Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Giving Up My Shot At Video Stardom

If there's anything that being that being a Z-list celebrity has demonstrated to me it's that media opportunities are very uncertain and unpredictable.  For example I shot scenes for a number of episodes of a Canadian documentary series called "Confucius Was A Foodie," but was completely left on the cutting room floor.  And when Good Morning America called for an interview, it took a few hours to resolve insurance issues between GMA and management of the office building where I worked, such that by the time things were ironed out their film crew had gone somewhere else, never to return.  

On the other hand there was the experience with my 2½ hour interview with the film crew from "The Search For General Tso," where the project seemingly disappeared and the social media announcements went silent.  I had presumed that they were unable to get financing to complete the movie.  Then one day I received a message that the film had been completed and would be premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Or the time I was hastily contacted by Nevada Public Radio to discuss Chinese food on the air, the very next morning.  And there was the time I received hundreds of Tweet requests about Chinese food around the country right after one of the articles about me had run, and a couple of my responses showed up as news articles the very next day.

Then, despite the old Junior Woodchuck saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity, there are the instances where I've turned down media opportunities.  On two separate occasions I was approached by a reality show whose premise was to embarrass food critics by having them try to replicate dishes they had commented about.  That one was a nonstarter with me since I don't cook and I really don't do food reviews in the traditional sense.  Nevertheless they made a second request after their first season, and once again I declined.

It was a much tougher call a couple of years ago when I was contacted by Dolly Li, then a producer for AJ+, the US video production arm of Al Jazeerah.  She was doing a three part documentary about Chinese food in America and asked whether I would be the local guide for her segment about Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley.  On the one hand this sounded like a wonderful opportunity for public exposure, but on the other hand being neither a pretty face nor even a resident of the San Gabriel Valley, this didn't sound like a good match.  Consequently I suggested to Dolly that she contact Clarissa Wei who I thought would be a better choice, as she lived in the San Gabriel Valley and actually gave organized Chinese food tours there.    I did caution that Clarissa was in her world travel mode and I wasn't sure if Clarissa would be in town when Dolly came down from the Bay Area to do her shooting.  Dolly indicated that her superiors preferred somebody like myself who was not a food critic per se, but who could put Chinese food in a larger context, but that she thought that Clarissa would make a good interviewee.  

However, a few days before filming began Dolly called back to say that her superiors agreed that Clarissa would be a good choice to be the local host for the program, and that their filming dates fit right into the narrow window of time where Clarissa was back in Los Angeles.  So they did the location shooting in the San Gabriel Valley, and Clarissa and Dolly became such fast friends that they both moved this year to Hong Kong to help lead the South China Morning Post's Chinese food project called Goldthread 2.  The AJ+ series became a rousing success and I received innumerable messages from people recommending me to watch the video, necessitating me to reply that I was a consultant on the project, and while not being mentioned in the actual credits to the San Gabriel Valley episode, I was acknowledged on the YouTube page for that video.

So just think.  If AJ+ went with their original plan, or if Clarissa hadn't happened to stop over in Los Angeles just when they did their filmshoot, I might be a video star today.  Or more likely, the San Gabriel Valley segment would have bombed because I had none of the San Gabriel Valley insight and connections that Clarissa had.  And Clarissa and Dolly wouldn't be working together in Hong Kong today.  

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Shanghailander Palace--Hacienda Heights' Loss Is Arcadia's Gain

Shanghailander Palace in Hacienda Heights has risen into the upper tier of Shanghai style food in the Los Angeles area in the five years they have been in operation.  Consequently it was a shock to their clientele when the food there recently fell off a cliff, and all the familiar faces in the restaurant were gone.  But no, it's not that the owner sold the restaurant and a new owner brought in a new crew.  Rather, the owner opened up a brand new branch in Arcadia, and relocated the Hacienda Heights crew to Arcadia. 

Now Chinese restaurants are notorious for establishing branch operations as soon as they can.  Sometimes this strategy is very successful, such as the large (though loose) Sam Woo BBQ chain has demonstrated.  Then again sometimes it isn't, as demonstrated by Liang's Kitchen, which expanded throughout the San Gabriel Valley, then to the Bay Area, and then to Flushing, New York, at a breakneck speed, only to crash and burn.  In setting up new branches of a Chinese restaurant, it is not unusual for personnel from an original location to be transferred to a new branch to get things running.  However, what Shanghailander Palace did in essentially transferring the entire existing operation to the new location and starting from scratch in the original location, may be unprecedented.  As a result, a planned gathering at Shanghailander Palace in Hacienda Heights was removed to the new location in Arcadia, with great success.  Of course it was helpful that most of us came in from out of the area, so Arcadia wasn't particularly inconvenient location wise.  Our dinner was very nice, and the only criticism was that the size of many of the dishes was a little sparse, some of which would be described as small plates in a non-Chinese restaurant context.

Dinner began with river shrimp with vinegar.

Next up was the ever popular Shanghai style deep fried fish fillet with seaweed.

Cucumber wraps with sesame sauce dip was different and refreshing.

Shanghai stewed duck was the next dish up.

Possibly the best dish of the night was the Shanghai pork belly.

Shanghai style ribs are always a favorite.

The vegetable dish for the evening was the "A" choy.  (Note that the Chinese character for A choy actually includes "A").

What would a Shanghai meal be without shen jen bao (tiny fried Shanghai buns)?

And of course, soupy xiao long bao.

Dessert #1 - Sesame ball soup.

Dessert #2 - Eight treasure sticky rice.

All in all, a nice dinner for about $20 per person.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Playground In Santa Ana Is A Wonderland Of Food Variety

I don't get down to Orange County particularly often, particularly since the driving time to get there has expanded so much over the decades.  Consequently, except for the Chinese restaurants in Irvine, I have little exposure to any restaurants in the area.  In this regard a last minute visit to The Playground in Santa Ana was a revelation on multiple levels.

The Playground is the first restaurant I've been to that has such an extensive menu that changes every day, with the menu reflecting what ingredients are available that particular day in multiple categories, including meat, seafood, pasta, vegetables and so on.  At one time, getting a reservation at this restaurant was quite a challenge, but since a massive expansion was completed, there's now room for everybody.   You would think that with the volume of customers they have, plus a perpetually changing menu, that there would be quality issues, but everything we ate was superior, with each dish having its own distinctive taste.  

The meal started out with roasted cauliflower, as good as any version of cauliflower I've had (picture, unfortunately did not come out), along with a fig plate that was scrumptious.

Obviously the number of choices within each category is limited.  For example there were four pasta dishes listed.  The radiatori with pork was excellent.

From the meat section, the duck with farro was a real winner.  I actually liked the farro better, but that doesn't mean that the duck wasn't outstanding.  Rather is shows what a good job The Playground does with its accompanying sauces.

There are perhaps a handful of permanent items on the menu, and the signature item is the maple glazed pork chop, a slab of four chops that will give you a completely different perspective on pork chops.

The last entree we had was problem the least outstanding dish of all, the crispy sea bass.  But even here the tastes of the crispy fish skin, and the citrus flavored bread crumbs were memorable.

For dessert there was toffee pudding.

Roughly a year later we also tried the following dishes starting with the tempura asparagus which was quite good and makes you wonder why others haven't tried it.

 Wild boar ragu on pappardelle.

Oyster mushrooms.

A different kind of pork chop--this time with maple glazing.

 Also, sea bass with potato puree and pea butter.

The Playground was remarkable for the combination of flavors and the unimaginable playbook when taking into account the daily changes.   Where else, besides a Chinese restaurant with a menu of 300 menus, could you regularly go back and not eat the same dish twice?  There were so many other items on the menu that we would have loved to try.  It was also interesting to see a restaurant that clearly falls into the "casual" category serve such high quality food at about $30 per person.

Updating Mysteries of the Internet

Earlier this year I posted an article on some mysterious happenings on the internet, where a self-Google turned up random compilations of internet articles by and about me, interspersed with gibberish and references to other people named David Chan and Chinese food.   Beyond speculating that this was some sort of scam to visit the offending page, I really had no idea of what was happening.

More recently I encountered a more polished exemplar, actually entitled the "David Chan Chinese Food Blog" without the jibberish and including many illustrations from articles I had written, as well as articles written about me.   It was hosted on a website called Omniboo, which apparently created hundreds, if not thousands of similar websites on other food topics.  This probably indicates that these pages are automated creations using more sophisticated search engine technology than in past years.  Then I saw a similar page for the historic Paul's Kitchen restaurant in the City Market district of Los Angeles, with some really nice photos I hadn't seen.  Interestingly, the target of the page seemed to be for people who wanted to remodel their kitchen.

The fake Paul's Kitchen page was so interesting, I posted it on the Food Talk Central board, accompanied by a request for possible explanation of how and why the page was created.  The board's founder responded with a brief but telling answer--black hat search engine optimization.  While this doesn't explain everything I've wondered about in the past, it is a major explanation of the phenomenon which I had witnessed.   Essentially, there's nothing more valuable than getting people to come to your web page, from both a statistical point of view (the more hits the better) and for less honorable reasons (to attract people to a dangerous page, or at a minimum, a page they never otherwise would have searched for).   Black hat SEO describes nefarious strategies to accomplish the goal of getting web page visits.  

In the more primitive days of the internet, common tools to drive traffic included invisible text and stuffing.  Invisible text was a device where a search engine would register a "hit" for searched language, but that language itself was not visible to the reader of a web page.  This sort of explained the first internet mystery I encountered, when I saw that people had reached my blog via link from totally unrelated websites, but when I went to that website there was no reference to my blog page.  Now I say this sort of explains things, because it would make sense if I had done that to drive traffic to my blog, but this was actually done in the third party (often Russian) website.  Still I presume the concept of invisible text somehow explains what happens.

Subsequently I ran into websites which included my name and some of my works, along with jibberish mentioning many other topics.  This is probably an example of stuffing, where a wide variety of search terms are stuffed onto the webpage to gain a maximum number of hits.  Stuffing makes sense to me, particularly with my discovery that the stuffed website link would take me to different webpages depending on which device I was using to access the internet.  Where the Google search link would take me to a stuffed webpage mentioning my name on one device, the same link on another device would go to an advertising website, and the same link on yet another device would land on a porn site.  So that perfectly explains the gibberish websites.

Now the next generation of these fake websites is more of a puzzle.  The fake Paul's Kitchen page has a number of links on the side to subpages on the same website apparently selling various kinds of kitchen sinks (but I'm certainly not going to click on those links).   Meanwhile the fake David Chan Chinese Food Blog doesn't have any other external links, though there are links to other Omniboo food sites.  On the surface, I guess these fake pages are used to publicize the host page, but given all that is going on on the internet, who knows what the real answer truly is.

Friday, August 10, 2018

How I Became "Chandavkl"

One question a few people ask, but which I suspect more people wonder about, is how I adopted the name "Chandavkl".  Perhaps the most puzzling part is the "kl" at the end, which some people think refers to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, but which has nothing to do with it.  Actually, the origin is quite simple.  When my workplace computerized a couple of decades ago, they adopted a login system based on a combination of last and first names, which in my case became Chanda.  Later on, when it came to creating screen names for various purposes on the Internet, I thought I would honor my original employer, Kenneth Leventhal & Company, by calling myself Chandakl.  However, when I set up my first account name as Chandakl, I made some kind of error that rendered the account useless.  (Probably not really, but as a dinosaur I couldn't figure out away to simply change and correct the name.)  So I just opened another account throwing in the next letter of my first name, ending up with Chandavkl.  And so, Chandavkl was born.

I only recently recognized how fortuitous I was in messing up my attempt to use the Chandakl handle.  As it turns out, Chandakl is a very common name on the Indian subcontinent, while Chandavkl appears to be completely unique.  Consequently, while I can easily search for myself on the internet as Chandavkl, I'd have to wade through thousands or millions of unrelated hits when searching Chandakl. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Mainland Chinese Dumplings Have Come To America And They Sort Of Look Hipsterish

A few weeks before Tim Ho Wan announced they would be opening up in Irvine, the Mainland Chinese dumpling chain J A Jiaozi Authentic actually opened up in Irvine, in the Irvine Marketplace.  And unlike the disaster that is the Mainland Chinese Yang's Braised Chicken Rice chain in nearby Tustin J A Jiaozi seems to be doing it right, so right that you probably wouldn't suspect they're from the Mainland.  For one thing, the premises are a complete surprise--one would expect an operation more like Yang's Braised Chicken Rice hole-in-the-wall, strip mall, type of enterprise.  Instead this is a tasteful, hipster like restaurant in the classy Irvine Marketplace, complete with a Din Tai Fung type of glass kitchen where you can spy the dumpling makers at work

Dumplings are only a small part of the menu.  The dumplings are a little bit different from what we're used to, smaller and more delicate from what is normally seen in the Los Angeles area, like these fish dumplings, though still quite good.

Another part of the menu has dumplings in broth, with cod and shrimp versions.  Based on that description, one would think this would be a xiao long bao type of dumpling with broth inside, but in fact it means the broth (more of a gravy) is outside of the dumpling.  This is the shrimp dumpling with shrimp broth.

Some of the dishes are also surprisingly fusion-y for a Mainland Chinese restaurant, such as quinoa fried rice, quinoa mushroom rolls, cactus with plum sauce and pictured below, chicken fried rice with bonito flakes.

Likewise the plum sauce pork belly with tofu.

Not surprisingly, as a Mainland restaurant there are some spicy dishes, like the spicy cold chicken noodle salad.

What was surprising was the dessert selection, all made in house.  The Italian ice cream with hawthorn syrup was a real winner, especially for those of us who grew up eating haw flake candy.

And here is the Imperial Court yogurt, described by the manager as being made in-house with condensed milk, paired with another view of the haw syrup ice cream.

To conclude with my prior theme, J A Jiaozi Authentic is a surprise on many levels--not just the decor, but a high quality of food with an understanding of concepts of creativity and fusion one would not expect from a pioneering Mainland Chinese foray into the US Chinese dumpling market.  Portion sizes are small which makes the food pricey which will turn off some customers.  On the other hand the mostly Chinese clientele doesn't seem to be deterred by this.  And for the first time I can say that there's a Chinese restaurant that reminds me of Din Tai Fung.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Is Tim Ho Wan's Upcoming Opening in Irvine Not As Exciting As It Seems?

When my daughter sent me a snapshot earlier this week of signage in Irvine's Diamond Jamboree shopping center showing that Hong Kong's famed Tim Ho Wan would be opening up there this winter in the abandoned Capital Seafood space it seemed like terribly exciting news.   

And indeed, as soon as I posted the news on the internet the reaction was swift, and well, exciting.  The highly acclaimed, Michelin starred, but ridiculously affordable Tim Ho Wan was bringing its dim sum, including its acclaimed and signature crispy baked bbq pork buns to Southern California, after first setting up American branches in Manhattan's East Village and Honolulu.  When the East Village branch opened up a couple of years ago, the waiting time for diners was historic, typically running three to four hours.   It certainly would not be surprising if there will be similar waits when the Diamond Jamboree location opened, particularly considering that in turning back the clock a few years, people would wait at Diamond Jamboree for an hour just to get into a bakery, the first US branch of Taiwan's 85°C Bakery and CafĂ©.

But upon further reflection, Tim Ho Wan's arrival in Irvine needs to be looked at in the context of the trajectory of their East Village location in Manhattan.  When I visited that location a year ago, I showed up early, at 10:30am on a Thursday morning, to minimize my waiting time.  Turns out that I didn't need to bother as the restaurant was only half full at that time, and still not entirely full when I left the restaurant.  It seems that over the first year of its operation, New Yorkers discovered that while the crispy baked bbq pork buns were superior, everything else was "Meh."  And  the dim sum selection was quite limited, particularly in comparison to what we were  offered in Hong Kong. Given that New York is a pretty sorry city for dim sum when compared to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, and probably a couple of other cities, to say that the rest of Tim Ho Wan's New York dim sum arsenal didn't stand out in that town is quite an indictment.

Of course we're talking about Tim Ho Wan opening up in the Los Angeles metropolitan SMSA, home to the best Chinese food in the United States.  One would hope that they will bring their "A" game to Irvine with the wonderful dim sum we had at one of their Hong Kong locations a few years ago.  And I certainly hold out hope that will be the case.  But there are other disconcerting signs that the Irvine location will be more like New York and not Hong Kong.  Tim Ho Wan has opened up a second US branch, in Honolulu, on Waikiki beach, a couple of months ago and the reports are similar to New York.  Long lines when they first opened, but already the lines have disappeared.  And a very abbreviated dim sum menu.

But perhaps the most troubling sign is what appears to be a rush to open new branches in the US.  Besides Irvine and Honolulu, Tim Ho Wan is opening a second Manhattan branch shortly, this time near Times Square.  And just yesterday they announced a branch will be opening at the Palms in Las Vegas.  To me, this sounds like a further dilution of the product as has already been seen in the Manhattan East Village location.

But, we can still hope that the Irvine branch will be the real deal.  The Irvine location will be by far the least touristy location and the only one located in the midst of a large Chinese American community.  But I'm certainly going to keep my expectations down for now.