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.

FAVORITES of 2016, FORWARD to 2017

Like last year, this year I’ll be recapping the favorite 5 places I ate at and blogged about in the past year along with listing the 5 places I most look forward to eating this year.

As usual, I wasn’t able to make it to all of the places I was hoping to go to. However, I managed to go to three of them: Chengdu Taste, Lung King Heen, and Tita’s Kitchenette. All were pretty good and lived up their hype. I may have been surprised by Lung King Heen’s lack of innovation or Tita’s Kitchenette’s gargantuan servings, but they did little to detract from the quality of the food.

That said, there were plenty of restaurants which impressed me that were not on my list of top 5 eateries to go to in 2016. Some were spur of the moment choices while others were places on my bucket list and exceeded expectations. So without further ado, here they are:

Hot Oiled Seared Biang Biang Noodles at Biang!

Hot Oiled Seared Biang Biang Noodles at Biang!

Biang! – This year was the first time I ate Shaanxi cuisine (the cuisine of Xi’an). Of all the Shaanxi places that I ate at and blogged about, Biang! was the best. It might be a bit pricier than other places, but the food was excellent, especially their very flavorful hand pulled biang biang noodles.

Toothpick Lamb at Chengdu Taste

Toothpick Lamb at Chengdu Taste

Chengdu Taste – The toothpick lamb and Mung Bean Jelly Noodle With Chilli Sauce were extraordinary, with an impeccable balance of flavors rarely found in other Sichuan restaurants in the United States. The balance of the spices that are just enough to accentuate the flavors of the ingredients without overpowering them is one of many reasons why it continues to reign in Southern California’s fiercely competitive Sichuan dining scene.

Si krong muu at Little Serow

Si krong muu at Little Serow

Little Serow – Little Serow’s dinner set menu may be a little strict, but is a wonderful introduction to Northern Thai food. The quality and the execution of the dishes like the pork ribs are amazing and a set tasting menu of only $49 offers incredible value. If it weren’t for the many other great restaurants popping up in DC, I would eat here again. 

Wood Oven Roasted Branzino at the Slanted Door

Wood Oven Roasted Branzino at the Slanted Door

The Slanted Door – I’m glad a half dozen of my friends decided that they also wanted to go with me and eat at the Slanted Door. Because of that, I was able to sample a larger amount of dishes than I normally would be able to. While some dishes were alright, others like the Wood Oven Roasted Branzino were amazing in their perfect execution. To boot, they also serve one of the best Hong Kong style milk teas I have had in the Bay Area (which is an impressive feat!).

Yan Toh Heen Superior Dumplings

Yan Toh Heen Superior Dumplings

Yan Toh Heen – It was hard to pick which dim sum place that I went to this past year was the best, but Yan Toh Heen narrowly tops out T’ang Court because its execution and service was more exceptional than T’ang Court, even if it doesn’t beat out in innovation (though please try the innovative Yan Toh Heen Superior Dumplings if you go). Of course, the view of Victoria Harbour from the windows of the restaurant doesn’t hurt as well. (Lung King Heen was out of the running as I have not blogged about it yet)

Forward to 2017

After a year of excellent food in 2016, what’s next for me in 2017? Given the continued proliferation of Shaanxi and Sichuan cuisine, especially in California, I’ll likely be blogging about other Chinese regional cuisines more and a little less about Cantonese cuisine. My travels will also be less Hong Kong centric this year, so this year you can expect food reports on what various East or Southeast Asian cuisines are like in London, Mexico City, and other cities across America like Albuquerque (my old home) and Atlanta. 

Given all of my different travels this year, here are the top 5 dining establishments I am aiming and looking forward to going to in 2017:

Bad Saint – During my last trip to DC, I literally missed the opening of this lauded Filipino restaurant by a matter of days. This time I will be sure to go sample the dishes that have garnered rave reviews from a 3.5 (of 4) star rating in the Washington Post to the Bib Gourmand recommendation in Michelin’s first guide of Washington, DC.

Din Tai Fung (Xinyi Road) – Okay, this is cheating a little bit as I have already gone here since the new year. However, this place was one of the top places I wanted to go to when I was in Taiwan. I have now been to the original location and am excited to blog about it soon!

HKK This is the flagship restaurant of the international Hakkasan chain (yes, the same chain that has a Las Vegas location more known as a popular nightclub with well known EDM DJs). As such, I’m seeing if their food is as up to par with the refined decor and expensive prices, especially given that even the dim sum items are more expensive than the two and three Michelin starred Cantonese restaurants of Hong Kong.

Kowloon Delight – Let’s just say that this type of restaurant isn’t what I normally consider a place to go to. However, despite my low regard for Taishanese/Cantonese style dishes that have assimilated into the palates of North America, cafes de chino are a rich legacy of the Chinese diaspora in Mexico (although Kowloon delight isn’t quite a proper cafe de chino as those have all but disappeared). As such, I would be interested in going here to not only experience Chinese Mexican food but also how it compares or perhaps relates to Chinese American cuisine.

Char Siu Bao at Tim Ho Wan

Char Siu Bao at Tim Ho Wan North Point

Tim Ho Wan (New York City) – Yes, I have been to Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, but they have just opened their first location in the United States. Of course I want to see how it stacks up to the locations in Hong Kong.

 

Shiba Ramen, Emeryville

Shiba Ramen
Emeryville Public Market
5959 Shellmound St., Suite 10
Emeryville, CA 94608

About a year ago I was roaming around Emeryville Public Market to see what eateries were there, now that they remodeled to be more of a trendy yuppie food court than an old school public market. During that time I spotted Shiba Ramen. At the time they were operating during their soft opening phase, so the owners had just shut down the stall when I had arrived. However, I still was able to chat with them and got really excited at the possibility of more authentic ramen in the East Bay after eating a number of disappointing bowls in other places in the area.

That said, given that the Emeryville Public Market was just slightly out of the way from where I run errands, I never came back for 10 months. What sparked my desire to come back was when, a couple of months ago, I found out that Shiba Ramen was going to open a brick and mortar location on the ground floor of my office building. When I mentioned that they were opening open a 2nd location there, a Japanese coworker of mine beamed with excitement as she felt that the ramen there was up to her standards. Naturally, I had to go to the Emeryville Public Market again, so I made two trips in the last month to finally taste their ramen.

Each time I arrived, there was only a short line before I placed my order. The menu is fortunately very simple at Shiba, with only about 10-11 menu items on any given day. While they have 7 ramen options so far, I have only tried two and here are my verdicts:

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Spicy Ramen at Shiba Ramen

  • Spicy Ramen – My first visit on a chilly day in late November inspired me to choose the Spicy Ramen. This is their version of the classic Sichuanese dish, dan dan mian. The ramen noodles were very nice and springy, keeping its toothsome bite even after absorbing some liquid. The broth itself was flavorful, but not overly spicy. The ground pork was juicy as well. Overall, I liked the dish.
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Clear Ramen at Shiba Ramen

  • Clear Ramen with Pork Chashu – The second time I went with the classic clear broth, which I think is their Kitakata style of ramen (that is similar, but not as rich as tonkotsu ramen). The broth was definitely lighter than the spicy ramen, but still flavorful, with a bit of pork fat on the top. It was nice at first, but perhaps a little too rich in the end. The eggs were medium boiled and nice to eat while the chashu was a little too dry. The noodles, however, were very nice and toothsome as they were in the spicy ramen. Overall it was good, though with only 1 piece of dry pork, it could have been better.

Overall, I love Shiba Ramen for its good flavors and reasonable price points. I do wish the portions were slightly bigger, however, so I would recommend splurging the extra dollar or two for the add-ons. But that’s a slight quibble when they are, at this point, the best ramen I have had in the East Bay.

No Car? Not a Problem! – #BARTable Asian Food Pt. 2

A year ago I started a project to find Asian restaurants within walking distance of BART stations. I started Part 1 of the series visiting the southernmost stops on the Richmond-Millbrae “Red” Line from Millbrae to Daly City. Unfortunately, a combination of things delayed my ability to write part 2 for the last year, not the least of which was the large amount of Asian restaurants in San Francisco within close proximity to a BART stop. My original plan to include ALL San Francisco BART stops was scrapped because of that.

So below you’ll find BARTable Asian food near the Balboa Park, Glen Park, 24th Street Mission, and 16th Street Mission stations. I’ll note that since there are more Asian restaurants closer to downtown San Francisco, this post will be relatively light.

Balboa Park

As we move north into the city of San Francisco, we first reach Balboa Park station. While Balboa Park is a transit hub for both BART and MUNI, there isn’t a lot of commercial development near the station. However, across the street from the station there are two Asian restaurants.

AJ’s BBQ and Cafe is slightly upscale “turo turo” (or “point point”) Filipino eatery where you can get a range of standard Filipino fare including pancit bihon, kare kare, lumpiang shanghai, and bbq chicken skewers. Like most turo turo places, AJ’s combines value with reasonably tasty food making this a decent stop for Filipino food, especially if you are on the run to somewhere else or picking up something on the way home in the Excelsior (where there are a number of other Filipino restaurants).

Cumin Lamb at Crazy Pepper

Cumin Lamb at Crazy Pepper

Around the corner from AJ’s is Crazy Pepper, a standard Bay Area neighborhood Americanized Chinese food restaurant that mostly does takeout business, but has a number of tables for a nice sit down meal. I got the cumin lamb, which was cooked with a lot of cumin. While tasty, the cumin was a little bit overpowering. The menu also included other standards in a Bay Area Americanized Chinese restaurant including basil chicken and a limited number of dim sum items. I also got the siu mai, which seemed to be resteamed from a frozen or refrigerated item. While the pork flavor was decent, the wonton skin wrapping was a little gummy. All in all, Crazy Pepper does try to differentiate itself with some Dongbei items, but food is average at best.

Glen Park

After Balboa Park station you reach Glen Park station. Glen Park station is near a small commercial and retail area that is the center of the Glen Park neighborhood. Unfortunately, there’s only 2 Asian restaurants in the area.

Basil Chicken Lunch Special at Win Garden

Basil Chicken Lunch Special at Win Garden

The first is Win Garden, another neighborhood Americanized Chinese restaurant. When I asked what lunch special I should get, the server guided me toward their basil chicken. The dish itself was pretty decent, with a flavorful, but not overpowering, amount of Thai basil. However, I did find it a little strange that the plate included a mesclun with Italian dressing. I also ordered some har gow, which were decent, if nothing to write home about. The shrimp was alright but the skin was a bit thick.

The second Asian restaurant is Tataki Canyon. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough stomach space to go in, but it seems to be a nice neighborhood Japanese restaurant that mainly focuses on sushi and ramen.

24th Street Mission

As you get closer to downtown San Francisco you reach 24th Street Mission station. It is one of two BART stations in the Mission district, a historically working class Latinx neighborhood that has gentrified in the last few decades with young, mostly white, people (first with  artists and hipsters and lately with those who work in tech). Given the community’s demographics, there aren’t a lot of Asian restaurants around 24th Street Mission. However, there are a few.

A 10 minute walk to the 23rd and Bryant intersection will get you to Spice Jar, an eclectic Asian fusion restaurant that has a number of Asian style noodle soups including pho and laksa. Slightly closer to BART is Sugoi Sushi, a neighborhood Japanese restaurant that obviously focuses on sushi. Slightly further afield is Dosa, which has very tasty, if pricey and small, South Asian food. Of course, their specialty is dosa, which are done very well from my limited knowledge of South Asian food.

16th Street Mission

The final stop before the core downtown San Francisco neighborhoods takes you to the northern end of the Mission District. The waves of gentrification in the Mission is more visually apparent closer to this station. Accordingly, there are more trendier Asian restaurants near this station to cater to the number of young urban professionals that now live and/or spend money in the area.

Valencia Street, a street that parallels Mission street just one block west, is where the gentrification is most visible. The original Slanted Door (before its eventual move to the Ferry Building) opened on Valencia Street and since then there have been a number of other Asian restaurants that haven opened up. This includes the San Francisco’s location of James Syhabout’s Hawker Fare serving northern Thai and Lao dishes (more on Hawker Fare as this series heads to Oakland). You can also find Thai up the block at Bangkok Bistro as well. Valencia Street also houses Mau, a hip modern Vietnamese places that serves decent pho and other items. 

Mapo Tofu at Mission Chinese Food

Mapo Tofu at Mission Chinese Food

Moving closer to Mission Street you can drink some of San Francisco’s best boba (and sip on decent Hong Kong milk tea) at Boba Guys. On 18th Street, around the corner from Mission Street, is Yamo, a tiny hole in the wall that served Burmese food before Burma Superstar started Bay Area’s craze for cuisine And around the corner from Yamo is Mission Chinese Food, the much celebrated former Chinese fusion pop-up turned cross-country restaurant chain. While the food is not a good as it once was, I do recommend the Mongolian Long Beans and Salt Cod Fried Rice at Mission Chinese.

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Fish Chowder Noodle Soup at Yamo

And rounding out the 16th Street Mission station are Ken Ken Ramen, which dishes out decent ramen and Japanese style curry, if a bit small on the portion sizes, and Namu Gaji, a Korean fusion place on the corner of 18th and Dolores that serves dishes ranging from dolsot bibimbap (labeled as “stonepot”) to “Korean tacos”. Both places are on the pricier side of things, but nonetheless still have some good and interesting flavors.

So even though you might not be in downtown San Francisco, the stops south of Civic Center still give you a number of options to fill someone’s desire for East or Southeast Asian food. 

Birthplace of HK Milk Tea & Three Michelin Star Dim Sum

After a month long election delay, I bring you back to my New York/Vancouver/Hong Kong trip report:

Days two and three of my Hong Kong trip continued on my vow to primarily eat at places that were Michelin guide recommended. In the course of 24 hours that lead from a Bib Gourmand recommended hole in the wall roast meat joint to a lavish three Michelin star restaurant for Dim Sum.

Po Kee 波記燒臘粉麵店
Shop P, G/F 425 Queens Rd W
Western District, Hong Kong

It’s no secret that I love Cantonese style barbecue. From the crackling skin of roast goose to the tender, sweet flavors of char siu, Cantonese style barbecue is probably the only reason that prevents me from being a vegetarian. I usually stop at 1 Michelin star-rated Yat Lok on my Hong Kong trips, but this time I decided to explore other places and eat other barbecued meats aside from roast goose. I looked up my copy of the Michelin guide and decided to go to Po Kee.

Po Kee is located quite close to the HKU MTR stop on an older commercial strip of Queens Road West. Given the slightly confusing address, it was a little difficult to find at first, especially in the rain. However, I found the small store front walking a little further along Queen Road to the left of the HKU MTR exit. Once I was seated, I quickly ordered the following, given the little time that servers in Hong Kong give you to order:

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Roast Duck Lai Fun at Po Kee

  • Roast Duck Lai Fun – It was raining heavily so I decided to warm up a little with a bowl of roast duck and lai fun in soup. The soup was light and flavorful and the duck was juicy and tender. The skin was crisp in the beginning, but became soggy as it usually does in soup. The best thing about this dish, however, was the al dente lai fun which kept its texture and didn’t soak up too much water. I’m amazed how Hong Kong can make such dexterous noodles but they can’t in the United States.
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Char Siu Rice Plate at Po Kee

  • Char Siu Rice Plate – Unfortunately, the roast duck lai fun wasn’t enough for my hungry stomach, so I decided to place another order. They didn’t have any more of their famed roast pork, however, so I decided to get char siu. The barbecue pork was very succulent and had a light glaze that was flavorful without being too sweet or gloppy.

Lan Fong Yuen 蘭芳園
2 Gage Street
Central, Hong Kong

After lunch I decided to wonder the indoor shopping malls around Central. When the weather cleared up a little bit, I thought it was the perfect time for a quick afternoon snack. Conveniently, I was within a few minutes walking distance to Lan Fong Yuen, the likely inventor of what we know call Hong Kong style milk tea.

Lan Fong Yuen is on Gage Street, a small side street in Central. It is actually a dai pai dong and still as its original stall on the street. However, most of its business is now done in a small restaurant right behind the cart. The cramped space has maybe a dozen tables, so its likely you’ll share a table. And because they have a kitchen in the restaurant space, Lan Fong Yuen is also a cha chaan teng, with a number of dishes on their menu. Aside from their milk tea, they are most known for their instant noodle dishes. (Yes, instant ramen with different meat and vegetable toppings is a thing in Hong Kong)

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Iced Milk Tea and French Toast at Lan Fong Yuen

However, I wasn’t that hungry so I just ordered a glass of iced milk tea and some french toast. The iced milk tea was perfect for the humid heat outside, with a nice balance of black tea and condensed milk. At first I thought it was a tad sweet but it balanced out well quite nicely. The french toast was really sweet, which normally I don’t like. However, I found this rendition really delicious. If you thought American versions of french toast were sweet, the ones at Lan Fong Yuen (which are typical of HK in general) are made with 2 thick slices of milk bread, slathered with coconut custard in the middle, coated with egg batter, deep fried on a skillet, then coated with butter and drizzled with maple syrup or honey. It’s a caloric sugar bomb in the most delicious and medically frightening way.

Given the limited items I tried, I can’t say if Lan Fong Yuen is more delicious than other cha chaan teng stalwarts like Tsui Wah. However, the stuff I did taste was delicious and it was nice to take a sip of milk tea from its birthplace.

T’ang Court
The Langham Hong Kong
8 Peking Road,
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong

The next day I decided to switch it up and eat luxuriously after a day of eating at beloved hole in the wall places. I made a reservation for T’ang Court at the Langham Hotel, making this the first 3 Michelin Star restaurant I have ever dined in.

While the restaurant didn’t have the views of Yan Toh Heen, it was definitely very luxurious. The servers seated me at a large table of four, just for myself, and immediately brought my the tea that I had requested (It always seems odd/interesting that the fancy places in Hong Kong give you so much space even for a table of one yet the hole in the wall places cram people to any possible seat available). After browsing the menu and getting a recommendation from the server, I ordered the following:

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Dim Sum at T’ang Court

  • Fried Rice Flour Rolls – This was recommended by the server as this is a pretty unique preperation of the dish where the rice noodle rolls are seasons with a spice mixture and fried. What comes out is a dightful dish where the rice noodle rolls have a crunchy, spice kick on the outside but still remains soft and chewy on the inside.
  • Shrimp Dumplings – These were pretty good shrimp dumplings with a nice mix of fresh shrimp with just some subtle notes of bamboo shoots for texture and pepper. It was nice that they were steamed on top of thinly slices carrots so that the dumplings wouldn’t stick. However, I do wish they were still slightly smaller so that the wrapper wasn’t too stretched for the filling. Overall it was one of the best shrimp dumplings I have had, but not as great at Ming Court.
  • Turnip Roll – I got one piece of this unique dish where a think daikon sheet is the wrapper and the filling is stuffed with scallop, winter melon, and mushroom. It was a little large and fell apart when I picked it up, but still tasted very well.
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Pork Dumplings with Prawns in Soup at T’ang Court

  • Pork Dumpling with Prawns in Soup – I have always been intrigued by these oversized dumplings in a ‘supreme broth’ dish, so I decided that I’d finally order it. There was definitely more pork than shrimp but the flavors blended really well and the rather light seafood soup was a good palate cleanser.
  • Bird’s nest & custard egg yolk bun – As always in these lavish Hong Kong restaurants, I order some desert item with an expensive ingredient. I think the bird’s nest blends better in the custard egg yolk bun (bird’s nest itself is rather tasteless) than Ming’s Court birds nest custard tarts. However, in the end it was still a solid, if not quite spectacular, custard egg yolk bun.

Overall, T’ang Court was certainly the most innovative dim sum I had and slightly better than Ming Court, but I still reserve judgement on if it was truly worth the upgrade to 3 Michelin Stars this year. I’ll get a taste of consistently 3 Star rated Lung King Heen at the end of the year.

Dining at a Dai Pai Dong

Continuing on my NYC-Vancouver-Hong Kong trip report, I finally make it to Hong Kong. After some disappointing, although decent, dining stops on my last trip, I decided to mostly eat at restaurants in the Michelin guide this time.

Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop
Shop 3016-3018, 3F
IFC, 1 Harbor View Street
Central, Hong Kong

The first stop was Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop in the IFC Mall, which is a bib gourmand recommended restaurant (meaning the food isn’t up to par to get a Michelin star, but good enough to be considered a decent restaurant with good value). I went there for lunch around 2PM, and it was a breeze to get a table after the post-lunch crowd had departed. I browsed the menu, which had dishes ranging from congee to dim sum to noodle soups. While I wanted to try a number of dishes, a limited budget and stomach capacity meant I only ordered the following:

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Wonton Noodle Soup at Tasty

  • House Specialty Wonton Noodles In Soup (正斗鮮蝦雲呑麵) – The soup was fantastic, with a broth that was light but also had a nice amount of dried fish and shrimp flavor. The yellow chives were flavorful and the wontons had a nice, light skin with a good amount of plump shrimp. The only thing that was disappointing was the slightly overcooked noodles, but that was only one flaw in an overall very well executed (if small) dish.
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Stir Fried Rice Noodles with Beef at Tasty

  • Stir Fried Rice Noodles With Beef (干炒牛河) – One of their signature items, the dish did not disappoint. The rice noodles, thin beef slices, bean sprouts, scallions, and soy sauce were perfectly stir fried with a nice amount of “wok hei”. While the dish got a little oily in the end (though still not as oily as most renditions), the freshly stir fried flavor remained all the way through as I devoured the whole plate. While this dish is fairly simple, this was definitely the best rendition of the noodles I have tasted.

All in all, Tasty was a good start to my Hong Kong food adventures. The prices certainly weren’t bad too, especially given the location in one of Hong Kong’s fancier malls.

Sing Kee 盛記
9-10 Stanley Street
Central, Hong Kong

While lunch was at a restaurant in a fancy mall, my dinner was anything but. As I had never dined in a dai pai dong (大牌檔) before, I decided that this was my time, especially given that the number of them continue to decline.

For a little bit of background, dai pai dongs are street food stalls that were once ubiquitous in Hong Kong (somewhat similar in vein to New York hot dog stands or Los Angeles taco trucks). The name comes from the big license plates they had to operate that were given by the Hong Kong government in the 1950s and 1960s. However, because of sanitary and other issues, they stopped giving more of them out in the 1970s and the licenses can only be handed down by family. The combination of the restrictions in licenses and the rise of cooked food centers (to establish a more centralized, sanitary place for food stalls) means that the number of true dai pai dongs (where the stall is on the street and not just a store front with street/sidewalk tables) has shrunk to just a couple dozen.

Given the precipitous decline of dai pai dongs, I decided to eat at one of the most accessible and highly rated one still in existence, Sing Kee. Sing Kee is located near the end of Stanley Street, a street in Central that is also the home of the venerable roast goose vendor Yat Lok. It’s only open in the evening and like most other dai paid dongs, is cash only. You take a seat on a free stool on an open table and then take a look at its one page sticky, laminated menu which has just a few dozen stir fry dishes in traditional Chinese and English. I ordered the following:

Pork Ribs and Chinese Broccoli at Sing Kee

Pork Ribs and Chinese Broccoli at Sing Kee

  • Pork Ribs in Salt and Pepper (椒鹽排骨) – Unlike the big slices of fried pork chops that you get at most Cantonese restaurants in the US that serve this dish, these were small spareribs, like the ones you would eat at dim sum, that are fried to perfection. The wok hei was great and the fried scallions and thin slices of peppers that accompanied this dish were excellent.
  • Garlic Stir Fried Chinese Broccoli (蒜茸芥蘭)- While stir fried vegetables are not on the main menu, like most Cantonese restaurants you can just ask what fresh, seasonal vegetables they have available. This time I ordered the Chinese broccoli which were very fresh and flavorful with the perfect amount of garlic stir fried to accompany it. It’s not necessarily the best plate of Chinese broccoli I’ve ever had, but it was pretty darn good.

All in all, I can see how dai pai dongs have a certain nostalgia and appeal that won’t be matched at a cooked food center, no matter how the good is at the food stalls there. There is something about grabbing a quick, cheap bite of food out on the street as the flurry of lights and foot traffic surround you. It certainly isn’t the most sanitary way to cook food, but the food is great and the ambiance is unbeatable. If people travel to Hong Kong, they should definitely eat one meal at a dai pai dong before they are all gone in a generation or two.