transcendental version of that item.  And ever since, even knowing that nobody in the United States can equal Tim Ho Wan Hong Kong,'s version I have been on a quest for this item.  My favorite version over here is Dragon Beaux in San Francisco, followed by Bay Area restaurants Hong Kong Lounge, Hong Kong Lounge 2 and Lai Hong Lounge.  (Unfortunately Koi Palace was out when I went there.)  Honorable mention to Pacific Lighthouse in Alameda.  Decent versions at Tim Ho Wan in Manhattan, Lunasia in Alhambra, China Red in Arcadia and surprisingly, for $1.25 for a giant one, at iCafe on Waverly Place in San Francisco Chinatown.   Golden Valley in Rowland Heights was OK before they closed down.  Bao by the Beverly Center was bad and it wasn't even crispy, even though they offer "crispy" and regular baked bbq pork buns. 

Tim Ho Wan - Hong Kong