Sunday, July 21, 2019

Guangzhou Style Cantonese Food Comes To The United States

For almost the first 150 years of Chinese food in America, the dining scene was dominated by Cantonese food.  Indeed for the first 120 years it was the rural version of Cantonese food from Toishan and surroundings which characterized what Americans understood to be Chinese food.  Starting around 1970, Cantonese style food from Hong Kong came onto the scene, and has largely been the pre-eminent style of Cantonese food in America since then.  But starting in the late 1990s, non-Cantonese regional cuisines began to become more and more commonplace, such that today in most Chinese-American communities, non-Cantonese regional food styles prevails by a wide margin over Cantonese food.

A commonly used term to describe the dominant non-Cantonese food is "Mainland" food, with the term Mainland being a term of distinction for Mainland China, as opposed to Hong Kong and Taiwan.  `Of course most of you are probably thinking that Cantonese food originated in the city formerly known as Canton, now known as Guangzhou, which certainly is on the Chinese mainland. But "Mainland" food is identified with migrants who arrived from China after diplomatic relations were re-established between China and the United States in the 1970s.    While Cantonese people have migrated to the United States during this period, they had no effect on Cantonese cuisine in the United States which combined historic Toishanese food that radiated out of America's historic Chinatowns, as subsequently modified and supplanted by influences from Hong Kong.

Well, I should say there was no Mainlander effect on Chinese food in the United States until last year.  That's when the Guangzhou based HL Peninsula Seafood restaurant opened up in South San Francisco.  So on our Bay Area visit last month, HL Peninsula was high on our list of dining destinations.

Now I can't say there was a large apparent difference dining at HL Peninsula as opposed to a typical Hong Kong style Cantonese seafood restaurant.  The only thing truly distinctive was this plate of fruit at our table waiting for us as we were seated.

Visually, HL Peninsula, as one of the newest venues that we have visited, was also once of the most nicely decorated with the giant TV screens that seem to be de rigeur at newly opened Chinese seafood palaces.

Our first dish was something that we never had before, sliced fish and pumpkin soup.  Totally fabulous!

The next dish certainly wasn't anything new, but the French cut steak was definitely very good.

And the clams with vermicelli was another winner.

The snow pea leaves were good but nothing different from a typical dinner.

HL Peninsula proved to be such a hit that a second branch of the chain, HL Pearl, has opened up in nearby Burlingame.

Actually, HL Peninsula was not the first Guangzhou based restaurant chain we ate at on this trip.  Before we got to San Francisco, we stopped at the Pacific Pearl shopping center in Pleasanton where  Yin Ji Chang Fen, specializing in rice noodle rolls opened up.  Yin Ji Chang Fen was actually something quite different from what we were used to, as a sit down restaurant focusing on rice noodle rolls.  Furthermore, these weren't the rolls we were used to seeing in the United States, but rather a burrito sized meal in itself.   This marinated beef roll was also a balanced meal in itself as it had a thin layer of green vegetables on the inside.

They also had an egg filled rice noodle roll, something I had never had before.

Mention should also be made of the Guangzhou based Chinese dessert chain Sweethoney, which has also opened up a number of branches in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Yin Ji Cheng Fan has also just opened up in San Gabriel, so Los Angeles area residents can enjoy Guangzhou Cantonese food, too.  Actually, we had a small taste of Guangzhou cuisine as I described last year when Guangzhou based Ooak Kitchen opened up in Culver City.  As I described at the time that was a puzzling opening as there is not a major Chinese population in or around Culver City, but nevertheless Ooak Kitchen served a distinctively authentic Guangzhou style vegetarian cuisine, including an incredible vegetarian beef steak made out of a gigantic mushroom imported from China.  Needless to say, Ooak Kitchen's concept didn't last very long, and they rebranded the restaurant Fifty One Kitchen, with a combination of more standard Chinese vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes, with nothing to evidence the restaurant's roots in Guangzhou.

It would not be surprising to see more of these Guangzhou based restaurant chains open up in the United States, raising the question of whether the term "Mainland" Chinese cuisine can still completely exclude Cantonese cuisine.  I think the answer to that question is in the negative, based on my recent conversation with Jack Wang, the Millennial owner of Miao Miao Xian restaurant in Monterey Park, which serves paper wrapped fish and other Sichuan style dishes.  Despite the style of cuisine his restaurant serves, Wang is Cantonese.  But he also describes himself as a Mainlander.  So if the Cantonese owner of a non-Cantonese Mainlander restaurant calls himself a Mainlander, I would think Guangzhou style Cantonese food is also Mainland fare.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

How Grand is Grand Harbor?

The return of Michelin to Los Angeles has created additional excitement on the local restaurant scene, and for me personally seeing how they have evaluated Chinese restaurants has been something that has attracted my attention.  It was surprising, though satisfying, to see Bistro Na's garner a Michelin star, but practically speaking the greatest interest has been in seeing what Chinese restaurants did and did not get the Bib Gourmand honorable mentions.   The one restaurant that piqued my interest was Grand Harbor, the one Cantonese restaurant on the list which we do not patronize, and which made the cut over places such as King Hua, China Red, Seafood Palace, Happy Harbor and Elite.  Consequently, a return visit to Grand Harbor for dim sum was warranted as I wanted to see whether it had improved noticeably over our visits there from back in 2015.

Walking into the main dining room I was reminded of how well appointed it was, perhaps the nicest decor of any Cantonese restaurant in the area including Longo Seafood.

First item was the appetizer plate with my childhood favorite sil ji.  Crispy skin was excellent but the roast pork meat was much too dry.

The first thing I look for is interesting nontraditional dim sum items on the menu.  The crispy fried fish cake was a highlight of the meal.

The pan fried XO buns sounded interesting but they were ordinary and misleading to boot.  For one thing they weren't pan fried, as demonstrated by the steamed bao paper on the bottom of the bun.  Also the pork filling had very little indication of XO sauce in the taste.

While not unique, the spare rib rice noodle rolls evoked thoughts of the similarly named wonderful dish at Longo Seafood.  While not bad, these didn't come close to Longo's, and furthermore came with rice noodle logs instead of cheung fun as at Longo.

Actually I love rice noodle logs, but with spare ribs it was the wrong combination.  Furthermore, we had already ordered a separate rice noodle log dish, which was excellent, but which deprived us of the chance to try both rice noodle items.

A variant of an often seen dim sum item was the double egg tofu connected by a layer of fish paste in the middle.  This was pretty good.

Grand Harbor serves what I refer to as the "ironic" version of the pineapple bun.  What most people don't realize (though the awareness level is rising) is that the traditional Chinese pineapple bun (literally translated from Chinese as "bolo bao") has no pineapple content.  Rather, the name refers to the physical appearance which is reminiscent of the exterior of a pineapple.  However, a small number of pineapple bun makers have recently added pineapple cream filling to the bun, either as to not disappoint unknowing diners, or as an ironic joke.  Grand Harbor's ironic pineapple bun is perhaps the most visually attractive version, but pales in taste to that at Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights.

The last item at our dim sum lunch wouldn't seem to qualify as dim sum either as to content or as to serving size.  But the beef brisket was probably the highlight of the day with a spot on anise flavor and wonderfully tender beef.

All in all, the food at Grand Harbor was good, but disappointing.  As I wrote a couple of years ago for L A Weekly, Yelp ratings for Chinese restaurants are largely unreliable for a number of reasons.  Indeed, I just now happened to check Grand Harbor's Yelp rating, which is stunningly low at 2½ stars, as the food at Grand Harbor is pretty good.  On the other hand, when you look at all of the better, excellent Cantonese restaurants that did not receive a Michelin Bib Gourmand, I have to conclude that the Yelpers are closer to the truth than Michelin seems to be.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Meeting With A Fan

I dropped by the new skewer restaurant Miao Miao Xian on Garvey Ave, in Monterey Park for a quick order to go.  The guy behind the counter says "I know you--you're the guy on Instagram!"  Turns out he was the owner of the restaurant, Jack Wang, and apparently is a big fan mentioning that he saw my Instagram post from Bay Cafe in Alhambra the same day he was there, and was impressed he was there the day that I was.  (He also made an interesting comment about all the young people gravitating towards Alhambra and the term "626" falling out of favor.)  He said he wondered if I might one day come by his restaurant, which is actually a branch of a pre-existing restaurant of the same name in Rowland Heights.  I told him I had been to the Rowland Heights location and  I also mentioned the strange set up of that particular shopping center, where you have to drive on a driveway and past Denny's before you reach the shopping center entrance.  He indicated that shopping center had its issues.

We had a very nice conversation about the Chinese restaurant industry, he saying that it was so ridiculously competitive, and that the Rowland Heights location had more competitive pressure than Monterey Park.  He mentioned they were thinking about opening another branch in Tustin.  He has some very good ideas about running a restaurant--he's importing mantis shrimp to serve at his restaurant, which is something I don't recall seeing at any Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.  He's also targeting the millennial Yelp/Instagram crowd which he says seems to be more enthralled with talking about food and the way  it looks, rather than how it tastes.  I told him how astute he was as this was the same thing that the Koi Palace group was doing with their Palette brand up north in targeting millennials and their sensibilities.  

Jack mentioned he went to school at the University of Indiana, one of my very favorite college campuses, and we also discussed college campus Chinese food as affected by Mainlanders, such as in Iowa City, with he mentioning he'd rather run a Chinese restaurant in Bloomington, IN, because of the competitive pressures of operating in the Los Angeles area. He was amused when I explained why LA Chinatown was the way it was, with little Mainland and no Sichuan food, powered by a majority of Hispanic diners.  

One very interesting comment he made was that he was a "Mainlander", albeit of Cantonese origin.  This plays directly into my next blog article which will talk about the arrival of Guangzhou based Chinese restaurants here in the US, and how heretofore the term "Mainlander food" had previously excluded Cantonese food, but whether that changes with the arrival of Guangzhou based restaurants.  I guess the answer is yes based on Jack’s answer.  He also asked me about how I ended up writing about Chinese food so I gave him the whole story about attending the first Asian American studies class offered at UCLA, which led me to look to eat a Chinese restaurants as I traveled the US.           

When my order arrived he wouldn’t let me pay for it, since he said it was an honor for him to host me.   So I thanked him and then asked for a favor.  Since I had ordered chicken skewers, they came in the standard issue long paper bag, so I asked whether he had a dish I could put the skewers in for an Instagram posting.  He seemed genuinely flattered that I would post from his restaurant so he came back with what he described as the fanciest plate they had in the restaurant.  And when I posted the picture he repeated in an Instagram comment that he was honored by my visit.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Quirky But Interesting Chinese Restaurant in Walnut

As I have often said about my Chinese food writings, it's just not about the food.   Along these lines, I recently encountered a Chinese restaurant in Walnut which is rather interesting, aside from what they serve and how good the food is.  For one thing there's the name of the restaurant.  If you go to Yelp, it's described as Yummy Cafe, but when you drive up to the restaurant all you see is signage that says "Liu & Sun Enterprises."

Now I don't know whether it was like that restaurant in New York Chinatown that was literally called Dining Room Management Group Inc., where my best guess was that the owners were unaware that it was OK to use a DBA for their operation.  Or perhaps in this case there's some other business activity going on premises here, as almost all the business is take out, but there seems to be lots of excess space that's not needed for the restaurant operation and doesn't look like part of a restaurant.

Then, there's the menu.  This is it:

When I saw the white board I was totally confused.  I walked in right behind another customer and when he got to the counter he put his money down, said something very brief to the gal behind the counter, and in a minute was delivered a box of food.  But since he put his money on the counter right away, and there wasn't a takeout order waiting by the counter, it didn't seem like a typical call ahead take out transaction.

However with a little explanation it all makes sense.  Liu & Sun Enterprises a.k.a. Yummy Cafe has a daily revolving menu, hence a printed menu isn't practical.  For $7, you get the three side dishes listed on the left side of the white board, plus a container of soup, plus your choice of an entree from the right side of the board.  The sides and soup are pre-packed in the kitchen, so all you need to do is designate the entree you want, and they can finish what essentially is a bento box for you.

Which is neatly packed on the inside, and the contents are quite tasty.

There's a lot to like about Lin & Sun Enterprises a.k.a. Yummy Cafe.  You get your food almost immediately, fresher and better than steam table food, with an entree, three sides and soup for $7, with items rotating daily.  Why bother cooking at home?

Monday, July 1, 2019

Much Ado About Nothing--Tim Ho Wan in Irvine

Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong gained notoriety several years ago when it became the most economical restaurant in the world to garner a coveted Michelin star.  While Michelin star restaurants evokes visions of meals that run into hundreds of dollars or more per person, Tim Ho Wan made the cut charging about $10 per person.  We visited Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong five years ago and indeed were impressed by their dim sum, like everyone else particularly enthralled by their crispy baked bbq pork buns.

Consequently when it was announced last summer that Tim Ho Wan was going to open up a branch in Irvine, originally scheduled for this past winter, this was really big news in the local culinary world, both in the Chinese-American community, as among the general foodie world.  Anticipation was high, and indeed when the restaurant actually opened this past May, not only did the news dominate the local culinary scene, but Los Angeles' television stations actually showed up at the restaurant on opening day.  Days later when a friend tried to beat the crowd on a Sunday morning and showed up an hour before opening, she found there were already 300 people in line to get in.

But last summer when the planned Tim Ho Wan opening was announced I painted a different picture as to the upcoming opening. I pointed out that existing Tim Ho Wan locations in the United States were nothing to write home about except for the crispy baked bbq pork buns. I did have hopes that since Irvine is a Chinese dining hotbed, compared to the existing locations in Manhattan’s East Village and Times Square, and Waikiki beach, Tim Ho Wan would want to bring their “A” game to this location. Those hopes seemed to dim after evaluating the reviews after the Irvine opening last month despite the massive waits, as while there were some favorable reviews, most indicated that Tim Ho Wan was a one-trick pony with only the crispy baked bbq pork bun worthy of acclaim.  With the crowds starting to die down I figured it was time for a first hand look. Unfortunately, even with diminished expectations, I found the visit disappointing.

On the positive side, they did a really nice job of renovating the old Capital Seafood space–light, airy and modern.

A pleasant surprise was the beef cheung fun, one of the best versions I’ve eaten, enhanced with the flavor of orange peel. I do find it ironic, though, in that Tim Ho Wan gained their fame as being the most inexpensive Michelin starred restaurant in the world, something that clearly doesn’t hold in their US branches. The order of three rolls was almost $6, and like everything else we ordered the items themselves were undersized compared to normal dim sum.

Something different was the fried tofu, shrimp and avocado roll. I presume this was an ode to their California setting, effectively their version of a California roll.

The real shocker was the signature crispy baked bbq pork buns. From the moment I bit into the first one five years ago at the original Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, this has been my single favorite Chinese dish and which I actively seek out wherever I go. I’ve had many good versions of this item, and while not as good as Hong Kong, the Tim Ho Wan Manhattan version was quite good. However, the Irvine version was not. Too sweet and not terribly flavorful. Now if you had never eaten this kind of bun before, I can see easily how someone would be impressed by these buns. But having become sort of a connoisseur of these items in the past few years, I feel that Irvine’s are not competitive. At $6 for an order of three buns these are pricey to boot–Family Pastry in LA Chinatown has a version that’s at least double the size, at least twice as good, and goes for $1.35.

As with the Manhattan branch, the menu at the Irvine is very short, such that we really had trouble finding a sixth item we wanted to order. We ended up with sticky rice in lotus leaf for almost $7. What we got was sticky rice in lotus leaf and a small amount of meat inside. We wouldn’t have even finished this dish if we didn’t pay so much for it.

Well at least for the price you pay you get good service. Well, not really. With our little table for two and six dishes it was very cluttered. And even as the restaurant was emptying out nobody cleared off our empty plates until we called them over.

Obviously, Tim Ho Wan in Irvine is for somebody, perhaps people who want to say they ate at a restaurant related to a Michelin starred eatery. As I write this review a little before 1:30pm on a weekday, Yelp shows a 15 to 30 minute waiting time. Charitably I guess I’d rate this on a par with mid-tier SGV dim sum restaurants like NBC (before its recent upgrade) and 888, not taking into account price. But if you have other options there’s no reason to come here unless you're desperate for crispy baked pork buns which you can order to go at the check in counter and get your buns in five minutes.