Category Archives: Chinese

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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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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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.

Shaanxi in New York City

After a whirlwind trip to New York City, Vancouver, and Hong Kong, I am back to blogging. Of course, with so many tasty things during my trip, it was difficult to know where to start or how to organize these blog posts. However, I’ll start chronologically with my brief, but exciting trip to the concrete jungle where dreams are made of.

Given that most of my Vancouver and Hong Kong meals where likely to be very Cantonese focused,  decided that New York City was my chance to explore a different regional cuisine of China. Arguably the most famous non-Cantonese Chinese cuisine of New York City is Shaanxi cuisine, thanks to the popularity of Xi’an Famous Foods. However, given that I have been fascinated about Biáng.svgBiáng.svg麵 I decided to have a dinner with my cousin at Biang! to eat their eponymous noodles.

Biang!
157 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Biang has all the trappings of being a trendy restaurant in the East Village. Located on a hip section of 2nd Ave it has a very minimalist decor scheme, complete with dark wood tables and short dark wood chairs. This trendy minimalism gives way to the menu too, not so much in the amount of choices (there are a few dozen options to choose from) but by absolute refusal to do any substitutions or alterations, however minimal. None of these detracted very much from the main focus, the food. My cousin and I decided to order the following:

Baby Bok Choy and Lamb Skewers at Biang!

Baby Bok Choy and Lamb Skewers at Biang!

  • Baby Bok Choy Skewers (上海菜苗) – Part of the spicy and tingly boiled skewers (麻辣涮串), these were essentially a triplet of 3 skewers each with 3 tiny marinated baby bok choy pieces. The sesame paste and garlic chili oil gave the otherwise bland baby bok choy a nice kick of umami and spice, though also a bit pricey at $5.50.
  • Lamb Skewers (羊肉) – Part of the spicy cumin barbecued skewers (孜然烤串), they were marinated with a perfect amount of cumin and other spices. There was a hearty amount of lamb too, making up for what seemed the be a paltry amount of bok choy on the other skewers. My one qualm was that the skewers were a little overcooked, but only to the point of being a little too chewy instead of super tough.
Liang Pi at Biang!

Liang Pi at Biang!

  • Liang Pi “Cold Skin” Noodles (凉皮) – Next came the liang pi, which had perfectly cooked chewy noodles dressed in a decent, but not overwhelming, amount of chili oil, soy sauce, and vinegar. The taste was pretty balanced, not being too oily, too spicy, or too sour. The seitan slices were nice and fresh too, making this dish quite wonderful.
Hot Oiled Seared Biang Biang Noodles at Biang!

Hot Oiled Seared Biang Biang Noodles at Biang!

  • Hot-Oiled Seared Biang Biang Noodles (油泼辣子Biáng.svgBiáng.svg面) – Since I couldn’t get the cocubine’s chicken to the side, I opted for the more traditional hot-oiled seared Biang Biang noodles. Unlike the ones at Famous Bao, you could tell that these noodles were legitimately made in-house. The noodles were long, very stretchy, wide, and fresh. It seemed that there was perhaps only 3 strands of very long noodles in the bowl. The sauce was also very flavorful with a nice amount of chili oil that didn’t overpower. I liked the overall simplicity of the dish, although I felt the portions were a bit small for the price.
Spicy and Sour Three Treasure Dumplings at Biang!

Spicy and Sour Three Treasure Dumplings at Biang!

  • Spicy & Sour Three Treasures Dumpling (酸辣三鲜水饺) – The original four items were not enough for our extremely hungry table of two, so we added these dumplings. The dumplings, as typical as they are in Northern China, were made of thick skins so they were definitely a bit chewy. Aside from that, the filling was hearty with shrimp and pork, though some had more chive flavor than others. Overall they were nice to sate our appetite, but I felt they weren’t anything special, but that might be due to my bias toward the thinner dumplings of Southern China.

All in all the food at Biang was pretty good, if a bit pricey for the fairly small portion sizes. Almost all the items were executed fairly well and were definitely very fresh. It’s just a shame that the noodle bowls are a bit small. However, I suppose they also have to pay for the upscale decor and higher rent on 2nd Avenue, so there’s not much you can do to make prices more budget conscious.

Xi’an Famous Foods
81 St. Mark’s Place
New York, NY 10003

Afterwards, my cousin and I decided we had a little more room in our stomach so we walked a few blocks south to take a taste of Xi’an Famous Foods. Unlike the modern, yuppified Biang, Xi’an Famous Foods’ East Village location was a brighter, cleaner version of its original Flushing location. The decor and space is very small and bare bones, mainly because the business is more reliant on quick service rather than a more upscale experience.

Liang Pi at Xi'an Famous Foods

Liang Pi at Xi’an Famous Foods

We decided to order the famous Liang Pi to compare Xi’an Famous Foods’ version to Biang’s. The Liang Pi came out very quickly and we took a bite of it almost immediately exiting the store. The noodles here were a little chewier than at Biang’s and definitely a bit more oily. The seitan also was a little chewier and seemed a little less fresh. However, the dish was very good overall even if it might not be to the quality that was found at Biang. At $6.00, though, the Liang Pi here was cheaper with bigger portions. I ultimately decided that while Biang’s version was superior, the quality differential didn’t match a 20% increase in cost.

Interestingly enough, when I sat down to write this article I noticed that Biang is a spin-off/concept store for Xi’an Famous Foods. In that sense, I do appreciate their attempt at having a more upscale sit down restaurant, especially given that the food is pretty good. However, I do wish that the portions were bigger or the prices were a little cheaper. Despite that, I do think Biang is a good restaurant that people should at least have one meal in. After all, its still relatively uncommon to find Shaanxi food in America, much less a place that attempts to execute such a wide variety of dishes at levels above street food/food court stalls.

Famous Bao, Berkeley

Famous Bao
2431 Durant Ave Suite A
Berkeley, CA 94704

Given the preponderance of Cantonese food in the Bay Area, it’s often exciting when a non-Cantonese Chinese restaurant pops up in the city or East Bay. This is especially true when the restaurant has the potential to be really good and more authentic than a Cantonese run place that masquerades as some other kind of Chinese cuisine.

Thus, when Famous Bao opened a couple months ago, there was some cautious optimism. This was the first Shaanxi style restaurant in the East Bay, the brainchild of a UC Berkeley alum at a location just south of the Cal campus. As a bonus, one of the chefs at the restaurant is the restaurateur’s own dad, who is a former chef at the acclaimed Z&Y in San Francisco. And as more and more people ate their, the cautious optimism turned into excitement with the constant stream of international students from China patronizing the place. Finally, Luke Tsai of the East Bay Express wrote a very positive review of the place that was published a couple weeks ago.

After reading the review, my aunt and I decided to give Famous Bao a try. So after a commercial communal kitchen open house we went to last Sunday, we headed up to Berkeley to see if Famous Bao matched to the hype. After waiting about 10 minutes in line we ordered the following:

Bao's Famous Stewed Oxtail Iron Pot

Bao’s Famous Stewed Oxtail Iron Pot

  • Bao’s Famous Stewed Oxtail Iron Pot – The iron pot came first with a few stewed oxtails and a surprising amount of veggies heated with a slightly spicy sauce in an iron pot. All the ingredients mixed well together for a very flavorful and slightly spicy dry pot. The dish comes with a bowl of steamed rice. While it was one of the most expensive dishes at around $11, it was worth every penny. 
Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger

Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger

  • Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger – While the filling was nice with tender lamb, cumin, and onions; I did not like the dry bread. I could see how these sandwiches are all the rage in China, with its ease of portability and cheap prices. However, I probably wouldn’t order these again.
Spicy Beef Hand-Pulled Noodles

Spicy Beef Hand-Pulled Noodles

  • Spicy Beef Hand Pulled Noodles – Famous Bao’s version of Biang Mian was very good. I loved how the chewy long wheat noodles, hot spicy oil, and tender beef all melded together. The noodles weren’t totally hand made (they seem machine cut), but that is a little quibble when these noodles were clearly kneaded, stretched, and cooked just right. I would definitely go to Famous Bao just for a bowl of noodles.

Vegetarians should not fret either as pretty much all the dishes they make have a vegetarian option. In fact, I hear the class version of Biang Mian simply has scallions and hot oil.

All in all, this was a really good intro to Shaanxi for me and the East Bay. I just can’t wait for more quality non-Cantonese Chinese restaurants to open up in Oakland and Berkeley. It would certainly free me from long trips to New York, LA, or even the South Bay.

Chengdu Taste, Alhambra

Chengdu Taste
828 W Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91803

Of all the restaurants I want to visit this year, Chengdu Taste is at the top of the list, even higher than 3 Michelin Star rated Lung King Heen. Much of that is due to Chengdu Taste’s reputation as one of the most hyped and lauded Chinese restaurants ever since it opened a few years ago.

So when I happened to be in LA last weekend, I decided that this was my chance to finally eat at Chengdu Taste. I invited a friend, who happily accepted and we decided to meet at 6PM on Friday. Thankfully we decided to meet early because the wait for a table started soon after we sat down.

We took a look at the menu, finding it hard to narrow the choices down to 3 dishes. In the end we decided to eat 2 well praised items and a vegetable dish to balance out the meat and carbs.

Mung Bean Jelly Noodles with Chilli

Mung Bean Jelly Noodles with Chilli Sauce

  • Mung Bean Jelly Noodle With Chilli Sauce (伤心凉粉) – The first item we ate were  the mung beans noodle, which is simple but well executed. The thick mung bean noodles had just enough bite and soaked up the hot oil and peppers really well. Given the amount of chile peppers in proportion to the amount of Sichuan peppercorns, these were the most directly spicy dish we had but not too much to be overbearing.
Toothpick Lamb at Chengdu Taste

Toothpick Lamb at Chengdu Taste

  • Toothpick Lamb (牙签羊肉) – One of the signature dishes of the restaurant, these bites of lamb did not disappoint. The lamb not only was tender and juicy, but perfectly flavored with cumin, chile pepper seeds, and sichuan peppercorns. We demolished the plate.
Sauteed String Beans at Chengdu Taste

Sauteed String Beans at Chengdu Taste

  • Sauteed String Beans (干煸四季豆) – Because I’m a fan of balancing proteins and vegetables in my meal, we chose this to be our dish with vegetables. The string beans were stir fried just right, allowing the string beans to still have a little snap. The minced pork was juicy as well. This dish had the most Sichuan peppercorns of the three allowing for a nice, but not overwhelming, mala flavor.

Overall, Chengdu Taste did not disappoint. The reason why it is so lauded was very clear dish after dish: all the dishes have just the right amount of spice and balance of flavors. While other Sichuan places overload with too many peppers or compensate with too much oil, Chengdu Taste masters the the balance of flavors to let the main ingredients shine. It is undoubtedly the best Sichuan restaurant I have eaten at.

It’s definitely a restaurant that should be on anyone’s list while they are in LA. If you want a more casual restaurant with better individual servings you can also go to their offshoot, Mian, on Valley Boulevard in nearby San Gabriel, where you can taste solid Sichuanese style noodle dishes.

San Tung, San Francisco

San Tung
1031 Irving Street
San Francisco, CA 94122

For decades San Tung has drawn crowds from the Bay Area and beyond almost entirely due to the reputation of its Dry Fried Chicken Wings. Over the course of my life I’ve eaten at San Tung a few times, though curiously never once now that I actually live in the area. That’s mostly due to two things: 1) its distance from my home in Oakland makes such a trip rather long and potentially arduous, and 2) newer and generally better Chinese restaurants have popped up since in the Richmond district.

However, a good friend of mine recently moved to the Inner Sunset, just a few blocks away from San Tung. That gave me a perfect opportunity to go try San Tung again and to see if the current food matched the fond food memories of my youth.

We came there around 1PM on a Sunday afternoon. As usual, there was a pretty decent line with a number of names already written on the white board. However, it didn’t take too long to get a table, about 25 minutes max. We sat down and browsed through the menu, settling on these few items to eat:

  • Pork Dumplings – As it’s implied by the restaurant’s name, the dumplings are more toward the thicker skin dumplings of Shandong province. As a person who generally likes the thinner skinned dumplings from southern China, I loved that the skins here weren’t too doughy. The filling was pretty tasty and moist too that matched well with dipping sauce mix of soy sauce, chili oil, and vinegar.
Walnut Shrimp at San Tung

Walnut Shrimp at San Tung

  • Walnut Shrimp – My friend wanted a shrimp dish and zero’d into this Chinese American favorite. The shrimp was cooked just perfectly and I’m glad they put just the right amount of mayo based sauce. It’s probably one of the better versions of the dish I’ve had, and this is a dish I’m generally not that fond of.
  • Mushrooms, Bamboo Shoots, and Snow Peas – This simple stir fried dish was a nice balance to the large amounts of meat we had. It was perfectly tasty but not something I’d say is an absolute must order.
Dry Fried Chicken Wings at San Tung

Dry Fried Chicken Wings at San Tung

  • Dry Fried Chicken Wings – At the end came the glistening glow of the dry fried chicken wings. Lightly sauced with a sweet and slightly spicy sauce, they were just as good as I remembered it. Perfectly fried, the meat was juicy inside while having a slight crunch outside.

So after all this food, I would say that San Tung is just as good as I remembered. Now, there are better Chinese restaurants in the area, especially in the Shandong cuisine that the restaurant name implies they specialize in. However, they are still a reliable favorite and there’s no shame in going back just for the chicken wings from time to time.

Great China, Berkeley

Great China
2190 Bancroft Way
Berkeley, CA 94704

Great China is well known and well regarded for its Peking Duck. Given that my cousin loves Peking Duck, it was a no brainer to celebrate his graduation from UC Berkeley at Great China.

We reserved a table of 9 well ahead of time so we didn’t have to wait the arduous hours long waits that usually befall walk in diners. Once seated we promptly looked at the various options at the menu as well as searching favorites of other diners. In the end we ordered 3 Peking ducks and these other dishes:

  • Double Skin (兩張皮) – This dish of mung bean noodles mixed with shrimp, sea cucumbers, pork, assorted vegetables, hoisin sauce, and Chinese mustard was pretty good. The saltiness of the sauce matched well with the heat of the mustard creating a very nice appetizer to start off the meal.
Peking Duck at Great China

Peking Duck at Great China

  • Peking Duck (北京片皮鴨) – Without a doubt, this was the best Peking Duck I have ever had. Unlike most Cantonese seafood palaces who seem to just cook crispier versions of roast duck, Great China roasts their duck more in like with how they do it in Beijing. This process leaves super crispy skin and moist meat after the fat has rendered in the cooking process. The thin pancakes were great as well and goes much better with this dish than the mantou buns founds in Cantonese restaurants . We finished at least 2.5 dishes of the duck (which doesn’t come cheap at $37.95 per order).
  • Mongolian Beef (蒙古牛肉) – The Mongolian Beef was solid, if not too memorable. I loved that this version wasn’t overly sauced and sweet, unlike other restaurants, but it was also a fairly simple, if decently well made, dish of beef, sauce, and onions.
Great China 3

Mei Cai Ko Ro at Great China

  • Mei Cai Ko Ro (梅菜扣肉) – I loved Great China’s version of this classic pork belly dish. While other restaurants use meat that is too heavy on the fat, I feel like Great China had the meat cut with a perfect fat to meat ratio. The meat was tender as well and the dish was balanced by the decent amount of preserved vegetables in the dish.
IMG_3665

Walnut Prawns at Great China – to be avoided

  • Walnut Prawns (核桃蝦) – On the other hand, the Walnut Prawns leave much to be desired. There is way too much batter on the shrimp and the sauce is a neon yellow gloopy mess that is too sweet for its own good. It was the only dish that was barely touched by the whole table.
  • Sauteed Snow Pea Leaves (炒大豆苗) – The snow pea leaves, however, were beautifully stir fried with garlic. I’m a big fan of snow pea leaves and I loved how the kitchen made sure that the leaves were cooked just right with the perfect amount of garlic.

In the end I was certainly not disappointed by the much hyped Peking Duck. In fact, my grandfather’s wife from Mainland China even said it was very good and very authentic. I can see how this one dish creates hours long waits every evening. In fact, the duck was so good I took a few duck carcasses back home with me to create some delicious broth.