Chinese Nirvana in San Gabriel Valley, CA
- Alan Divack Jan 4, 1999 07:17 AM
The current Atlantic Monthly has an article on Chinese
dining in the San Gabriel Valley, which is an area in
the Los Angelese suburbs. Because of the concentration
of relatively affluent Chinese, this area has become a
mecca for Chinese chefs, restauranteurs, and eaters as
well. The article was mouth watering, and the link is
I immediately clicked to the article upon reading your
message. I want to move there! It's frustrating,
though, to realize that us "lo-fan" (Caucasian, foreign
devils, etc.) will never, ever have any credibility in
any of these places, no matter how sincerely and
devotedly we try to convince our waiter that we really,
really do want the real stuff.
Oh well, I guess we deserve it, though, after seeing
how horribly many people behave in Chinese restaurants:
as if they were encountering some other species
instead of fellow humans, and being served alien life
re: Christine Bridges
"...us "lo-fan" (Caucasian, foreign devils, etc.) will
never, ever have any credibility in any of these
places, no matter how sincerely and devotedly we try to
convince our waiter that we really, really do want the
Christine! Get ahold of yourself! You're a CHOWHOUND!
You CAN bust through!!!
Go to the place OFTEN (true chowhounds realize that the
first meal in a place is a mere prelude, a first date
if you will). Get to know your waiter. Learn some
Chinese dish names. Keep pushing the envelope. As a
last resort, bring a native (though that can make you
feel even more gringoized in a way). I view eating out
in very authentic, closed sorts of places as a sort of
battle; courage and confidence are everything. Treasure
lurks and I shall pursue it to the ends of the
restaurant (too-ra too-ra too-ra).
But that's all internal, because it's especially
important not to come off like a wise-ass. The attitude
I try to project isn't a smug "yeah, yeah, yeah, I know
the score, give me the good stuff fer crying out
loud!", trying to impress with my knowledge and prove
myself "worthy". The waiter doesn't really care how
savvy I am, he's just following his script. Rather, I
try to telegraph the following: "yes, of course I
understand that it's your job to assume I'm a squeamish
outsider, but I just really LOVE spicy duck blood and
tripe so much, and you'd make me SO happy if you'd
bring me some!" If I'm served it, and the dish is well-
prepared, I freely show my rapturous enjoyment (again,
not eager/theatrical; just...well, HONEST), and all the
walls go down.
If it's not well-prepared, I won't fake enjoyment. But,
I must admit, I almost always finish the dish, just to
make a point!
Most really good ethnic restaurants have at least one
or two outsiders regulars who "pass" there. They didn't
reach that point by taking a test. Chances are, they
just came around so often that they became
familiar...and the staff approves of how they eat (that
is, they're low-maintenance and appreciative).
Tell you what, Christine...go into one of these
restaurants. Do your best and report your experiences
in detail. Then me and the other resident hounds will
prep you for visit #2. Sound good?
re: Jim Leff
Yeah, Big Dog. I totally agree, and offer to Chris
(and others) the following personal experience to
validate your encouragements. My wife and I love
sushi. One of our favorite sushi restaurants in Los
Angeles is Shibucho (in the Yaohan Plaza on Alameda
Street in Little Tokyo). The clientele there is almost
exclusively Japanese. When we first started going to
Shibucho, we ordered from, and were served from, the
display case, but noticed that many of the Japanese
customers were eating things that didn't come from the
case. On our visits to Shibucho, we have had the good
fortune of sitting at the counter that is served by
Shibuya, a master sushi chef. Although his English is
limited, we eventually established enough repore with
Shibuya to ask him about these special treats he
prepared for others, and indicated our interest in
trying them. Eventually, he came to trust that we had
adventuresome palates, and began sharing his special
treats more frequently with us. Now, there are no
holds barred, and we are offered things like abalone
liver and octopus brains, which would have been
unthinkable on our first few visits. Shibuya now seems
to enjoy being our teacher in the art and etiquette of
sushi, and feels comfortable enough with us to instruct
us on not overfilling our soy dishes, telling us when
not to use soy, etc. We also feel comfortable
interacting with other regular Japanese customers,
buying them drinks on special occasions, etc., which
not only adds to the enjoyment of our experience, but
opens many other doors to us (like recommendations of
the best of the premium sakes, the difference between
different types of uni, etc.). But it took time. We
have now been regular customers at Shibucho for around
four years. I'm sure many other chowhounds have had
similar experiences. So, go get 'em, Chris.
re: Tom Armitage
thanks, Tom. that was beautifully stated. There's no better feeling in the world than overcoming xenophobic obstacles and feeling more and more comfortable hanging around previously unfamiliar scenes. It's really broadening (plus it also somewhat unlocks restaurants for others). The opportunity to be a cultural chameleon is the crown jewel of urban living, yet so few avail themselves. Enthusiasm for such experiences is one of the distinguishing characteristics of chowhounds (foodies expect the "Welcome to Our Cuisine!" shtick; we're more shrewed and intrepid).
More pragmatically, here's another tip, for whatever it's worth:
I have a friend who insists that his strategy in gringo-frosty Chinese restaurants never fails: he starts out by asking for Ovaltine. Since this is SUCH a Chinese thing to do, they assume that he's Eurasian or lived over there. The menu unlocks and treasures spill forth from the kitchen.
Horlick's works, too, but you've got to pronounce it right (don't ask me!), whereas our English pronunciation of "Ovaltine" apparently comes pretty close to the correct one...
re: Jim Leff
The Ovaltine strategy may work, though
it may brand you as ex-Hong Kong, so it
may have other, unintended effects: although
Cantonese cooking is some of the most
exquisite in the world, food from other
parts of Asia is often ``dumbed down''
for the HK palate (generally intolerant
of chiles or strong spices) as surely as
it is for Americans.
Another strategy is to ask for ong choy,
sometimes translated as Chinese watercress,
which is almost always on hand in the
kitchen, though rarely on the menu.
But the best way to get great food in a
Chinese restaurant is patience: know
the cuisine of the restaurant you're
visiting; know that kung pao chicken
or cold sesame noodles are no more relevant
to a Cantonese restaurant (though it may be on
the menu) than spaghetti with meatballs
would be to a French restaurant; have
a pretty good idea of what's in season,
and what the people around you are actually
eating. Always order the most expensive fish.
Ask your waiter to translate four
or five specials, and order the two you've
never had before. (One trend I love is
translated menu inserts.) But don't let
him choose--I can't tel you how many
times I have become almost a regular
at a Chinese restaurant, ordered splendidly
for a month, and then brought sweet and sour pork
or egg rolls when I decided to let a
waiter suggest a dish.
re: Jonathan Gold
"Another strategy is to ask for ong choy, sometimes translated as Chinese watercress, which is almost always on hand in the kitchen, though rarely on the menu"
I usually get a raised eyebrow when ordering "foo yee", the briny fermented bean curd that's great on watercress or sauteed mixed veg. I've only seen it on one menu. And snow pea leaves used to work, but you can now find 'em at freaking Ollie's Noodle Shop fer cryin' out loud, so I guess that's over with...
"Always order the most expensive fish"
really? Doesn't that just make you a Rich Gringo rather than a Gringo?
"I can't tel you how many times I have become almost a regular at a Chinese restaurant, ordered splendidly for a month, and then brought sweet and sour pork or egg rolls when I decided to let a waiter suggest a dish"
must be a west coast thing...doesn't happen here much once you've gotten to know a waiter (no THERE'S an interesting discussion to start...regional variations in Chinese food re: East and West coast).
But these are intermediate-level suggestions...I don't think the original poster was anywhere near the point where she'd feel comfortable asking for translation of specials. Maybe after 3 or 4 meals.
re: Jim Leff
``really? Doesn't that just make you a
Rich Gringo rather than a Gringo?''
Chinese always assume--with good reason--
that ``Americans'' are too cheap to spend
good money on Chinese food, and the famous
specialties are almost always ruinously
expensive, and almost never ordered by
non-Chinese. Great Chinese seafood in
Hong Kong is not much cheaper than it would
be at Le Bernardin.
Actually, the ``always order the most
expensive fish in Chinese restaurants''
rule comes from Bruce Cost, who did
an article on the subject of ordering
in Chinese restaurants about a decade ago.
The most expensive species of live finfish on
any given day--not counting, of course,
things like dried bladders or sharks fin,
usually turns out to be the most delicious
fish. It just does.
re: Jonathan Gold
Jonathan, I couldn't agree with you more--I was just
about to jump in and respond to the previous message
with a story about how I ask for something like ong
choy, and get the little raised eyebrow from the
waiter. Then say "with foo yee?" and you get the--
"Oh--you like foo yee?" That usually helps a lot.
But you and Jim stole all my thunder!!! Damn!!
But Jim!!! I'm chagrined that you have me down as a
babe in the woods...it's true that I don't get out to
eat adventurously as often as I'd like, but Cantonese
(especially) cooking and eating is my favorite
occupation. I even went to City College to study
Cantonese for a semester back in the late 70's...just
so I could communicate better. Well, I've forgotten
most of it, but I still know how to order dow
miu--those pea greens; gorn deen long ley (pan-fried
flounder) hom choy ngau yook (pickled gai choy with
beef); gai lan lup cheong (Chinese broccoli with
Chinese sausage), etc. etc. (Now I'm hungry!)
Oh yeah, I know how to order the real stuff (I forgot
to mention that I even have a Chinese ex-husband)-- and
boy, can I see the difference between being a happy
guest at a table of six Chinese people and trying to
get the same things when on your own. I can do it all
right, but I'm soooo tired of the struggle!
It seems to me that there are so many more
knowledgeable and interested non-Chinese diners these
days, that it would be worth these restaurants' while
to make it a little easier on them--like having good
English translations of the Chinese menu; that's all
I'd ask! But maybe business is so good that it's not
worth it...and then again, my ex mother-in-law always
said she made her best profits on chow mein....
re: Christine Bridges
"I can do it all right, but I'm soooo tired of the struggle!"
We're HERE for you, Christine! Don't worry, it's a temporary lapse; you'll be back persuading skittish Ecuadorians to bring you guinea pig and gaining entree to Bosnian social clubs for boureks again before you know it!
But, hey, just 'cause you're having a wee bout of chowhound block doesn't mean you should discourage innocent newbie lurkers with stuff like "lo-fan will never, ever have any credibility in any of these places, no matter how sincerely and devotedly we try to convince our waiter that we really, really do want the real stuff"!
re: Jim Leff
What I'm trying to say (and I guess not very well since
I'm having so much trouble being understood) is that
yes, it's possible to have some degree of credibility
if you make the effort, if you become a regular,
if you are nice but knowledgeable and not superior,
etc. But every time your favorite place closes you
have to start all over again; every time you go to a
promising place in another city you have to buck the
attitude. I get worn out. I was thinking maybe we
could come up with a couple of buttons written in
Chinese with clever sayings like "I love bitter melon"
or "Horlicks is the greatest" that we could wear in to
the restaurant. Maybe that would help...
re: Barry Strugatz
I'm happy to share what I know, Barry. Perhaps others
can help me out and add to my knowledge. Like all
chowhounds, I'm always eager to learn. Uni is the
gonads ("roe") of sea urchins. The gonads of both
sexes are used. Uni varies in color, taste, and
texture. The preferred colors are light yellow and
light orange. In the California fishery, orange roe
indicates that it came from male red sea urchins while
yellow roe is usually found in in females. Avoid uni
that is darkish or brown, or has other off colors. The
taste should be fresh and sweet. The texture should be
creamy. Several different species of sea urchins are
harvested for uni. In the United States, the major
commercially valuable sea urchin species are the red
(Strongylocentrous franciscanus), the purple (S.
purpuratus), and the green (S. droebachiensis) sea
urchins. I have not been able to identify uni by
species and determine to what extent the species is an
important differentiating factor in color, taste, or
texture. Perhaps other chowhounds have done so. I do
find that there are major differences based on where
the sea urchins come from. My favorite U.S. uni comes
from Santa Barbara, California. Calfornia sushi
restaurants will often have uni from Chile, which I
find generally to be much inferior. On the east coast,
uni often comes from green sea urchins from Maine,
which I also find inferior to the Santa Barbara uni.
Uni can also come from Russia, China, Korea, Canada,
various places in California other than Santa Barbara,
Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Massachusetts, and New
Hampshire. I haven't yet had uni from the northern
Japanese island of Hokkaido, which many regard as the
best in the world. So, I guess the question I would
ask of the sushi chef is where his uni comes from.
This, in my experience, is the most important indicator
of quality. Then, I'd look at the uni and see if the
color looks right. Putting yourself in the hands of a
master sushi chef--like Shibuya-san--is your best bet.
There have been times when I've asked Shibuya about the
uni, he then takes it out of the case, puts some on the
back of his hand and tastes it, and then puts the box
back in the display case, and looks at me with a squint
in his eye. This, by the way, I regard as a supreme
Fresh abalone liver is quite tough and chewy with a
very strong taste. My wife prefers the marinated
abalone liver prepared by Masura-san at R-23, another
L.A. sushi restaurant. Octopus brains are very soft in
texture (like all brains), with a delicate taste of the
Hope this helps.
re: Barry Strugatz
Barry: Here's a P.S. to my previous response. The
point of my orginal comment was to extole the virtues
of breaking through perceived cultural barriers in
restaurants that don't cater to European-American
customers. For example, one evening at Shibucho, I sat
next to a former sushi chef who had worked with
Shibuya at Shibucho. He recognized me as a "regular,"
and soon began sharing with me all sorts of tid bits
about various sushi restaurants in Los Angeles, and why
one would--or should--want to eat at one rather than
another. (He did this through the Socratic method of
asking me questions. What specifically did I like
about Shibucho, and why did I prefer it to other sushi
restaurants? Soon, he was asking me to compare the
quality of soy, and of wasabi, and of other things,
used at various sushi restaurants in L.A. He clearly
wanted me to understand the imporance of these
"details.") In the course of the evening, I ordered
uni. Shibuya brought out the box of uni from the
display case, looked at it, showed it to my neighbor,
and the two of them been discussing it in Japanese.
Then my neighbor turned to me and asked, "With seaweed,
or without?" I looked puzzled, but then noticed that
some of the uni had a faint green blush on part of its
surface. I had no idea whether this was good or bad,
and responded with a puzzled look. After further
conversation with Shibuya in Japanese, my neighbor
recommended, "Without." I still don't know what "with
seaweed" meant. Neither my neighbor's nor Shibuya's
command of English was up to providing me with a
detailed, technical explanation. Sea urchins are
voracious herbivores, feeding mainly on sloughed and
broken kelp. Perhaps a small trace of partially
digested kelp and/or algae from the urchin's gut
somehow got onto the gonads during processing. I
really don't know. But the point is that my neighbor
was trying to help me appreciate some of the details
and subtleties of uni, and notice differences that
otherwise I may not have perceived. To be able to have
this kind of conversation requires acceptance, which in
turn requires regular patronage, perserverance, and
patience. That's the point. You'll have a lot more
fun learning about uni from the sushi chefs in the
places you frequent than from someone like me, who is
still very much a student.
One other point. The two main things that affect the
quality of uni are gonadal development and food supply.
Uni from a single area (like Santa Barbara) can vary
depending on differences in food supply affected by the
season and by the specific area from which the sea
urchins are harvested. An example of the importance of
food supply is a company in Maine that takes the lesser
Maine green sea urchins, and "enhances" their roe by
putting them in tanks and giving them special feed
formulations. According to this company, different
feed formulations create different color and taste in
the sea urchins' roe.
re: Tom Armitage
This particular post really took me back. Years ago I
was trying to swim in the ocean off of Owl's Head,
Maine, it was too frigid so I ended up mostly wading,
when I discovered that the bottom was literally
carpeted with the spikey cushions of sea urchins. I
harvested a few and cracked them open. The gonads
(sorry, Jim) were plump and ranged in color from egg
yolk yellow, orange, to a yellowish green. Now I know
why. They were delicious spread on the french bread
that was left over from our picnic lunch. Even my
children had a taste and they were very young at the
time. What I did then is probably against the law now.
Anyway, thanks for the memory!pat
p.s. Do you know the name of the company in Maine that