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There are a few general rules to follow when trying to trying to decide if a place will be good:

1) Is there a line when nearby places have none?

2) If it is an ethnic cuisine, are there people of that ethnicity eating there?

3) Has a friend with a discerning palate eaten there and liked it?

Mama Lu’s answered all these questions yes, but aside from one dish out of four, I can not say it was good.

They are known for their dumplings, so we ordered some to test out their signature dish. They were surprisingly bland with a heavily cilantro based filling and even with some doctoring with tableside black vinegar and chili oil, the three of us only ate one and left the rest.

I am still on my quest for great beef chow fun. The presentation made me hopeful, because it was not greasy, but once again it required doctoring with several of the tableside condiments to flavor these noodles. Again we left half food on the plate.

The clear winner of the evening were the pea sprouts sautéed in garlic, which we all loved and which needed no doctoring of any kind! This was the only plate we finished completely.

The clear loser of the evening were the clams in black bean sauce which were cloyingly sweet and which none of us wanted to eat after a few bites. We were amazed at how full the restaurant was and how disappointing the dishes were, especially since two of my friends had eaten there before and enjoyed their previous meal. It may have been a change of chefs that night, but I am not keen to venture for another try with their poor batting average on flavors.

A better choice for Chinese is Phoenix Food Boutique, a small outpost of a small chain, catering mostly to take out customers. Their $7.95 shrimp and pork wonton noodle soup was a hearty bowl with wonderful wontons and fresh bok choy. I found the soup itself lacking in depth of flavor, but the ingredients were tender and tasty enough to merit ordering this bowl.

The $8.50 beef chow fun was big enough for 2 people, and chock full of tender slices of beef, crunchy bean sprouts, and tender spring onions. If it were less greasy, this would have been perfect!

Seoul Sausage has been one of my favorite spots ever since they opened a brick and mortar shop near Sawtelle. I’ve been to their Little Tokyo location before, but this time I brought friends for Happy Hour. Since my friends are adept beer drinkers, our wonderful waiter provided us with tastes of several before we placed our order. We shared the Sausage Party platter and all agreed that the sweet and spicy chicken and the kalbi pork were our favorites,

so we followed up with two full sized sausages of both.

One of my friends ordered the Da Rapokki, pork belly spicy ramen, but didn’t like the lack of liquid, but I loved the spicy noodles and pork belly.

I couldn’t come to Seoul Sausage without making my friends try Korean Fried Chicken aka KFC, which was the hit of the evening 🙂

Michelin stars used to only be award to the white gloved, ironed tablecloth, Baccarat crystal wine glass establishments where you pay as much for a meal as for a nice used car. Tastes have changed, not only in custom but in cuisine, and what was formerly considered too casual or colloquial, is now being recognized as masterful and artful.

Din Tai Fung the famous chain of 150 restaurants has a Michelin star. They are most famous for soup dumplings. One order of their famous dish costs less than $10 and their locations are inside three malls in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

A friend and I went when they first opened inside the Westfield Santa Anita a few months ago, after consolidating two nearby locations into a bigger one inside this mall. We were terribly disappointed by the famous soup dumplings being underdone on top. You can see the top bits are not translucent and look like underdone pasta; we didn’t even finish our order 😦

After subsequent visits, I am happy to report that they have worked out the kinks. They are now serving beautiful and delicious dumplings that are worthy of their reputation.

 Their vegetable side dishes were perfect, whether sautéed bok choy,

 dumplings with chili,

or mustard greens.

Side Chick is around the corner from the huge famous restaurant in the “Asian Alley” of food places on the second floor of the mall. Serving perhaps the only Hainan Chicken Rice in a mall in the USA. The superbly tenderly poached Mary’s chicken is good enough to eat plain, but if you mix the three containers of ginger/scallion, dark soy, and sambal together, you will create the most addictive of sauces. FYI, the rice is cooked with chicken fat, and you are supposed to eat the skin, so this is NOT a low calorie meal, but it is a tasty one! There is also a roasted chicken version that is slightly sweet, if you prefer, and you can specify combo, white, or dark meat. At around $10, this is a great deal,

and you can add garlicky sautéd onchoy side to complete your meal.

I go to malls to eat, not to shop:)

For authentic Chinese food, the best bet is usually to go to a city’s Chinatown, so while I was in NYC, I went back to a neighborhood that I used to know as a child. Like all of New York, it has changed dramatically and at the same time, pockets of familiarity remain.

The streets are still lined with fruits and vegetables offered for incredibly low prices,

especially for exotic fruit like rambutan and dragon fruit.

Vegetables more familiar to western palates are also a bargain,

as are vast arrays of shellfish,

and roasted meats, ready to eat.

No, I didn’t eat here, but this place shows how the diversity of New York comes together through the common bond of food.

I was craving beef chow fun, a rice noodle dish which just doesn’t taste the same in Paris as it does in the states, so after some research I ended up at Hop Kee. It wasn’t until I was at the subterranean entrance that I realized this was the same place I used to go to when I was a child with my family.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who used to eat here 🙂

When I walked in they immediately started speaking to me in Cantonese and when they saw the blank look on my face, they gave me an English menu. About 3/4 of the diners were Asian and this place only accepts cash, so if you want an authentic local place, this is a good choice. The beef chow fun for $6.50 was a huge plate of tender beef with bean sprouts, greens, and rice noodles. It didn’t need any condiments even though there was an array on the table.

I ordered the sauteed watercress redolent with garlic for $8.95 to go with my noodle dish, even knowing that there was no way I could finish either plate. The beauty of huge portions in the US is there is always a doggie bag option for leftovers, and I took half of both dishes to go after satisfying my craving for Chinese food.

On the border to Chinatown is Little Italy,

and the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn,

so there are plenty of places to walk off your meal 🙂

People who work with food know where to find great restaurants, and that was how I heard about Pintung on Melrose. I had walked past it a week ago, but with its nondescript market facing the street (look for the sidewalk blackboard advertising Stumptown cold brewed coffee), you would never know that there are treasures to be found in the back patio. Like finding buried gold in your backyard, this new addition to Mid-City makes me smile with delight.

Once I walked into the back patio I literally said, “Wow”! With an enclosed section, and an open section decorated with bamboo plants, the warm and sleek aesthetic was such a welcome contrast to the dark marketplace storefront seating area that it wasn’t even a question as to which space I preferred to eat my meal.

The other customers ranged from hip Japanese in pink hair and working on pink tablets, to television people loudly discussing their projects (probably wanting to be overheard). There were of course quiet, “normal” people (like me:) but this place draws from all the people L.A. is infamous for, so if you want a taste of all the lifestyles in L.A., you can come here and people watch.

The cuisine is a cross section of all Asian cuisines in one place. There is banh mi from Vietnam, dim sum from China, ramen and sushi from Japan, and rice bowls which would probably be the common link between all Asian countries. Because they are in Los Angeles, they also have options like a vegetarian banh mi, and soy chicken with brown rice, but I wanted to see how authentic their Asian dishes were, so that is what I ordered.

I started with the sauteed pea shoots for $7.25, and was thrilled when they arrived spicy, flavored with sesame oil, and perfectly seasoned. It was a big bowl, so with the other dishes, I ended up taking half of it home, but it just got better a day later.

The crystal shrimp dumplings were $5.50 (the Asian server told me they were Har Gow when I asked what crystal dumplings were). They were bigger and better than any Har Gow I’ve ever eaten in any Dim Sum place (and I have eaten in dozens from NYC to SF). The wrapping was so fine and light that they literally fell apart when I lifted them up from the steamer basket. They were also at least twice as big as any in a Chinese restaurant, with whole shrimp (not chopped up shrimp mush) and bamboo shoots. The table had dumpling sauce as well as other condiments if you want to dip them in sauce, but they are great by themselves.

The only dish that was a miss was the chow fun noodles for $7.95. I chose beef, but you have the option of chicken or vegetarian. The chinese broccoli had too many woody stems, the noodles lacked flavor (you can doctor it with the tableside condiments, but you should not have to season your food), the beef was tender but scarce, and there was a puddle of oil at the bottom of the bowl. Skip this dish and go for one of the ramen bowls if you want noodles.

Seeing Sticky Rice with Chinese Sausage wrapped in Lotus Leaf for $5.50 on the menu, I had to order it. My Aunt used to make these and send me home with a dozen that I would make last for as long as possible until I saw her again. I haven’t had one since she passed away and I was almost afraid to try one made in a restaurant, but these are wonderful. I could only eat one, so I took the other home (to re steam).

The filling was full of pork, preserved salty egg, shittake, and the rice was perfectly infused with the lotus leaf flavor. One of the packages had more filling than the other, but both were delicious if you like this ethnic comfort food. I’m tempted to order a few orders of this to go and freeze them like I used to with the ones my Aunt made:)

As I told the server (another Asian), I am so very glad to have this place close to home without having to deal with those pesky Asian drivers in Chinatown or Monterey Park; I can say that because it takes one to know one:)

Pingtung on Urbanspoon

Chinese food is very low on my list of favorites, perhaps because I grew up in NYC and the food here on the West Coast just does not make my taste buds say “yeah”. There are some very good restaurants in San Francisco, and some decent ones in the Monterey Park and San Gabriel area, but in West LA? Only one makes my list, and that one is Hop Li. Maybe because they have restaurants in Arcadia and Chinatown as well as Westwood and West Los Angeles, they actually cook food Chinese people would eat.

When my friend Mika wanted some Chinese comfort food, Hop Li was the only place near my house that I would take her (because she not only knows good Chinese food, but she has some Chinese in her background). Another plus in favor of Hop Li is that the typical rudeness found in most Chinese places towards nonChinese is absent at Hop Li; Mika even commented about how nice everyone was to both of us.

Mika loves rice, so our rice dish was the BBQ pork fried rice. It was a very generous portion for $7.75. It was full of perfect char su (Chinese BBQ pork), egg, vegetables, and not too greasy. We loved it but could only eat about half of this order (we took the rest to go).

We had to order some vegetables, so we chose the tender greens for $8.75. Simply sauteed in oil and salt, this was a wonderful way to get our vegetables and again the portion was so generous we could only eat half of this dish (and again we took the rest to go).

Since Hop Li is one of the few places that does a dry style chow fun that I like, we got it done with beef for $8.95. The noodles were a bit greasy, but chow fun is very sticky and given a choice between slightly greasy and dry noodles stuck together, I will chose the greasy any day. The scallions and bean sprouts helped make the dish fresh and with the addition of some hot peppers, this dish was a winner. And yes, again we only ate about half and took the rest home.

Hop Li also serves fantastic fresh seafood like lobsters, crabs, and shrimp (see my previous post), so if you are craving Chinese food and are on the Westside of Los Angeles, you have an option that is both good and generous.

Hop Li on Urbanspoon

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