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Chinese Nirvana in San Gabriel Valley, CA

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  • Alan Divack Jan 4, 1999 07:17 AM
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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
below.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/cur...

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  1. c
    Christine Bridges

    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
    forms....

    Chris Bridges

    17 Replies
    1. 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
      real stuff"

      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?

      ciao

      1. re: Jim Leff
        t
        Tom Armitage

        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.

        1. re: Tom Armitage
          j
          Jonathan Gold

          I second your endorsement of Shibuya-san--
          I've been following him for almost 15 years,
          and I'm sure I never would have gotten around to
          crab brains without him. Shibucho is
          just an outstanding sushi bar. (And Mr.
          Shibuya seems to have trained half the
          sushi chefs in California.)

          1. 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...

            ciao

            1. re: Jim Leff
              j
              Jonathan Gold

              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.

              1. 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.

                1. re: Jim Leff
                  j
                  Jonathan Gold

                  ``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.

                2. re: Jonathan Gold
                  c
                  Christine Bridges

                  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....

                  Chris

                  1. 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"!

                    ciao

                    1. re: Jim Leff
                      c
                      Christine Bridges

                      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...

                      Chris

              2. re: Tom Armitage
                b
                Barry Strugatz

                Please share your knowledge of types of uni, octopus
                brains, etc. What do they taste like, What are their
                Japanese names, when are they in season?... Thanks.

                1. re: Barry Strugatz
                  t
                  Tom Armitage

                  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
                  complement.

                  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
                  sea. Exquisite!

                  Hope this helps.

                  1. re: Barry Strugatz
                    t
                    Tom Armitage

                    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.

                    1. re: Tom Armitage

                      Tom, thanks for some of the best, most informative messages ever posted hereabouts.

                      But do you think you could maybe use the word "gonad" just a LITTLE less?
                      ; )

                      ciao

                      1. re: Jim Leff

                        Why sure, Jim. No problemo. And thanks for the kind
                        words.

                      2. 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
                        you mention?

                        1. re: pat hammond

                          The name of the company is Acadia Seafood
                          International. You can find out more about it from its
                          website, http://www.acadiaseafood.com.

              3. Website has been reorganized. Here is new link.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Chandavkl

                  Here's an updated link to that Atlantic Monthly article.

                  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/a...

                  I love this blast from the past.

                  Mr Taster

                  1. re: Mr Taster

                    thanks Mr. T.

                    Just look at the banter between Leff & Gold. Now its people looking for 25-seat banquet for birthdays... In downtown, of course.