Tag Archives: Bay Area

Hawking Bird, Oakland

Hawking Bird
4901 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609

A lot of Oaklanders were disheartened when James Syhabout’s acclaimed Hawker Fare in Oakland’s uptown area closed earlier this year to make way for more luxury condos and apartments. While you could go to his 2 Michelin star restaurant, Commis, on Piedmont Ave or venture to San Francisco’s Mission District to the remaining outpost of Hawker Fare, East Bay residents yearning for Syhabout’s taste for Northern Thai were waiting for a huge hole to be filled. Fortunately, Syhabout decided to create a fast casual concept called Hawking Bird focusing on Thai style poached and fried chicken.

Hawking Bird opened on Thursday, when, coincidentally enough, I was doing some research to see where my friends should eat for lunch on Saturday. Given the rave reviews of the Khao Mun Gai (Thai version of Hainanese Chinese Rice) at Hawker Fare, I was excited to try it out and it happened to be a short-ish walk from my house.

We met up a little after 12:30PM. There were still a good number of seats and tables available so I sat down and reserved a table for us. When my friends came over, we took a look at the menu quickly and stood in line to order. A few minutes later, our buzzers rang and we picked up our food at the pick up counter near the kitchen. We ordered the following:

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KMG at Hawking Bird

  • KMG – Hawking Bird’s version of khao mun gai is flavorful with chicken poached just to doneness (though a friend of mine who also ordered the dish feared it may have not been quite cooked through). The meat was tender and the subtle flavor helped the sauce shine through and meld perfectly. The rice itself had the flavor of the poached chicken broth that allowed it to be aromatic without being too rich and fatty. Overall, a pretty good rendition of the dish.
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The Hawking Bird with Garlic Noodles

  • The Hawking Bird, Boxed – 2 of my friends got the hawking bird, one with the rice cooked with chicken fat and the other with the garlic noodles. The difference between the hawking bird and the KMG, as you can see in the pictures, is that the hawking bird itself is fried with a spicy jam-like sauce on top. The chicken was fried perfectly and the jam gave it a slightly sweet and perfectly spicy kick to it. It melded well with the rice but the garlic noodles were even better. The garlic noodles were made with perfectly cooked wheat noodles that had a nice kick of garlic and a very savory soy-based sauce. My one slight quibble with it was that when I ate part of my friend’s leftovers, the sauce of the garlic noodles and the jam of the hawking bird could meld into a concoction that’s a tad bit salty. But otherwise, you can’t go wrong with either dish.
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Tum Style Spicy Picked Vegetables at Hawking Bird

  • Tum Style Spicy Vegetable Pickles – The vegetables included in the pickles were carrots, onions, and green beans. I liked the pickles in that it provided a nice slightly sour kick that helped cut the richness in the other bites of food I was eating. While there was a nice amount of fish sauce, unfortunately I didn’t feel it was very spicy so those who are excited about the “spicy” part of the name are warned before getting disappointed.
  • Fried Tater Tots – The tater tots were pretty good, though I think they could have been fried just a slight bit longer. The seasoning was nice and light and my friends and I surmised that the seasoning is a mixture of seaweed powder, salt, and pepper. It was definitely a hit amongst the table.

All in all I really loved the Hawking Bird and think it’s a good addition to Temescal, providing good food at reasonable prices in a fast casual style. They are still open for limited hours until they get a liquor license for the bar and everything else up and running. However, if you manage to be in the Temescal area for lunch, I definitely recommend taking a bite at Hawking Bird.

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Ten Places to Taste Hong Kong in North America

It was 5 years ago this weekend that my mom passed away. While there were a number of delicious foods and restaurants she introduced my siblings and me to, the one that stood out the most in our memories were the cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳), also known as a Hong Kong style cafes. In fact, to this day my brother wistfully remembers the times and food we had at a now-closed cha chaan teng near the college he attended. So while I love all the dim sum, Korean BBQ, and pho we had, our meals at cha chaan tengs are what I miss the most.

And arguably, I think it’s the best type of restaurant to experience the culture and food of Hong Kong. Sure, dim sum is delicious, seafood palaces are sumptuous, and Cantonese BBQ purveyors deliver morsels of lip-smacking goodness, but nothing represents the East meets West, fast paced lifestyle that is quintessentially Hong Kong like a cha chaan teng.

After all, cha chaan tengs are essentially Hong Kong’s version of a diner, and honestly what is a more quintessential American restaurant than a diner? Like a diner, cha chaan tengs may not have the best food, but the food is reliable and comfortable. And of course, they are ubiquitous in Hong Kong. A block could have a few cha chaan tengs, all doing brisk business with lines waiting for a seat.

Thus, here’s a guide to ten decent cha chaan tengs where you can sip a good cup of Hong Kong style milk tea, eat a steak with black pepper sauce and rice, and take a bite of a pineapple bun across North America (restaurants sorted by metro area by state/province. There are other metros with decent cha chaan tengs, this is just a selection):

Vancouver/Richmond, BC

Cafe Gloucester (3338 Cambie St, Vancouver) – Not the most glamorous cha chaan teng (though most are rarely glamorous), but they serve reasonably good takes on classic Hong Kong diner dishes with larger portions and reasonable prices. I loved their Hong Kong style Russian borscht in particular.

Silver Tower Cafe Restaurant (100-8500 Alexandra Road, Richmond) – There are a few cha chaan tengs in this couple block stretch of Alexandra Road in Richmond alone, but I find Silver Tower Cafe to be one of the better ones. Whether you want steak on top of a bed of french fries and peas or a bowl of beef brisket noodle soup, they have it all and almost everything I’ve had there in the couple times I’ve been have been very satisfying. Best of all for a traveler, it’s just relatively short walk from the Landsdowne Canada Line station.

Los Angeles, CA (inc. the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County)

JJ Cafe (447 Garvey Ave, Monterey Park) – One of the first popular cha chaan tengs in the San Gabriel Valley, JJ Cafe has been dishing out solid, if not spectacular food for a couple decades. The baked pork chop dishes and milk tea here are fairly representative of the east-west fusion you would find back in Hong Kong.

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Tasty Garden (288 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra; also in Irvine, Monterey Park, and Westminster) – This mini chain in SoCal executes almost all its dishes well. I prefer the Alhambra location for excellent execution of the Cantonese comfort dishes on the menu in addition to excellent Hong Kong milk tea and egg waffles done right (unlike at some other branches).

San Francisco Bay Area, CA

Cooking Papa 1

Dumpling and wonton noodle soup at Cooking Papa

Cooking Papa (949A Edgewater Blvd, Foster City; also in Mountain View and Santa Clara) – Not a true cha chaan teng as they do not have the ubiquitous Hong Kong style western food that’s endemic and definitive of a cha chaan teng, but they do a solid serving of classic Cantonese food with pretty decent milk tea. Foster City used to be the standard to beat, but I’ve had better food at their Santa Clara location more recently.

Hong Kong Chef (46356 Warm Springs Blvd in Fremont) – I came here on a whim during the first day of service at the Warm Springs/South Fremont station and it didn’t disappoint. I really liked their preserved meat claypot rice dish as well as their various stir-fried vegetables including Chinese broccoli and tong choy.

Kowloon Tong Dessert Cafe (393 7th Ave, San Francisco) – Some of the best milk tea and egg waffles I’ve had in the Bay Area have been at this tucked in restaurant on 7th Ave in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. While their entree plates are fairly mediocre (which you can tell by their name), their snacks and desserts are pretty good, including their curry fishballs that definitely tasted like home.

Hong Kong Style Milk Tea at Shooting Star Cafe

Hong Kong Style Milk Tea at Shooting Star Cafe

Shooting Star Cafe (1022 Webster St, Oakland) – Glitzy decor and modern-ish furnishings set this cha chaan teng apart from most others. But this restaurant isn’t just about the looks. I find it has the best milk tea I have tasted in the Bay Area and they shine very bright in their desserts, including their egg waffles. Their savory food leaves a little more to be desired but there are some gems there too, including their Hainanese Chicken Rice, Wonton Noodle Soup, and Black Pepper Short Ribs.

New York, NY

Cha Chan Tang (45 Mott St, New York) – Their menu sides more with the instant ramen, sandwiches, and macaroni soups that are popular in Hong Kong and they do them fairly well. Those are not my favorite cha chaan teng dishes, but it definitely gives you another side of Hong Kong cuisine where they make “western” foods uniquely their own.

Toronto, ON

Phoenix Restaurant (7155 Woodbine Ave., Markham; also on McCowan in Markham, Scarborough, and Thorhill) – This place excels the most at baked rice dishes, Hainanese Chicken Rice, and their Hong Kong style twist on Southeast Asian food, but other dishes seem to be solid as well. 

Of course, most of these cha chaan tengs also have “authentically” Hong Kong style service, where turning tables is of the upmost importance. So sit down, look at the menu quickly (yes, even with all the options!), order, and eat. If you need something, just wave your hands. Yes, this perfunctory service is part of the ambience. It’s not necessarily rude, just ruthlessly efficient and an integral part of Hong Kong’s go-go-go culture.

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Shiba Ramen’s Ramen, Ranked

Shiba Ramen
1438 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612

As I mentioned previously, I generally try to avoid reviewing another location of a restaurant I have previously reviewed. The two exceptions have been Din Tai Fung (to blog about the original Din Tai Fung versus the one in Glendale) and Tim Ho Wan (to blog about how its first US location in New York City compares to Hong Kong). I do this because chains, in general, vary little location to location. For instance, while the Alhambra location of Tasty Garden might be the best location, the Monterey Park, Westminster, and Irvine locations aren’t too far off in general.

That said, I felt compelled to write a blog post about Shiba Ramen’s second location in downtown Oakland, just across the street from my office. I felt compelled because of two reasons: 1) my review in Emeryville was of one item and felt a bit incomplete and 2) Shiba Ramen has become my favorite ramen place in Oakland. There is also one key difference between their two locations, the use of ceramic bowls in Oakland as opposed to melamine bowls in Emeryville. Ceramic bowls retain heat a little better, addressing the temperature issues I had in Emeryville.

But instead of a traditional review, I’ll do a countdown of all the bowls of ramen they sell, from least favorite to “best”. Of course, this is a highly subjective ranking so your mileage may very based on your taste. So without further ado…

8) Spicy Ramen – It’s not that the spicy ramen is a bad ramen, but I’m generally not a fan of ground pork in noodle soups and I don’t find the broth that spicy. I much prefer the original Sichuanese dan dan mian instead.

7) White Bird – The thickest and fattiest ramen broth of the group, the White Bird adds another level of rich flavor akin to the tonkotsu ramen that many Americans are used to seeing. That said, the rich fattiness quickly cools off, coagulating a little too quickly and not landing well after the first few slurps.

6) Summer Ramen (seasonal special) – The yuzu dressing is light and refreshing and the noodles are great. Unfortunately, I’m not quite a fan of the cold slices of cooked chashu and I’ve never really been a fan of raw tomatoes. That said, it is a great alternative to ramen broths on a hot summer day.

5) Miso – Less thick than the White Bird but still almost as rich, the miso is a very well rounded ramen broth. I love that there’s a lot of vegetables in the ramen as well. I’m just sad that the time consuming nature of the dish means that its generally only available during the evening service (after I leave work).

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Soymilk Ramen at Shiba Ramen

4) Soymilk – This is, without a doubt, the best vegetarian ramen broth I have ever had. The broth is rich and thick with flavor with a soymilk base wile being light enough to balance the various vegetables in the broth. In the summer the ramen is topped off with a grilled romanesco (during the winter they used kabocha squash) which provides something a little crunchy and hearty in place of a meat protein.

3) Clear – Shiba’s shio ramen is perfect in its simplicity. It’s clear and light which allows the pork, noodles, and menma to shine. While the lighter broth is great for when you are feeling less well, it’s lack of a little more umph means it doesn’t quite hit my number 1.

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Dry Ramen at Shiba Ramen

2) Dry – The tender chunks of pork with a little bit of the marinade and dressing mixes so well with ramen cooked perfectly. Honestly, it was almost my number one ramen from Shiba, but it’s definitely one of my go to ramens in Oakland

Clear Dark Ramen at Shiba Ramen

Clear Dark Ramen at Shiba Ramen

1) Clear Dark – The soy sauce base combines with the clear broth to make a shoyu ramen that is rich with umami but still light enough not to feel heavy. It is a perfectly balanced broth and Shiba adds to that with a few leaves of bok choy to complement to the chashu. The Clear Dark is absolutely wonderful and my top recommendation.

Regardless of what you order, however, it is unlikely you’ll be disappointed by your meal at Shiba Ramen. As a bonus, they have a bunch of appetizer items to whet your appetite include delicious chicken wings and lotus chips. If you’ve ever eaten at the Shiba Ramen in downtown Oakland, it’ll be easy to see why I enjoy it as an easy lunch spot.

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Tastee Steam Kitchen, Oakland

Tastee Steam Kitchen
329 11th Street
Oakland, CA 94607

On most workdays I travel to Oakland Chinatown for lunch since it’s a fairly short walk from my office and I can get lunch at a reasonably affordable prices. When I’m in Chinatown, I usually make it to the corner of 11th and Webster where I eat lunch at either Baby Cafe or Shooting Star Cafe for some classic, filling Hong Kong style cafe food. Over the last few months, though, I noticed signs for a new restaurant called Tastee Steam Kitchen.

Since I’m curious about any new Chinese restaurant in Oakland Chinatown, I took a look and was fascinated by a restaurant dedicated to “steam grilling”, which I had never heard before (and seems like a thing in Hong Kong?). I was intrigued, especially since it was opened by the same owners of Shooting Star Cafe, but the price seemed like a pricey hot pot so I decided to wait.

But then came its addition to Michael Bauer’s top 100 restaurants of the Bay Area and I felt compelled to finally go. My aunt was thinking about getting together for dinner too and I decided that it would be the perfect opportunity to try a new place out.

We went on a Thursday night and got seated right away. We carefully browsed the menu which was very similar to an ala carte hot pot place like Little Sheep. There was a list of congee bases you could choose from (the steam and the drippings from the cooked food combine with the congee base to create a congee at the end of the meal). Then there was a list of sauces you could choose for 25 cents each, in addition to the free soy sauce, vinegar, and hot chile oil they have on the table. Then there is a selection of meats, seafood, vegetables, and dim sum items you select to steam at your table. After looking at the menu, we ordered the following:

Marble Beef (before steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

Marble Beef (before steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

  • Marble Beef (肥牛) – Our first plate was marble beef that was steamed to just perfectly done. While thinly sliced, the fat in the beef help give the meat a nice, juicy flavor that matched well with the spicy soy sauce mixture I had. At $5, it was super cheap for the portion as well.
  • Egg Tofu with Ground Pork in XO Sauce (XO滑肉豆腐) – I think we were expecting more of a steam egg/meatloaf like dish but these pork meatloaf bits and tofu were nice, if less than exciting. The meat was juicy, though I was hoping for a little more spiciness and saltiness. It was hard to eat it together with the medium soft tofu. It was alright, if not exciting.
Snow Pea Leaves (after steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

Snow Pea Leaves (after steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

  • Snow Pea Leaves 大豆苗 – I love pea leaves and when these were steaming, it was so great to smell the fragrant, nutty aroma. They were steamed perfectly, and the milder flavor helped absorb the sauces well. I do wish, however, that this came in between the meat dishes.
  • Lotus Root 蓮藕 – There was a LOT of lotus root so if you love lotus root, this is exceptionally good value. The lotus root probably could have used more steam to make it softer, but the crunch was still nice and made for a good vessel for the sauces.
  • Custard Bun 流沙包 – Finally, we ended the meal with a bun filled with runny custard. Like the other items, it was steamed and timed exactly right. The buns were oozing with delicious runny custard that was a perfect end to the meal.
Cordyceps Flower and Chicken Congee at the end

Cordyceps Flower and Chicken Congee at the end

Afterward we had the cordyceps flower and chicken congee. While the rice and chicken cooked beautifully with all that steam and water, the congee was a bit lacking in flavor. However, that’s likely due to the fact that we only had one dish that had major protein juice drippings to help flavor the congee. It probably would have been more flavorful if we got a seafood dish instead of a vegetable dish.

All in all, I liked Tastee Steam Kitchen though I do wish they alternated between cooking vegetables and meat instead of cooking meat at the beginning then vegetables. I’ll definitely have to go again and order more meat and seafood to see how it flavors the congee in the end. There is certainly a lot of potential to this new type of cooking that’s as healthy as hot pot with the ability to have everything perfectly cooked on a “grill”. I’ll just have to go a little bit more before I can confidently say it’s one of the best restuarants in the Bay.

 

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China Live, San Francisco

China Live
644 Broadway
San Francisco, CA

After languishing for years as more and more people flocked to the Richmond and Sunset for San Francisco’s best Chinese food, SF’s Chinatown has seen a resurgence of late. Chong Qing Xiao Mian, Hanlin Tea House, and Mister Jiu’s are among the most notable of the new restaurants that have opened in the last year or so. Now comes China Live, an ambitious houseware store and restaurant with additional plans for a cocktail lounge on the 2nd floor. It’s large, it’s modern, and it’s perhaps the most symbolic statement yet that Chinatown is adapting to the diversification of Chinese food in the Bay Area and the gentrification of the city while still proudly maintaining its Chinese roots.

Given its loud splash in the neighborhood and promise of quality, if pricey, food, I was eager to try out the place. I got that opportunity on Saturday when I went to CAAMfest’s Eat Chinatown short film showing in conjunction with 41 Ross’ current gallery exhibition of beloved Chinatown stalwarts (which you should definitely check out if you’re in the Bay Area by April 9). Since my good friend and I were already in the area, we decided to check out China Live for dinner right after.

We arrived a little before 8PM and stood in line to get a table. When we arrived at the front of the line we were notified that the wait would be one hour, so I put down my cell phone number. Afterwards, my friend and I browsed the attached houseware shop to see their range of interesting items, including whiskey barrel aged soy sauce and dried abalone from Kona.

At about 8:45PM we were alerted that our table was ready and we finally had a seat. Our seat faced the open kitchen where most of the cooking takes place. This included a view of the tanks with live lobsters and crabs, which we were sorely tempted to order, but settled on these items instead:

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Charred Chinese Broccoli at China Live

  • Charred Chinese Broccoli -The first dish we had also turned out to be my favorite dish. I am perfectly content with blanched or stir fried Chinese broccoli, one of my favorite vegetables, but grilling them to a crisp was to a whole new level. I loved play between the crunchiness of leaves with the tenderness of the stems. The mushrooms gave a nice, light umami flavor as well which I liked even more than the regular oyster sauce you usually get.
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Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan at China Live

  • Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan – I’m not sure why they transliterated this dish from Mandarin when it is a classic Cantonese dish, but either way the dish had tasty bits of Chinese sausage, ham, and thin slices of duck. The server presented the dish, poured the soy sauce, and mixed the rice, which was baffling to me as the sauce should have simmered in the (covered) clay pot for another couple minutes before serving. Nonetheless, the dish was still tasty and had some stalks of bok choy to help balance and soak up the richness of the sauce and meats. So all in all it hit the mark on flavor mostly, but definitely missed the mark in presentation.
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Xiao Long Bao at China Live

  • Xiao Long Bao (XLB) – Despite ordering this when I first ordered, apparently the server mistakenly did not put it on the ticket. This meant we continually waited for a dish that apparently was never put in the system! Thankfully, when we asked about them again after finishing the other two dishes, she noted that it would only be another 6 minutes for the next batch of XLB. The XLB skins were decently thin, albeit a bit chewy and gummy, so it wasn’t quite executed right. The soup was rather light, but had a good portion to go along with the tender pork dumpling. The vinegar and soy sauce was on point, however, which helped mask and balance the flaws of the dish.

To go along with our food, we ordered the Chrysanthemum Oolong Tea as well, which was very nice with the balance of floral sweetness of the Chrysanthemum with the nutty earthiness of the Oolong. It was beautifully presented in a clear glass kettle, though I am not sure it really warranted $10 for a pot.

All in all, even a week into the service, there are still a bit of hickups on the service side. Like many San Francisco restaurants nowadays, they are short staffed and I think the frantic energy with the multiple stations, while fascinating to see, also hurts the seamlessness of the service. That said, the food is reasonably good (if a bit pricey) and I’ll return again later to try different dishes when hopefully all the service issues have been ironed out.

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Egg Waffles (鷄蛋仔)

After dinner Sunday night my friends and I decided to go to a Hong Kong dessert place. We stumbled on the place by pure accident, but it gave me a chance to eat one of my favorite dessert items for my birthday: an egg waffle (or 鷄蛋仔 as it’s called in Cantonese and eggette as an alternative in English).

Egg waffles, if you don’t know, are very popular dessert/snack items sold on street stalls throughout Hong Kong. While the origins of this snack item is little known, the modern day form is an egg rich batter that goes into a waffle like griddle with egg-like pockets where puffs of chewy dough form. An ideal egg waffle is crispy and crunchy on the outside while also being soft, slightly sweet, and a little chewy inside the puffs. These can be enjoyed throughout the day, but usually I have them either as a mid-Afternoon snack or a post-dinner dessert.

雞蛋仔 at 利強記北角雞蛋仔  credit to Phillip Lai - "雞蛋仔 #lkk #hongkong" ( https://flic.kr/p/migDuc )

雞蛋仔 at 利強記北角雞蛋仔
credit to Phillip Lai – “雞蛋仔 #lkk #hongkong” ( https://flic.kr/p/migDuc )

The best place I have had an egg waffle is, of course, in Hong Kong. There is a famous stall in the North Point neighborhood called LKK (利強記北角雞蛋仔 in Chinese) on 492 Kings Road, at the corner of Kam Hong Street. On Kings Road it’s hard to spot, but once you turn the corner onto Kam Hong St. you will see an unmistakable line for these egg waffles. The place is an institution, with a number of photos of TVB stars, like Nancy Sit, eating egg waffles at the place plastering the wall of the stall. Yet, it’s location in a fairly working class residential neighborhood means it is never really mentioned in English or Mainland Chinese travel press, given the place a very local feel. They even have a couple of other locations in Hong Kong, testifying to its popularity. The egg waffles, of course, are super great as well with pretty much perfect texture and at a bargain of $2 USD for one.

However, you definitely don’t need to travel to Hong Kong to eat an egg waffle. If you live or visit a city with a large population of immigrants who were born and raised in Hong Kong, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, you can get a bite of one too.

San Francisco Bay Area

It should be no surprise that the Bay Area has plenty of food vendors and restaurants that serve egg waffles. After all, the Bay Area has the largest number of residents that are from Hong Kong according to the census bureau, and it’s the only major metropolitan area with multiple Chinatowns where Cantonese is the lingua franca.

雞蛋仔 at Hong Kong Snack House

雞蛋仔 at Hong Kong Snack House

If you live in the East Bay (around Oakland and Berkeley), like I do, there are a number of options for one to get a taste of an egg waffle. Probably my favorite is the aptly named Hong Kong Snack House in the Pacific East Mall. The tiny store is very reminiscent of a Hong Kong street stall and serve nicely cooked, if slightly underdone, egg waffles. In Oakland Chinatown there are a number of options. If you are on the go, there is the Quickly on 10th Street that can satisfy your on the go craving for both boba and egg waffles. However, if you rather have it at a sit down restaurant, you can go to one of several Hong Kong style cafes/cha chaan tengs like the more upscale Shooting Star Cafe or the more bare bones Yummy Guide.

雞蛋仔 at Creations Dessert House

雞蛋仔 at Creations Dessert House

The city and the Peninsula are not left wanting either. Just the other day my friends and I went to Creations Dessert House in the Richmond where they served perfectly crispy, if oddly misshapen egg waffles. There is also the 4 location chain called Eggettes where egg waffles are their raison d’être. Not to be left out is the well reviewed Kowlooon Tong Dessert Cafe. And if you want a feel of being on a crowded street in Hong Kong, there is Dessert Republic in downtown San Mateo.

Los Angeles

雞蛋仔 at Tasty Garden in Westminster

雞蛋仔 at Tasty Garden in Westminster

To eat an egg waffle in Los Angeles, one will have to do what they have to do to eat any other amazing authentic Chinese food item: drive to the San Gabriel Valley. Once you are in the SGV, however, the number of options are numerous. A vast number of Hong Kong style cafes/cha chaan tengs have them, so you can get your fill at places like Tasty Garden in Alhambra and Monterey Park, Cafe Spot in Alhambra, and Tasty Station in Rowland Heights. Don’t need a meal and just prefer desserts or snacks? Tea and dessert places like Puffect in Walnut and Fresh Roast in Alhambra.

If you prefer not to drive in the SGV, not all is lost. Tasty Garden also has locations in Irvine and Westminster, though I prefer the egg waffles at the Westminster location. And while I haven’t tried the egg waffles at Phoenix, they do offer them at their locations in Gardena and Garden Grove.

Elsewhere

Outside of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, egg waffles are a little harder to find in the United States. While there was an “egg cake lady” named Cecilia Tam that sold bits of egg waffles in New York City during the 80s and 90s, there is little presence of the egg waffles now. You still, however, can get them in Boston at a little stall in Chinatown. In San Diego, one can find them at E + Drink, which is interesting given that the place is mostly Taiwanese (albeit Hong Kong style dessert places in the Bay Area often serve boba instead of Hong Kong style milk tea).

But no matter where I have an egg waffle, eating one just brings me a sense of warmth and comfort. It’s the ultimate snack, a perfect way to finish a busy day of work or a nice bonus to a birthday celebration with friends. In fact, I wish I was eating one right now.

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Peony Seafood Restaurant, Oakland

Peony Restaurant
388 9th Street #288
Oakland, CA 94612

If you go to many Chinatowns, especially those in American suburbs like the San Gabriel Valley or Houston, you will hear a preponderance of Mandarin being spoken. Much of this is due to immigration of Taiwanese in the past few decades combined with a newer wave of Mainland Chinese people in those areas. Because of this, the last bastion of Cantonese dominant Chinese enclaves is the first major American metropolitan area that people in Guangdong province settled in: the San Francisco Bay Area. Therefore, I thought the perfect place to start my blogging of Bay Area Asian food as a resident is an older Cantonese restaurant that has reinvented itself anew again.

Peony Seafood Restaurant sits at the second floor of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, a mixed-use center built in 1993 at a time when Hong Kong developers poured money to build new, gleaming Chinese catering strip malls up and down California. In its previous incarnation starting in the 1990s, Peony was one of many Hong Kong style seafood palaces opening up serving dim sum on carts at lunch and upscale Cantonese food for dinner. However, by the early years of the decade the restaurant had become warn and stale, with a number of complaints on review sites like Yelp stating its mediocre food, high prices, iffy cleanliness, and dwindling clientele. The restaurant subsequently closed in 2013.

Checksheet Menu at Peony Seafood Restaurant

Checksheet Menu at Peony Seafood Restaurant

However, in 2014 it reopened again under new management. While the restaurant’s basic format didn’t change – it still served dim sum at lunch and seafood dishes for dinner – the presentation, menu, and service did. Gone were the carts of old, replaced by a dim sum checklist menu similar of more modern, higher quality places in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Hong Kong. The restaurant received good reviews so I decided to give it a couple of tries when friends of mine were in town. The following were some of the dishes I got throughout my visits and my thoughts:

Shrimp Dumpling at Peony Seafood Restaurant

Shrimp Dumpling at Peony Seafood Restaurant

  • Shrimp Dumpling – The overall flavors of the dish are strong, including the freshness of the shrimp. However, the har gows here suffer from too much of a good thing as the mix of the shrimp and the relative thinness of the rice flour dumpling wrapper means that the skin falls apart easily. A for effort but a C in terms of execution.
  • Siu Mai – I think the siu mai is pretty good here with a nice mixture of pork, shrimp, and mushrooms. The flavors are nice, albeit the pork might be too dense.
  • Chinese Broccoli With Oyster Sauce – My go to palate cleanser at American dim sum restaurants and Peony does these right. I’m not sure what they exactly do, but it tastes like they blanched the Chinese broccoli and quickly stir fry it to give is a slightly crispy and slightly crunchy bit. With oyster sauce on the side, their version allows the stems and leaves to be perfectly enjoyed.
  • Sugar Egg Puff – While I’m always disappointed when a place gives you egg puffs before you finish the savory parts of your meal, these are probably the 2nd or 3rd best versions of this I have tried in the Bay Area, after the vaunted Cooking Papa (which does wait until you finish with the savory dishes!)
  • Steam Custard Buns – While “Quicksand buns” (流沙包) are all the rage for dessert at more modern dim sum places, Peony doesn’t have them. Instead they have these steam custard buns which come with a more liquid rich custard filling that feels like a cross between the “quicksand” buns and the more traditional custard buns.
Dim Sum at Peony Seafood Restaurant

Dim Sum at Peony Seafood Restaurant

While it’s really hard to flag someone down for service here, the food is good and definitely better than its previous incarnation. The above average food does also come with above average prices, though, so be warned if you’re used to prices at older dim sum palaces that still use carts. And while I won’t say that Peony competes toe to toe with Hong Kong Lounge II as the best Dim Sum in the Bay Area, it currently shines over East Ocean in Alameda as the best dim sum I have had recently in the East Bay.

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Bay Area’s Best Dim Sum?

As many of you know, I did a research project to find the best dim sum in the United States. Based on the methodology I used, the top four places in the San Francisco are:

  1. Yank Sing
  2. Koi Palace
  3. Hong Kong Lounge II
  4. Mama Ji’s

Since I was in the Bay Area for 2 weeks over the holidays, I decided to eat my way through the top 4  and give my subjective review of those places and how I think they match up with their place in the rankings.

Yank Sing

The first place I visited over my time in San Francisco was Yank Sing, which is also ranked the highest. It’s also very costly with dim sum dishes priced at least $5.60 which was one of several reasons why I had never been to the restaurant until now. Despite the prices though, Yank Sing is a popular and bustling place, not only because of its food but of its proximity to San Francisco’s Financial District and tech firms in SoMa that can support the prices and become an ever constant speakerphone for their quality.

As a consequence of its high prices, however, I only ordered a few dishes which included:

Dim Sum at Yank Sing

Dim Sum at Yank Sing

  • Kurobata Pork Shanghai Dumplings – I can see why many people rave about these xiaolongbao. They are probably the best xiaolongbao I have ever tasted at a Cantonese dim sum place given the flavorful, melt in your mouth pork and the delicious soup that accompanied the dumplings. The pork filling was also nicely balanced out with the Chinese vinegar and slices of ginger that came with them. However, the skins could use some work as a couple did break. All in all, they are good but nothing to the level of a Shanghainese restaurant or any location of Din Tai Fung.
  • Shrimp Dumpling – In theory, the har gow at Yank Sing fits everything on what a shrimp dumpling is supposed to be. The shrimp filling has a nice snap and is added by a hint of aromatics. The dumpling skin doesn’t rip, has a nice chew, and break apart perfectly when I chew. Yet somehow I didn’t really care for them as I thought the skin was too gummy.
  • Snowpea Shoots Dumpling – I love snowpea shoots (豆苗) and they did not disappoint in these dumplings. The skin, in contrast to the har gow skin, were nice too. If it weren’t for the price I’d definitely eat more.
Pan Fried Turnip Cake at Yank Sing

Pan Fried Turnip Cake at Yank Sing

  • Pan-Fried Turnip Cake – Despite not looking that great, they actually turned out really well and perfectly fried with a nice crispy outside yet a soft chewy inside. They’re probably the best I’ve eaten.

All in all, Yank Sing was pretty good and, as you’d expect, the service was great too. Was that the best dim sum in the Bay Area though? I still had some reservations and came out of the place thinking Koi Palace might be a little better (and definitely a better value).

Mama Ji’s

The next place I went to was Mama Ji’s out in the Castro. Since Mama Ji’s is in a neighborhood with many wealthy White people instead of a predominantly Chinese neighborhood, I was a little skeptical. Regardless, it just happened to be relatively close to my brother’s SoMa apartment so a group of us decided to go and try it out.

Once we arrived, my skepticism and concerns were unfounded. The restaurant is owned by a nice couple that really try to do their best in making dim sum and to bring the delight of the cuisine to people who likely wouldn’t eat in Chinatown, much less journey to RIchmond or the Sunset.

As to the food, we ordered:

Pork and Shrimp Sui Mai at Mama Ji's

Pork and Shrimp Sui Mai at Mama Ji’s

  • Pork Shrimp Siu Mai – Pretty good and packed full of juicy, tender pork. Perhaps needed a bit more shrimp.
  • Sweet Rice with Shrimp Sausage and Egg Wrapped in Lotus Leaf – Normally made with chicken, it was interesting to see this twist with shrimp sausage and egg. It was good but I prefer the more traditional version
  • Pan Fried Turnip Cake with Dried Shrimp – The dried shrimp provided a nice salty flavor to enhance the dish but otherwise it was rather boring. Unlike the Yank Sing version, these cakes were not fried enough and were a little too oily.
  • Blanched Chinese Broccoli – As my brother insisted since none of our family dim sum experiences were complete without gai lan, I obliged and ordered it. The gai lan was pretty fresh and a nice palate cleanser to balance all the oil in the other dishes but was otherwise pretty bland.
Pork Spareribs at Mama Ji's

Pork Spareribs at Mama Ji’s

  • Steam Spareribs with Black Bean Sauce – Nice tender pork spareribs that might have just had a little too much jalapeno. I don’t mind spicy but the spice on some spareribs were a bit overpowering
  • Har Gow – The shrimp was cooked well but the skins were a bit too thick and stretchy.
Golden Lava Buns at Mama Ji's

Golden Lava Buns at Mama Ji’s

  • Steamed Golden Lava Buns – These were perfect with a nice fluffy bun on the outside and a very nice sweet and salty egg custard filling that wasn’t too runny. My brother’s fiance loved them too!

All in all these items were pretty good those definitely not to the quality of Yank Sing. Compared to other Bay Area dim sum restaurants I’ve also been to I would say Mama Ji’s is better than many of them but I am not quite sure they would land at number 4 on my personal best Bay Area dim sum list.

Hong Kong Lounge II

The next day I took some of my holiday break time to traverse to Laurel Heights and eat at the number 3 ranked dim sum place in the Bay Area, Hong Kong Lounge II. It was unfortunate that none of my friends or family could join me as they still had to work that day, but their absence does not deter me from trying out delicious food!

After waiting for about 30 minutes I got a table and started ordering. Unfortunately the restaurant has a $25 credit card minimum. However that became a blessing in disguise as I was forced to order more dishes and try a wider selection of what they make. These dishes included:

Fried Pork Puff at Hong Kong Lounge II

Fried Pork Puff at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • Fried Pork Puff (安蝦咸水角) – Hands down these were the best I’ve ever had. The puff pastry was light and flaky as it should with the filling being perfectly seasoned and not overpowering the pastry. I was really tempted to order another one!
  • P/F Turnip Cake (香煎蘿蔔糕) – These were good, but a little blander than the Mama Ji’s version. However, they were fried better but still didn’t quite get the crunch on the outside/soft in the inside texture I desire like Yank Sing
  • Shrimp Dumpling (晶瑩鮮蝦餃) – These har gow allowed the slightly crunchy shrimp filling to sing. The flip side is this meant that the skin wasn’t quite up to par as they ripped fairly easily, even if I liked the taste of the skin compared to Yank Sing.
Chinese Donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle at Hong Kong Lounge II

Chinese Donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • Chinese donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle (蔥花蝦米炸兩) – I almost got the fish with chives noodle roll (which did look tasty on the table next to me) but opted for this instead. This was definitely a great choice as the noodle rolls were made and rolled perfectly with a nicely crunchy you tiao and tasty shrimp filling in the middle. These were even better than the noodle rolls I’ve had at Cooking Papa.
Deep Fried Egg Puff Ball at Hong Kong Lounge II

Deep Fried Egg Puff Ball at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • D/F Egg Puff Ball (白糖沙翁) – As one might suspect, these were little pillows of heaven. The filling was a little more eggy than other versions I’ve had but still pretty good as dessert. They aren’t as good as Cooking Papa’s but definitely better and fresher than those served at other places like Zen Peninsula. Unfortunately with all the dishes I was so full that I couldn’t eat more than one.

Personal Conclusions

Unfortunately my schedule didn’t allow me to drive to Daly City and revisit Koi Palace. However, I had eaten there earlier in the year so I still think I have a fairly good memory and basis for comparison.

After having eaten at all 4 of the top 4 ranked dim sum places in the Bay Area I come to a little bit of a different conclusion personally. I would rate Koi Palace number 1 with Hong Kong Lounge II barely behind at number 2. Both have extremely well executed dishes and their less successful dishes arguably still shines above their closest competitors. Yank Sing is not far behind at number 3, though I doubt I’ll be visiting them again very soon as I definitely don’t have the bank account for that. Mama Ji’s is definitely number 4 in a comparison of these dim sum parlors, but I might even put them a little lower compared to others.

That said, all 4 are still on the higher end of dim sum quality in my book and I am glad I have such a variety of tasty options when I visit my friend and family in the Bay.

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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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