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:

img_4446

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.
img_4447

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)

img_4450

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:

fullsizerender

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.
img_4459

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:

img_4435

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.
img_4436

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.

American Airlines Inaugural LAX-HKG Flight

What’s it like to fly on the first flight of a route an airline just opens up? I was about to find out on this trip since I was lucky enough that my cheap Hong Kong fare coincided with America Airlines’ first flight from LA to Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific 889
JFK-YVR, Business Class
September 4, 2016

But first, a little diversion to Cathay Pacific. When I was originally planning this trip, it had only included New York (to see Hamilton and the US Open) and Vancouver (because I just love the city). To get from New York to Vancouver I used 25,000 of my American Airlines miles to fly business class on Cathay Pacific. While I have flown first and business class a few times, I’ve never done it on a non-US airline so I decided that I could splurge a little and give it a try. Rarely does a non-US, Canadian, or Mexican airline flight across North America, but Cathay Pacific does on this specific route to pick up passengers in New York and Vancouver on they way to Hong Kong.

I cleared security a few minutes before boarding started (50 minutes before departure time) and by the time I got to the gate they were already boarding economy. Since I had no time to spare, I just boarded my flight, forgoing my usual ritual of a latte or hot chocolate.

Cathay Pacific Business Class Menu

Cathay Pacific Business Class Menu

Once I was seated the flight attendants immediately offered me a choice of cranberry juice, orange juice, or water. I sipped on some water and then drank some cranberry juice on their second round of pre-departure beverage service. As boarding ended and the doors were about to close, I was given the menu for the flight, which you can see above.

fullsizerender

Stir fried beef with rice on Cathay Pacific

Since it’s just a transcontinental flight, they only have one meal service, which is fine given that this flight is also a red eye flight as well. The starter of mixed salad with balsamic vinnaigrette was decent. The greens were fresh and the dressing was pretty standard, so I would call it a nice, run of the meal salad you would find as a salad starter at a decent chain restaurant.

For the entree I got the stir fried beef and sesame seeds with pak choy, carrot, and jasmine rice. The food was delicious. The soy based stir fry sauce flavored the slices of beef well without being too overpowering or gloppy. The vegetables were thinly sliced and pretty fresh. The rice was fluffy and perfectly cooked. This was, by far, the best airline meal I’ve ever had, which admittedly is a fairly low bar these days. I guess I would say that I have found decent mid-range Chinese restaurants that do a poorer job than Cathay Pacific’s business class catering.

img_4380

Oriental Breeze, Cathay Pacific Signature Mocktail

As for dessert, I got the cheese plate, which had a few small wedges of chese, grapes, and crackers. It was pretty decent and certainly a nice change for the pints of sugared up ice cream that is ubiquitous on trans-oceanic economy class flights. In addition to my many cups of Hong Kong Milk tea, I got Cathay Pacific’s “signature drink” mocktail, the Oriental Breeze, which is a mix of plum tea, cranberry juice, honey, and fresh lemon juice with a small dried rosebud as a garnish. It was pretty refreshing and not overly sweet.

American Airlines 193
LAX-HKG, Economy Class
September 7, 2016

Now back to my post about the inaugural flight. I arrived at LAX from SFO around 8:30, hours before my scheduled 1:55AM departure. After grabbing dinner and catching up on email at the Admirals Lounge, I headed over to the gate around 12AM as the festivities were beginning.

img_4423

Kee Wah Catering for AA LAX-HKG Inaugural

I had high hopes for the festivities given that dim sum was served at the festivities of the inaugural DFW-HKG flight. At LAX there were the requisite lion dancers, a speech, and a ribbon cutting ceremony. Sadly there wasn’t any dim sum, but American Airlines did do some pastry catering from Kee Wah. There were “pineapple” buns, red bean buns, and egg tarts. I zoomed in on the egg custard tarts, which had a nice egg-rich filling and flakier crust that typifies a Kee Wah egg custard tart. They also gave out tiny mooncakes, given that the Mid-Autumn Festival was a little over a week away. I snagged one lotus seed paste and one red bean paste one. When I tasted both the weekend after the Mid-Autumn festival, both were decent but not anywhere near the quality of the lotus seed paste ones I had bought in Hong Kong.

Once we boarded the flight we were given menus which you can see below:

img_4428-cropped

AA LAX-HKG Inaugural Menu

During the first meal course I opted for the seared shrimp with Shanghai noodles. To put it mildly, they were absolutely dreadful. It was like eating the chow mien at a shady Chinese buffet as they are about to close. The most distinctive flavors were oil cooked too long and the freezer burn of frozen shrimp.

img_4430

Shrimp with Shanghai Noodles on AA 193

The second meal service was a little bit better. The ratatouille stromboli was like an oversized, decent empanada with a nice tomato stew filling. The gelato was great too and I liked it even better than the mini cups of Haagen Dazs that are so ubiquitous on other long haul flights I have flown.

img_4433

Chinese dim sum with egg noodles on AA 193

The third meal service was pretty decent too. I chose the Chinese dim sum with fried egg noodles. While I wouldn’t say that the dim sum or noodles were great, they were decent for economy class airline food, about as good as dim sum and noodles would be at a cheap takeout place in San Francisco, Oakland, or New York’s Chinatowns.

img_4432

Milk tea on AA 193

What I liked the most, however, was that American Airlines’ Hong Kong routes serve Hong Kong milk tea in economy on their flights (unlike Cathay Pacific). While my first cup was a bit rough given that this senior White flight attendant had no experience making milk tea (the tea was too weak and there was too little condensed milk), the cups were progressively better as the flight went on. Though the food on American Airlines isn’t quite impressive (even compared to Cathay Pacific economy), I do love unlimited cups of Hong Kong milk tea.

All in all, it looks like airline food is getting a little better. On my return flight I got a perfectly done fish dish, which was volumes better than the Shanghai noodles. Props to both Cathay Pacific and American Airlines for overall good flights with decent food. Airline food certainly is not as down in the doldrums as it was a decade or two ago.

Dim Sum in Vancouver

After a whirlwind day and a half in New York, I boarded a plane an headed to Vancouver to avoid Hurricane Hermine. While in hindsight I would have been fine staying in New York, the extra day in Vancouver allowed me to sample a couple more Chinese restaurants that have been on my list. It helped that both of the hotels I was staying at were in Richmond, which is the epicenter or Chinese food in Vancouver. So after sleeping in, I just strolled along to grab some dim sum at the following places.

Chef Tony
4600 No. 3 Road #101
Richmond, BC V6X 2C2

Chef Tony opened up a couple of years ago to much hype and fanfare. Why? It was opened by Tony He, the proprietor that also had owned Sea Harbour, an acclaimed restaurant that serves top notch cuisine in both Richmond, BC and Rosemead, CA (right outside of LA). Naturally, given its pedigree, I thought I should give it a try.

Once I checked into the Westin, I dropped off my stuff and walked 15 minutes to the restaurant. While the Westin typifies minimalist modern chic, walking into Chef Tony was anything but minimal or chic. Some may call it fancy, but I definitely thought it was over the top and gaudy. In my opinion it was a shoddy attempt at being hip and fancy, like if an Aloft hotel lobby decided to add 10,000 plastic chandeliers and become a restaurant.

Provoking decor aside, I was really there to see how the food tasted. So after absorbing the decor, I look a cursory look at the menu and ordered the following (note, some of the English names are approximate as I can only find the Chinese names on my receipt):

Shrimp and Matsutake Dumplings at Sun Sui Wah

Shrimp and Matsutake Dumplings at Chef Tony

  • Shrimp and Matsutake Dumplings (松茸蝦餃皇) – There’s actually no matsutake in this dumpling, but regardless they were delicious. The dumpling wrappers were on point, not being too sticky and delicately tearing off with easy when biting. The shrimp filling was subtly seasoned, but just enough to bring out the freshness of the shrimp. These might be as close to a shrimp dumpling made in Hong Kong that I have found on this side of the Pacific.
  • Scallop Noodle Rolls (白玉帶子腸粉) – Sadly, the masterful technique present in the har gow did not translate to the noodle rolls. The noodle rolls were a bit sticky and did not hold the scallop well at all. On the other hand, the scallops were very large and nice. The sauce was on the side too, which allowed you to put the perfect amount of sauce you want on the noodle rolls.
Fried Sticky Rice Roll with Peanuts at Chef Tony

Fried Sticky Rice Roll with Peanuts at Chef Tony

  • Fried Sticky Rice Roll with Peanuts (脆皮糯米卷) – When I wanted to try something more innovative, I thought these might be nice. Unfortunately, I think the rice was undercooked and it was far too tough, crisp, and chewy overall.
  • Chef Tony Special Egg White Custard Tarts (酥皮奶香蛋撻) – The egg white custards on these were very nice. It was like a beautiful steamed egg that just happened to be on a perfectly done egg custard tart shell. While I think I prefer a regular egg custard chart with a richer experience, this was an interesting and less sweet adventure.

Overall, it seems like when Chef Tony does something well, it does them real well. However, on dishes that miss the mark, they are definitely not that great. I’ll just have to come back and try more dishes to give a better judgement.

Sun Sui Wah
4930 No. 3 Road #102
Richmond, BC V6X 3A5

The last time I was in Vancouver I actually wanted to come out to Sun Sui Wah instead of Kirin. However, Kirin’s City Hall location was more convenience for my itinerary. I definitely loved Kirin but it was time to finally time to try Sun Sui Wah now that it was more convenient for me.

I made a reservation for 1 at 11:30AM and thank God I did. As I expected, it was packed and the only way I got a seat was that they literally created a small table for me right behind the hostess desk near the entrance way. It made for less inviting ambience, but I still preferred the understated elegance of the part of the dining room I did see to the gaudy mess of Chef Tony. Even better, my seat faced the TV which was playing a US Open match.

Because they took a few minutes to set up my table, they asked me to order while I waited. I ticked off the menu, ordering the following:

  • Prawn Dumpling (水晶蝦餃皇) – Unlike Chef Tony, these were sadly the type of large, overgrown shrimp dumplings that pervade many of the top Cantonese restaurants in the US and Canada. The shrimp filling, while being tasty with a little bamboo shoot, were also too large. As such, the wrappers were abysmal, being too sticky and falling apart too easily because it tries to accommodate too much filling. TL;DR, it tastes good but the technique is subpar.
Truffle Scallop Dumpling at Sun Sui Wah

Truffle Scallop Dumpling at Sun Sui Wah

  • Truffle Scallop Dumpling (黑松露帶子餃) – If I thought the har gow were a bit large…it has nothing on these scallop dumplings. The wrapper were actually decent for these but the fillings were a bit too large. Don’t get me wrong, the scallop was very tasty, and what scallop eater doesn’t like a large, fresh scallop? However it was perhaps too big for the wrapper and the amount of truffle almost overpowered the scallop as well.
Shanghai Vegetable Bun at Sun Sui Wah

Shanghai Vegetable Bun at Sun Sui Wah

  • Shanghai Vegetable Bun (上海素菜包) – While I don’t order steamed buns in general, I needed a vegetarian item without paying an arm and a leg for a small plate of Chinese Broccoli. These were actually pretty good with a tasty diced vegetable filling that included mushrooms and napa cabbage. I really liked these.
Steamed Milk with Ginger Sauce at Sun Sui Wah

Steamed Milk with Ginger Sauce at Sun Sui Wah

  • Steamed Milk with Ginger Sauce (薑汁燩奶) – This was fantastic. A little sweet with a slight kick from the ginger, I felt like I was eating fluffs of heaven. The steamed milk also was nearly perfect textually as well, not being too watery and holding its shape very well.

While Sun Sui Wah could do a bit of work making their dumplings better proportionally, the flavors were very great. I think I still prefer Kirin overall, but I can see why Sun Sui Wah is immensely popular and constantly on top dim sum lists.

Overall, the quality and innovation of Vancouver area dim sum restaurants still make the area the place to beat when it comes to dim sum in North America. However, I can also say that the quality of the top places in San Francisco and Los Angeles, like Dragon Beaux, are now about as good as Vancouver’s top places. So while it doesn’t mean you need to go to Vancouver anymore to taste the best dim sum in North America, I do think the quality is still consistently better overall.

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.

Ramen in Portland

If I was skeptical that Thai food in Portland would be good, even with a world renown restaurant, then I certainly did not have high expectations for ramen in Portland. However, I am always up to try different types of Asian food wherever I travel so I ignored any reservations I had and dug right into my food adventures.

Mirakutei
536 E Burnside St
Portland, OR 97214

Tonkotsu Ramen at Mirakutei

Tonkotsu Ramen at Mirakutei

My first Portland ramen stop was Mirakutei, conveniently located a few blocks from the hotel I was staying. I went with my coworkers on a Monday afternoon who also wanted to grab lunch close by.

We sat down and looked at a very simple, one page lunch menu which had a few ramen options and a few bento box options. Most of us opted for the several ramen options that they had. I chose the tonkotsu ramen option, which came out fairly quickly. The broth was nice with a salty, rich pork stock that was filling but not too overpowering with fat. The noodles were good, if slightly more cooked than I liked. The pieces of pork were fabulous, however, with perfectly moist and tender meat and the eggs were perfectly soft boiled. At only $9.50, it is definitely a bargain lunch and well worth it.

Boxer Ramen
2309 NW Kearney Street
Portland, OR 97210

Boxer Ramen

Tonkotsu Shio at Boxer Ramen

A few days later my friend and I were on our way to Salt and Straw from the International Test Rose Garden and decided that we needed to eat some dinner first. While Northwest Portland has plenty of decent dining options, we spotted Boxer Ramen and decided to go in.

Boxer Ramen is pretty casual with a few picnic like tables set inside with a really simple menu of about 10 items plus a few seasonal side items on a separate sheet of paper. We both decided to get different types of ramen and share the Greens and Sesame. The Greens and Sesame came first and was very refreshing. The cabbage lightly flavored the chard as well and there was just enough oyster sauce to get a hint of saltiness. Then the Tonkotsu Shio came to the table. I wish the broth could have used a little more fat, but the noodles were cooked perfectly. The pork tender, if a little chewy, but I liked that there were a few more pieces than usual. The only true disappoint of the dish were the 2 soft poached eggs I had, which were very runny and, dare I say, bordering on raw. Overall, however, I liked my bowl of ramen and still found it pretty good.

All in all, the ramen in Portland I had certainly surpassed my expectations. In fact, despite the little imperfections here and there, I thought the ramen was still better overall compared to ramen shops in the East Bay. It goes to show that while mid-sized cities that don’t have a relatively large Asian population may not have restaurants that rise to the level of Los Angeles or New York, they certainly can have Asian food that can be competitive and above any expectations. I certainly won’t be bashful in trying out more ramen and Thai spots in Portland when I’m back again.

Thai Food in Portland

Portland is 72.2% non-Hispanic White and only 7.1% Asian. Given those statistics, I was extremely skeptical of Portland’s reputation of having really good Thai food. This is especially given that Andy Ricker, the chef/owner of the highly celebrated Pok Pok, is not Thai himself. (That’s not to say that non-Asians can’t be expert in a specific cuisine, as Fuschia Dunlap has done with Sichuan cuisine). Because of this, I just had to eat Thai food on my business trip to Portland just to taste and judge for myself.

Pok Pok Noi
1469 NE Prescott St.
Portland, OR 97211

Since it was a bit far for us to go to the original Pok Pok in Southeast Portland late on a Sunday night, my friend and I went to Pok Pok’s second location in Northeast Portland instead. Situated in a fairly residential part of Portland, we took seats at the counter of the cozy restaurant digs.

Ike's Vietnamese Chicken Wings at Pok Pok Noi

Ike’s Vietnamese Chicken Wings at Pok Pok Noi

It was hard to decide what item to get, as nearly every item sounded delicious (and this is a pared down menu from the original!), but I decided to get Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings. They were every bit as delicious as the raves on Yelp and other websites said they were. The skin was crispy and sticky with the slightly spicy fish sauce glaze. The meat inside was very juicy and infused some of the flavor of the fish sauce. There were some pickled vegetables on the side that helped to cut some of the richness of the wings. It’s not the only good chicken dish on the menu either, as the bites of chicken from my friend’s Pok Pok Special of Kai Yaang was just as amazing.

But Pok Pok isn’t just known for its food. It has more than 10 flavors of tasting vinegars as well. I got the ginger tasting vinegar, which was mixed with soda water, and it was a fabulously refreshing drink that had just enough gingery spice without being overpowering. The tasting vinegars are another good way to cut through the richness and fat of some of the dishes as well.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai
609 SE Ankeny St., Suite C
Portland, OR 97214

Pok Pok, however, isn’t Portland’s only well regarded Thai restaurant. Nong’s Khao Man Gai started in a very Portland way, as a food truck, and has since grown to a local mini chain that includes a brick and mortar store. Luckily for me, the brick and mortar restaurant was just a few blocks from my hotel, so it was a breeze to take advantage of that and grab a bite.

Nong's Khao Man Gai

Khao Man Gai at Nong’s Khao Man Gai

At the restaurant, like at a food truck, you order first. While there were a few options, I opted, of course, for the khao man gai, the Thai take on Hainanese Chicken Rice. I also got a side of steamed vegetables to make sure I got a balance of meat and vegetables. The khao man gai came out fairly quickly and it was delicious. The bits of chicken was poached excellently and balanced well by the spicy, gingery dipping sauce. While the chicken stock was a little saltier than I liked, it also provided a nice way to wash down the chicken and rice. The rice itself was cooked well too, with enough of the fattiness from the leftover poached chicken to have a nice, rich taste.

The steamed vegetables, on the other hand, were just alright. It consisted of both broccoli and Chinese broccoli bits that were steamed until just tender. While they were textually nice, they also lacked a little bit of flavor, but I suppose I shouldn’t expect more when I order just steamed vegetables. In any case, it was at least nice to have some greens to go with the chicken, rice, and sauce.

All in all, the Thai food in Portland, at least from my sampling, lived up to the hype and high expectations. While I still think there are cities with better Thai food like San Francisco and Los Angeles, Portland definitely gives those cities a run for its money. So the next time you’re in Portland, don’t just eat at their great New American restaurants like Tasty and Sons or Pine Street Biscuits, make sure to take a trip to their wonderful Thai restaurants as well.

 

Toronto & Markham

Last week I spent some quality vacation time in Montreal and Toronto for the 4th of July Canada Day weekend. It was a fun filled few days that included some exciting food adventures. While I did eat one Chinese meal in Montreal, it was decidedly mediocre. So if you’re planning a trip to Montreal, I would stick to classic French fare and local specialties like bagels and poutine than going on an Asian food adventure (Vietnamese food possible excepted).

The hub of fantastic Asian food is, instead, located west in Anglophone Canada. In the 2011 census Toronto was 49.1% ‘visible minority’, the Canadian term equivalent to ‘people of color’ excepting First Nations folk. And of the nearly half of Toronto that are people of color, nearly two-thirds of those are either of South Asian, East Asian, or Southeast Asian descent. These numbers increase when you go out to a number of Toronto suburbs, like Brampton, Richmond Hill, and Markham.

Needless to say, my Asian eating adventures dramatically improved when I hit Canada’s largest city. Below are just three of the limited samples of Asian food I was able to try on my brief 2 day stay in Toronto.

Sansotei Ramen
650 Yonge Street
Toronto, ON M4Y 2A6

Toronto 1

Tonkotsu Black at Sansotei Ramen

A friend from high school lives in Toronto and we decided to meet up and grab a bite at the Church and Wellesley (Toronto’s gayborhood) adjacent location of this well regarded local ramen chain.

With only 5-6 options, the menu was pretty simple. My friend and I both went with the Tonkotsu Black, which is a Tonkotsu broth with roasted garlic oil. The broth was fatty with a nice hint of garlic oil, but also managed not to be too heavy or overwhelming. I also got the thin ramen noodles which still had a nice bite even after being the the broth for a while. The eggs were perhaps slightly overcooked over soft boiled, but nonetheless still had good texture and flavor. And finally, the pork was thinly sliced, nice, and tender.

Overall, this was my best bowl of ramen in a while, after consistently disappointing bowls in the Bay Area.

Yang’s Chinese Cuisine
8432 Leslie St., Unit 110
Markham, ON L3T 7M6

Toronto’s suburbs of Markham and Richmond Hill are lined with suburban Chinese strip malls similar to LA’s San Gabriel Valley and Vancouver’s Richmond. It’s no surprise then that these are the places to go to get great Chinese food. In fact, suburban Toronto’s Chinese food is so good, it is considered 2nd best in North America, even better than the San Gabriel Valley.

To test how good the scene was, I decided to go to one of the newer restaurants reputed to have some of the best dim sum in the area: Yang’s Chinese Cuisine. After renting a car in downtown Toronto at 1PM, I made the mad dash to get to the restaurant before dim sum hours closed. Despite the later hour, the restaurant was still pretty busy and they managed to squeeze me at a small table in the side VIP room. I sat down, ordered my tea, and ticked off the menu for the following items:

  • Steamed Dumpling in Homestyle (家鄉蒸粉粿) – Given the rather vague name of the dish, I decided to take my chances with this only knowing that the menu said it contained peanuts. What ended up at my table was a very nicely made Cantonese style ‘sticky rice tamale’ that had some pork, Chinese sausage, and peanuts. It was pretty well executed but I was disappointed that it wasn’t quite a dumpling.
Steamed House Special Shrimp Dumpling at Yang's Chinese Cuisine

Steamed House Special Shrimp Dumpling at Yang’s Chinese Cuisine

  • Steamed House Special Shrimp Dumpling (順峰蝦餃皇) – These shrimp dumplings were pretty good with a wrapper that was thinner but pulled well. The filling was also nice, with fresh shrimp added by just a little salt and pepper.
  • Steamed Beef Stomach and Turnip with Chu Hau Sauce (柱候蘿蔔金錢肚) – On the flip side, this dish was just okay. Because this dish generally relies on the strength of the sauce to infuse into the otherwise bland-ish tasting honeycomb tripe and daikon, the flavors were a bit mild and lacked a little heat and spice.
Steamed Rice Roll with Egg Tofu and Pea Sprout Leaves at Yang's Chinese Cuisine

Steamed Rice Roll with Egg Tofu and Pea Sprout Leaves at Yang’s Chinese Cuisine

  • Steamed Rice Roll with Egg Tofu and Pea Sprout Leaves (鹽酥子豆苗腸) – The last item to come to the table also happened to be my favorite. I was fascinated on this take of the rice noodle roll and it didn’t disappoint. The delecate but well made rice noodle rolls held up perfectly bite sized morsels of fried bean curd and pea sprouts. The sweet soy sauce balanced the fresh, savory taste of the pea sprouts making every one of these bites really heavenly.

All in all the food was really good and on par with some of the best places in LA, even if it fell short of Vancouver. I was definitely very impressed by my first Chinese meal in metro Toronto.

Pacific Mall
4300 Steeles Ave E.
Markham, ON L3R 0Y5

My last stop on my Asian tour of Toronto was the locally famous Pacific Mall. The Pacific Mall is a mall about the size of a Costco with 2 floors and 100+ shops. Given the number of different shops and food stalls at the mall, I am fairly confident that this is the most Hong Kong style mall in all of North America.

Given the number of vendors, it was impossible to try them all so I went to a couple, one for lunch and one for dinner.

For lunch I settled on Kam Hing and got a deep fried chicken noodle soup. Originally I wanted the roast duck noodle soup, but they were already sold out. The chicken was okay, though in the broth the skin predictably became far too soggy. The noodles were nice however and the broth was decent and not too salty. Overall it was a satisfying, if not exactly sensational, lunch.

Afterward I headed straight over the the egg waffle vendor to get a fresh 鷄蛋仔 with the rest of my Canadian cash. The 鷄蛋仔 vendor had a steady stream of customers, which meant that the 鷄蛋仔 came out fresh and hot, but unfortunately a little undercooked as they rushed to get them out rather than waiting slightly longer to get the outside crispier.

All in all, my Toronto Asian food adventures were fantastic. Unfortunately, it was just not enough time. I didn’t even really make a dent at all in Markham, with its other big Chinese strip malls, and I never even made it to Brampton, Richmond Hill, or Scarborough. However that just means one thing: I’ll need to book another Canadian vacation soon.

 

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.