Tag Archives: San Diego

My Favorite Chinatowns

It’s been months since I wrote a blog post, since the pandemic has really made my normal blog staples, reviewing different restaurants, virtually impossible. I thought about writing a blog post on what restaurants are open to outdoor dining, but I am wary about tacitly endorsing dining, even outdoors, in the midst of a new surge and plateau of cases in much of the US.

So instead, I figured I would write about my personal favorite Chinatowns in North America that I’ve been to, why I like them, and which of my favorite restaurants are still open for takeout. The order is loosely based on my preference but don’t fret, even if I left yours out, I still love all Chinatowns.

San Gabriel Valley (LA), CA

Kaya (Coconut Jam) Pastry at Longo Seafood
Kaya (Coconut Jam) Pastry at Longo Seafood in the SGV

I admit, I am a little biased given that I have traveled to the San Gabriel Valley (aka the “SGV” or “626”) since I was a kid, as it was often the area where we could get better dim sum and Chinese groceries that were harder or more expensive to find in San Diego. That said, the SGV is one of the largest “Chinatowns” in North America encompassing hundreds of square miles and dozens of different cities just east of Los Angeles and can probably be divided into 2: the west San Gabriel Valley centered in the cities of Alhambra, Monterey Park, Rosemead, and San Gabriel, and the east San Gabriel Valley around the communities of Diamond Bar, Rowland Heights, and Walnut.

Unlike historic Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York City with their dense streets and small alleys, the San Gabriel Valley is filled with sprawling suburbs centered on commercial corridors jam packed with Chinese strip malls along Valley Blvd, Garvey Ave, Colima Rd, and other streets. Partially because of such vastness, over the last 50 years the SGV has been an area where successive waves of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China have been able to settle and set up new businesses. This allows a continual wave of new competition and trends from China to emerge, which also keeps old standbys on their toes to better their offerings or potentially be replaced fairly soon.

It’s also a fairly young place, with a pretty dynamic and ever evolving Chinese American culture that help popularize emerging Asian American trends in the United States like boba/bubble tea 20-30 years ago. (yes, bubble tea has been in the US for that long!) This Fung Bros “The 626” video typifies how this culture was like 10 years ago.

So where are some of the places to order takeout in the best Chinatown in North America? See below:

  • The Bay Cafe – One of the SGV’s better known and regarded Hong Kong style cafes serves a good Hong Kong milk tea and a cornucopia of other great Hong Kong staples. Order on DoorDash or Uber Eats
  • Bistro Na’s – Michelin starred Bistro Na’s in Temple City serves self proclaimed “imperial court food” that is nonetheless vary delicious, like the Crispy Shrimp and Na’s Spicy Chicken. You can order online via their website, DoorDash, or Grubhub
  • Elite Restaurant – One of the SGV’s best places for dim sum is now open for takeout again on DoorDash
  • HaiDiLao Hot Pot – Takeout hot pot you say? Yes, it exists (and I can report that it’s really doable if you got a pot and burner/hot plate at home) and you can order from this popular, and expensive, Chinese chain on virtually all the delivery platforms.
  • Mian – Chengdu Taste’s sibling restaurant with a tasty assortment of noodles is available for takeout on Uber Eats
  • Sea Harbour – Constantly evolving and standard setting Cantonese and dim sum specialist Sea Harbour is open for takeout. Given them a call at 626-288-3939
  • Savoy Kitchen – This perennial chicken rice favorite is available to order togo. Just give them a call at 626-308-9535
  • Yin Ji Chang Fen – The San Gabriel outpost of this Guangzhou style rice noodle roll chain accepts orders on DoorDash and Uber Eats

Richmond (Vancouver), BC

Lamb Fried Dumplings at Yue Restaurant
Lamb Fried Dumplings at Yue Restaurant

While great Chinese food can be found nearly all over Vancouver, the best in the Lower Mainland is concentrated in the southern suburb of Vancouver. While the San Gabriel Valley’s strength is in its wide and continually evolving breadth of regional cuisines, Richmond’s strength lies in its particular depth of one regional cuisine: Cantonese.

It’s not to say you can’t find great places serving other regional Chinese cuisines in Richmond, but the particular depth of Cantonese cuisine here lies in its unique history. As the 1997 handover of Hong Kong approached, many wealthy Hong Kongers feared what might change in a PRC controlled Hong Kong and promptly found ways to immigrant. One of the easiest options was to get investment visas in Canada, and thus tens of thousands of Hong Kongers and their children moved and settled to Richmond. They brought along and could entice good chefs from Hong Kong which helped increase the quality of Cantonese food in the region, so much so that many restaurants in the 2000s to mid 2010s were close or at the level of their counterparts in Hong Kong.

More recently, arrivals from mainland China have helped expanded the number of good regional options available, but not to the level of SGV yet, and it remains to be seen on how Hong Kong’s latest political turbulence will mean for even more food and immigration to Canada. That said, some of my favorites are:

  • HK BBQ Master – This was always basically a big takeout restaurant, so you can still get their excellent Cantonese style roast meats in person
  • Mama’s Dumpling and Coffee – Renown for their xiaolongbao, you can get these delicious orders for takeout
  • Silver Tower – Old school Hong Kong Style Cafe serves the best comfort food that you can order on DoorDash
  • Sun Sui Wah – A couple of my friends recently dined here (BC’s COVID rates are significantly better than the US, though I’d still be pretty hesitant) and the food seems just as great as pre-pandemic, which you can order on Skip the Dishes.
  • Yue Restaurant – One of my favorite dim sum spots in Richmond is open for takeout via DoorDash

Flushing (New York City), NY

Liang Pi at Xi'an Famous Foods
Liang Pi at Xi’an Famous Foods (which started in Flushing)

The sights and sounds of Canal and Mott Streets in Manhattan Chinatown may get much of the spotlight in New York City, but I say that the best New York Chinatown is a hop uptown and a 7 line subway ride away to Flushing in Queens.

In contrast to the SGV and Richmond’s sprawling strip malls, Flushing is a decidedly urban Chinatown, densely packed along Main Street and its side streets and allies. You can find a variety of Chinese regional cuisines here too, especially in the few densely packed mall food courts like the New World Mall (though not sure how open they might or will be with the COVID-19 pandemic). However, many of the main stars in Flushing are Taiwanese, Fujianese, and Shanghainese and some of my favorite memories in New York City are of walking down Main St with various friends and cousins sipping on boba and eating street food.

Here are a few great places currently open for takeout:

  • Hunan Cafe – Order some authentic Hunanese food for takeout via Seamless or Uber Eats
  • Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao – You can order some of the best soup dumplings in the city online through their website
  • Nurlan Uygher Restaurant – One of NYC’s first Uygher restaurants is open for takeout by looking at their menu and calling 347-542-3324
  • Xing Fu Tang – I couldn’t write about Flushing without a bubble tea recommendation right? Well get some Brown Sugar Boba Milk from this new kid on the block that replaced the old Red House on Seamless, Uber Eats, or DoorDash
  • Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea – I love Yi Fang Fruit Tea for their endless array of delectable fruit teas, which you can order on Seamless and DoorDash

The Richmond (San Francisco), CA

Juicy Pork Xiao Long Bao at Dragon Beaux
Juicy Pork Xiao Long Bao at Dragon Beaux

There are numerous Chinatowns in the San Francisco Bay Area, but in my opinion the Richmond District in the western part of the city is the best Chinatown in the region.

Why? Unlike San Francisco’s historic Chinatown, the Richmond is a little less touristy but packs in the bustle as much as you’d find on Stockton St. Clement St and Geary St have a large selection of Chinese restaurants, supermarkets, and other businesses, including my favorite dim sum place, Dragon Beaux.

Here are some places to try ordering from in the Richmond:

  • Dragon Beaux – The aforementioned Dragon Beaux is available for takeout on Uber Eats or Grubhub, but you could also give them a call and order their frozen dim sum to reheat yourself to perfection
  • HoDaLa – From beef noodle soup to popcorn chicken, this Taiwanese favorite can be ordered for takeout or delivery via its website.
  • Jiangnan Cuisine – Cuisine from the area just north of Shanghai in Jiangsu province can be found on DoorDash, Grubhub, or Postmates
  • Kowloon Tong Dessert Cafe – This no frills cha chaan teng is ready to serve you some delicious Hong Kong milk tea or basic Hong Kong style western food and deserts on nearly all delivery apps
  • Tasty Pot – Taiwanese hot pot chain Tasty Pot is available for your individualized hot pot needs via takeout or delivery on DoorDash or Uber Eats

Manhattan Chinatown (New York City), NY

Food at Noodle Village
Food at Noodle Village

The only historic Chinatown on my list is New York City. Why Manhattan’s historic Chinatown you ask, instead of other ones like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, or even my hometown of Oakland? The simple reason is that unlike the others, it’s a perfect combination of history, mix of shops, and an area where both old Chinese families from Guangdong, recent arrivals from Fujian, and tourists alike can mix and mingle with ease. San Francisco’s Chinatown, sadly, feels very weirdly divided between tourist and trinket shop dominated Grant St and local market and restaurant focused Stockton St.

So if you’re in or near Manhattan, here are some places open for takeout!

  • Carol’s Bun – Located in the East Broadway part of Chinatown, this no-frills Fujianese places is perfect for some affordable takeout
  • Cha Chan Tang – One of the original cha chaan tengs in the city serves up comfort Hong Kong style western food like macaroni soup and curry chicken that you can get on DoorDash or Seamless
  • Kong Sihk Tong – Feast upon all sorts of Hong Kong style foods by getting some takeout via phone at 646-850-6140
  • Noodle Village – My favorite comfort Cantonese spot in Manhattan Chinatown is available for takeout or delivery on virtually all the delivery apps
  • Wo Hop – Want some old school Chinese American food? Like so old that the restaurant has been around for 80+ years? Look no further than Chinatown staple Wo Hop to grab some Chinese American takeout

Houston Chinatown, TX

Dinner at Fung's Kitchen
Dinner at Fung’s Kitchen

I think many folks tend to think of big historic and even suburban Chinatowns as being exclusively a West Coast or East Coast thing, but one of the largest Chinatowns in the country is, in fact, in Houston! Centered on Bellaire Blvd. east of Beltway 8, Houston Chinatown is similar to what you would find along Valley Blvd in the SGV or heavily Chinese cities in the Silicon Valley around Sunnyvale and Cupertino. There’s a mix of Hong Kong, mainland Chinese, and Vietnamese Chinese people in Houston that also makes Houston’s Chinatown a little unique. Houston’s Little Saigon is also just to the west of Beltway 8.

I’ve only been to Houston Chinatown once, but here’s some places that are still open for takeout:

  • Fung’s Kitchen – The only one of the places on this list I’ve actually dined in, you can get your craving of dim sum filled here through ordering takeout or on DoorDash or Uber Eats (I hear they are taking COVID precautions pretty seriously too!)
  • House of Bowls – One of Houston’s cha chaan tengs seems well beloved with a variety of Hong Kong style dishes available for takeout
  • Mala Sichuan Bistro – The authentic flavors of Sichuan can be had by ordering takeout on their website as well as Uber Eats
  • Mein – Classic Cantonese food, including the namesake noodles and noodle soups, can be found for takeout at this well regarded spot
  • One Dragon – For Shanghainese xiao long bao and their crispy bottom cousins, sheng jian bao, order takeout here

Honorary Mentions:

I didn’t include pan-Asian areas just so it was clearer/cleaner. However, there are a few pan-Asian districts (places where there’s more of a mix of different pan-Asian shops, restaurants, and markets) that I really love.

  • International District (Seattle), WA – The most recent non-Bay Area Asian district I’ve been to, the International District, is a historic Japanese and Chinese area that has a great diversity of different Asian cuisines just southeast of downtown Seattle.
  • Irvine (outside of LA), CA – I went to college in Irvine and loved being able to eat all sorts of Taiwanese food here as many Taiwanese families settled in Irvine in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Kearny Mesa (San Diego), CA – Yes, I’m biased in that I grew up in San Diego, but Kearny Mesa, especially on Convoy St, was the area I grew up eating dim sum, Korean BBQ, yakitori, and other variety of Asian food. Mira Mesa, historically a large neighborhood of Filipino and Vietnamese folks, is also a great pan Asian area to visit in San Diego as well.
  • Mesa (Phoenix), AZ – While Mesa leans more toward Vietnamese and Vietnamese Chinese folks, it’s a great place to eat and shop all types of Asian cuisines. I always made it a point to stop in Mesa on my ways to/from Albuquerque to/from my visits seeing family in Southern California
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Fung Fung Yuen, San Diego

Fung Fung Yuen
10660 Camino Ruiz
San Diego, CA 92126

When I saw that the old Home Town Buffet my family used to go to (a bit) was turning to giant Chinese restaurant complete with dim sum, I was naturally curious. After all, if I could spend 10-15 minutes driving to dim sum from my parent’s house instead of 15-20 to one of the places in Kearny Mesa, I was all for it. However, I was also skeptical of such a large Chinese restaurant succeeding in Mira Mesa given that Silver Ark in a nearby (albeit less trafficked) strip mall closed after operating for just a few years, despite a reasonably large Chinese and Chinese of Vietnamese descent community within a short-ish driving distance.

Nonetheless, I had to go and took the opportunity to this Saturday on my quick trip to Southern California before my trip to Singapore. One of my really close friends happily agreed to go visit the restaurant too and off we went.

We arrived a little after 7PM and it was fairly easy to get a table. In fact, the restaurant was probably about 60% full. I was surprised they served dim sum at night as well, but it was a perfect way to sample dim sum items as well as a cooked to order entree dish. The dim sum came on carts (much to my disappointment) and, interestingly enough, they gave you a red and green painted cylindrical wooden block like you would get at a Brazilian steakhouse in the US. Green side up and the carts kept coming, red side up and it was a signal you were done (at least temporarily). So as our block continued to be green, we ate the following:

Beef Short Ribs and Sticky Rice at Fung Fung Yuen

Beef Short Ribs and Sticky Rice at Fung Fung Yuen

  • Beef Short Ribs w/ Black Bean Sauce (黑椒特級牛仔骨) – Our first item was probably the worst item we got. The beef short ribs (as you can kind of tell) looks sad. While the temperature was okay, the beef was overcooked, the sauce too oily, and the tendon a bit gristly. It’s probably one of the worst versions of this dish I have had
  • Sticky Rice Wrap (金沙瑤柱珍珠雞) – Luckily the next item, the sticky rice with chicken, was fairly good. The rice was sticky and moist and the filling had tender chicken, mushrooms, and pork sausage.
  • Soy Sauce Chow Mein – The chow mein was okay. The noodles were stir fried decently, if slightly a little oily. My main issue was the slight unevenness of the stir frying as some parts got a very nice mix of green onions, soy sauce, and noodles and other parts were practically sauceless.

IMG_6280

Beef Ball and Chow Mein at Fung Fung Yuen

  • Beef Ball (陳皮沖菜蒸牛肉丸) – The beef balls were fairly good, filled with some peas and water chestnuts. They were pretty moist and decent tasting. I was a little sad they didn’t drizzle wocestershire sauce on it like other places, but it was fine.
  • Chicken Spring Rolls (脆皮春卷) – While lukewarm (as it had been sitting on the cart), these were fairly good with a crunchy shell and a meaty filling that was decently seasoned with ground chicken and shredded mushrooms.

IMG_6283

Salt and Pepper pork chops at Fung Fung Yuen

  • Salt & Pepper Pork Chop (椒鹽肉排) – There non-dim sum menu is a bit spartan, but that may be to their blessing as this was probably one of the best versions of this pork chop dish I’ve had. The batter was thick enough but not too overpowering and fried just right to be crunchy without being too oily. The pork itself was fairly moist and the peppers they used to fry it with were perfectly cooked. This was by far the best dish of the night for me.

While some of the reviews (both on Yelp and other blogs) have complained about cold to lukewarm food, I didn’t have much of an issue with that. Also, it looks like they have fixed the kinks with amount of carts. They now have about 5 carts that do seem to circulate relatively frequently and do keep the food warm. That said, much of the dim sum does suffer because the items are kept in the steamers for quite a while, leaving many items to be overcooked.

All in all, I was a little disappointed that Fung Fung Yuen didn’t seem to be the new game changer needed to help elevate the ho hum quality of dim sum in San Diego. That said, there is promise in the cook to order dishes from the kitchen and it is nice to finally have dim sum a bit closer to home. It’s a decent option for dim sum desiring folks that live in North County close to Mira Mesa, but it’s definitely not a place worth going out of the way for yet, though it looks like they are improving.

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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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85c Bakery Cafe

Multiple Locations in Southern & Northern California

Over the last few years it has become trendy for chains originating in Asia to open locations in the United States, mainly in California. These expansions have predominantly come from restaurants, most notably Din Tai Fung from Taiwan, Hai Di Lao from China, Gyu-Kaku from Japan, and Crystal Jade from Singapore. For the most part these ventures have been very successful, especially Din Tai Fung where their locations can experience 1+ hour long wait times to this day (Crystal Jade being a notable exception with near universal derision from food critics).

Restaurants aren’t the only ones riding this wave of American expansion, though. Popular bakeries have expanded their operations across the Pacific too. While Asian bakeries in the United States are not new (Hong Kong based Kee Wah Bakery has operated in the US since 1985), there has been a proliferation of bakeries from Asia more recently including South Korea based Paris Baguette and soon to open Duke Bakery in both Rowland Heights and Arcadia. None of them, however, have come near the hype and popularity of Taiwan based 85c Bakery Cafe.

85c opened their first location in Irvine near the end of 2008 when I was a senior in college at nearby UC Irvine. From day one the lines were long and each successive branch they have opened in the US since has had lines out the door and down the block. For those who are new to 85c it’s hard to understand why there are such long lines for what appears to be just a random bakery.

The appeal, however, is both in the freshness of the baked goods as well as the relatively universal appeal of the buns and other items as well. Unlike many bakeries in the US, especially supermarket bakeries, who bake things in the morning and just let products sit out on the shelves for the rest of the day, 85c constantly bakes their bread fresh throughout the day (though now most locations are supplied by a central kitchen where the products are put to a final, finishing bake on site). You can even see employees bring out newly baked items every few minutes shouting “fresh bread” as they load the constantly depleting shelves with new items.

Pastries at 85c Bakery Cafe

Pastries at 85c Bakery Cafe

Of course, even if you baked everything fresh but the food was just mediocre or bland, you likely wouldn’t see the huge lines that appear at almost every time of the day outside any branch of 85c. The second key to their continued fortune are their Taiwanese style pastries. Given the colonial history of Taiwan, these pastries are a blend of both Chinese and Japanese influence. In turn, Japanese pastries are heavily influenced from Portugal. Thus, like the baked buns of Hong Kong, Taiwanese pastries have a blend of European, East Asian, and local influences which you can see in a number of items at 85c like the Calamari Stick (a bun filled with cheese and dipped in squid ink). Arguably it’s this sense of familiarity yet also foreignness that makes pastries also very popular with both non-Chinese and Chinese people alike in the US.

However, I wouldn’t be blogging about a place if I didn’t have reflections or recommendations on my own so here are my thoughts on a select number of their pastries:

  • Premium Milk Bun – This is probably my favorite bun to get at 85c. It’s a fairly simple combination of rich, light white chocolate cream filled inside a nice baked bun. The pièce de résistance, though is the sweet glaze and powdered sugar on top which gives the bun a rich and sweet taste that I love.
  • Coffee Bread – This gigantic coffee flavored bun is filled with mochi and red bean paste giving a nice sweet yet hearty feel. I personally feel that this bun is a bit too big, but there are many who really love this item.
  • Mochi Egg Tart – While this is a perfectly fine egg tart, to be honest I was just okay with it. The problem, I feel, is that unlike the breads, normally the egg tarts are tepid in temperature when you pick one. The mochi gives the egg tart a somewhat creamier taste and the crust is decently flaky, but I find the Portuguese style egg tarts at Kee Wah or even the Bacchanal Buffet in Las Vegas better.
  • Matcha Red Bean Roll – These are pretty good with the roll’s consistency being perfectly balanced, not too light but not too dense. The cream filling in the roll and the matcha flavoring gives it a nice lightly sweet taste
  • Chocolate Chip Bowl – This light and fluffy bread is dotted with bits of chocolate chip. It’s nice but I feel it’s fairly plain compared to their other offerings

These are just 5 of there dozens of offerings and I didn’t even include their multitude of cakes, tart, and beloved panna cotta that’s also available to purchase when you pay for your pastry items.

Taiwan: Sea Salt Coffee by sstrieu: https://flic.kr/p/nDoVNk

Taiwan: Sea Salt Coffee by sstrieu: https://flic.kr/p/nDoVNk

At this point I should also mention one of their most popular items that you can even skip the bread line to order, since all 85c Bakeries have drink only lines. The sea salt coffee they make is beloved because it’s also delicious. It’s a mix of coffee, cream, and topped with sea salt. When they make the coffee it will be in layers so it is important to shake the drink and mix up all the ingredients before you poke the straw and drink. Otherwise you’ll make the mistake of drinking really dense, super sweet cream at the end. The irony of this popular drink is that the name 85c comes from the founder’s idea that 85c is the ideal temperature for hot coffee; the sea salt coffee only comes cold.

All in all, if you haven’t been to an 85c Bakery Cafe, I would say to go to one as soon as you can. It’s worth the wait and I always make 85c a stop on any trip I have in Southern California.

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Tim Ky Noodle, San Diego

Tim Ky Noodle
9330 Mira Mesa Blvd, Ste A
San Diego, CA 92126

Since it’s the beginning of a new year, it’s fashionable to reflect on the past and talk about the present and future. While many blogs might talk about new years resolutions or reflect on the best of X in 2014 they have done, I’ll write about a restaurant I blogged about last year that has turned over a new leaf as this next year begins instead.

In June I blogged about Tan Ky Mi Gia and professed that I loved Vietnamese/Teochew style wonton noodle soup over the classic Cantonese wonton noodle soup. Since my post, however, the restaurant shut down and changed ownership. During the autumnal season of 2014 the new owners revamped the space giving the dining space a fresh coat of paint, wood panel siding around the benches, and sleek modern engineered wood tables. They also updated and simplified the menu to fit on one legal paper sized laminated sheet with slight changes to the recipe.

While I was sad that I could not eat at Tan Ky Mi Gia during my Southern California visit in November, I was delighted that they were opening in December, just in time for my holiday break visit. I quickly decided to head over there after my New Years celebrations to try it out and see how it compared to its previous incarnation under the old owners. I ordered the following:

Wonton and Dumpling Egg Noodle Soup

Wonton and Dumpling Egg Noodle Soup

  • Wonton and Dumpling Noodle Soup (Mi Sủi Cảo Hoành Thánh) – This was delicious and filled with a light and flavorful seafood broth and less salt/MSG than the Tan Ky Mi Gia version. The broth perfectly complemented the wontons and dumplings which were of decent size and packed with nicely seasoned filling. Perhaps I would have liked a little more shrimp in the wontons (there was more pork that I could taste) but overall pretty good. The barbeque pork was good and not dry like the Tan Ky Mi Gia version and the noodles were cooked perfectly with a nice bounce in the chew.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

  • Egg Rolls (Chả giò) – The egg rolls surprised me in that there was less minced pork and more shredded daikon and carrots. This was definitely not a bad thing because these egg rolls tasted perfectly balanced compared to some Vietnamese egg rolls that are too saturated with meat (and leave no room for the main course!). The fish sauce tasted great and I do love how the restaurant gave enough lettuce for all 4 egg rolls. Perhaps the only thing I would have liked to add were some bean sprouts or vermicelli with fried garlic that would have made the lettuce wrapped egg roll even more flavorful.

All in all, I love the new design and new recipes. They were lighter and more refreshing, but portions were big enough to be filling. Perhaps the one thing I might have wanted better were access to all sauces and servingware (like sauce dishes) at all tables. A little bit more attentive service would help too. I want to emphasize that the service wasn’t bad, especially for a restaurant that just opened. However, with a little more experience the service will become just as good as the food.

What’s even better is that during the month of January they are doing a 10% grand opening promotion. 10% off for a bowl of wonton noodle soup that’s originally priced at $6.49 means that San Diegans around the restaurant are in for a bargain meal. Delicious food at a very reasonable price, what more could one ask for?

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Golden City, San Diego

Golden City
5375 Kearny Villa Rd #107
San Diego, CA 92123

Like many families, my family has certain holiday traditions. We open Christmas presents at midnight on Christmas Eve. On my dad’s side we regularly eat Thanksgiving dinner at my cousin’s, who makes a very good traditional American style feast. But no matter the holiday, whether it’s Chinese New Year or Thanksgiving, my mom’s side of the family has one defining tradition: nearly every big family meal is at Golden City.

We book their small “VIP” room weeks in advance and gather for a festive family dinner, ordering about a dish a person served family style around a giant lazy susan. This Thanksgiving was no different and my grandfather, who diligently remembers his grandchildren’s favorite dishes, took the reins in ordering the following:

Peking Duck – We actually order the duck to be served two ways, once as a Peking Duck dish and one as a stir fried duck dish that uses the meat of the duck and comes later at dinner. This Cantonese style rendition of Peking Duck is my cousin’s favorite dish at Golden City with its crispy, but flavorful skin, fine shreds of green onions, pillowy bao buns, and hoisin sauce to round off the dish. There are ample servings for a table of 10-12.

Pork and Watercress Soup – Definitely tastes and feels like a soup my mom would make at home with Chinese watercress soft yet flavorful, work that is tender, and broth that is also flavored with some ginger and goji berries

Stir Fried Duck With Preserved Vegetables – The second part of the duck served two ways, the tender and juicy duck meat is stir fried with bean sprouts, carrots, and pickled and preserved Chinese veggies. Normally one person in my family takes the remaining duck that we don’t eat to boil for soup later but this day we forgot to ask until it was too late and the wait staff threw it away.

Roast Pork Slices – The roast pork belly has nice and tender meat with melt in your mouth fat near the skin. I do wish the skin was a bit crispier in this version but definitely not bad at all.

Salt and Pepper Pork Chops at Golden City

Salt and Pepper Pork Chops at Golden City

Salt and Pepper Baked Pork Chops – One of my brother’s favorite dishes, these salt and pepper baked pork chops are a hit with a crisp but not too thick batter and plenty of fried salt and pepper batter with fresh jalapeno slices that taste marvelous with rice.

Kwei Fei Chicken – This style of chicken is first brined in a light color oil and spice and then poached and cooled for a juicy and flavorful chicken. Add the chicken with a minced ginger and scallion oil and you have one of my favorite dishes at Golden City.

Dried Bean Curd and Fish Filet Clay Pot

Dried Bean Curd and Fish Filet Clay Pot

Dried Bean Curd with Fish Fillet Clay Pot – This dish combines bean curd, slices of rock cod fillet, and bean curd skin marinated in a thick seafood and soy sauce simmered in a clay pot.

Chinese Broccoli Stir Fried with Dried Fish – This dish is a favorite of both my brother and me. The Chinese broccoli is stir fried with a little bit of oil and dried fish flakes giving a nice seafood and garlicky taste to enhance the aroma and texture of the slightly crunchy Chinese broccoli. It is one of my favorite vegetable dishes ever and Golden City does one of the best renditions I have eaten.

Dungeness Crab Fried Rice

Dungeness Crab Fried Rice

Dungeness Crab Fried Rice – The Dungeness Crab is steamed on a bed of light and fluffy egg fried rice, giving the rice a nice sweet crab aroma along with bits of minced crab meat. The crab is flavorful too and since we ate them near peak Dungeness crab season the crabs were very fresh with tender and sweet meat.

Salt and Pepper Fried Shrimp – A delicious shrimp version of the Salt and Pepper Fried Pork Chops. I rarely eat this dish as I don’t really like peeling the shrimp shell to eat shrimp meat that I’m a little ambivalent about already.

Tang Yuan – For dessert we had tang yuan, a delicious dessert of glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame in a black sesame tong sui (sweet soup that literally means sugar water in Chinese).

All in all it was another great family dinner where we were all stuffed and had plenty for leftovers. The service was very nice and pleasant without being omnipresent. Basically it was just another fantastic dinner with my mom’s side of the family and a tradition that I look forward to again and again.

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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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Tan Ky Mi Gia, San Diego

Tan Ky Mi Gia
9330 Mira Mesa Blvd, Ste A
San Diego, CA 92126

I have a confession to make today – I prefer Vietnamese/Teochow style wonton noodle soup over Cantonese style wonton noodle soup. What’s the difference you may ask? Cantonese style is all about the light and freshness of the seafood broth and shrimp. It’s wonderful, but sometimes I prefer a flavor that is a little bit bolder and adds items I could not get in a simple bowl of wonton noodle soup with just egg noodles, shrimp wontons, broth, and maybe some vegetables. You see, Vietnamese/Teochow style wonton noodle soup has all that Cantonese style wonton soup has, but more. The broth has an extra kick due to the addition of chives and sometimes fried green onions. As a bonus, Vietnamese/Teochow style wonton noodle soup also gives you slices of barbecue pork, something that would cost you at least $1 extra in a Cantonese style restaurant.

All of that is to say that when I was hungry a couple weeks ago in San Diego and hanging out with family, I insisted that we go eat lunch at the local Vietnamese/Teochow style noodle soup restaurant down the street. It would be quick. It would be cheap. Most of all, it would be delicious and give me a taste of one Vietnamese dish that Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque don’t quite execute well.

When we stepped into the restaurant, we were greeted and seated immediately. After the server gave us our cups of water, we order our noodle soups. I ordered the Mi Hoanh Thanh while most of my other family members ordered dumpling noodle soups (dumplings that are slightly different than wontons in the wrappers, dumpling filling, and shape).

 Tan Ky Mi Gia

The noodle soups quickly came, as typical for most Vietnamese restaurants serving pho or mi. As usual the broth was delicious with a good, but not overpowering, punch of chives. The wontons were pretty good too with a nice amount of shrimp. The pieces of barbeque pork were slightly drier than normal, but provided a nice balance with the broth. There was also a crispy fried piece of wonton wrapper with shrimp which I don’t particularly care for, but I suppose it provides a nice little texture in the soup (similar to oyster crackers in soups).

Service is efficient with the server regularly refilling cups with water as needed. However, the prices were higher than I remember than the last time I ate here about 6-9 months ago. A bowl of wonton noodle soup now costs $7.99, which is still a bargain for any meal, but definitely a spike compared to the $5.99 I was used to for a while.

Regardless, it was a delicious and simple meal. Given that my mom introduced me to this wonderful style of Vietnamese/Teochow style cuisine (at Minh Ky in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego), I suppose my ancestors can’t frown on me too much. Good food is good food, regardless of the regional origin.

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Sam Woo, San Diego

Sam Woo
7330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd Ste. 103
San Diego, CA 92111

This weekend has been quite busy, with a number of celebrations. Yesterday was my mom’s birthday, when she would have turned 54. On Thursday, my sister had her 8th grade promotion to high school. Of course, today is father’s day. Because of all of these wonderful occasions, I went home to San Diego and celebrate with my family.

On Friday I landed around dinner time and, of course, I immediately asked my dad if we could go eat dinner on the way back home. He agreed so after we paid respects to my mom, we headed to Sam Woo. While Sam Woo isn’t necessarily a favorite restaurant of my family, it is one that we ate in a lot because of its affordable prices and location inside the venerable 99 Ranch Market in San Diego.

Sam Woo 1

My dad, sister, and I walked in and put our names on the sign in/waiting list sheet. Within a few minutes our table was ready and we say down, ready to order an eat. My sister decided to get Singaporean style rice vermicelli, my dad ordered a bowl of wonton and dumpling noodle soup, and I finished by asking for a roast duck and soy sauce chicken rice plate along with a side of water spinach (ong choy) stir fried in fish paste. The food came out reasonably fast and I was able to sneak a bite of everything:

  • Roast Duck and Soy Sauce Chicken Rice Plate (came first, the soy sauce chicken was well seasoned without too much soy sauce, duck was meaty and fatty despite initial fears of a lean duck, while the rice was a bit dry)
  • Singaporean Style Rice Vermicelli (decent mild curry sauce with crisp vegetables. noodles could be a little more al dente)
  • Wonton and Dumpling Noodle Soup (soup, as usual for Sam Woo, was a bit salty and the dumpling was okay)
  • Water Spinach Stir Fried in Fish Sauce (pretty aromatic and pungent with the fish sauce, which means it was excellent with flavor)

Sam Woo 3

Service was a little slow, but it is understandable given that the San Diego Sam Woo seems constantly busy and they barely have enough staff to cover the fast paced service. Service is a little bit better in the Irvine location, but that’s considered the flagship restaurant of sorts.

All in all, good Chinese food that made me feel like living childhood memories. My mom would be quite proud.

Sam Woo 2

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Manna, San Diego

Manna Korean BBQ
4228 Convoy Street R210
San Diego, CA 92111

When I was in Southern California a couple weeks ago to mourn the loss of my cousin, I had the opportunity to go down to San Diego and spend time with good friends. One of those friends had never had Korean barbecue before, much to the amazement of a mutual friend and myself. After several casual chats about going to an all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Korean barbecue place, I finally decided to gather my friends and consume an unhealthy amount of delicious grilled meat.

I had never been to Manna before, but it has be heralded as one of the best Korean restaurants in San Diego, so we had to go there. We went for a Sunday lunch, but luckily just before the crowds started rushing into the restaurant. While the policy of the restaurant is to only seat people when everyone in the party has arrived, the hostess sat my friend (who hadn’t had Korean barbecue before) and I a few minutes before our mutual friend arrived as she sensed the crowds rushing in soon.

Once we sat down, we were given a menu of multiple all-you-can-eat options, some with very fancy and interesting seafood options of up to $40 a person. Since we really only needed a basic, but good, introduction to Korean barbecue for my friend we opted for the cheapest all-you-can-eat option at $20 a person. We then selected our meats: bulgogi (marinated thinly sliced beef), thinly sliced brisket, pork belly, and galbi (marinated beef spareribs).

Manna

As we eagerly anticipated our plates of meat to grill, we were served with complimentary banchan (little snacks). These banchan included sauteed spinach, cucumber kimchi, napa cabbage kimchi, pickled daikon, mung bean noodle salad, potato salad, and marinated beans. Nearly all of the banchan were spectacular, with the mung bean noodle salad and spinach being particular favorites of our group. The salad they gave us was good as well, though may have needed some extra dressing.

After about 10 minutes or so, the meat started to arrive. First came the brisket and pork belly. The brisket was pretty good, and complimented very nicely to the sauce dip we had for it. The pork belly was decent as well, albeit could have used a little more seasoning, even after our group had already seasoned with a little salt and pepper. The bulgogi was wonderful, having a marinade that was succulent without being overwhelming. The galbi was fantastic and flavorful as well, with some parts just falling off the bone after we grilled it. Of course, there was so much meat that a hefty combined effort from the three of us still failed the finish all the meat as we ended with some uncooked bulgogi.

Thankfully, our servers did not judge our failure, but instead were rather pleasant and warm. They regularly filled our water carafes and helpfully turned the meat over the cook faster when we were busy shoveling already done pieces of meat into our mouth. They also pleasantly refilled several banchan plates and were even kind enough to offer a second grill top late in our lunch. Unfortunately, given that we were defeated in our attempt to eat all the meat, we politely declined the new grill top.

All in all, this was one of the best Korean barbecue experiences I have ever had. While it’s not quite the cheapest option around in the highly competitive Korean restaurant scene in Southern California, it is definitely a vanguard of quality for San Diego Korean barbecue joints. My friend had a great first time eating Korean barbecue and I was definitely happy to have taken him here instead of the cheaper places down the street.

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