Sunday, June 17, 2018

Bistro Na's--A Year and a Half Later

When I first visited Bistro Na's in late 2016, as I wrote in Menuism and L.A. Weekly it was more about the significance of the restaurant's opening itself, as the first conspicuously upscale Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, the first restaurant to offer Imperial Court style Chinese cuisine in the United States, and the first U.S. branch of a widely known Mainland Chinese restaurant chain.  Now a year and a half later, I returned to Bistro Na's, this time reporting on the wonderful menu and ambiance they have created. 

Back in 2016, Bistro Na's was as much about its quirkiness and doubts about their concept as the food itself.  Walking into an empty restaurant on a weekday afternoon, we were told by a waiter that we could not be seated because because we did not have a reservation, though we were eventually seated by another hostess.  Similar tales were reported on the internet, but with rejected diners saying they merely went back to their car, phoned in a reservation, and were then seated.  Meanwhile, though the food was excellent and the decor was outstanding, the overshadowing elements were the emptiness of the restaurants, and the fact that what small crowd was in fact in the restaurant was comprised mostly of female diners, which led me to speculate that the restaurant was a meeting place for the Rich Housewives of the San Gabriel Valley.  But the lack of clientele was particularly troubling since the typical pattern for newly opened San Gabriel Valley restaurants was for the restaurant to be packed by looky-loos in its opening days, with the true test being how many of the grand opening diners would ever come back.  (The best example of this was Singapore Leaf in Alhambra which was packed with overflow crowds when they opened, but out of business within three months.)  So if Bistro Na's couldn't even get looky-loo's in the door when they opened, what chances would they have for long term success?

Indeed, Bistro Na's has survived, and on this follow up visit to Bistra Na's, I'm pleased to be able to focus on the food, and I'm equally pleased to report that this is truly a gem of a restaurant.  The restaurant was packed, albeit we did go on Father's Day, with people waiting to get in.  Everything that we ordered was a winner.  The most highly decorated dish on the menu was the crispy shrimp and did not disappoint.  Light, crispy and delicious, shell and all.

Sometimes it pays to go with a staff recommendation even though it may sound improbable at the time.  The lotus stuffed with sticky rice was a complete surprise, both in appearance in flavor.  Not a bland vegetarian dish, but instead a tasty combination highlighted with a sweet cane sugar sauce.

Another surprisingly delicious dish was the fried tofu with vegetable, with the vegetable comprising one edge of the fried tofu stick.

The staff also recommended the bean curd skin salad.  While variations of this dish are commonplace in non-Cantonese cold table displays and restaurant menus, the taste of cumin sets this version off from the others.

Having been put off by too many gamey tasting Western lamb dishes, it was with trepidation we ordered Bistro Na's crispy lamb dish.  Wow!  If this wasn't the best dish of the meal, it was certainly close.

We needed a dish to round out our order, but a couple of other choices were unavailable, so we "settled" for the ordinary looking cold steamed chicken.    Good thing we did because this was as good as this dish gets.

If the crispy lamb wasn't the best dish, then the prime rib was.  I typically don't take prime rib over a good steak, but if every prime rib were like this I certainly would.

While we didn't order anything off of the official dessert section, the fried rice cakes with condensed milk certainly served the purpose.  And condensed milk certainly makes anything taste better.

By Chinese food standards, Bistro Na's is pricey.  But compared to Western restaurant serving similar or analogous items, around $150 for these items were a bargain.  Nobody outside of the Chinese community seems to know about Bistro Na's, and a lot of people in the community don't know about it either.  But if it's hidden, it's certainly a hidden treasure.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Return To Dragon Beaux

With our second trip to San Francisco in three months we took advantage of this to have another dim sum lunch at Dragon Beaux in San Francisco.  After my previous visit this year, I suggested that Dragon Beaux might well be the best dim sum restaurant in the United States.   And nothing in this visit suggests any different conclusion.

Of course the trouble with Dragon Beaux is that it is so good that it is also very popular and often requires a long wait to get a table.  Since this time we were on our way back to Los Angeles, I timed our arrival for 1:45pm on a Thursday, and sure enough the crowd has receded enough such that there were empty tables.  My plan was to order all new dishes, that were highly recommended on the food message boards.  Before I could order, a server came around with a tray of Macau egg tarts.  Since we had recently eaten wonderful egg tarts at Pastels Belem in Lisbon, and cheese tarts from the newly opened Bake in Westfield's San Francisco Center on Market Street, it made sense to grab these for comparison.  While I preferred the Portuguese tart from Lisbon, Mrs. Chandavkl thought the Dragon Beaux Macau tart was just as good. 

After placing our order, our choices started coming in.  First was the taro puff, not particularly one of my favorite dim sum items and indeed in hindsight I wonder why I had eaten them as many times as I had in the past.  No question with the Dragon Beaux version, so light and delicious!

Next up, another real winner, the stuffed eggplant.  Not as fantastic as some commentators had made them out to be, but still probably another best in class item.

Next came the daikon cake, again touted by some to be transcendental.  (If you notice a pattern, compared to our previous visit which focused on innovative items, this time we had mostly traditional items.)  This was certainly good, but not necessarily better than everybody else's.

Perhaps most highly rated among commentators was the scallop shiu mai, a regular shiu mai topped by a scallop slice on top.  This certainly as good as shiu mai gets.

I made one random choice off the menu, the Mongolian beef bun.  I was a little apprehensive since I've had some pedestrian non-Cantonese steamed beef bao recently.  However this dish was exquisitely presented as a sizzling/smoking dish.  While not knocking it out of the park, this was a nice dish with a sweetness in the bun contrasted to the salty interior.

Last on the list was the mysterious "glutinous pillow", very highly rated by the commentators.  As it turns out, it was merely a fancy name for the ordinary hom sui guk.  However this was not an ordinary dish, with the crispy crunchy exterior compared to the soft interior making this by far the best version of this dish I've ever seen. 

As my prior posting indicates, Dragon Beaux certainly hits it with modern dim sum, and this visit confirms that traditional dim sum is also superior.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Returning To My Old Hood--For Chinese Food?

Things are really changing in my old neighborhood, which was called Crenshaw back then, though this seem to have been replaced in these days of gentrification by the term West Adams (used to describe the area south of the Santa Monica Freeway).  I lived on Chesapeake Ave. between Jefferson and Adams, two blocks from Dorsey High School.  We moved there in 1952, breaking away from the neighborhoods near downtown Los Angeles where many Chinese Angelinos were confined to by housing discrimination.  The 1948 US Supreme Court decision outlawing deed covenants restricting ownership of property to Caucasians was an impetus for Chinese and other minorities to expand their presence in Los Angeles neighborhoods, though de facto housing discrimination continued in some local communities for many more years.

When we arrived in Crenshaw the neighborhood was in transition, with Chinese, Japanese and African Americans moving in and whites moving out.  But the Crenshaw area, including Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills and Viewpark, did stabilize and was reasonably well integrated, with my graduating class at Dorsey High School almost equally mixed with Asians, Blacks and Caucasians.   It was only after the 1965 Watts riots made their way to Crenshaw that the composition of the area became unbalanced.

Now I know things have been changing lately in the Crenshaw area, reading  in L. A. Times articles about how a combination of the Expo Line, the under construction Crenshaw Line, and the general eastward creep of the Westside have brought new home buyers into the area.  However I was still stunned to read last year that what now is referred to as West Adams is now one of the hottest housing markets in the United States.   The little 1,200 square foot house on Chesapeake which we bought for $9,000, is now Zillow valued at $785,000.  (Last year it was $611,000).

There really was no truly authentic Chinese food in Los Angeles in the old days, so in Crenshaw we were satisfied with local Chinese restaurants such as Four Seasons on Santa Barbara Ave. (now MLK Blvd.), Tai Ping on Crenshaw for more upscale sit down dining, and Kim's Restaurant next door, Paul's Kitchen #2 and Confucius Delicacies on Jefferson Bl. for homestyle Cantonese cooking, and the Sakiba at the Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw for bbq pork noodle soup.  I honestly can say that I don't miss any of those eateries.  Though we lived in the area until the 1990s, it was really no big deal to drive for Chinese food to Chinatown, or on weekends, the San Gabriel Valley.

Since I'm still in the area once or twice a week I've kept pretty close track of the Chinese food in Crenshaw/West Adams and it's all pretty much either steam table fast food or buffet, with Kim's and Tim's Kitchen succeeding Paul's, managing to survive as sit down options. And the area hasn't gentrified enough yet to lead to any legitimate sit down Chinese openings.   Still when I saw that New China Mongolian BBQ was opening at 4134 Crenshaw, where a string of steam table places has operated for 25 years, I dashed on down there to check it out.   I was expecting more of the same Chinese fast food, except that the Mongolian BBQ part of the name threw me.  Mongolian BBQ in the 'hood?  But when I stepped inside, while I did see the Mongolian BBQ grill, it was the layout of the rest of the restaurant that struck me.  New China Mongolian BBQ is a self-serve takeout restaurant which sells food for $3.69 a pound.   (Offhand I can't recall seeing this particular format for a Chinese restaurant before.)  Think taking food out from a standard Chinese buffet, except that there's almost no place to sit down and eat.  The self-serve steam trays are comparable to the selection available at smaller Chinese buffets, with a nice variety of chicken, rice, noodle, beef, vegetable and pork dishes.  And the food is good buffet quality (if that's not an oxymoron)--and see what I got for $4 in my first visit there. 

While New China Mongolian BBQ may not be my new absolutely favorite Chinese restaurant, I can see myself coming here frequently.  And I haven't tried the Mongolian BBQ yet.