Friday, September 16, 2022

What We Ate In New Orleans

While this was my fourth visit to New Orleans, it was longer than my previous trips and gave me the best chance to sample a variety of the famed cuisine.  Landing in New Orleans on a Wednesday night, we checked into the Hotel Monteleone and quickly headed to the nearby Broussard's Restaurant, a century old restaurant just off of Bourbon Street.  Arriving at 8pm, the restaurant was ominously  nearly empty.   Nevertheless the food was slow to arrive.

Mrs. Chandavkl awaited her gumbo.  With memories of all the great gumbo from prior visits to New Orleans, she could hardly wait.

The gumbo turned out not to be very good.  And the rice was stale!  Even though they apologized with a new bowl with supposedly fresh rice, it wasn't much better.

A bit better was the crab cake, though at $18 it was overpriced.


Here's the Creole moules frites, mussels with alligator sausage.   While the flavor of the sauce was very good, since I don't eat potatoes I didn't have much to eat for the $30 charge.

Combined with the slow service, none of us were at all happy with this meal.

Thursday's lunch was at Commander's Palace, one of the best rated restaurants in New Orleans, both by reputation as well as personal experience of some of our group.  First came the kiddie plate, chicken nuggets with fries.  Certainly the most intriguing looking kids plate I have ever seen in a restaurant.

The asparagus vichyssoise was excellent.


But sadly it was all downhill from there.  Both the gumbo and the Caesar salad were unbearably salty.  Meanwhile, the cast iron seared redfish with eggplant was so so. 

Finally, the bananas Foster sorbet was decent.

With a meal lasting nearly two hours (not that there was a worker shortage as their were servers and helpers standing around the whole time) at a cost of $50 per person, this was one of the most disappointing meals I have ever had.


Of course, there's always time for a snack of beignets at Cafe Du Monde.  What's not to like about fried dough smothered in powdered sugar?


Stunningly our first satisfying meal of the trip came at a Chinese restaurant.  Given that New Orleans has no history of Chinese food, and in three previous trips to New Orleans I had only eaten Chinese food once, at an Americanized Chinese restaurant on Canal Street, who would have thought that we would have a Chinese meal better than two legacy, 4 Yelp star or higher New Orleans restaurants?   In three prior trips to New Orleans I determined that there were zero Chinese restaurants in the French Quarter.  Since it had been seven years since our last visit, I decided to survey the current situation and was pleasantly surprised to find two Chinese restaurants in the French Quarter, Dian Xin and Zhang Bistro, a half block apart.  And in fact, Dian Xin had a menu that clearly threw it into the authentic category of Chinese food.  Originally, I planned a quick curiosity based visit just to try one dish, but as luck would have it, we ended up close to Dian Xin at dinner time without any specific dinner plans, so why not have a whole meal here? 


The first thing that caught my eye was the crawfish and crab xiaolongbao.  What could be more New Orleans/Chinese than this dish?  And it was very good, as was the regular pork XLB.

But wait!  There's more authenticity here with the chicken jian bing.  Frankly, the wrapper wasn't very good, more like a tortilla than the normal pancake.  However, that's a very minor consideration compared to finding this dish in the French Quarter.

Mongolian beef sounds like an Americanized dish, but really this version should have been called sesame beef and it wasn't bad.   


Dian Xin had a number of other interesting dishes including varieties of dim sum, dumplings, and non-Cantonese noodle dishes.  One surprise was that the clientele was largely non-Asian, but I had no complaints about the food.  Not surprisingly, prices at Dian Xin were higher than what we were used to seeing, but even so the cost was less than half of most of our other dinners and lunches.  Across the street, Zhang's Bistro is certainly more geared to Americanized tastes, with no apparent Asian diners.  Still, I wish I had the chance to check out their crawfish fried rice.

Friday was a family luncheon gathering at Mother's Restaurant, a forerunner of the modern day fast casual restaurant.  Hooray!  Finally a good bowl of gumbo, as well as crab etoufee.


Meanwhile the Ferdi Po' Boy sandwich of roast beef and ham was also a winner.


Just as much thought went into some of our restaurant choices that backfired, sometimes the opposite occurs.  This was the case of our Friday night dinner at Maypop, which was largely scheduled due to its proximity less than a block away from a family function later in the evening, but which turned out to be a gem of a meal from start to finish.  Maypop is best described as Southeast Asian fusion, but like many of today's restaurants, does not fit into neat classifications.  

The meal started off with complimentary savory tom yum cream cheese with Thai curry beignets, the first of an evening of winners.


Bibb lettuce with crispy cashew.



Yummy crispy catfish nuggets.

Crispy fried oysters.

This dish is described as wok fried tapioca noodles with gulf shrimp.  But really it was a hollow egg noodle that was almost a foot long.  The waiter said they had to rename the dish, which was originally called egg noodles with gulf shrimp, because the local clientele was expecting to find eggs in the dish.  D'oh!

Hand pulled lamian noodles with Louisiana blue crab.  As presented the dish didn't look particularly Chinese, but when you mixed it up you could tell.

Maypop certainly made up for our previous name brand disappointments.

Saturday we had a late breakfast at Brennan's on Royal St., and finally we had the New Orleans meal that we had been anticipating, with an excellent meal from start to finish.

Things started looking up immediately with the complimentary lobster soup.

Finally great gumbo!


Turtle soup was delicious, but it was hard to say what the turtle taste was, as the flavor of the soup dominated.  Sort of like shellfish, I guess.


The fanciful wall pictures were extremely amusing and interesting.


Tomato and melon gazpacho was great and refreshing.

Paneed Louisiana rabbit--tastes like chicken.  The sauce made the dish.

Pan roasted gulf fish was excellent.

Tasty omelette with truffles.

And Oysters j'aime.


And a special birthday cake made of cotton candy, with a small cupcake and a little ice cream on the plate at the bottom.

Clearly these last three meals really made the trip!

Saturday night was the family wedding that drew us to New Orleans, and while it was a totally fantastic event, the less said about the dinner at Capulet the better.  Not that it was bad, and the regular restaurant menu showed some interesting ethnic and even Asian influences.  But the dinner of salad, brussel sprouts, skirt steak and red fish was pedestrian, and the self-serve at your table format was a bit annoying.  And beignets which you had to get yourself, instead of wedding cake.


One final meal Sunday morning as at Cafe Beignet was totally reminiscent of our meal earlier this year at Paia in Honolulu, in that there was this long line of people out to the entrance of the restaurant waiting to place their order at the counter with tables throughout the rest of the restaurant, and you wondered where everyone was going to sit, and yet somehow everybody found a seat after they ordered.   This is the muffaletta sandwich of round bread, salami and cheese.  It's the New Orleans equivalent to cioppino, not that the two dishes are anything alike, but they are Italian type dishes which were formulated in the United States,the muffaletta in New Orleans and cioppino in San Francisco.


And here is the breakfast sandwich of eggs and bacon.  I really like breakfast sandwiches because they are so tasty, but I almost never eat them (probably fewer than 10 in my lifetime) because they are so unhealthy.

And the final meal of the trip was empanadas at New Orleans airport.  I know they were made from frozen, but they were really good.

One last trip food note is that I spotted a restaurant called Yummy House in Kenner LA while on the Uber ride on the way to the New Orleans airport.  


As soon I saw the restaurant name as we drove by, I immediately suspected it was an authentic Chinese restaurant. And as it turns out in the unlikely location of Kenner, it is one of the very few dim sum options in New Orleans. So how did I know this was probably authentic? From the name Yummy. Historically, while there has been a lot of overlap, there are certain restaurants names more likely to be geared to Americanized Chinese restaurants and others that tend more to be authentic Chinese restaurants.  And of the 30 or so Chinese restaurants I've eaten at with Yummy in the name, all have been authentic with a largely, if not nearly exclusively Chinese clientele.  In fact, in perusing the Yummy House website it’s obvious that they aren’t a plain vanilla dim sum restaurant, which is really all you could expect in a city like New Orleans, but has an advanced menu which I would love to try.  And one of my Instagram followers went to Yummy House after seeing my post and reported back that they even have a Chinese language blackboard menu.  That's my first stop next time in New Orleans!

Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Most Expensive Chinese Restaurant in the Los Angeles Area

Before starting I need to make a definitional clarification.  For decades, the goal of many Chinese restaurants in the Los Angeles area is to maximize their total number of customers.  One manifestation is that when a Chinese restaurant opens up and becomes successful, they will often quickly open a new branch, and if things work out, will continue to open up more branches if their success continues.  The San Gabriel Valley is littered with little chains who took this policy too far, too fast, and crashed the chain all at once.  A second manifestation is commonly a restaurant has a menu that is all things to all people, rich and poor.  For example, at Grand Harbor in Temple City, customers line up in the take out annex for inexpensive roast meat and rice combos for well under $10, but at dinner time high rollers are offered a $10,000 a table gourmet special.  So technically, you can pay more for a meal at Grand Harbor than at any other Chinese restaurant in the area, but that's not the type of expensive I'm talking about. 

With this background, Chang’An in Tustin has the most expensive menu of any Chinese restaurant I have encountered in Southern California.  As you can see, the interior is correspondingly appointed.  Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles being so nicely decorated are a recent phenomenon, inhibited in the past by the unfortunate image of Chinese food as being "cheap," as well as the above mentioned proclivity of some restaurants to simultaneously service well heeled and regular diners, which tones down the decor.  More recently, though, restaurants like Bistro Na's, Wagyu House By X-Pot, and others have opened up dedicated eateries to target the higher end Chinese food audience, upping the ambiance.   (Note that what may look like a decoration in the back of the first interior picture is really a view into the open kitchen.).


The exterior looks fairly nice, but part of the space is actually occupied by an unrelated restaurant called Bronx Sandwiches, and Chang'An is located a not particularly upscale strip mall.


Chang’An is the first US branch of a Chinese restaurant chain headquartered in Xi’an, so obviously features Shaanxi style cuisine. When the restaurant first opened last year dining was by reservation only, but they now take walk-ins, though they take your name and phone number, possibly to pretend you had a reservation.  I wouldn't be surprised if headquarters back in China still thinks there's a reservations only policy in effect.  I remember the same policy was in force at Bistro Na's when they opened up a few years ago, and it was strictly enforced, such that diners arriving at the restaurant would return to their cars after being turned away and call in a reservation.

The meal begins with Shaanxi style bread.   Not particularly tasty.

Here are the honey grapefruit spare ribs at Chang’An in Tustin, specifically formulated to emulate traditional sweet and sour taste without vinegar, nicely plated. 


Green pepper chicken with biang biang noodles.  Even the mild version was a little too spicy for my personal likes.

Most of the Chang’An menu was above my budget so I cannot judge the restaurant.  Roast duck with caviar is $398 and wagyu fried rice $68.  But both the food press and Yelpers agree that while the food is excellent, it doesn’t match the price. Still the restaurant is busy enough and indeed at one table of six, two of the seats were occupied by first or second grade age children, so they seem to have enough customers willing to spend, and on Shaanxi cuisine at that.  Of note, Tustin is adjacent to North Irvine, where the most expensive tract homes I have encountered are being constructed in large numbers, so I suspect this is a good part of their customer base.

Wrapping up our visit to Chang’An, servers wear tags with their name in lights so they can be identified in the darkly lit room.

My lunch for one ended up costing a little over $100.  No wonder a lot of people have heard about Chang’An, but I didn’t  know of anyone who had actually eaten there.  But hey it was my birthday and it was worth the experience.