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Aug 22, 2006 05:20 PM

Micheal Bauer on the state of Chinese food in the Bay Area.

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    1. Folks, if you'd like to add your thoughts on the state of Chinese food in the Bay Area, please do so here, but if you'd like to discuss Michael Bauer, please start a new thread on the Food Media and News board. Thanks.

      1 Reply
      1. re: The Chowhound Team

        Short story. i was in the bay area and with the help of the lovely melanie of the sf board, found lilly's in lafayette, for shanghai, zhejiang and huaiyang food. While the xlb were ok, the rest of the shanghai menu was marvelous, so we decided to have a banquet for about 12 people there two days later.
        The variety of the cold dishes, the fried doufu, the version of beggars chicken, the drunken shrimp, and about 7 other dishes were great.
        The story though is this- one of the guests at the banquet lives and works in lafayette and has been at teh restaurant a few times. He orders lunch off the lunch special menu, which is a watered down, tame as you like, eased up Yuecai Cantonese list. He thought the place was ok, nothing special and could not understand why the chef was supposedly famous and why we'd go there, but it was walking distance for him and his wife, so they gladly accepted.
        His eyes must have popped out of his head. He went on about how he'd never had this food (the huaiyang dishes) and we told him that they were on the special Shanghai dish menu. And we had ordered pretty carefully. The meal was marvelous. And when I saw the gentleman a few weeks later under sadder circumstances, he did relate to many people how this little nothing chinese place had prepared the most awesome chinese food he'd had at a special banquet I had arranged.

        I've seen this more in the bay area than in the san Gabriel valley here. But I've even seen it in New York - there was a place that advertised fujian food in the window (this was in flushing). we sat down, they brought the menus (english and chinese) and I see there is not one Fujian dish - it's all cantonese cuisine. So finally I ask the guy first in English then in Chinese what's with the sign that says they have fujian food. After a minute - big OOOOHHHHHHHHHHH and we get the other menus. OK, they're just in chinese but they have great stuff, oyster omelettes, razor clams in red rice wine, the chicken in ricewine lees, etc. And we even got some (i'm guessing semi-legal) home brewed red rice wine from the back in a pitcher and some bowls for drinking. It was great.

        Sometimes you have to be a bit persistent. Speaking the language helps, but I don't think it's necessary.

        on the other hand, one of my fave places moved from the LA area to the Bay area years ago. Their specialty was and is Yangzhou (small city in Jiangsu province famous for its food) snax/dianxin. Pine needle shaomai, that sort of thing. And from what I hear they never really hit it with the local chinese or non-chinese communities. The food is delicious but you need people you will appreciate it - witness the demise of the local LA Quanjude branch - they had one last incarnation before they closed where their banquets were more in line with Cantonese and Taiwanese expectations - more seafood, sharks fin, abalone dishes etc rather than 8 different duck dishes in eight different preparation styles with variety of cuts and organs - six different duckappetizers, three desserts, of fresh fruit, of green bean paste and a ba-si apple fritter dessert that I still dream about. But you need the clientele. Or even more importantly, you need a clientele willing and excited about being educated about unfamiliar foods and preparations.

      2. Here's the permalink (other just goes to the top of Bauer's blog):

        The real answer to the reader's question "Why aren't Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area better?" is that they are--he just doesn't know where to go and how to order.

        To Bauer's credit, he cites Koi Palace and Jai Yun as his two best Chinese meals locally.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Well, yeah. The food is good if he doesn't have to order it. That's because he knows nothing about Chinese cuisine. It's always rather amusing to see him pretend otherwise. In addition, he judges non-European cuisines using a Euro-centric esthetic: the more a restaurant resembles a fine French restaurant, the better he likes it, no matter how good (or not) the food is. That's why his lists always tout somewhat upscale but very Westernized Thai and Vietnamese restaurants with good cocktails and mediocre food.

          He sort of danced around but didn't quite hit one other point: Non-Asian Americans think of Chinese food as "cheap" and won't pay the kinds of prices that high-end restaurants demand in Asia, no matter how good the food is. People who wouldn't think twice about spending $100/person for dinner at a Western (French, Italian, New American) restaurant wouldn't spend half that much on a Chinese meal, even a banquet. And although there are many wealthy Asians in the Bay Area, there isn't the critical mass that would support an extensive high-end Chinese food scene, so restaurants have to cater to the mid-to-low end of the spectrum.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Lots of Bay Area consumers prefer such places.

            It's true that only upscalish places make Bauer's top 100 list, but the food at Slanted Door is very good, and there have been a lot of positive reports on Citizen Thai and the Monkey.

            The new reviewer, Bill Addison, is focusing more on unfancy places.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              How tactfully phrased, Robert!

              I guess the question is, is the role of a reviewer to pander to consumer preferrences, or to try to shape them?

              I have to admit, I've never been to Slanted Door. I guess it's a case of "it's so crowded no one goes there anymore." At any rate, I haven't heard anything from anyone I trust that would cause me to think I should go there for the food. For drinks and appetizers, maybe. For the scene and the view, if I was interested in such things. But not for a great meal.

              I don't know anyone who thinks Citizen Thai and the Monkey is good. Again, for drinks and atmosphere, maybe. But for actual Thai food?

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                The top 100 list isn't just about the food, it's about the total experience. The food's great at Slanted Door, and the wine list is one of the best in town. Some people love the view and other trappings. Overall I agree with Bauer that it's the nicest Vietnamese restaurant in the area.

                Still, given my own choice I'll go to Bodega Bistro. Food's just as good, the seats are more comfortable, and it costs less. The wine list and lighting need improvement.

            2. re: Ruth Lafler

              > Non-Asian Americans think of Chinese food as "cheap" and won't pay
              > the kinds of prices that high-end restaurants demand in Asia

              Hmmm, I wouldn't exclude Asian Americans from that description. Most Asian Americans of means that I know prize value over pampering -- except when entertaining others, where being insensitive to price is a badge of honor.

              1. re: Jefferson

                I guess I was making a distinction between prizing value, and not understanding the gradations in value/quality. I think also Asian/Asian-Americans are more likely to understand the breakdown between what elements of the cost are due to the "pampering" aspects and which are due to the cost of the food itself and are more willing to pay disproportionately: to pay more for food prepared with more skill or more expensive ingredients, even if the other elements of the dining experience (decor, service) are modest.

                Or to put it another way: you can go to a place like Koi Palace and have a moderately priced meal or an extremely expensive one, which isn't nearly as true of a Western-style restaurant.

          2. I may post a link to this post though as it probably should be on the bay area board.

            1. You all may be right about Bauer, but there are a lot of us out there that are in the same boat.

              I'll freely admit that I don't know nearly enough about Chinese cuisine to know what to order, or to even recognize, most times, that I've received the dumbed-down caucasian menu. I've had many similar experiences to Jerome's friends and been wowed at what I considered to be run of the mill restaurants when going with Asian friends who know how to order (or the reverse experience when returning without them to a restaurant I thought was phenomenal). I've even had hit or miss experiences when following reccs on boards like this one ... sometimes the recommended dish is wonderful; other times it tastes much like the more "traditional" dumbed down dish.

              What I find interesting is that the phenomenon Bauer describes does not seem to extend to other Asian cuisines. I have had no problem finding, ordering and experimenting with unique, authentic dishes at Thai, Vietnamese or Cambodian restaurants, for instance, nor does it appear that they have separate menus for native speakers (not that I would know -- see above!). Is that accurate and, if so, why is that?

              6 Replies
              1. re: djh

                Few Thai restaurants will make dishes "Thai spicy" for non-Thai customers even by special request.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I agree. The waitstaff either doesn't write down "maximum heat" or the kitchen doesn't believe you (they certainly don't want to have it returned to the kitchen). I had a home-cooked Thai meal the other night that was orders of magnitude hotter than what the local restaurants consider "hot."

                2. re: djh

                  Perhaps there isn't a separate menu because there isn't a long-established tradition of Americanized versions of those cuisines. There are "dumbed down" dishes, but not completely different dishes (or versions of dishes).

                  1. re: djh

                    right now on the LA board, there is a discussion. The OP is from Chicago I think, and wants her egg foo yung with a heavy brown sauce. New Yorkers perpetually seek the vibrator-sized egg rolls of their region.
                    I posted on the egg fuyong discussion, saying that "hibiscus" dishes are common, and that she could probably get it even at the star new seafood palaces all over the SGV. However, it would be a much lighter dish, more meringue-like, a furong crab dish or other might be delicious. To find what she wants, she has to go to neighborhoods where the demand for that kind of food is highest. The closest fit seems to be Simi Valley, about 1h 15m from the San Gabriel Valley.

                    So there is a market for the American-Cantonese food that developed nationwide in the first half of the century. Similarly, there is a market for the pan-nonCanto stuff that was passed off as Sichuan and esp as Hunan food, via such places as Szechwan Empire and Hunan Anything restaurants in New York, California and elsewhere. "real" Hunan food - the zhenzong Xiang-cai, places have very different food, not just volcanic piquancy but smoky smoky flavors and quite oily (Hunan Army [XiangJun] in Rowland Heights comes too mind) and the hunan honeyed ham and the minced pigeon in its own soup in a bamboo cup dishes.

                    First and foremost, these places have to stay open. I think that folks in Lafayette would love the jellyfish salads and the XLB and the amazing doufu dishes that Lilly's serves, but they're ordering beef and broccoli.

                    1. re: Jerome

                      Hmmmm ... I don't know very many "gringos" who *love* jellyfish. To me that's definitely one of those "texture" things that most of us don't get. I'll eat it, but I don't love it.

                      But I do think there are a lot of Shanghai dishes that are very gringo-friendly, especially the braised dishes with sweetish sauces.

                      I have "Chinese-American delivery" listed as my "comfort food" on my chow page. It's really a cuisine all its own, and can be very tasty (if not very refined) in its own right. The delivery place near my house makes a good version of egg foo young, with the thick brown sauce. But then, I live in a town where the food scene is only now moving into the '90s, and there are lots of old-style Chinese-American places left.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        It's funny about the jellyfish (the shanghai places also have very good smoked fish which isn't that strange to western [read american] palates) -
                        I don't care for the jellyfish one gets at dimsum places, don'tlike the texture and it's not usually dressed. At shandong places (and at this particular huaiyang restaurant), the jellyfish is crisper, like a crunchy noodle, and it's dressed with sesame and garlic. So it's pretty darn tasty - at least to my taste.