Sinoinsocal? But You’re in NorCal…

Whenever I talk to someone about this blog, sometimes I’m asked why it’s called sinoinsocal. I mean, sure, I am Chinese but I certainly don’t live in Southern California. So what gives with this sort-of odd name?

Well let’s back track all the way back to 2011, a year and a half before I published my first post. As some of my readers know (and as it is outlined on my “about” page), my blog is dedicated in honor of my mom and it was in the fall of 2011 that my mom had a couple of severe strokes that precipitated to her passing in 2012. Because of her strokes, I immediately moved from Baltimore back to Southern California.

Pho Ga at Pho Nguyen Hue

Pho Ga at Pho Nguyen Hue

More specifically, I moved back to Irvine, where I graduated from college a couple years prior. It was during my time in college that I ate around Orange County amazingly diverse and large Asian communities. Whether it was some of the best pho I’ve ever had in Little Saigon or the most delicious bowls of beef noodle soup in Irvine’s various Taiwanese restaurants, eating Asian food in Orange County was such a delight.

But of course, most people’s vision of Orange County is something akin to what they have seen in the hit mid-2000s show “The OC” or the original version of The Real Housewives series set in the gated community of Coto de Caza. That is to say, the popular image is of rich white people with sun kissed skin, money for everything they want, and lots of time spent frolicking on the beach or shopping at high end malls. And while this kind of life is definitely representative of parts of Orange County, it’s really just a small portion of what, in reality, is one of the most diverse counties in the United States.

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Orange County is home of the largest Vietnamese community in the United States with nearly 190,000 Vietnamese residents and strip mall after strip mall on streets like Bolsa and Brookhurst are filled with great specialists of specific Vietnamese dishes. Right next door is Garden Grove, with a large Korean community and some of the best Korean BBQ in Southern California. And just 15-20 minutes down the 405 or 5 (without traffic) is Irvine, where a huge Taiwanese community means there are multiple great places to get everything from Taiwanese fried chicken cutlets to bowls of lu rou fan. This doesn’t even include the large Persian and Latino communities in the county too.

So when I moved back to Southern California in the fall of 2011 to be closer to my mom, I wanted to showcase another side of Orange County, one filled with bowls of tasty pho instead of fake tans. Unfortunately, an opportunity to work a campaign for a now wonderful Congresswoman (and one of my best bosses ever) and my mom’s cardiac arrest and eventual passing meant I wouldn’t write a blog post until I lived in Denver.

Though with all those twists and turns (and 2 more moves later), I still think that more people should know about the wonderful Asian food that dots Orange County. Thankfully, a few other food writers with a more national audience has done that too. So before you head to Disneyland on your next trip, be sure to check out David Chan’s article and guide to Chinese food in Irvine or the Orange County Register’s guide to Little Saigon.

And if you want to know what are some of my favorite places in Orange County, here are a few below:

  • Broddard Restaurant – Great Vietnamese restaurant in Little Saigon
  • Cham Sut Gol – Wonderful Korean BBQ in Garden Grove
  • J Zhou Oriental Cuisine – The best dim sum in Orange County, almost rivaling those in the San Gabriel Valley
  • Pho Nguyen Hue – Some of the best chicken pho I’ve ever had
  • Yu’s Kitchen – Solid Taiwanese fair in Irvine
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Tastee Steam Kitchen, Oakland

Tastee Steam Kitchen
329 11th Street
Oakland, CA 94607

On most workdays I travel to Oakland Chinatown for lunch since it’s a fairly short walk from my office and I can get lunch at a reasonably affordable prices. When I’m in Chinatown, I usually make it to the corner of 11th and Webster where I eat lunch at either Baby Cafe or Shooting Star Cafe for some classic, filling Hong Kong style cafe food. Over the last few months, though, I noticed signs for a new restaurant called Tastee Steam Kitchen.

Since I’m curious about any new Chinese restaurant in Oakland Chinatown, I took a look and was fascinated by a restaurant dedicated to “steam grilling”, which I had never heard before (and seems like a thing in Hong Kong?). I was intrigued, especially since it was opened by the same owners of Shooting Star Cafe, but the price seemed like a pricey hot pot so I decided to wait.

But then came its addition to Michael Bauer’s top 100 restaurants of the Bay Area and I felt compelled to finally go. My aunt was thinking about getting together for dinner too and I decided that it would be the perfect opportunity to try a new place out.

We went on a Thursday night and got seated right away. We carefully browsed the menu which was very similar to an ala carte hot pot place like Little Sheep. There was a list of congee bases you could choose from (the steam and the drippings from the cooked food combine with the congee base to create a congee at the end of the meal). Then there was a list of sauces you could choose for 25 cents each, in addition to the free soy sauce, vinegar, and hot chile oil they have on the table. Then there is a selection of meats, seafood, vegetables, and dim sum items you select to steam at your table. After looking at the menu, we ordered the following:

Marble Beef (before steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

Marble Beef (before steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

  • Marble Beef (肥牛) – Our first plate was marble beef that was steamed to just perfectly done. While thinly sliced, the fat in the beef help give the meat a nice, juicy flavor that matched well with the spicy soy sauce mixture I had. At $5, it was super cheap for the portion as well.
  • Egg Tofu with Ground Pork in XO Sauce (XO滑肉豆腐) – I think we were expecting more of a steam egg/meatloaf like dish but these pork meatloaf bits and tofu were nice, if less than exciting. The meat was juicy, though I was hoping for a little more spiciness and saltiness. It was hard to eat it together with the medium soft tofu. It was alright, if not exciting.
Snow Pea Leaves (after steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

Snow Pea Leaves (after steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

  • Snow Pea Leaves 大豆苗 – I love pea leaves and when these were steaming, it was so great to smell the fragrant, nutty aroma. They were steamed perfectly, and the milder flavor helped absorb the sauces well. I do wish, however, that this came in between the meat dishes.
  • Lotus Root 蓮藕 – There was a LOT of lotus root so if you love lotus root, this is exceptionally good value. The lotus root probably could have used more steam to make it softer, but the crunch was still nice and made for a good vessel for the sauces.
  • Custard Bun 流沙包 – Finally, we ended the meal with a bun filled with runny custard. Like the other items, it was steamed and timed exactly right. The buns were oozing with delicious runny custard that was a perfect end to the meal.
Cordyceps Flower and Chicken Congee at the end

Cordyceps Flower and Chicken Congee at the end

Afterward we had the cordyceps flower and chicken congee. While the rice and chicken cooked beautifully with all that steam and water, the congee was a bit lacking in flavor. However, that’s likely due to the fact that we only had one dish that had major protein juice drippings to help flavor the congee. It probably would have been more flavorful if we got a seafood dish instead of a vegetable dish.

All in all, I liked Tastee Steam Kitchen though I do wish they alternated between cooking vegetables and meat instead of cooking meat at the beginning then vegetables. I’ll definitely have to go again and order more meat and seafood to see how it flavors the congee in the end. There is certainly a lot of potential to this new type of cooking that’s as healthy as hot pot with the ability to have everything perfectly cooked on a “grill”. I’ll just have to go a little bit more before I can confidently say it’s one of the best restuarants in the Bay.

 

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Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen, Atlanta

Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen
931 Monroe Dr. Ste A-108
Atlanta, GA 30308

When it comes to Asian food in Atlanta, people generally think of Buford Highway, specifically the section of the highway in Chamblee and Doraville that is home to many of the area’s best Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants. So it was much to my delight and surprise when I was researching on where to eat on my East Coast trip that a Taiwanese restaurant in midtown was listed as one of Atlanta Eater’s 38 essential restaurants. Since I was planning to meet up with a couple of my friends that lived in midtown, the place seemed perfect with both its praised quality and close proximity.

My friends and I met up and walked to Ah-Ma’s, arriving around 6:30PM on a Friday. The restaurant was fairly busy but luckily a medium sized table opened up fairly quickly and we were seated in less than five minutes. We took a look at the menu, which is filled with a wide range of classic Taiwanese dishes, and I really had to resist my urge to order everything. Fortunately, we managed to narrow down our selections to the following:

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Fried Pig Ear at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen

  • Fried Pig Ear – These crunchy and chewy morsels of pork were perfectly fried, allowing the light pork taste to shine and not be overpowered by oil or breading. My friend who insisted on ordering these was perfectly delighted. We only wished that there was more on the plate.
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Dirty Bird Bao at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen

  • Dirty Bird Bao – A solid Taiwanese chicken cutlet that’s wrapped in a mantou bun with pickled cucumber and carrots. It was a pleasant, if underwhelming, snack bao. There was supposed to be some wasabi aioli but I don’t really remember the aioli having any of the heat of wasabi.
Pork Belly Bao at Ah-Ma's Taiwanese Kitchen

Pork Belly Bao at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen

  • Pork Belly Bao – Ah-Ma’s version of gua bao, on the other hand, was fantastic. The pork belly was tender and juicy. The fat of the pork married well with the pickled mustard greens. Combined, it was an excellent, if slightly messy, bao.
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Lu Rou Fan at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen

  • Lu Rou Fan – The braised pork in this dish may not be as sublimely soft and rich as the bowls in Taiwan, but it was a solid version for a dish in America. The pork was tasty and the egg was marinated. Perhaps my only real nitpick is that I wish there was more picked veggies and less cilantro garnish.
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Three Cup Chicken Wings at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen

  • Three Cup Chicken Wings – While three cup chicken normally isn’t exclusively chicken wings or drumsticks, I did appreciate this spin on the classic Taiwanese dish to make it very American with staunchly Taiwanese roots. The wings were fried very well, managing to have a light and crispy skin with juicy meat. The sauce was very nice too with a hint of heat to augment the sweet flavors from the soy sauce and sesame oil.
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Beef Noodle Soup at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen

  • Beef Noodle Soup – One constant theme of Ah-Ma’s is that they know how to cook their meats. The brisket in the noodle soup was no different in its tender chunks with hints of five spice. The noodles were cooked perfectly too, allowing them to absorb the flavor of the broth without being too soggy. I did wish the broth was a little more spicy, but this was a solid version of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

All in all, Ah-Ma’s definitely met expectations and I was instantly delighted that Atlanta has a solid Taiwanese restaurant that is within walking distance of mass transit. I especially loved all the nods to Taiwan, including the ability to drink a can of HeySong Sarsaparilla. Ah-Ma finds a way to make solid plates of Taiwanese dishes at reasonable prices in a very approachable way to non-Chinese people, something that many other middle to high end Asian restaurants in yuppie Millennial filled Asian neighborhoods fail to achieve. 

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Da Hong Pao, Washington, DC

Da Hong Pao
1409 14th Street NW
Washington, DC 20005

It used to be that if you wanted to get decent dim sum in DC, you would have to venture out to the suburbs. While China Garden in Rosslyn, Oriental East in Silver Spring, or Hollywood East in Wheaton weren’t dim sum parlors of the quality seen in New York, LA, or San Francisco, they were pretty solid and offered DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) residents a chance to eat dim sum without having to travel. That’s not to say that there wasn’t dim sum in the district proper, but Tony Cheng and Ping Pong Dim Sum have suffered poor reputations either because of quality (Tony Cheng) or because of overpriced, bland, inauthenticity (Ping Pong Dim Sum).

But late last year the owner of Yum’s II opened Da Hong Pao next door to their longstanding Chinese American carry out joint. While Yum’s II has withstood the merciless tide of gentrification that has seen 14th Street go from auto repair show and late night carry outs to luxury condos with street level West Elm and JCrew Men’s Stores within 10-15 years, Da Hong Pao is a new, gleaming restaurant look tailor made for affluent yuppie millennials who want tasty, more authentic Chinese food in the neighborhood. Gone is the old Playbill cafe, a dark, very gay restaurant known for its karaoke nights. Now it’s a restaurant with floor to ceiling windows, white tablecloths, and dark wooden chairs. And instead of passable American cuisine, the new restaurant serves dim sum and Cantonese seafood, something the owners could have never done at their carry out next door.

Given the exciting opportunity to eat dim sum in the district (and in one of my old neighborhoods no less), I decided to go with one of my friends when I was in town earlier this month. We arrived about 12:00PM and got seated immediately. While I had expected a clientele ratio that skewed more white, the majority of diners on this weekday lunch ended up being mostly Asian. We took a seat near the window and promptly ticked off items from their dim sum menu and ordered the following (note: they do have a couple carts if you want to experience dim sum “the old school way”):

Dim Sum at Da Hong Pao

Dim Sum at Da Hong Pao

  • Steamed Spare Ribs with Garlic Black Bean Sauce 豉蒜蒸排骨 – The steamed spareribs were perfectly juicy and marinated in enough oil and black bean sauce to provide a rich umami taste without being overpowering. I loved the perfectly cooked diced taro they threw into the dish too.
  • Egg Tart 招牌蛋撻 – When ended up eating these egg tarts a little bit later as they came closer to the beginning. While the flavors were fine, I thought they weren’t anything to write home about. However, I fully acknowledge that it could be because I didn’t eat them hot.
  • Steamed King Prawn Dumpling 超級蝦餃星 – While these shrimp dumplings don’t have quite the finesse of places around LA, San Francisco, or New York, you could tell that they were made in house rather than reheated frozen dumplings. The shrimp was fresh and perfectly portioned, though the skin suffered from being a little too gummy and hard to break apart (or rip away from the steamer with a chopstick).
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Pan Fried Dried Shrimp Rice Crepe at Da Hong Pao

  • Pan-Fried Dry Shrimp Rice Crepe 香煎蝦米腸 – While the rice noodles were decently done and I liked that the soy sauce wasn’t to overpowering, I do wish they had a little bit more dried shrimp and scallions for added flavor.
Boiled Yu-Choi at Da Hong Pao

Boiled Yu-Choi at Da Hong Pao

  • Boiled Yu Choi 白灼芥蘭 – Though it is incorrectly named in English, this plate of Chinese broccoli (which is different from yu choi, though that is offered on the menu as “flowering cabbage”) was great. The leaves and stalks were cut perfectly for edibility, the broccoli was perfectly boiled and dressed with enough oyster sauce to complement and not overpower the vegetable.
  • Steamed Pork & Shrimp Dumpling with Fresh Crab Roe 蟹籽鮮蝦燒賣 – We ended up being hungry with just four items so we added a fifth. This siu mai was alright but the pork could have been a little more moist and seasoned for a little more flavor.

While Da Hong Pao is no Dragon Beaux or even NYC Tim Ho Wan, it is a solid place to get dim sum in DC. My friends will assuredly rejoice that there will be no need to metro across the river or to Maryland to wait for a table for dim sum. Instead, they can roll out of bed and saunter down to Da Hong Pao on 14th Street and wait in line as if they were eating brunch at Le Diplomate or Compass Rose up the street.

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Tim Ho Wan, New York City

Tim Ho Wan
85 4th Ave
New York, NY 10003

Tim Ho Wan is known as the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world with two of its locations in Hong Kong consistently maintaining a 1 Michelin star rating. With that kind of reputation, the news of their expansion into the US, with its first location in New York City, created all sorts of buzz. When Tim Ho Wan finally opened late last year, wait times were 3.5 hours long for a table, on par with the equally long lines whenever a Din Tai Fung opens a location in the US.

Despite the wait, I wanted to make sure I stopped at Tim Ho Wan when I went on my Spring trip to New York City. Primarily it was to see how the US location compared to the ones in Hong Kong. However, given that one of my cousin’s has never been to Hong Kong, I wanted to give him a taste of dim sum “directly” from our parents’ birthplace.

One of my cousins (that had been to Hong Kong, but apparently had never been to a Tim Ho Wan) and I went to line up at Tim Ho Wan at about 12PM on a Saturday. When we arrived we put down my name, cell phone number, and a request for a table of 4. The host alerted us that the wait would be 2.5 hours. Given our lack of caffeination we decided to wait part of that time out at the City of Saints coffee shop next door. Afterward, we walked around the East Village and eventually went into the Strand, where I received a text that our table was ready. With that text, we ended up only waiting a little less than 2 hours.

We rushed back to Tim Ho Wan and promptly got seated after our other cousin and the person’s he’s dating arrived. Being the person that I am, I quickly took the reins in order while soliciting some suggestions from my cousins. We ended up ordering the following 9 items (about 1/3 of their whole menu):

Baked BBQ Pork Buns at Tim Ho Wan NYC

Baked BBQ Pork Buns at Tim Ho Wan NYC

  • Baked BBQ Pork Buns 酥皮焗叉燒包 – They were about as heavenly as the Hong Kong versions with a nice baked custard bun on the outside with a juicy bbq pork filling on the inside. They are smaller than the Hong Kong versions and a little less crispy, so they aren’t quite as good. But even those small quibbles don’t even diminish the fact that they are the best bbq pork buns in North America, hands down.
  • Pan Fried Turnip Cake 香煎臘味蘿蔔糕 – Fairly well done with solid portions of shredded daikon. However, like most places I feel as if they didn’t fry it enough on the outside to create a truly crispy outside to balance the soft and mushy middle.
Steamed Shrimp Dumpling at Tim Ho Wan New York City

Steamed Shrimp Dumpling at Tim Ho Wan New York City

  • Steamed Shrimp Dumplings (Har Gow) 晶瑩鮮蝦餃 – I love, love, LOVE that Tim Ho Wan sticks to the way Hong Kong dim sum places make shrimp dumplings instead of the overstuffed mess that plagues North American har gows. The shrimp filling was perfectly portioned with fresh shrimp that had a nice snap. The dumpling skin was great too, perfectly dextrous, but thin and tearing apart only when I bit into the dumpling. I do wish they had added a little salt and pepper to the shrimp to enhance the flavor, but it was perfectly good as is.
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Steamed Pork Dumplings with Shrimp at Tim Ho Wan New York City

  • Steamed Pork Dumplings with Shrimp (Siu Mai) 鮮蝦燒賣皇 – The sui mai was pretty good with juicy pork meat and shrimp that was cooked just right and not too big to become a bit hard to eat. That said, while these were solid, there wasn’t anything extraordinary about them.
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Blanched Lettuce and Pan Fried Turnip Cake at Tim Ho Wan NYC

  • Blanched Lettuce 白灼生菜 – Speaking of nothing extraordinary, we ordered the blanched lettuce solely because it was a vegetable option. While I generally love that Tim Ho Wan sticks to Hong Kong’s dim sum conventions, one thing that I dislike is the modern Hong Kong dim sum trend of serving lettuce as their only vegetable option. The lettuce and soy sauce were fine, but nothing particularly exciting.
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Steamed Rice Rolls with Shrimp and Chinese Chives at Tim Ho Wan NYC

  • Steamed Rice Rolls with Shrimp and Chinese Chives 韮黃鮮蝦腸 – On the other hand, the steamed rice rolls were definitely one of the better rice rolls I have had in the US. The shrimp was fresh, the chives provided a nice crunch and flavor, and the rice noodle rolls were steamed and rolled perfectly. Best of all, they poured just enough of the light soy sauce to round out the flavor but not too much that the flavor of everything else was drowned out.
  • Congee with Pork and Preserved Egg 金銀蛋瘦肉粥 – The congee was solid, with a nice balance of rice and broth (in contrast to other places where too much rice or too much broth makes the texture and flavor unappealing). The fried wonton strips gave a nice crispy texture and the preserved eggs were great. While I did get pork flavor from the broth, I didn’t remember eating much of the actual shredded pork.
  • Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf 古法糯米雞 – While we got this dish first, the rapid succession of the other dishes meant that we didn’t really eat this until later. The sticky rice was great and filled with the usual chicken, Chinese sausage, and mushrooms. It was definitely a nice filler.
  • French Toast with Custard Tim Ho Wan Style 奶皇西多士 – To be perfectly honest, I really don’t get what’s all the rage with Hong Kong style french toast. I mean, its tasty but just not amazing to me. Similarly, the french toast was a nice dessert, but not too memorable.

All in all, Tim Ho Wan in the USA is close to, but not quite, the level of quality of the Hong Kong locations. Because of that, Tim Ho Wan is easily the best dim sum in New York. And at a total of about $17 per person, including tax and tip, it was surprisingly affordable given the amount of food we had. Who doesn’t love quality dim sum and wallet friendly prices?

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China Live, San Francisco

China Live
644 Broadway
San Francisco, CA

After languishing for years as more and more people flocked to the Richmond and Sunset for San Francisco’s best Chinese food, SF’s Chinatown has seen a resurgence of late. Chong Qing Xiao Mian, Hanlin Tea House, and Mister Jiu’s are among the most notable of the new restaurants that have opened in the last year or so. Now comes China Live, an ambitious houseware store and restaurant with additional plans for a cocktail lounge on the 2nd floor. It’s large, it’s modern, and it’s perhaps the most symbolic statement yet that Chinatown is adapting to the diversification of Chinese food in the Bay Area and the gentrification of the city while still proudly maintaining its Chinese roots.

Given its loud splash in the neighborhood and promise of quality, if pricey, food, I was eager to try out the place. I got that opportunity on Saturday when I went to CAAMfest’s Eat Chinatown short film showing in conjunction with 41 Ross’ current gallery exhibition of beloved Chinatown stalwarts (which you should definitely check out if you’re in the Bay Area by April 9). Since my good friend and I were already in the area, we decided to check out China Live for dinner right after.

We arrived a little before 8PM and stood in line to get a table. When we arrived at the front of the line we were notified that the wait would be one hour, so I put down my cell phone number. Afterwards, my friend and I browsed the attached houseware shop to see their range of interesting items, including whiskey barrel aged soy sauce and dried abalone from Kona.

At about 8:45PM we were alerted that our table was ready and we finally had a seat. Our seat faced the open kitchen where most of the cooking takes place. This included a view of the tanks with live lobsters and crabs, which we were sorely tempted to order, but settled on these items instead:

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Charred Chinese Broccoli at China Live

  • Charred Chinese Broccoli -The first dish we had also turned out to be my favorite dish. I am perfectly content with blanched or stir fried Chinese broccoli, one of my favorite vegetables, but grilling them to a crisp was to a whole new level. I loved play between the crunchiness of leaves with the tenderness of the stems. The mushrooms gave a nice, light umami flavor as well which I liked even more than the regular oyster sauce you usually get.
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Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan at China Live

  • Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan – I’m not sure why they transliterated this dish from Mandarin when it is a classic Cantonese dish, but either way the dish had tasty bits of Chinese sausage, ham, and thin slices of duck. The server presented the dish, poured the soy sauce, and mixed the rice, which was baffling to me as the sauce should have simmered in the (covered) clay pot for another couple minutes before serving. Nonetheless, the dish was still tasty and had some stalks of bok choy to help balance and soak up the richness of the sauce and meats. So all in all it hit the mark on flavor mostly, but definitely missed the mark in presentation.
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Xiao Long Bao at China Live

  • Xiao Long Bao (XLB) – Despite ordering this when I first ordered, apparently the server mistakenly did not put it on the ticket. This meant we continually waited for a dish that apparently was never put in the system! Thankfully, when we asked about them again after finishing the other two dishes, she noted that it would only be another 6 minutes for the next batch of XLB. The XLB skins were decently thin, albeit a bit chewy and gummy, so it wasn’t quite executed right. The soup was rather light, but had a good portion to go along with the tender pork dumpling. The vinegar and soy sauce was on point, however, which helped mask and balance the flaws of the dish.

To go along with our food, we ordered the Chrysanthemum Oolong Tea as well, which was very nice with the balance of floral sweetness of the Chrysanthemum with the nutty earthiness of the Oolong. It was beautifully presented in a clear glass kettle, though I am not sure it really warranted $10 for a pot.

All in all, even a week into the service, there are still a bit of hickups on the service side. Like many San Francisco restaurants nowadays, they are short staffed and I think the frantic energy with the multiple stations, while fascinating to see, also hurts the seamlessness of the service. That said, the food is reasonably good (if a bit pricey) and I’ll return again later to try different dishes when hopefully all the service issues have been ironed out.

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Bubblicitea, Albuquerque

Bubblicitea Cafe
2325 San Pedro Dr NE Ste 1D
Albuquerque, NM 87110

When you think of food in Albuquerque, Filipino food is certainly not near the top of the list. That’s exactly why I was pleasantly surprised to discover Bubblicitea on my last trip to the Land of Enchantment. By happenstance I was checking out Tsai’s Chinese Bistro in the same shopping plaza, but they were closed for a family emergency at the time. As I was leaving the parking lot, I noticed a bubble tea place and thought I might pop in to get some milk tea. However, when I looked closer at the posters on the storefront windows I noticed that the place wasn’t just a typical boba shop, but a place selling Filipino baked goods. I was elated, especially since Filipino food was one of the foods I missed when I lived in Albuquerque.

That night I bought some pan de sal (Filipino style bread rolls) and vowed to come back for lunch later in the week. Fast forward to Saturday, a friend agreed to try the place and off we went for a quick Saturday lunch at Bubblicitea. When we arrived, we looked at the dozen or so food items, trying to determine with ones we wanted to eat the most. In the end we chose the following:

Chicken Adobo at Bubblicitea

Chicken Adobo at Bubblicitea

  • Chicken Adobo – The chicken was tender with a nice balance of soy sauce and vinegar, with neither overpowering the other. While bay leaves were also used, my only gripe is that their could have been more spices in the marinade. However, it was a good version of chicken adobo all in all.
Pancit Malabon at Bubblicitea

Pancit Malabon at Bubblicitea

  • Pancit Malabon – This is the first time I had this style of pancit which is native to the city of Malabon, in the northern coastal part of the Manila metropolitan area. The annatto gives the dish a distinct orange hue while the fish sauce and shrimp make the seafood taste prominent, in a fresh (not fishy) manner. The thicker noodles help absorb all the fat and oil of the dish and it was a delight to taste this style of pancit in comparison to the more simple (but still tasty) pancit bihon.
Pork Sisig at Bubblicitea

Pork Sisig at Bubblicitea

  • Pork Sisig – I loved this version of pork sisig. Like any good sisig dish I’ve had, the pork is crispy from the sizzling plate but still tender. The egg and thin slices of peppers helped round out the dish.
  • Halo Halo – Lastly, but certainly not least, we had the halo halo. As with most halo halos, there were a range of sweet treats that were mixed in this, from the ube ice cream to the bits of toffee to the sweet red beans. My only qualm is that perhaps there should have been more condensed milk to mix with the shaved ice, but all in all it was a sweet ending to the meal.

Given the relatively little number of Filipinos in Albuquerque, it was great to see a place like Bubblicitea serve some really tasty Filipino food that would match the quality of many places in Daly City and San Diego. While I do wish they served more items, it’s logical to have a limited number of things given the small kitchen and clientele (as of now). However, it’s certainly a place that all New Mexicans should go to for a taste of Filipino food!

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Food Alley at Westfield Santa Anita, Arcadia

For a couple of years now I have heard about the growth of exciting, quality Asian dining establishments in Westfield’s Santa Anita Mall. First, it was Hai Di Lao, the first American branch of the pricey Sichuanese hot pot chain. Then it was the development of Meizhou Dongpo’s second US location and Din Tai Fung’s new larger 3rd Arcadia location. 

All this development has not been limited to big Chinese or Taiwanese chain restaurants. Late last year Westfield Santa Anita opened “Food Alley”, a food court of sorts between the Nordstrom and Din Tai Fung that doesn’t have your typical Panda Express or Sbarro mall food court options. To be clear, there still is a regular food court at Westfield Santa Anita on the first floor near JC Penney’s for all your McDonald’s and Sarku Japan cravings. However, Food Alley contains some out of the box, Asian oriented stores with food that I have never seen in any American mall.

Thus, I had to try out these eateries and see how they matched to all the great restaurants that dot the strip malls elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley. Since it would be very difficult to try them all by myself, I asked a friend if she would be interested in joining me and she thankfully said yes. These are the dishes and places we tried:

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick – Our first stop was at Side Chick, where the star dish is the Hainanese Chicken Rice. The chicken was moist and flavorful while the rice was a little dryer than I like (though saved a little by the church of the fried garlic). I loved the ginger scallion, sambal, and vinegary soy sauces that accompanied the chicken. While the rice is not as good as Savoy, the vaunted Hainanese Chicken Rice slinger in Alhambra, I think Side Chick has the edge as my favorite Southern Californian chicken rice spot for the chicken.
Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

  • Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo – While I would have wanted to try more bowls of udon, we were starting to get full from the Hainanese Chicken Rice. We settled on the spicy niku udon. I liked the chewy udon and tender beef slices, but wasn’t really feeling the thicker, kimchi laden broth. While I wouldn’t get the spicy niku udon, the udon and beef were definitely good enough that I am eager to try other bowls of udon the next time I am there.
Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Westfield Santa Anita

Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Westfield Santa Anita

  • Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung – Since the new Din Tai Fung was around the corner, I just had to try some soup dumplings. I ordered a half order of 5 soup dumplings. While none of them broke (making them better than the Glendale and South Coast locations), there were a couple with dumpling skin tops that were a little thick and chewy. They were certainly good but not up to the standard of the original Din Tai Fung in Taiwan.
Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu

Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu

  • Japanese Cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu – For dessert we had the Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu. The several slices were, in a word, sublime. It was like a creamier sponge cake that was light and fluffy and just a touch sweet. Honestly, if I didn’t have as much self control that night, I might have eaten an entire cake.

All in all, Food Alley blew away my expectations and definitely was the tastiest mall food court I have eaten at this side of the Pacific. And yet, I didn’t even try any ramen or skewers at the Backhouse nor any drinks at Matcha Matcha. If this is what new, modern mall food courts will be like from now on, I guess I’ll be spending more money shopping at Nordstrom and slurping noodles across the country.

 

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Original Din Tai Fung, Taipei

Din Tai Fung (Xinyi Road)
No. 194, Section 2, Xinyi Rd
Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106

Having dined at a number of Din Tai Fung restaurants in the US, I thought it would be most appropriate (and most touristy) to visit the original Din Tai Fung while I was in Taiwan. Aside from going to the most touristy temple of 小籠包 (soup dumplings), I mainly wanted to see how the US locations compared to the original ones in Taiwan.

After visiting Taipei 101’s observation deck I decided to get dinner at Din Tai Fung. While I could have visited the Taipei 101 branch of Din Tai Fung, I didn’t want to wait an hour and I thought it might be better to go to the original location. Fortunately, my instincts were right and I got a seat right away as a table of 1. I had to share a large table with a pair of Japanese tourists, but it wasn’t too bad (and I certainly had more space for myself than if I was sharing a table in Hong Kong).

A few minutes after sitting down I ordered the following four dishes:

Stewed Spongy Gluten at Din Tai Fung Xinyi Road

Stewed Spongy Gluten at Din Tai Fung Xinyi Road

  • Stewed Spongy Gluten 烤麩 – This gluten wish was absolutely delicious. The gluten was chewy but not tough and had a nice subtly salty and sour flavor that was pleasant but not overpowering. It was a great start to the meal.
Sauteed String Beans at Din Tai Fung (Xinyi Road)

Sauteed String Beans at Din Tai Fung (Xinyi Road)

  • Sauteed String Beans With Minced Pork 乾煸四季豆 – The string beans and minced pork were excellently stir fried. While some of the US locations might put a little too much oil in this dish, the balance of meat, string beans, and spicy oil were perfectly balanced.
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Pork XiaoLongBao at Din Tai Fung Xinyi Road

  • Pork XiaoLongBao 小籠包 – These are definitely the best xialongbao I have ever had (with the caveat that I haven’t been to Shanghai so I can’t say they were the best ever). The wrappers were thin but did not tear (unlike how 20% of mine in the US have been) and did not have too much dough on the top like I experienced a few weeks later at the Westfield Santa Anita branch in the US. The skin was also moister (in a good way) than the US ones, perhaps due to the use of bamboo steamers in Taiwan as opposed to the metal steamers in the US. The pork and soup were juicy and well rounded with the vinegar, ginger, and soy sauce. Best of all? The server also made the dipping sauce and noted that the perfect ratio is 3 portions vinegar to 1 portion of soy sauce for xiaolongbao. I definitely didn’t know that before I dined here.
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Noodles with House Special Spicy Sauce at Din Tai Fung Xinyi Road

  • Noodles with House Special Spicy Sauce 紅油燃麵 – This was a great dish to finish the meal. The noodles were perfectly cooked and there was just the right amount of sauce to coat all the noodle strands without overpowering. This meant that every noodle was evenly coated with the hot oil sauce.

Overall, the original Din Tai Fung (on Xinyi Road) was undoubtedly better than the US locations. Perhaps this is due to less rigorous training. Perhaps some of it is due to the use of different cooking utensils not allowed by Los Angeles or Orange County regulations (like bamboo steamers). Either way, the original Din Tai Fung is worth a trip when you are in Taipei.

Lung King Heen (龍景軒), Hong Kong

Lung King Heen
Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, 4th Floor
8 Finance Street
Central, Hong Kong

What’s it like to eat 3 Michelin star dim sum? Well truthfully, I already ate such at T’ang Court inside the Langham Hotel, which has received 3 Michelin Stars for the past 2 years. However, as great as that meal was, it wasn’t at Lung King Heen (龍景軒), the vaunted restaurant that has been known to be the first 3 Michelin star Cantonese establishment in the world. As such, it has been a years long dream for me to dine here and see if it was really worth all the plaudits bestowed on it.

Originally I hoped to go with my brother and sister-in-law, but their plans made them unable to go for the New Years Day reservation I had made in September. Fortunately, a spur of the moment decision to open up a dating app led me to meeting a fellow American tourist. After a successful breakfast date the day before, I changed my reservation to a table of two. The fortuitous series of events meant that I could try even more dim sum items at Lung King Heen.

I was slightly late for the reservation, but both the restaurant staff and date seemed to take it all fine. We were seated at a small table next to the window with a gorgeous view of Victoria Harbour and Tsim Sha Tsui. Afterwards we were presented a menu which included just a singular page of 18 dim sum items.

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Lung King Heen dim sum menu

The menu wasn’t exactly filled with interesting, innovative items that I had come to expect at other fancy Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong, like Yan Toh Heen. However, there were a lot of items that were slight twists on classic items as you can see from the menu above. After browsing the menu a little bit we decided to order the following five items:

Steamed Shrimp Dumpling with Wild Mushroom at Lung King Heen

Steamed Shrimp Dumpling with Wild Mushroom at Lung King Heen

  • Steamed Shrimp Dumpling with Wild Mushroom (牛肝菌鮮蝦餃) – This version of har gow was interesting with a slight hint of umami from the bits of wild mushroom. The shrimp was plump and juicy with a nice snap. My one slight complaint would be the dumpling wrapper, which was a little thicker than it should be to hold the slightly larger filling. As such, biting into the dumpling wasn’t as easy and refined as those at Ming Court (which I still consider the high standard for what a har gow should be). Quibble aside, these were some of the best shrimp dumplings I have ever had.
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Dim sum at Lung King Heen

  • Steamed Rice Rolls with Beef Chuck and Enoki (金菇菜牛頸脊腸粉) – The rice rolls were pretty good with tender chunks of beef matching well with the slight crunch and flavor of the enoki mushrooms. The rice noodles were cooked pretty well, not falling apart or being too gummy. Surprisingly, though, the rice noodles weren’t as good as the shrimp rice noodle rolls that my family and I ordered at Tim Ho Wan.
  • Steamed Lobster and Scallop Dumplings (龍太子蒸餃) – This is perhaps the most photographed dim sum item from Lung King Heen and is one of their signature items. Think of it as a siu mai that just put in lobster instead of pork. There was definitely a lot of scallop and lobster here, making these dumpling definitely worth their bang for the buck (even if it comes out to $7.75 USD a piece). However, my dumpling had scallop that was slightly overcooked, but not too overdone to detract from the dish.
Dim sum at Lung King Heen

Dim sum at Lung King Heen

  • Steamed Shanghainese Pork Dumplings with Crab Meat (蟹肉小籠包) – I am normally very wary of ordering xiaolongbao at a Cantonese restaurant, as almost all Cantonese restaurants fail to execute this beloved Shanghainese/Jiangnan dish properly. But props to Lung King Heen for tasty dumplings filled with juicy pork, shreds of crab meat, a decent amount of soup, and a thin wrapper that never fell apart. Bonus points for the cute and creative way they served the dumplings. These were by far the best xiaolongbao I have had at a Cantonese restaurant and even beats a number of American Taiwanese/Shanghainese restaurants too.
  • Steamed Shrimp and Pork Dumplings with Crab Roe (蟹籽蒸燒賣) – These bits of siu mai were excellent, with perfectly cooked shrimp and juicy portions of pork. The crab roe was a nice touch without being too much (like those at Lunasia). Overall, this was an exemplary version of the classic siu mai, being one of the best versions I have had.
Baked Barbecued Pork Buns with Pine Nuts at Lung King Heen

Baked Barbecued Pork Buns with Pine Nuts at Lung King Heen

  • Baked Barbecued Pork Buns with Pine Nuts (崧子叉燒菠蘿包) – Like many of Hong Kong’s dim sum parlors, these char siu baos were essentially “pineapple buns” (baked buns with a hardened sweet custard top) with a barbecue pork filling. Unlike those at (and imitating) Tim Ho Wan, these buns were more in traditional pineapple bun style where there is a thick layer of baked custard that surrounds most, but not all of the top side of the bun. The buns were great and the filling had tender pork with a slightly sweet and savory filling that balanced the sweet buns. I really loved these, though I think I prefer the ones at Tim Ho Wan slightly more at the end of the day.

So how was Lung King Heen overall? Pretty good. While I found the lack of truly innovative dishes to be disappointing, the overall execution of the dishes I did have ranged from above average to phenomenal. I’m not sure that it beat Yan Toh Heen in terms of the best overall dim sum experience I have had, but it certainly has all the hallmarks of modern luxury in Hong Kong: food that is exquisite but not flashy or showy and service that is attentive but not overbearing (very attentive about tea cup refills but no incessant questions of “and how is everything?”). Best of all, for upscale dim sum in Hong Kong it isn’t too comparatively pricey either. Definitely worth the wait, but it’s advised to book way in advance.