Category Archives: Taiwanese

Sinoinsocal? But You’re in NorCal…

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

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

Pho Ga at Pho Nguyen Hue

Pho Ga at Pho Nguyen Hue

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

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

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fried Pig Ear at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen

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

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

Pork Belly Bao at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Everyday Noodles, Pittsburgh

Everyday Noodles
5875 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15217

The first stop on my way from DC to Denver was the famous old steel town of Pittsburgh. I didn’t know what to expect from Pittsburgh in terms of Asian food, but I suspected it might be reasonably good and authentic given that some Asians had moved there with the Pittsburgh resurgence in high tech and biotech. I consulted renown Chinese food expert David Chan on his suggestions for good Chinese food in the area. He suggested I try Everyday Noodles, a restaurant he has wanted try but has not been to yet.

After I checked into my hotel I decided to venture to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where Everyday Noodles was located. As I drove down Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill I realized there was an abundance of Asian restaurants on the street, including several ramen shops and Taiwanese style restaurants. I was hopeful that this experience would be great given the competition in the area seemed high.

Everyday Noodles 1

I entered the restaurant and was warmly greeted and seated. As I sat down I noticed how bright and modern the space is. The restaurant certainly embraces the open kitchen concept that has become trendy over the past decade. However, one flaw of this restaurant design is the heat that is trapped in the seating area. The combination of poor air conditioning circulation and hot air from the kitchen created a fairly warm interior that was not very pleasant after walking in hot and sticky weather.

All that aside, while I was looking at the menu after being seated, I was pleasantly delighted at the authenticity of the menu. It had all the hallmarks of a Taiwanese restaurant in California. Since Mr. Chan recommended that I try new, interesting menu items, I declined eating the beef noodle soup and instead order the Taiwanese Style Dan Tsu Noodle Soup and an appetizer plate of marinated tofu skin and wood ears.

Everyday Noodles 2

The tofu skin and wood ears initially were very tasty. However, I started to get sick of them after eating about half the plate. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I guess too much of the light vinegar marinade really did not agree with my palate. The Dan Tsu noodles were definitely better. While I have never had it before, the soup was a beef broth filled with chives filled with your choice of wide or thin wheat noodles and topped off with braised minced beef and a tea smoked egg. I liked the flavor of the broth, though it was a bit oily, the noodles were cooked well, and the minced beef definitely had a nice flavor. However, I felt like there was too little minced beef for such a large noodle soup bowl.

The service after I ordered was a bit slow and the waitress only offered to refill my water near the end of the meal. It also took a bit to get my check and process the credit card, which really should not have been that long given how close it was to closing time.

All in all, it certainly wasn’t a bad experience, but nothing to write home about. Given the competition in the area I think I will have to try other places before I get a sense of how decent the Chinese food is in Pittsburgh.

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