Sunday, December 1, 2019

Dinner At Spago

Wolfgang Puck's flagship restaurant Spago in Beverly Hills is likely the best known restaurant in the Los Angeles area, but it's always been a place that I've never dreamed of visiting.  But when you have foodie kids you never know where you might end up eating, so that's where we ended up recently on a Sunday night.  We were afraid we couldn't access the restaurant since it was on the other side of the street as we drove down Canon Dr., but at some point in time Canon had been blocked off and turned into a cul-de-sac, making it convenient to stop right in front of the restaurant.

Spago turned out to be dimly lit, as an expensive celebrity hangout would be expected, but it was noisier than I would have imagined.  We ordered the $155 tasting menu which was delivered much, much slower than I would have expected or liked.

First came the signature tuna tartare which was as good as advertised.

This was followed by a number of counterintuitive appetizers, like the marshmallows topped with cheese, not a bad combination.

Also, surprisingly good was the chicken liver mousse.

On the other hand, a bomb (as opposed to "the bomb" was the awful Bloody Mary bon bon.

We then got the kitchen tour with perhaps the star of the night, the pork belly macaron.

If you can see this, it's the seared sea bass.

The interesting chawanmushi Japanese egg custard with caviar served in an egg shell.

Supposedly another highlight dish, the agnolotti was OK but nothing special.

Next to the pork belly macaron, the wagyu beef was the other superior dish.

Not a big fan of octopus, but the charred octopus was quite good, though the same couldn't be said of the nearly raw squab.  And just a morsel of New Zealand snapper.   All in all, a less than inspiring dinner given the price tag.  The slightly more expensive Providence tasting dinner was far better.

Monday, November 25, 2019

What We Ate In Taiwan, Part I

For the most part our vacations have been planned with little attention paid to the food on the trip.  Indeed with most of our foreign travels taken with commercial tour groups our major concern has been how many meals are provided on the trip and when do we have to fend for ourselves.  Aside from a family vacation to Hong Kong in 2015, where I made four blog postings relating to the food we ate, there has been nothing memorable in our foreign eats.

However our November trip to Taiwan was different.   With most Chinese tours, the meal plan is designed with one thing in mind--to minimize tour costs.  The result is that the rule is Chinese tour food is of low quality and limited variety.  However this trip to Taiwan was with the San Gabriel Valley based Supera Tours, the English language tour arm of Signet Tours.  Where most Chinese tours treat food as a cost to be minimized, Supera Tours expressly adopts a "Food=Life" approach to dining, without characterizing themselves as being foodie centric.  As future write-ups will show, the tour company made good on their promise of a different approach to food.

As noted above in taking past tours our main interest has been how many included meals are on the tour, so to this extent I was happy off the bat because all meals were provided from the official start of the tour to the official end.  However because tour group members were flying in from all over the US and Canada and arriving at wildly different times, Sunday was an arrival day and the tour didn't start until Monday.  As it turns out, we were the first to arrive at 5:30am, so had an entire day on our own.  Furthermore, hotel check-in time wasn't until 3pm, which restricted our mobility greatly.  We did go for a walk around 10am and fortunately there was a Taiwanese bakery, Mita Fancy Cafe and  Bakery, directly across the street.  Taiwanese bakeries are excellent, and while the Taiwanese based
85°C Bakery and CafĂ© is well regarded in California, what we get in California does not compare to what you can get in Taiwan.   At Mita, we had the green bean cream bun,  hot dog bun and bbq chicken bun, all certainly better than what we get in California, and with such a variety to choose from that there were so many items I couldn't try.   While I general abhor the use of the term "amazing" to describe food, I'm tempted to say that the hot dog bun was amazing, with a sweet and crispy bun.

Since the tour had no night market visits scheduled, we used the opportunity to head out to the Shilin Night Market at dinnertime which was conveniently located just four subway stops away from the red line Zhongshan station which was just a couple blocks from the Okura Prestige Hotel.   Now it's well known locally that the Shilin Night Market isn't what it used to be, and even the Supera Tour write-up on things to do in Taipei comes right out and says that there are other, better night markets in Taipei.  But back home, Shilin is the only one night market that anyone has heard about so that's the one I needed to visit.  There was supposed to be a large food court near the entrance to the night market, but I sure couldn't find it, so maybe it was temporarily closed.  There were food stands interspersed with the shops, but there was nowhere to sit, making buying something to eat rather inconvenient.

We headed deeper into the night market and we ran into the lady who had given me her seat on the subway ride and asked if there were any more extensive eating areas.  She pointed us down a corridor where we did find a concentration of food booths, some with seating.  However this still wasn't what I was looking for.

Though the candied tomatoes did look quite interesting.

At this point I decided to head back to the entrance and head down Jihe Street, where there was an accumulation of food trucks.

Visually the most interesting was the roasted conch truck, though it wasn't particularly appetizing.

We also saw trucks selling white sausage (which turned out to be rice sausage) and using a blowtorch as a cooking implement.

I ended up with orders of XLB (full order for $3.60) and honey lemon fried chicken.  On our way out of the night market we passed by a stinky tofu restaurant which produced the most vile smell you could imagine, far worse than the stinky tofu you smell in California.  So while I may have missed the food court, the only famous Shilin dish I didn't encounter was the oyster omelette.

Interestingly we checked out of our hotel before the tour begin, because while the first day of the tour began in Taipei, it ended in another city.  We did have the breakfast in the tour hotel, the Continental Room of the Okura Prestige.  Nothing particularly caught my attention as there was a combination of Chinese stir fry and Western items.  Like most hotel buffets in this part of the world, there was a noodle soup station.

The first real meal of the tour was at the original location of Din Tai Fung in Taipei, and will be described in What We Ate in Taiwan, Part 2.  Because there were so many outstanding eating stops on the trip, there will be several single restaurant reports on the trip starting in January.

As a sidelight to the trip, this was my return visit to Taiwan after our honeymoon in 1980.  I have little recollection today of that trip since most of the pictures were buried away in an unknown corner of the old family homestead, unseen for 20 or more years.  Upon my return I made a point to find those pictures and it was successful.   And it was a relief to find that there was a good reason I recognized so few of the venues on the current trip, for as it turns out there wasn't a lot of overlap between the trips.  This trip spent just one day in Taipei and spent the rest of the trip busing around the entire island.  The 1980 trip spent more time in Taipei, and the only excursions out of the area were a bus ride to Taichung and a flight to Hualien.  This trip only went to one temple, in Lukang.  The 1980 trip went to many temples.  The only real overlap were Taroko Gorge and Sun Moon Lake, which in 1980 were accessed by a flight to Hualien, rather than bus.  So I didn't forget as much as I feared.

Friday, November 1, 2019

What Happened To The Chinese Food In Montebello?

I recently stopped by a shopping center on Via Campo in Montebello which I had frequented many times since the 1980s, but have hardly visited at all in the past ten or more years even though it was where my branch of East West Bank has been located for three decades.  It was at this time that I was struck by how this corner of Montebello had changed in that period of time, and not in the way that one would have originally expected.

I have recounted in the past how the seeds of today's Asian American San Gabriel Valley were planted in the 1960s when newly developed residential communities in Monterey Park accepted Japanese and then Chinese American buyers, freeing those groups from housing discrimination that locked them largely into certain neighborhoods in East and South Los Angeles.  As the Asian American population of Monterey Park surged in the 1970s, the Asian presence expanded beyond the city limits of Monterey Park.  Initially this spillover was north and south, i.e. just over the border into Alhambra and the northern part of Montebello.  In the large shopping center on the hill alongside the Pomona Freeway, east of Wilcox, pioneering Chinese restaurants like Kay Hong Garden opened up.  Meanwhile, just to the west on Via Campo between Garfield and Wilcox, pioneering San Gabriel Valley locations of 99 Ranch Market (indeed at the time the store was called 99 Price Market) and East West Bank opened up (though I believe technically Montebello isn't part of the San Gabriel Valley, though that part of Montebello was spirtually part of the SGV).   Next to the 99 Price Market were four restaurant spaces, including early locations of Sam Woo BBQ and Happy Family.

But on this last trip to this center, the only Chinese remnant was the East West Bank branch.  The 99 Price Market, which became 99 Ranch Market, devolved into an independent Chinese market, then an Italian furniture store, and is now ironically a 99 Cents Only store.  And the only Chinese restaurant left literally bears the name Chinese Fast Food and serves sesame chicken and broccoli beef.  Likewise, at what used to be Montebello Town Center mall, where major Chinese restaurants like 888 Restaurant and Sing Sing Dim Sum were located, the only Chinese food at today's Shops At Montebello is a Panda Express.

As things turned out in the 1980s, and continuing to this day, the growing Chinese and Asian American communities expanded eastward, past the San Gabriel Valley itself and past the Los Angeles County line.  And while Monterey Park and Alhambra continue to thrive as part of the Asian enclave, and even though it retains a healthy Chinese residential population, Montebello is the one area that has been culinarily left behind.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Wenzhou Style Food Comes To Los Angeles

Recently an article about Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles listed roughly two dozen Chinese regional cuisines represented by restaurants in the Los Angeles area.  Not included in this list of cuisines was the cuisine of Wenzhou, but this was no surprise, as with the case with migrants from Fujian province, most people coming from Wenzhou to the US go directly to New York, and very few make their way to California, though there apparently are enough of them locally for there to be a Wenzhou Chamber of Commerce in El Monte.  (Wenzhou is part of Zhejiang, whose cuisine can be found in Los Angeles, but Wenzhou cuisine itself cannot.)

I first became aware of the Wenzhou population in New York a dozen years ago when I read about how they dominated the pirated DVD business back there, and how a couple of Wenzhou restaurants had opened in Flushing. And when I was in Spain last year, I learned that almost all the Chinese in Spain are from Wenzhou and they specialize in importing low cost knockoff products. The one Wenzhou dish from Flushing that I ate which stuck in my mind was something called variously fish dumpling or fish paste, served in soup with noodles optionally added. I’m not exactly sure if dumpling or paste is a fair description, since there is no dumpling wrapper, and it was more meaty than cooked fish paste.  Rather it's grouper beaten to a pulp, but not as smoothly as the fish paste you see in the stores.  Anyway, while food writer Tony Chen seems to have disappeared as a source of written information on Chinese food, he still has his finger on the pulse, and recently posted a picture from a Wenzhou style restaurant in El Monte.

After a couple of false starts I finally ended up at Masterbee Express, in the space right in the front in the Tito’s Market shopping center at 9814 E. Garvey Bl., in El Monte. But even upon arriving there, there was nothing to indicate anything other than a typical gringo Chinese fast food place. The proprietor who spoke almost no English appeared to indicate that his colorful little menu including fried rice, chow mein, chow fun and jalapeno chicken was all he had, but then he seemed to ask what I was looking for. I tried saying “fish noodle” but that didn’t get anywhere. But then he whipped out some hand held translation device and motioned for me to speak into it. When I said fish noodle, the machine spit something out and he smiled and said “fish balls” and brought out a Chinese language menu with a dozen items on it. There still was some confusion because the fish balls (which by no stretch of the imagination do not look like balls) came either with or without noodles, but an English speaking customer came over and straightened that out. Then when I said “Wenzhou” the owner smiled broadly and I knew we were on the same page.

The Wenzhou fish ball noodle soup was quite pricey–$15.99 for a normal sized bowl of noodle soup, possibly because of the labor required to render the fish. But if you hadn’t tried that dish or any Wenzhou cuisine before, or if you had and liked it the way I did, it’s worth it. This version wasn’t as good as what I had in Flushing, but that’s to be expected given the disparity in the local Wenzhou population between New York and LA.  I'm just happy that the cuisine exists here.