Tag Archives: San Francsico

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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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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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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Dumpling Kitchen, San Francisco

Dumpling Kitchen
1935 Taraval St
San Francisco, CA 94116

My last birthday related blog post will also be about my “official” birthday brunch. Since a number of my friends and I were converging in town for the 4th of July weekend, we decided to also celebrate my birthday with a lunch.

Under the recommendation of one of my friends, we headed to Dumpling Kitchen, out in the Parkside neighborhood just south of Sunset. We arrived a little after 1:30 under the shield of the indomitable fog typical of summer in San Francisco. In about 10 minutes after arriving we were able to be seated in the warmth and the fragrant smells of the dining area and promptly got to ordering. After about 15-20 minutes, our massive quantity of food arrived, including:

Xiao Long Bao

Xiao Long Bao

  • Drunken Chicken (my personal insistence – the chicken was nice, tender, and moist though it could have used more soaking in wine for a more pungent flavor)
  • Dry Fried string Beans (The onion and garlic flavor matched well with the string beans. Different than my favored Cantonese style, but very tasty)
  • Honey Walnut Shrimp (I’m not a big fan of this dish in general, but it was decently executed and by the end of the meal this plate was empty)
  • Xiao Long Bao (Soup dumplings were great with a nice thin skin that didn’t break. The broth was flavorful without being too overpowering)
  • Crab and Pork Xiao Long Bao (Very similar to the other Xiao Long Bao but the crab brought a nice fresh seafood flavor that I loved)
  • Sticky Rice Roll (Only had a bite, but it was pretty good with the sticky rice not overpowering the filling)
  • Shanghai Style Pan Fried Pork Buns (These were DELICIOUS with a nice fried bottom, juicy and moist pork filling, and wonderfully light dough skin)
Honey Walnut Shrimp

Honey Walnut Shrimp

For a table of four, this was plenty, though we were able to finish everything except for the large plate of string beans.Our servers politely asked if we wanted to take any of it home, but we declined.

As for the value, I couldn’t tell you as my friends generously paid for my portion, but looking online it seems more than reasonable for the quality of the food.

Drunken Chicken

Drunken Chicken

I had other tasty meals during my trip, including my birthday dim sum brunch with a good friend at Zen Peninsula (didn’t quite match Sea Harbour or Koi Palace but definitely better than any in San Diego) and a post birthday lunch at Namu Gaji (decent Korean fusion). Interestingly enough, I never stepped into Chinatown (San Francisco or Oakland) this trip, which I normally do at least once. It goes to show how the best and quality restaurants have shifted along with a more wealthy population of Chinese people in the suburbs.

Unfortunately, I likely won’t blog about those other Bay Area adventures. Next week I’m traveling to Vancouver and seeing if their Chinese food truly lives up to their “best of North America” reputation.

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