Monthly Archives: May 2013

Tong Tong, Colorado Springs

Tong Tong
2036 S. Academy Road
Colorado Springs, CO 80916

On Monday I was driving back from Albuquerque to Denver and craved something to eat for dinner. While I could have waited it out until I got back to Denver around 9PM, I decided to stop in a city I live so close to, but rarely visit: Colorado Springs.

I don’t know anything about the Asian food scene in Colorado Springs, so I called a good friend of mine to find a decent place for more to eat. After 10 minutes of fruitlessly searching for a decent Chinese restaurant, he directed me to Tong Tong which seemed like a good and authentic Korean restaurant. I exited I-25 and went north a couple miles on Academy, arriving at Tong Tong, which is located in an aging strip mall with Big Lots as its biggest draw.

Entering Tong Tong I was greeted warmly and ushered into a booth, the smallest table I could be seated in given the hustle and bustle of the restaurant at the time. I ordered the soondubu and fried mandu, two relatively inexpensive menu items I ate before, giving me a good baseline to judge against Korean restaurants I have eaten in Los Angeles and San Diego.

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The food was good, but not steller. The mandu was decently fried, but the filling was relatively bland. The soondubu had decent flavor, but did not have much seafood in it. They also cooked the egg directly in the stew, which I found a little odd given my experience cracking the egg myself into the stew if I wanted. I loved their selection of banchan, some of which were standard (kimchi), but others that seemed unique and interesting (fried peppers and fish balls). The cinnamon tea at the end, however, was excellent.

Going into service, it was a bit haphazard. The wait staff certainly tried, given that they only had three wait staff for a relatively packed restaurant. However, little things I expected at a Korean restaurant, like banchan being served immediated, were lacking. The banchan arrived at my table well after my mandu. Filling water also took a while, and I was not the only table that wanted a quicker refill. They did try to move as fast as they could, but clearly they could add wait staff.

All in all, the food was decent, especially given my low expectations in Colorado Springs, but the experience was only so-so. It would be a great place for residents in Colorado Springs to discover Korean food, but it certainly isn’t up to the quality of Koreatown or Garden Grove.

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Uncle, Denver

Uncle
2215 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211

tofu

My first foray into authentic Japanese style ramen that you could find bountifully in Tokyo was the much vaunted Momofuku Noodle Bar, the restaurant that helped launch celebrity chef David Chang to fame. I came into the bar knowing about the rave reviews, but still a skeptic because I had been trained to believe that ramen was just cheap noddles to be thrown together in an instant if you’re hungry, like most Americans. The first bite at Momofuku, however, converted me to a ramen lover in an instant.

To be sure, the price was expensive. If my memory is correct, the ramen itself was $20-25, a rament splurge even by New York standards. However, the pork was so tender, the broth so refreshing, and the egg so perfectly soft poached. I remember coming back to California in the winter of 2009 searching for anywhere that had ramen, and I was fortunate given that Southern California was in the midst of a ramen craze.

Moving to Denver, I was searching for a ramen place to fill the void. Most places I saw that might have it were either way to far or very lowly rated, until I read a copy of 5280’s 10 Best New Restaurants. That is where I found Uncle, which has win other numerous awards and been named one of the city’s best restaurants in less than a year since its opening.

On Friday, having no dinner plans and needing aid to fight a potential cold, I decided to drive to the LoHi neighborhood of Denver to eat at Uncle. The food and the service did not disappoint.

Let’s start with the service. When I entered the restaurant the hostess put down my name and gave me an estimated wait time. That is all standard procedure, but then she asked if I wanted something to drink. She immediately delivered my birch beer and glass water with no hesitation. After I was seated, it took a little time for my server to get to me, but after our initial greetings she was very attentive without being overbearing.

ramen

As for the food, it is as good as any place I would find in LA or NYC. I ordered the chilled tofu appetizer and kimchi ramen. The chilled tofu was perfectly marinated, with a light refreshing soy sauce, fried green onions, and sesame seeds. There was a perfect balance between soft and crunch. The kimchi ramen was pretty good too, with house made kimchi, a broth with good balance of spiciness and sourness (from the kimchi), and a perfectly soft poached egg. My one fault of the dish was the fact that they used braised, shredded pork instead of the more traditional slices of chashu (marinated barbeque pork), which made the dish less full. It was not a huge turnoff, but a minor disappointment to what I thought would be a heartier meal.

In total I spent about $20, plus tax (ramen – $14, tofu – $3, birch beer – $3), which is certainly not bad for a well regarded restaurant in such a trendy neighborhood like LoHi. I have yet to try their oft-praised pork buns or their traditional ramen yet, but given my rewarding first experience I bet I will b their soon.

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Emerald, San Diego

Emerald Seafood Restaurant
3709 Convoy Street, Suite 101
San Diego, CA 92111

Emerald Seafood Restaurant seems like an apt restaurant to start my first blog review based on the history of the restaurant. Emerald was one of the first restaurants to open in Kearny Mesa in the early 1990s, before the area became the premiere neighborhood in San Diego for all types of Asian food. Its quality and location, similar to what you could start to find a few years earlier in the then-burgeoning San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, helped establish Kearny Mesa as THE place in San Diego for quality Chinese food. In fact, until Jasmine opened a few years later, Emerald basically reigned supreme as the best Chinese restaurant in the county.

Unfortunately, the quality at Emerald had stagnated and waned in the early 2000s, partially owing to turnover in the kitchen staff and probably partially due to the fact that San Diego did not experience the continued growth and competition that the San Gabriel area saw at the time. Until recently, the food at Emerald left much to be desired, with the Dim Sum being especially hit or miss depending on the day and time you went there.

However, my grandfather decided that he wanted to have dinner there for Mother’s Day weekend so we went. We ordered a number of dishes which was definitely enough to gauge the quality of the place. These dishes included Peking Duck Two Ways (Sliced duck with steamed buns and stir-fried duck with lettuce wraps), Seafood and Tofu Hot Pot, Stir fried Tong Choy with Garlicky Fish Paste, Steamed Meatloaf with Dried Scallop, Salt and Pepper Fried Pork Chops, and Fish with Vegetables.

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Overall, it was a fairly good meal and reminiscent of the quality I remember that made it such a choice restaurant in the 1990s. The duck was roasted perfectly, with succulent but crispy skin. The Fish with Vegetables and Seafood with Tofu Hot Pot had great flavor and balance, without anything overpowering each dish. The Steamed Meatloaf reminded me of the homestyle cooking my mom did. However, the Tong Choy lacked a lot of that destinctive fish paste flavor I am used to, partially because the vegetables weren’t as fresh as they could be and partially because they didn’t put as much as they should. The Salt and Pepper Pork Chops, while certainly not bad, did nothing to distinguish itself from other restaurants in town.

The service was also a bit haphazard as well. While I understand it is Mother’s Day weekend, they usually don’t have such service problems during Chinese New Year or weekend Dim Sum service. They had forgotten our ice water request and we had to mention our rice order again. They were also fairly slow in refilling our teapots and we waited 10 minutes just to order that night. The dishes certainly came at a reasonable pace and the servers did seem to be trying, so it wasn’t all bad. It just left a lot to be desired, especially given the attentive service you would find in China Max.

All in all, the food was good and reminded me of why it has been a well regarded long standing gem in the first place. It does, however, need a bit more refinement in service. I would definitely come back to this long standing Kearny Mesa institution again, but it certainly wouldn’t be my first choice (unless, of course, my grandfather is treating¬† for the meal).

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Mother’s Day Tribute

As my brother and his girlfriend know, I originally wanted to start this a year ago with the idea of having a blog dedicated to Chinese food in Orange County and San Diego. Specifically, I wanted to focus on Orange County as it has a growing Chinese food scene with the explosive development of Chinese restaurants in Irvine and the rest of the 949. Given such an increase in quality Chinese food, but with a dearth of blogs covering it, as most of them focus on LA/San Gabriel Valley or San Diego.

However, I had several events in my life that pulled me away from the project. I got a job in New Mexico working to elect Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham. Then my mom had a cardiac arrest and eventually passed away in October. Finally, I moved to Denver to work for a nonprofit. Needless to say, a project focusing on the fabulous Chinese food of Orange County had to be shelved temporarily.

Now that I have settled down a little bit, I have decided to relaunch this blog as a tribute to my mom for mother’s day. My mom loved all types of Asian food, especially Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese and it would seem appropriate to write this blog on behalf of her memory.

Of course, now that I live in Denver we will have to shift the focus from Orange County to Asian places across the country that I have and will be eating at. A lot of the focus will be in Denver, where I live now, and Southern California, where I visit a few times a year. However, from time to time I’ll also write about the Asian food I have eaten in places where I lived before, like Baltimore, and visited, like New York City. I hope this will be a tribute that would make my mom proud.

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