Category Archives: Los Angeles

Xiang Yuan Gourmet, Temple City

Xiang Yuan Gourmet
9556 Las Tunas Dr.
Temple City, CA 91780

A month ago when I was in Southern California I wanted to try a new dim sum place. Fortunately, Chinese food writer and “celebrity diner” David Chan wrote this story on LA Weekly just before my trip so of course I had to try Xiang Yuan Gourmet.

So after doing some work and watching the solar eclipse, I drove from my hotel in Pasadena to Temple City. It was about 1:30PM on a Monday and it was fairly easy to get a table for one. Perhaps only one quarter of the tables were taken. After sitting down I looked at the menu and decided that the following items would give me a good feel of the quality of the menu:

  • Crystal Shrimp Har Gow (蝦餃皇) – The shrimp dumpling filling was fairly tasty with a little salt and pepper and slight crunch from a little water chestnuts. However the dumpling skin was a little gummy, perhaps because of too much water. In general, it was fairly good if perhaps not as fantastic as a place like Sea Harbour.
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Mushroom Bun at Xiang Yuan Gourmet

  • Mushroom Bun (野生磨茹包) – These, however, were fantastic. Not only did they look pretty, but the tasty of these mushroom buns were heavenly. The bun was slightly chewy without being too dry or dense and the mushroom filling was very tasty that was full of chopped shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and carrots. I couldn’t eat these fast enough!
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Beef Rice Paper Roll at Xiang Yuan Gourmet

  • Beef Rice Paper Roll (冬菜牛肉腸) – The rice noodle rolls were solid and I loved the separated sweet soy sauce to drizzle only as much as you like and not having the rice noodles too soggy when you eat them. The rice noodles themselves were pretty good, not being too sticky and the filling was tender with some preserved vegetables meshing well with the tender beef. There were some yu choy on the side as well for taste and garnish.
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Crispy Bamboo Shoot Roll at Xiang Yuan Gourmet

  • Crispy Bamboo Shoot Paste Roll (甘笱流沙包) – Then these came out and I was very awed by dim sum formed to look like a carrot. There aren’t any carrots at all on this dish but instead it’s bamboo shoot paste formed into a carrot like shell and deep fried. Inside was a filling of salty runny egg custard. The melding was intriguing and tasty, though the salty egg yolk was not expected. In retrospect, that could have been easily rectified if I had read the Chinese name. All those hundreds spent on Chinese school apparently went to waste…
  • Salted Egg Yolk Bun (流沙包) – Which meant that I double ordered salty egg yolk items. These were solid but after tasting the ones in the bamboo shoot paste roll ones, they were incomparable. I also ordered these trying to see if they would be the ones shaped like hedgehogs, but unfortunately they were not. Apparently, those are the taro buns.

All in all, fairly good new dim sum restaurant with creative items that are becoming more common in Hong Kong but still very rare in the US. I would definitely go again to try out more items with this promising start. If you’re in the San Gabriel alley soon and want to try a new dim sum place, check this out. Some of these items just might become the new standards at other restaurants.

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Pine and Crane, Los Angeles

Pine & Crane
1521 Griffith Park Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026

I acknowledge that at first I was very skeptical of Pine & Crane. Can a Taiwanese restaurant not located in the San Gabriel Valley or Irvine be good (and located in hipster-y Silver Lake no less)? Does it really live to the hype of 1,000+ Yelp reviews with a 4.5 star average after 3 years in business? But despite my skepticism, I still needed to go to actually see if yuppie-fied Taiwanese in Silver Lake actually works and is worth it. After all, if you can find decently priced, good Taiwanese around central LA, why would I (or any of my friends) want to suffer the traffic on the 10 to go to the SGV?

So during my last visit to LA a month ago, a friend and I went to finally try it out. Given that her family came from Taiwan, I’d say she’s an even better expert.

We met up around 7PM on a Sunday evening. While finding parking in Silver Lake was difficult, like always, the wait was fairly easy for a table. I do actually like the fast casual approach of sorts they have at Pine and Crane, allowing you to order what you want at the counter and then get seated and served. So after a relatively decent 15 minute wait in line, we decided to get the following, which we thought would give us a good breadth of the quality without being too saturated with food:

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Beef Roll at Pine & Crane

  • Beef Roll – The dough for the warp was nicely fried to a light crisp and filled with flavorful beef and cucumbers, lots and lots of cucumbers. While the flavor was good, unfortunately the cucumber to beef ratio was a bit off which marred the otherwise pretty great appetizer.
  • Tofu Skin Salad (Cold Item) – We wanted to try one of the $3.50 rotating cold appetizer items they keep at a display fridge by the counter so after a lengthy deliberation we settled on the tofu skin salad. The tofu skin was nice, but the marinade/dressing lacked a bit of flavor so it was a bit bland.
  • Morning Glory (空心菜) – In contrast, the kong xin cai was excellent. It was perfectly stir fried with a little bit of garlic and oil making a simple, but flavorful dish that helped balance all the heavier meat flavors of the meal. (note the list of vegetables are seasonal and rotates)
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Beef noodle soup at Pine & Crane

  • Beef Noodle Soup – The beef was nicely seasoned and tender and the noodles were cooked decently. However, my friend and I both agree that the broth was a little bland. It did have a relatively strong beef flavor, but a little bit of spicy or maybe a dash of chili oil would have gone a long way.
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Minced Pork on Rice at Pine and Crane

  • Minced Pork on Rice – At the end was the best dish of all, in my opinion. 滷肉飯 is a classic Taiwanese dish and Pine & Crane pretty much nailed it. The pork was tender, flavorful, and richly infused with the perfectly cooked rice. The egg had great soy sauce flavor and the pickled vegetables helped to cut the richness of the rest of the dish.

While you might get hung up on some of the nitpickiness of the individual dish descriptions, overall my friend and I thought it was a solid execution of Taiwanese food. It may not be as flavorful as some Taiwanese spots in the SGV or Irvine, but it definitely is a solid Taiwanese restaurant with reasonable prices. I would definitely go there again, especially when I’m spending time around Silver Lake, Echo Park, or even parts of Hollywood.

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Skewers, LAX

Skewers by Morimoto
380 World Way
Los Angeles, CA 90045

When most people I know think of LAX, the immediate reaction is to groan. A litany of complaints usually surface including, but not limited to: constant traffic on the 405 to/from the airport, poor mass transit to the airport, lack of efficient transportation between terminals, and dingy terminals once you are at the airport. While the first three are still immensely true, the latter complaint is slowly going away as LAX is going through renovations of its terminals.

That welcome surprise came to me during my recent visit to LAX during a layover from Albuquerque to San Francisco. I was pretty impressed by the newer facilities at American Airlines’ terminal 4. However, none of the food options really appealed to me (in part because there were no Asian options). As I was hungry for a late lunch I decided to walk to Delta’s terminal 5 instead, as LAX’s terminals 4, 5, and 6 have a convenient-ish underground walkway to transport people back and forth without needing to exit security.

Upon entering Delta’s terminal 5 I saw an even more impressive, more newly renovated terminal with higher ceilings and, more importantly, an Asian food stall, Skewers by Morimoto. Now, I’ve always wanted to dine at some celebrity chef establishment in LA but I did not realize my first would be one at an airport. Of course, I knew this dining experience wouldn’t be remotely like one I would have if I was dining at his eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia, but I happy stood in line and ordered the following:

Skewers LAX

Ramen and Chicken Kushiyaki at Skewers by Morimoto

  • Pork Ramen – The pork ramen had decently cooked noodles with thinly sliced pork that was chewy but tender. I did wish I had more pork and that the broth was a little richer. All in all though, it’s still better than most airport food.
  • Chicken Kushiyaki – I just got one of the skewers, as you can see, and while there was a perfect amount of sauce, the chicken was more on the drier side. The glazed sauce enveloping the chicken helped to deflect from the dryness of the chicken.

At $16+tax ($12.50 for the ramen and $3.50 for the individual skewer), it certainly wasn’t cheap but in line for the rates of airport food, especially if you aren’t ordering from a chain like McDonald’s or Panda Express. The portion of the ramen was a little bit small, but it was perfect for a light lunch.

Either way, I am immensely grateful that LAX passengers have a much better array of dining options to choose from than the typical chains, including Skewers. Is it comparable to what I would find at a ramen joint on Sawtelle or at Morimoto’s eponymous restaurants around the world? No. At the same time, you can’t beat having a decent ramen option if you’re waiting a few hours for your plane.

Elite, Monterey Park

Elite Restaurant
700 S. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754

After coming in at #2 on my Dim Sum rankings I decided I had to take a visit to Elite. So near the tail end of my holiday break I took the chance to eat there again during my very brief visit in LA. My haircut appointment in Irvine went a little longer than usual so I got to Elite close to 2PM. At that point I began to be super hungry but it turned out to be perfect as I only needed to wait 5 minutes for a table instead of possibly an hour or more if I had gone earlier.

When I was seated I quickly went to ordering chrysanthemum tea and checking off the menu of the dishes I wanted to eat. After several minutes of looking at the menu I decided to eat the following:

Crispy Shrimp Noodle Roll at Elite

Crispy Shrimp Noodle Roll at Elite

  • Crispy Shrimp Rice Noodle (百花炸兩腸粉) – These rice noodle rolls are wrapped around Chinese crullers (油條) which are in turn filled with shrimp ball filling. These are an amazing play on texture and flavor, though I wish the Chinese crullers were a little crispier. All in all, very good.
Spare Ribs With Chili and Black Bean Sauce at Elite

Spare Ribs With Chili and Black Bean Sauce at Elite

  • Spare Ribs With Chili and Black Bean Sauce (剁椒蒸排骨) – The spare ribs were cooked just right, perfectly coming off the bone. These were probably the best pork spare ribs I’ve eaten although perhaps there could have been a little more spice.
Crystal Shrimp Har Gow at Elite

Crystal Shrimp Har Gow at Elite

  • Crystal Shrimp Har Gow (水晶蝦餃皇) – These shrimp dumplings were pretty good. The shrimp was fresh and flavorful and the skins had a perfect bounce but didn’t stretch too much. While not as technically good as the Yank Sing ones, these had an overall better flavor that melded really nicely with the hot chile oil.
Dry Scallop Roll Fun at Elite

Dry Scallop Roll Fun at Elite

  • Dry Scallop Roll Fun – While I didn’t get much dried scallop (maybe they ran out?), these steamed small rice noodle rolls with shrimp and diced vegetables were really good and contrasted nicely to the more heavy crispy shrimp rice noodles.
Crispy Snow Bun at Elite

Crispy Snow Bun at Elite

  • Crispy Snow Bun (杏汁雪山飽) – These buns were delicious with a crispy shell but a sweet, doughy middle. Unfortunately these came out first so I actually didn’t eat them while they were hot as I wanted to wait for it as dessert.

The service was pretty good, but as they were winding down the lunch hour it did get harder and harder to flag someone to get something. Despite that, the overall experience and food was pretty good and just as great as I remember it. However, I do agree that Sea Harbour is just so slightly better. Either way, you can’t go wrong going to either of these places for dim sum and Southern California is very blessed to have two of the very best places to eat dim sum in the whole country (though that’s not exactly by accident).

Next couple weeks will venture back to the Mountain West/Southwest but around Chinese New Year you’ll see my personal picks for best sum I’ve had.

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Best Dim Sum in America (Part 2) – Results!

As I mentioned 2 weeks ago, my month long side research project to find the “best dim sum in America” is over. Results are below, but before that I want to go over my methodology in more detail just so I’m as completely transparent as possible.

I wrote last week that my methodology was based on yelp scores, urbanspoon scores, and some bonus points based on being on a food loving writer’s top dim sum lists. Here it is in more detail:

Total score
=
[Yelp score + (# of Yelp Reviews x 0.0001)]
+
[Urbanspoon % score x 5]
+
[Bonus points using a weighted grade based on mentions on a ‘top dim sum’ list in their metro area in the last 2 years. 1 mention = 0.25 bonus points, 2 mentions = 0.5 bonus pointspoints, 3+ mentions = weighted average of the rankings x 5 bonus points, 5+ mentions earned an additional bonus point]

Dim sum at Lunasia

Dim sum at Lunasia

The first two scoring factors are fairly simple and easy to explain as scores on both sites build the foundation of my rankings. Though, there are a few caveats: 1. I gave an added boost to the number of yelp reviews because I thought the more yelp reviews, the more reliable and better your score was compared to those with few reviews. 2. For the few restaurants without an Urbanspoon review I opted to duplicate the stars they received from Yelp (i.e. a restaurant without an Urbanspoon score but 3 yelp stars got a 60% in my Urbanspoon column).

The third is a little harder so I’ll walk you step by step on how I came up with my score for Sea Harbour. For the first two point factors, Sea Harbour received a base score of 8.19 (Yelp score of 3.59 + Urbanspoon score of 4.6). For the bonus score based on metro area lists, I averaged its ranking across all lists (19.5/8 = 2.4375) . Since lists are based on #1 being the best, I subtracted that score from 10. I then multiplied the resulting number by 0.1 to get a decimal. I multiplied the decimal by 5. The result was a bonus score of 3.78. I added an additional point because I felt that if you had more than 5 mentions, you must be pretty good. So in the end that’s 3.59 (Yelp) + 4.6 (Urbanspoon) + 4.78 (bonus points), or a total of 12.97 points.

Dim Sum at Sea Harbour

Dim Sum at Sea Harbour

But that’s enough math. By now I’m pretty sure you’re hungry to find the results of all this data and research. So, without further ado, according to this methodology the top dim sum restaurants in the United States are:

  1. Sea Harbour (Rosemead, CA) – 12.97
  2. Elite (Monterey Park, CA) – 12.436
  3. Nom Wah Tea Parlour (New York, NY) – 12.352
  4. Red Farm (New York, NY) – 12.337
  5. Yank Sing (San Francisco, CA) – 12.217
  6. Dim Sum Go Go (New York, NY) – 11.844
  7. Koi Palace (Daly City, CA) – 11.794
  8. Hong Kong Lounge II (San Francisco, CA) – 11.752
  9. Mama Ji’s (San Francisco, CA) – 11.528
  10. Hong Kong Lounge (San Francisco, CA) – 11.525

For those who are passionate about Chinese food and write about it, Sea Harbour’s #1 ranking comes as no surprise. The restaurant has enjoyed near universal acclaim since it’s open in 2002 and is repeatedly lauded by Jonathan Gold, the first food critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. Sea Harbour’s reputation and quality is aided by the fact that it is run by very successful Chinese restauranteurs based in Vancouver, where some of the best dim sum outside of Hong Kong is served.

While Sea Harbour’s ranking is not shocking much of anyone, what will undoubtedly shock some is the #7 ranking of Koi Palace. To be clear, a #7 ranking out of nearly 500 restaurants is nothing to sneeze at, but Koi Palace is considered by some experts to be the best Chinese restaurant in America. By this methodology, it comes to 2nd place even in its own metropolitan area, bested by the venerable Yank Sing. My hunch is that its notoriously long waits, with reports of staff ushering friends in front of the line, has markedly affected their ratings compared to others on this list. If that’s true, it does note a flaw in the methodology where to many folks, service trumps the quality of the food and is reflected on sites like Yelp.

 

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Another interesting thing to note is the relatively small amount of places serving dim sum from the San Gabriel Valley  in the top 10 compared to those from San Francisco and New York. This is not to say that the top 10 places in New York or San Francisco are bad. However, there are a large number of  exceptional dim sum places in the San Gabriel Valley that many would argue are better than the San Francisco and New York restaurants in the top 10. This may indicate another flaw in my methodology because not all metropolitan areas are equal when it comes to overall quality of Cantonese cuisine. A number of people, especially of Chinese descent, generally agree that the Chinese food (including dim sum) is better around Los Angeles, with San Francisco and New York in 2nd and 3rd respectively. However, this opinion is fraught with contention as David Chan’s Asia Society article in 2012 elicited dozens of heated argument both on the site and Chowhound. I had briefly considered doing some additional weighting based on metropolitan area quality reputation but opted against it to keep my methodology as simple and non-biased as I could.

Nitpicking the various potential flaws of my methodology, though, obscures the big picture: the dim sum rankings and the methodology are a fairly good indicator of the quality of the dim sum restaurant. In general, a score of 10 points or more means that the place is excellent – where the dim sum is fresh, potentially innovative, and made with care and quality. More than 8 points generally indicates that the place is great, though not to the quality of those restaurants with more points. A restaurant in the 7 point range generally means they are good and fairly solid, though some items may not be very great. A score around 6 points means that the restaurant is ‘fair’ with some items that are good but many items that are not very great. The few restaurants in the 5 point range are ones to avoid with universally negative acclaim. You can take a look at my dim sum ranking spreadsheet here.

In practical terms, the list will be generally useful for knowing where to go and where to avoid to eat, especially when traveling for the holidays or for leisure. For instance, I’ll be going to King Hua (11.306 points) and not Lincoln Seafood (5.264 points) when I go to California in the next few weeks. It’s not a holiday without dim sum in my family and I’m certainly planning to stuff myself with delicious sui mai.

Next up: my favorite places for dim sum and deeper analysis of the rankings, including cart vs. menu order places.

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The Best Dim Sum In America (Part 1)

A little over a month ago, when I linked to my blog post on Red Egg on Facebook, I made a half-serious joke about how should I have a “dim sum bracket” akin to Nate Silver’s “Burrito Bracket” on his FiveThirtyEight site. The burrito bracket, as Silver explains, was born out of his love of burritos and his then-recent 2007 move to the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He then started a food blog to document his search the best burrito in the neighborhood, NCAA March Madness style. However, his work for Baseball Prospectus and start of what would become FiveThirtyEight deferred his search in the middle of the bracket.

I was really captivated by Silver’s relaunch of the Burrito Bracket as a nationwide search to find out what was the “best” burrito in the country. Thus, I decided to actually launch my half-serious joke into a project to find the restaurant that serves the “best”  dim sum in the country (and when I mean dim sum, I mean the Cantonese style food and not others that may market itself as dim sum).

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Of course, I don’t have Silver’s access to staff journalists, researchers, or a veritable selection committee of food journalists and celebrity chefs. However, I did have access to public access to crowd sourcing restaurant review sites, Chowhound discussion forums, and the online publications of numerous rankings of dim sum from various metropolitan areas. So I started similar to how Silver started his revived Burrito Bracket – Yelp.

Yelp scores and numbers of reviews may be a decent baseline, but even Silver himself acknowledges the potential flaws in Yelp. Renown Chinese food eater David Chan goes even further to describe the flaws of Yelp when searching for Chinese restaurants. Thus, I decided factor in other websites in creating my rankings, most notably Urbanspoon. Urbanspoon isn’t without its own flaws, but its another crowd sourcing restaurant view site used nationwide and I thought it would help balance some of the downsides of using Yelp. In addition, I factored in “bonus points” for the number of times a restaurant had been ranked as part of a list of best dim sum places in a metropolitan areas in the last two years by a food journalist and/or Chowhound. No ranking system is perfect, of course, but I thought that might be the best way in having a relatively objective rating system.

Critiques of the rating system (and scores for that matter) will be saved for another post, however, as I want to talk about some initial findings that I think are pretty fascinating in their own right.

In my search for the restaurant serving the best dim sum in America, I did a lot of scouring to find all these restaurants. All in all, I found at least 494 restaurants serving dim sum across 57 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. I got to 57 by searching for dim sum restaurants in both the 50 largest cities in America and the 50 largest metropolitan areas as defined by the Census Bureau. Honolulu falls below 50 in both categories, but has a significant population of those identifying as a person with Chinese descent so I included it too. In total, these metro areas account for 85% of all American residents that identify as Chinese in the 2010 census.

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Afterward, I was curious to see the correlation between the amount of Chinese identified Americans in a metropolitan area and the amount of restaurants in the metropolitan area that serves dim sum. As you might think would be fairly logical, in general there is a pretty big correlation between the two. Using rudimentary and free statistics software by the website Alcula (as I don’t have access to SPSS, STATA, or other more sophisticated software), I found that the correlation coefficient between the two is pretty dramatic at 0.946 as you can see from the scatter plot above.

While that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, I was interested to see which metropolitan areas matched closest to the regression line and which were significant outliers. The two metropolitan areas that looked most in line were Washington, DC, at 13 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 106,721 Chinese people, and Dallas-Fort Worth, at 8 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 55,568 Chinese people. Beyond those two metropolitan areas, I would say a vast majority of the other metropolitan areas were pretty close to the region with just a few major outliers.

The few outliers, however, were pretty significant. The most significant outliers, in fact, looked to have a lot MORE restaurants serving dim sum than their Chinese population would otherwise suggest. The two biggest in this case were the San Francisco Bay Area, with 72 restaurants serving dim sum in an area with just 649,496 Chinese people, and Seattle, with 33 restaurants serving dim sum for an area with just 100,763 Chinese people. This can be explained by the fact that both cities retain significant numbers of people with ancestry from Guangdong Province and/or ties to Hong Kong. Furthermore, both cities not only retain a significant and vibrant Chinatown filled with Cantonese families, unlike their counterparts in places like Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but they also have suburban areas with a significant number of Cantonese families are restaurants, like Bellevue in Seattle and Millbrae in San Francisco.

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

In contrast to San Francisco and Seattle is New York City, which has only 53 restaurants serving dim sum in the metropolitan area that is home to 705,721 Chinese people. This can also be explained by Chinese immigration patterns as the predominant majority of Chinese people that have immigrated to New York since the Immigration Act of 1965 have been from non-Cantonese areas of China, especially from Fujian, Taiwan, and Zhejiang. While the core of what most people see as Manhattan’s Chinatown is still predominantly Cantonese, it is dwarfed by Flushing’s much more diverse pan-Chinese Chinatown and is even smaller in land area than the Fujianese side of Manhattan Chinatown, just east of Bowery and along East Broadway.

Sacramento and San Diego also have less places serving dim sum as their Chinese populations would indicate. As a native San Diegan, my theory is that many Chinese families are willing to drive a couple hours to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, for their fix of really good dim sum on any given three day weekend.

Regardless, I feel the best finding in all my research is that in nearly every major metropolitan area of the United States, you won’t be far from a place that serves dim sum, most of them at least decent. Even in Albuquerque, with just a few thousand Chinese people, I’m never really more than a 20 minute drive from eating dim sum at Ming Dynasty.

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