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Long Overdue--Chinese Food 101 Report

Many of you provided invaluable input for my class last spring on Chinese regional food. Everyone had a great time, and the only difficulty was that we really couldn't eat as much as we wanted to. Our second or third restaurant each day always suffered because we'd been too gluttonous at the first. The kids who are now in college are pushing for a reunion during their winter break.

We began the course in the south with a Cantonese meal at Great Eastern (after watching the first episode of Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie, which focused on China). At Great Eastern we had the Pacific Delights set meal, which is a bargain (B.B.Q. Assorted Platter, Shredded Dried Scallop Soup, Spiced Salt Baked Fresh Crab, Fried Squabs, Sauteed Fresh Frog, Sauteed Sea Conch & Scallops with Yellow Chives, Sauteed Soft Bean Cake & Chinese Mushrooms with Tender Greens, Steamed Fish, Dessert & Fresh Fruit), which I supplemented with the Stuffed Boneless Chicken with Sticky Rice. We also upgraded the fish from catfish to bass. I also increased the quantity of Fried Squab so that everyone could have a piece. The kids were great about trying unfamiliar things...everyone ate frog and jellyfish. I think the chicken and the fish were the biggest hits, though the chicken is so rich that I found it a bit overwhelming with all of the other food. We could have used a few more eaters!

I'll add information about the other places we visited as replies to this post. This should let me put up more pictures, and also save me from writing (and you from reading) the giant post from Hell.

In case you're curious, this spring I plan to offer a course on ice cream (history, chemistry, making, and eating), and I'm already planning a course on meat for spring of 2009.

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  1. Day One continued (yes, we had another meal--what was I thinking?!) at VH Noodle in Richmond at the Pacific East Mall. We ordered the Fried Shrimp Roll, Preserved Orange Skin Duck, Chow Jew Style Noodle Soup with thin egg noodles (yes, I made the kids try kidneys), and Combo Fried Pure Rice Noodles. It was, to be honest, hard to muster enthusiasm for food after the massive lunch number one at Great Eastern, but we soldiered on. The duck was nice, but I would have preferred a more intense spicing. I don't know this cuisine, so I'm not sure if that's really an option with this dish. The noodles here were great. Nice chewy texture, good broth, and lots of stuff (fish cake, kidneys, meatballs, etc.). It's become a firm favorite of my family since last spring.

    1. Day Two was the day on which I learned that it is physically impossible to eat three lunches in one day. Part of the problem was that it was very difficult to explain at each restaurant that we really did not need a full lunch, because we had already eaten (or because we were about to go someplace else for lunches two and three). As a result, we wound up with far more food than we needed.

      Our first stop was Legendary Palace for dim sum. Nothing too adventurous, as most of the kids were familiar with the pork bun to har gow end of the spectrum. They did at least try chicken feet (red), and many were surprised by how much they liked them. With the anniversary special running, we got out for around $60 for thirteen people!

      After Legendary Palace, we wandered over to Spices! III for some Taiwanese action. Had pork chop noodles and fried stinky tofu. The stinky tofu defeated all of the kids, and I have to admit that it has yet to grow on me. Since we were there, I also got the fantastic fried chicken wings, which everyone loved (though many had tears running down their faces from the heat).

      1. Day Two continued at Orchid Bowl/Macau Cafe in Richmond at the Pacific East Mall. We had the incredibly addictive roast pork belly, the Portuguese style short ribs (tough and uninteresting...totally western in flavor), the salted fish and pork rice clay pot, another dish I've forgotten, and some Macanese custard tarts we carried in from Sheng Kee Bakery next door. Despite the universal food coma, the kids magically found space for the tarts, which they loved.

        1. Day three saw us finally moving out of the South. We started w/ Hakka items from Ton Kiang. We had the Ton Kiang Steamed Salt Baked Chicken (more steamed than baked, which I found disappointing, though it was tasty and well cooked), Steamed Bacon with Dried Mustard Greens (a huge favorite of mine), Housemade Rice Wine Sauce Beef with Pickled Greens, and the Ton Kiang Seafood Clay Pot. Ton Kiang was a huge hit with the kids.

          After Ton Kiang, we went to Chifa Peruano, for a Peruvian take on Chinese food. I thought it would be nice for the kids to see how Chinese food is affected by the other cuisines it encounters as it travels around the world. We also watched some of the Chinese Restaurants documentary series, which included episodes on a couple of Chinese restaurants in Latin America. At Chifa Peruano I asked to have dishes that are the most popular in Peru. As a result, our dishes were pretty middle of the road--won ton soup, chicken fried rice, and Lomo Saltado. Other than the Lomo Saltado, this was time warp Chinese food that could have been served in the 1950s. The restaurant itself is also caught in a time warp, with wonderfully kitschy decor (the kitsch is, however, authentic and not ironic). Oddly, after appreciating the fine dining feel of Ton Kiang, the kids loved Chifa Peruano too. I think it was the comfort of the familiar in the food. One note of warning--Chifa Peruano has a stunningly wretched bathroom. So bad it's funny.

          Because I'd learned my lesson (that three lunches is at least one too many), instead of dining at a third restaurant, I picked up thirteen take out orders of Henry's Smoked Ham from the Hunan on Sansome for the kids to take home for dinner.

          3 Replies
          1. re: lexdevil

            An update for you regarding Golden Mountain in Hayward (in case you missed a previous post I made):

            The owners did sell the business, no idea where they are. Although the online print versions of the menu does not mention Hakka specialty dishes like basil clams, pan fried stuffed tofu, range chicken truly salt baked, they are offered at the restaurant. The general consensus (and also a brief mention with my uncle who knew the owners and was a regular in the past, but no longer) is that 1) quality went down compared to the past 2) prices went up (no more discounts/discount coupons etc). I do hope this place is still better than Ton Kiang or any of those so called "Hakka establishments" all around SF.

            1. re: K K

              Thanks for the update. At the time, it looked like Ton Kiang was the best option (as the Gold Mountain situation was up in the air). I think I'll have to get myself to Hayward soon to try Gold Mountain (though it's a bummer that I missed its earlier, better run.

            2. re: lexdevil

              Thanks for filing this great report. Still haven't made it to Chifa Peruano yet.

              Asian Restaurant - Chifa Peruano
              5173 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94112

              Golden Mountain
              21933 Foothill Blvd, Hayward, CA 94541

            3. Day four took us East and West. We started the day in the west with a trip to China Village in Albany. At China Village we had Cucumber with Spicy Garlic Sauce, Szechwan Home Style Chicken, Widow Spicy Diced Rabbit to start. Our waitress insisted on the rabbit, and I'm very glad she did. It was my favorite of the cold starters and I now can't go to China Village without ordering it. It's a bony, oily mess to eat, but the bright flavor is entirely worth the effort. Not to be ordered unless you really like star anise.

              We also had the West Style Spicy Fish Fillet soup, which is a great show as it is revealed from beneath a mountain of chilies. This soup really isn't very spicy--it tastes of the peppers without getting much of their heat. We also had a whole Tea Smoked Duck, and the Boiled Beef.

              From China Village, we headed East (both in terms of Bay Area and Chinese geography) and had lunch number two at Lily's in Lafayette. At Lily's we had the Xiao Long Bao, Diced Sea Bass with Pine Nuts, Pork Thigh, Pork Meat Balls, Shanghai Rice Cakes, and Beggar's Chicken. The chicken was an impressive production and had nice flavor, but the meat was disappointingly dry. The Xiao Long Bao were merely okay, but the Pork Thigh was great, and the rice cakes were a big hit. Lily brought us a warm, sweet Shanghainese rice ball soup. I liked it a lot, but the kids weren't buying.

              1. Links:

                Legendary Palace
                708 Franklin St, Oakland, CA 94607

                Great Eastern Restaurant
                649 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94133

                Ton Kiang
                5821 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121

                Spices 3
                369 12th St, Oakland, CA 94607

                Henry's Hunan Restaurant
                924 Sansome St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                VH Noodle House
                3288 Pierce St, Richmond, CA 94804

                Orchid Bowl Cafe
                3288 Pierce St, Richmond, CA 94804

                1. Finally, Day Five and we head north (not in terms of Bay Area Geography). We started the day at Darda in Milpitas. We had the much touted (and rightfully so) Cumin Lamb, Lamb w/ Pickled Cabbage Warm Pot, Sesame Bread, Home Made Chow Mein, and Chachiang Mein (a pork free variant of Ja Jiang Mein). Everything was great, though the kids were not especially impressed with the rather German tasting warm pot (if you don't love sauerkraut, this will not be for you).

                  Before leaving Milpitas and the Barber Court Mall, I grabbed 13 orders of take-away Assorted Wheat Gluten Platters from the Buddhist vegetarian Lu Lai Garden. Some of the kids enjoyed this, but I found the texture awfully gloopy (if that's a word). The very pink sweet and sour sauce on some of it was no great thrill either.

                  We ended the day back in Berkeley at Great China with its brilliant Liang Zhang Pi and mountains of Peking Duck. The wait staff was, as everywhere, concerned that we would not have enough food (lunch number two is a very confusing concept), so I added Walnut Prawns (a very guilty pleasure). The Liang Zhang Pi is beautiful to look at, and it is a wonderful mix of hot and cold; soft, slimy, and crunchy; rich and refreshing all at once. It was also a great opportunity to slip in a little sea cucumber. In my heart of hearts I feel like there's something almost morally wrong with Walnut Prawns (I have grave misgivings about mayonnaise in almost any context), but the dish is embarrassingly more-ish. The version at Great China is especially nice. The sauce is thinner than usual, and it's mildly orange scented. For those with an aversion to sweet--stay far away. I guess I'll justify my choice by saying it was another opportunity to check out the use of Western ingredients in Chinese cooking.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: lexdevil

                    Thanks for finally reporting back -- now I have all kinds of ideas about places to go and dishes to order.

                    I'm interested in what your students took away from the experience. Were there things that surprised them? Things they were amazed to discover?

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Some of what they learned was pretty basic geography and history, but I think the most important thing they took from the course was a willingness to try new things. My most squeamish kid loved chicken feet. One student, who announced at an early planning meeting that she would not/could not eat frog, ate frog. Everyone ate stinky tofu and no one spat it out. They encouraged each other and egged each other on (there's a fine line between the two) and all found that they enjoyed a lot of things that they would never have ordered on their own. I think all of them now have the confidence to walk into a restaurant and ask what its specialty is, ask about the specials listed on the walls, and make it clear that they are open to trying new things. None of them need be stuck in the Sweet & Sour Pork/Chicken Fried Rice rut any longer, but even more important, they understand that it's really okay to ask questions.

                  2. Great report, and obviously you obviously did some great groundwork. You inherited/created a very sophisticated group of kids, too!

                    I'm a little surprised at the problem with Spices' fried stinky tofu. Unless it's vastly different from what they serve at their SF outlet, it's a pretty innocuous version, certainly less noisome than many blue cheeses. I wonder (as I have before) if there is some psychological effect of the very name; What if it were called something else, like "fragrant tofu?"

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Xiao Yang

                      I'm a huge blue cheese fan, so it really don't think it was just that. At restaurants I tell the cheese steward that I like cheeses that remind me of dirty sweat socks. I think this particular funk is just enough out of my usual range (in flavor, rather than intensity) that it doesn't yet do it for me. As I ate it, I could imagine myself developing a taste for it, but it would/will take some time. For most of the kids I think it was not just the particular funk, but any funk. At the same time, one of my Korean students, who enjoys some pretty ripe kimchee, was not a fan either.

                      1. re: lexdevil

                        I love all manner of cheese, the riper the better. Yet, try as I might, I still don't dig stinky tofu.

                        Thanks again for the report. Following in your wake with the Place links, we've now entered more than 100 Chinese spots in the SF Bay Area database, far eclipsing any other category.

                        Darda Seafood Restaurant
                        296 Barber Ct, Milpitas, CA 95035

                        Lu Lai Garden
                        210 Barber Ct, Milpitas, CA 95035

                        Great China Restaurant
                        2115 Kittredge St, Berkeley, CA 94704

                    2. I only wish I have classes like this when I was going to school, maybe I would have gotten better grades.

                      Maybe a source on meat for 2009 would be a local Jr. College with a cooking program. I think they have classes on meats, cutting and cooking.

                      CCSF and Laney are two JC that might help.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: yimster

                        That's a great idea. I think Contra Costa College has a decent culinary program as well. A couple of years ago when I first started thinking about doing a meat course Niman Ranch said we could visit a lamb farm and also their Oakland meat cutting facility. I'm hoping to include a hands-on sausage making class, a farm visit or two, some guest speakers, video (including that great History Channel show on butchers), and a whole beast lunch to cap it off.

                        For ice cream this spring I plan visits to the usual suspects (Dreyers in Union City for a huge commercial operation, Bi-Rite, Marco Polo, etc.). We'll also have an ice cream making class with Shuna Fish Lydon. I need to find someplace that makes its own Kulfi, so suggestion for that would be appreciated. Yes, I will start a new thread for this. I promise.

                      2. Terrific reporting! I wish my daughter was in your class (and me, too!).