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Liang's Kitchen

karaethon Oct 4, 2011 11:11 PM

So I made it over to Liang's Kitchen, which opened last week on Convoy. Although I've been calling it Taiwanese food, I found out in researching the review that it's more accurately Taiwanese Military village cuisine (didn't even know that existed). As I promised in this thread (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/798719), I did check out the restaurant and have a review ready. I decided to start a new thread for the restaurant instead of polluting that thread with "off topic" conversation.

As per CH rules, the meat of the review follows and you can scroll to the bottom to the link with the pretty photos.

Disclosure: My party received a 10% off the bill "grand opening"discount. I presume all diners got this same discount and don't know how long the promotion goes for.

Liang's Kitchen (or Liang Mama in Chinese) is a burgeoning Californian chain of what is classified as "little eateries" in Chinese culture. The concept of the little eatery is somewhat analogous to a fast food restaurant except that you still sit in the restaurant to enjoy your food. Thus, it's probably more like a Chipotle, Rubio's, or Elevation Burger in terms of fast food.
In doing some research about Liang's Kitchen, I came across this article, which seems to be the seminal work in providing background information on Mama Liang. I recommend you read the well-written article, but I'll go ahead and paraphrase. While Liang's Kitchen is referred to as Taiwanese cuisine (including here), it is more specifically military village food. Military village food is essentially a mix of several different types of Chinese cuisine such as Sichuan, Hunan, Taiwanese, and Cantonese. The military village was where military families from all parts of China blended together after initially fleeing to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War.
Mama Liang is a real person and mother of Ivan Liang, who is the owner of the Liang's Kitchen empire. Mama Liang opened her first restaurant in 1981 and retired in 2000. When his mother sold the restaurant, her son Ivan modernized the operation and started the current growth boom of the Liang's Kitchen empire throughout California and even New York. The philosophy of the food is twofold - to preserve military village cuisine and to stay true to Mama Liang's recipes.
The cuisine at Mama Liang's is mostly a collection of small plate foods or tapas. They seem to be best enjoyed in a group where each person can sample a little of each dish. Since the plates are small, a group of about 6 is probably the largest group before doubling up on orders. The signature dish is the beef tendon noodle soup, but other favorites include the special oil onion noodle with egg and sesame cake with beef.
I've previously dined at the Liang's Kitchen location in Irvine, so I will compare the dishes where applicable. Since there was no real progression to the menu, I'll simply give comments in the feedback the dishes arrived. Also, I didn't order the dishes, so I'm guessing to some extent what some of the dishes are.

Stewed Appetizer - Mixed Combination
The stewed appetizer combination contained stewed bean curd, stewed peanuts, stewed pig ear, and (I think) stewed pig's stomach. Stewing in this case means that the items are simmered in a predominantly soy based braising liquid. They are then allowed to cool off before being sliced and dressed with additional chili oils/sauces depending on the portion.
I found this particular preparation of the stewed appetizers to be enjoyable, but not exceptional. The peanuts retained a nice crunch while getting the sweet soy broth. The pigs ears were slightly undercooked so that the gelatin didn't properly soften, and the pigs stomach was slightly chewy. However, I thought that overall the contrasting textures and preparations ultimately worked well together. Unfortunately, the added bits of chili and spice were not sufficiently aggressive to really elevate this dish. Had the seasoning been slightly more aggressive, I felt the dish would have overcome the slight undercooking of the proteins.

Special Oil Onion Noodle with Egg
This was my favorite dish of the night. After receiving this dish, one mixes the onions, egg and oil together with the noodle to integrate all the flavors. The onions were excellently prepared and imparted a deep rich flavor to compliment the noodles, while the runny egg yolk added and earthiness to round out the dish.

Beef Noodle Soup with Thick Noodles
I actually didn't get to try this dish, but I've enjoyed it at the Irvine location in the past. The noodles are a thicker variety, which adds a rustic touch and actually holds up to the deep flavor of the stewed beef broth well. The soup contains Taiwanese lettuce, green onion, cilantro, and Chinese pickles. The vinegary bite of the pickles are a nice acidic contrast to an otherwise rich broth.

Stewed Pork Thigh
This was one of the better meat dishes of the night. The pork was stewed until tender and retained a lot of moisture. I was not a fan of the added sauce (I think it was oyster) as I felt the pork didn't need it to stand up on its own.

Steam Vegetable - A Vegetable
Yes, the name of this vegetable is A Vegetable. The A Vegetable was slightly overcooked, but the oyster sauce, ground pork, and fried garlic garnishes added additional flavor elements to the dish and made it enjoyable. It was a nice change of pace from the predominant meat dishes.

Black Bean Dry Noodle
Note: I might have the name wrong on this dish
This was my least favorite dish of the night. The noodles are mixed with the sauce like the special oil noodle, but I found the sauce prepared poorly. The flavors were a bit strong, and the bold flavor was actually overwhelming to the point of becoming unappetizing.

Stewed Tofu
I found this dish a little flat. By now the repeated use of the sauce (oyster?) was getting a little old and the addition of the weak sambal was not enough to balance the dish. The tofu was well-prepared and enjoyable though.

Special Red Pork Cutlet
This was basically some deep fried bbq pork. The bbq pork was actually well seasoned and flavorful. Where I didn't like this dish was the texture as the pork was slightly tough to chew. However, it was the better of the two dishes when compared to...

Fried Pork Cutlet
The pork cutlet was typical of what can be expected from many Chinese fast food places, but this particular one was a little tried and the texture was a bit tough. The meat itself was also lacking a bit when compared to the red pork cutlet.

Sesame Cake with Beef
I enjoyed the preparation of the sesame cake wrap, but found the beef a little dry. The wrap contains Chinese pickles to add an element of acid, in addition to cilantro, but I felt the balance of pickles to cilantro was a bit off as I could have used a little more freshness. This was actually a little disappointing as the version of this dish from the Irvine branch was exceptional.

Beef Tendon Noodle Soup with thick noodles
This dish is essentially identical to the earlier Beef Noodle Soup except that instead of just stewed beef, there are pieces of stewed tendon. As a lover of the gelatinous tendon I am much more a fan of this preparation than the previous. However, both dishes were nice and stand up in their own right.

Sesame Cake with Pork
Of the two sesame cake wraps, this particular one was more enjoyable because the pork was moist. The wrap was similarly unbalanced (for my tastes) in the pickles to herbs, but this bothered me less with the pork wrap.

Mix Black Bean Dry Noodle with thick noodles
I thought this dish was excellent. This dish illustrates the textural similarities of the soy beans (2 preparations stewed and steamed), tofu and ground meat even though each has a unique, yet similar flavor. This highlights how tofu and soy beans can be used as a meat substitute in some Chinese dishes that require ground meat.

Spicy Sausage
The sausage actually contained a fair amount of spice, which impressed me. It was fried on the outside so the casing had a nice texture to contrast the spicy mix of meat within the casing.

I hate to attach any sort of "best of" moniker to any restaurant. However, with the dearth of good Chinese food in San Diego, Liang's Kitchen stands out among the pack. I'm going to go ahead and refrain from attaching any adjectives to the restaurant for now simply say that I would return and I would mention it as one of the Chinese restaurants to visit in San Diego.
Had the food been up to par with the Irvine branch, Liang's Kitchen San Diego would be enjoying a bit award. However, there are still some issues with the food to work out as the restaurant discovers its identity, so this will have to wait.

Full Review with photos: http://www.gastrobits.com/2011/10/lia...

  1. s
    steveprez Oct 17, 2011 06:53 AM

    Thanks for pointing this place out and for the in depth review. Seeing your review prompted me to mention this to my half-Chinese, half-Taiwanese wife who grew up in Taiwan. I showed her the review and she said that the description of “Taiwanese Military village cuisine” was somewhat correct but not a “good translation”. This type of cuisine comes from the Chinese who followed Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan from China after the communist takeover in 1949. Many of these people were military and lived in separate villages but many were government officials and they formed a separate culture within Taiwan as they were very much resented by the Taiwanese (something about taking over the island and massacring thousands of people). The Chinese immigrants were from varied parts of China and were referred to as the Juan Cun people (pronounced jen sun). So the cuisine of these people was a mixture of various cuisines from mainland China, with a Taiwanese influence, but would not be considered “Taiwanese” food (i.e. the cuisine of the people in Taiwan before the arrival of CKS).

    So after my history lesson I suggested that we try Liang’s Kitchen (“House of Mama Liang” according to the Chinese characters) the next time we head to 99 Ranch for our regular shopping trip and that was this past Friday. We ordered the Beef Roll as an appetizer. I was favorably impressed with the use of ingredients and the overall flavor but found the roll too oily to eat more than one piece. I also ordered the Beef Noodle soup and found the beef and broth to be very good (I ordered the version without tendon). I particularly liked the copious amounts of fresh coriander and the use of preserved mustard. The soup had a very nice combination of flavors and, as served, was not very spicy as is served in many Beef Noodle restaurants. However, there was chili paste at each table as a condiment and I brought the soup up to the desired level of spiciness. The beef/broth was about as good as the stuff my wife makes at home, though different. The one disappointment was that the noodles were too thin for my taste, about the thickness of #9 spaghetti. I much prefer the thick, chewy hand cut noodles.

    My wife ordered the Fried Pork Cutlet “Box”. Box in quotes as it comes on a large plate with steamed rice, pickled vegetables, a hard-boiled egg and a piece of tofu. In Taiwan, this type of dish is typically sold in a box for take-out, hence the name. We eat this often when we travel to Taiwan. Her opinion of the quality was that the dish was good, but nothing special. As well, our overall opinion of the restaurant was that it was “OK” but nothing special. About what you’d expect from fast food. My wife ranks it with the quality of food sold at the restaurants that share the building with Ranch 99. To me it was about as good as the fast food we buy often in Taiwan.

    8 Replies
    1. re: steveprez
      cgfan Oct 17, 2011 08:36 AM

      Interesting history...

      BTW re. the noodles in their Beef Noodle Soup, they do offer the hand-shaved noodles. Simply order under the "L" column in their order ticket.

      1. re: cgfan
        steveprez Oct 29, 2011 09:12 AM

        Thanks for that! Problem for me was that all of the Chinese staff communicated through my wife. I never saw the order ticket. I'll definitely go back and get the thick noodles as I really liked the way the did the broth.

      2. re: steveprez
        karaethon Oct 17, 2011 09:07 AM

        I realize that I was very terse on the history lesson, but I was trying to achieve the balance between giving enough background and getting to the food portion. I originally wrote two large paragraphs on the history and then summarized each paragraph in one sentence instead. Reading the way you wrote it there, I could probably have added a little more information as well...

        As for the food, I agree with you that it is "nothing special" but I still think it is better than most of the other Chinese/Taiwanese food in San Diego. I would definitely say it is better than the restaurants that share the building with Ranch 99.

        As cgfan pointed out, you can get the noodles as thick noodles (which is definitely the way to go). I didn't think my beef roll was too oily - I don't remember if I wrote it but I actually thought the beef could use some additional sesame oil - (or maybe you're talking about the sesame cake portion?), but I could definitely see some batches of it going that way.

        I also heard something from various friends that visited that the quality tends to shift a lot when the owners are there or not there. The food quality is definitely higher when they are there (usually during the evenings) and suffers more during lunchtime service. Don't know if this situation applies to your experience.

        1. re: karaethon
          steveprez Oct 29, 2011 09:17 AM

          Sorry if my post gave the impression that your post had a deficiency. Not my perspective by any means. Your post was excellent and very informative. I was somewhat surprised by the learning from my wife and thought others would enjoy hearing.

          And I do agree with you that Mama Liang's is better than the restaurants (or at least the Savory Garden restaurant) in the 99 Ranch building. We had lunch there yesterday and I would rate it as "not bad" but a notch below Mama Liang's.

          1. re: steveprez
            karaethon Oct 30, 2011 01:59 PM

            I visited randomly again and I thought the food quality had improved a bit. I did notice that they did increase the prices on some items though...

            1. re: karaethon
              cgfan Oct 30, 2011 02:59 PM

              Yeah, although I didn't mention it here, on my first visit the Niu Rou Mian was pretty disappointing - tough, tough beef and an overly sweet broth with not a hint of spiciness. But wonderful hand-shaved noodles!

              On my repeat visit the beef was so tender as was the tendon, the broth was flavorful with just enough heat, and most of the almost cloying sweetness was gone from the broth, which was also much beefier than last. As a nit, however, towards the bottom of the bowl the broth did get noticeably sweeter.

              1. re: cgfan
                karaethon Oct 30, 2011 05:07 PM

                Did you go during lunch any of the visits? I received a tip along the lines of "the owners are not there during lunch so the staff slacks off, but they show up during dinnertime so the quality is higher"

                1. re: karaethon
                  cgfan Oct 30, 2011 05:26 PM

                  Always was there for a late afternoon lunch, ~3 pm...

      3. m
        mliew Oct 13, 2011 02:52 PM

        Seems word has gotten around town about this place. Went last Friday night and the place was packed. Wait list had 10 names on it at peak dinner time. Unfortunately our experience wasn't nearly as good as the first visit, they put the wrong noodles in our order and took 45 mins to bring out our beef roll (while plenty of other tables were getting theirs). Seemed that they were completely overwhelmed by the crowds. Hopefully this will be fixed soon once they get some practice in.

        1 Reply
        1. re: mliew
          karaethon Oct 13, 2011 03:15 PM

          Of my original group that went, I think I'm the only person who hasn't re-visited.

          I'm glad they are doing good business as it might cause the competition to step it up a bit

        2. d
          daantaat Oct 5, 2011 08:45 PM

          thanks for the review! will have to check it out soon!

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