From 2000 until 2003, my oldest friend Ben Mayer lived up the coast in San Francisco, allowing for more frequent, more gluttonous (five meals a day) and gastro-intestinally distressing visits. We switched off between L.A. and San Francisco. In July 2003, as part of Ben’s move to Manhattan, I flew to Austin and drove as far as New Orleans. On that trip, as a result of consuming mass quantities of Tex-Mex, barbecue, and Cajun/Creole cuisine, Ben changed his approach to eating. Now, when we get together, we limit consumption to two meals per day, plus snacks. Every year, from Christmas to New Year’s, I fly to New York City for a week (to eat) and see Ben during my stay. In between holidays, we meet up once a year (to eat). This is one of those weekends.
Before I begin, I’d like to apologize to my loyal readers (currently a handful of family and friends). Eight posts into my blog, and I’ve already broken protocol. This write-up features negative comments about a restaurant, which contradicts my introductory post. But hey, this is a blog,, and adaptation is a key to improvement.
Dateline: Long Beach, California, Friday, January 28, 2005
Ben was set to arrive at 10:20 AM from JFK. I arrived early to order a Kona Joe Mocha Americana from Steve’s Kona Joe Coffee, the unbelievable coffee cart outside the Long Beach Airport entrance. On previous visits to LGB, I make sure to pick up their fantastic Kona coffee mocha. I was hoping to interview the cart’s CEO/Marketing man, Steve Alfred Richardson, AKA “Mr. Bean.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t there, but I did glean plenty of info from Mr. Bean’s business card and pamphlet. First, Kona coffee comes from Hawaii and is supposedly “coffee grown like wine grapes.” A slew of mottos on the card include “Treat yourself do not cheat yourself,” and “Smooth comes naturally to us!” I agree, their coffee is incredibly smooth, with no bitter aftertaste. And mocha’s the perfect complement.
Ben’s plane did the unthinkable; it landed early, so we were able to reach our first restaurant by 11 AM. We quickly decided that any restaurant we ate at over the weekend had to serve a type of food that he can’t get good versions of around Manhattan, meaning we’d be eating a lot of Mexican and Chinese food. Yes, New Yorkers, your Chinese food isn’t as good as you thought. But take heart; you’re outnumbered; L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley boasts 250,000 Chinese-Americans, the largest community of its kind in the U.S.; Manhattan’s Chinatown is comparatively tiny. Similarly, L.A. County houses nearly 2.5 million Mexican-Americans, while under 300,000 Mexican-Americans inhabit New York City.
We started with La Huasteca, an upscale restaurant in the South Los Angeles community of Lynwood, situated in the impressive new Plaza Mexico, which drivers can see from the 105 freeway.
Tortilla chips were incredible, thin, crispy and warm, drizzled with terrific mole Poblano and crumbled cheese. A little dish of spicy red chile sauce provided a spice jolt. We split one appetizer and three entrees.
Camarones Xanath featured three plump shrimp over brown, vanilla-tinged sauce and a little mashed potato mound. The sauce could have tasted more like vanilla, but the shrimp were undeniably delicious. Camarones al tequila were also very good, teaming six similarly great shrimp with yellow rice and slightly spicy, liquor-tinged orange cream sauce. Medallones Quetzales was supposed to involve filet mignon medallions bathed in huitlacoche (corn fungus) sauce with melted cheese served over dense Poblano mashed potatoes. The sauce amounted to an unappetizing black gravy, and filet turned out to be fatty skirt steak; we didn’t finish this dish, but La Huasteca was still worth a stop.
Since we were running ahead of schedule, and I wasn’t due back in the office until after “lunch,” we took the long way, a 30-minute detour, to get dessert from Boule, a sensational new dessert boutique across La Cienega from parent restaurant Sona. Since we were both so full from gorging on Mexican food (not exactly the lightest cuisine) we settled for sorbet, figuring we could return for pastries and macarons another day. My cup contained two scoops: crème fraîche and lime-basil. Crème fraîche was through the roof, a mix of tart, sweet, and creamy, a surprising combination for sorbet. Lime-basil had flecks of basil leaf inside and tasted strongly of lime. The counterwoman said they were a good combo, since crème fraîche has lime “undertones.”
I had to work the rest of the afternoon, and Ben had a business meeting, so our eating adventures were interrupted until 7 PM, when I was released for the night. Work wasn’t a total loss, I called ahead to Lu Din Gee Café, in San Gabriel to reserve their vaunted roast Peking duck. They have a one-hour advanced order policy.
I really wanted to take Ben to try the fried pork dumplings at Luscious Dumplings, and we got to the San Gabriel mini-mall before their scheduled 8:15 PM closing time, but they’d sold out of every type of dumpling and the dining room was dark. Considering how much I hyped the restaurant, Ben was devastated. I promised we’d return Saturday, and our 8:30 PM reservation at Lu Din Gee Café was still a good fallback plan.
Within minutes of sitting down at Lu Din Gee Café, yet another mini-mall restaurant, duck hit the table. Excellent roast Peking duck with thin pancakes costs $26.95. Add $5 to get either duck bone soup or bean sprouts with duck meat, and $10 to get both. We invested $5 in the latter.
Lu Din Gee’s other food is also excellent. Lightly-fried, shell-less shrimp with fried coconut, chili & garlic ($13.95) arrived in a big, satisfying pile bathed in a mountain of the aforementioned ingredients. Cumin lamb ($10.95) involved a heap of shredded lamb and chopped onions bathed in cumin, strong and spicy. The lamb was incredibly juicy, even though some pieces were overly fatty. Scallion crispy pancake ($2.50) remained in the fryer too long, but revived with a dip in that fabulous hoisin sauce. Red bean crispy balls (2 for $1.95) made a great dessert, filling croissant-like pastries with hot, sweet red bean paste, coated with black sesame seeds. This was one of the best Chinese desserts ever, discounting Ton Kiang in San Francisco, whose almond cookies and mango pudding are on another plane. Based on my three meals, Lu Din Gee clearly rates as one of L.A.’s better Chinese restaurants.
Dateline: Los Angeles, California, Saturday, January 29, 2005
Since I’m training for the L.A. Marathon, I had no choice but to skip breakfast and complete a 20-mile run that LA Road Runners Coach Pat Connelly prescribed. Three hours, twenty-five seconds and one bum knee later, I met Ben in Pasadena, our stomachs aching for a huge meal.
Enter Luscious Dumplings, located in – surprise surprise – a mini-mall. This tiny San Gabriel spot with only eight tables serves fabulous food at low, low prices. After being denied last night, expectations only increased, but by the end of the meal, Ben wasn’t disappointed in the least. They brought a complimentary dish of celery and peanuts with shaved tofu, a great palate cleanser; even the tofu was edible (the highest compliment I’m willing to pay tofu). We each started with a “noodle in soup with small bok choy,” which was on every table. Ben went with a regular-size “beef tendon hot & sour, soup separate” ($3.50, $5 for a large), a bowl of flour noodles topped with a quivering, gelatinous, light brown mound of cow tendon, which was unbelievable, firmer than it looked and ten times as tasty. This was a great dish, especially when mixed with red chile sauce. A small bowl of broth came on the side, and didn’t come into play. Based on bowls I saw on several tables, I ordered “Stewed beef brisket” ($3.50), incredible noodle soup with beyond-fork-tender, lean beef cubes. We also devoured three orders of dumplings, 10 to an order, $5 a plate. “Napa, pork and sole, fried” featured thin flour wrappers browned crisp in the pan, filled with an insanely juicy blend of ground sole, pork, and cabbage.
All five Luscious Dumplings dishes cost $24, an unbelievable bargain at twice the price. This is the perfect blend of top ingredients, low prices, and flavor. Ben was very happy, gave the meal a 10, his max rating.
Not only was the food great at Luscious Dumplings, but I also got a fresh tip from a Chinese-American girl sitting outside the restaurant, waiting for a table alongside us. I overheard her tell her friend that she likes Luscious Dumplings, but that she just went to a place called Mandarin Noodle Deli for the first time, and that it was “great.” My ears were burning.
Yes, we were full, but it’s not like Ben gets to Los Angeles very often, and he craved a shrimp tostada from El Mar Azul, an aqua food truck parked next to Sycamore Grove Park in Highland Park, a Mexican-American (and Mexican) heavy enclave. They serve five types of tostadas ($1.50-3): shrimp, “crab,” shrimp, octopus and a mix, and four kinds of cocktails ($5 apiece): shrimp, abalone, octopus, and mix. There’s always a line. Ben and I each got a shrimp tostada: a salty fried corn tortilla (store bought) topped with incredible cole slaw, relish, creamy avocado, chile sauce, five shrimp, and a halved lemon for squeezing.
In addition to eating and exercise, there was one other order of business: culture. The Sunset Strip’s A+D Museum hosted the “34 Los Angeles Architects” exhibit. 34 prominent L.A. architects each designed a free-standing display of their best and future works. Some firms clearly met the challenge better than others, and in increasingly visual and informative ways. Los Angeles is a center for cutting-edge architecture, and it’s being exported worldwide.
Still massively dehydrated from our morning runs, we drove by The Juice Fountain, L.A.’s best juicery, but it already closed at 4, so we had to settle for a “Peenya Kowlada” from Jamba Juice. Its only redeeming quality was that it was cold liquid.
To make amends, we faced brutal traffic on the 10 East to reach the latest Tea Station in Alhambra. Tea Station is like a Chinese Starbucks, only made with fresher, healthier ingredients, and far more flavorful. I thought I’d had every drink on the menu, until Ben discovered iced coffee milk tea, which didn’t have coffee in it, just coffee-flavored powder, but still somehow tasted excellent; must be the superior tea. He liked it so much he got two large glasses ($5 apiece). I got my usuals: large iced fruit tea ($6, it included chunks of fresh pineapple, strawberries, apple, etc.) and an iced royal milk tea ($5). We took a break from eating, but not from food; I treated Ben to a slideshow of recent restaurant photos on my laptop.
For dinner, we drove east on Las Tunas Drive, planning to eat at the excellent Jonathan Gold find, Chang’s Garden. On the drive to Arcadia, something happened; on our left, I spotted the aforementioned Mandarin Noodle Deli. We had no choice but to park and investigate. After looking at the menu, and gawking at every table we passed in the packed corner restaurant, we decided it would make for an inferior retread of lunch; the dishes looked good, but were too similar and couldn’t possibly match identical offerings served at Luscious Dumplings.
We burrowed deeper into the San Gabriel Valley and Chang’s Garden. I already vetted Chang’s on two previous visits, so I was convinced Ben wouldn’t be disappointed. He was not. Marinated boiled peanuts came cold and weren’t as good as normal, but that didn’t matter. Spare ribs wrapped in lotus leaves were tasty, and the pork-infused sticky rice that clung to the ribs outstanding.
Chang’s green onion pancake was very good, fried, but softer than Lu Din Gee’s version, and great dipped in the brown sauce that washed over braised chicken with chestnuts. This chicken dish was great; flavor kept building as we kept eating juicy nubs of bone-on bird. After three dinners, I’m convinced Chang’s Garden is a very good restaurant.
Dateline: Los Angeles, California, Sunday, January 30, 2005
Charles Perry & Linda Burum raved about Hong Kong import New Concept, open since December, in last Wednesday’s LA Times. This Monterey Park dim sum parlor (by day) dispensed with the frustrating cart system and utilizes a handy checklist. Since the checklist is in Chinese, we requested an English menu to understand what we were ordering. New Concept divides their menu into six categories: Porridge & Claypot Rice, Dessert, Steamed Dishes, Chef’s Recommendations, Rice Noodles, Baked & Deep Fried. Ben and I split 10 dishes to get a fair assessment. The waiter of course told us we ordered too much food; they always do, but I’d rather try more things than wonder what might have been.
They started us with a small dish of beef tripe in a flavorful tomato-based sauce, but the stomach was undercooked and chewy. Shrimp har gow featured three steamed shrimp apiece, fresh, but nothing unique, especially after Luscious Dumplings. Steamed crab meat dumplings were already falling apart by the time they hit the table; the rice-based wrappers were pasty, and the crab meat turned out to be a mix of shrimp and that lousy fake crab, dyed pollock. Steamed pork shiu mai featured chewy pork sundries; I could barely finish one. Steamed Shanghai dumplings were fair, housing small pork hunks within watery flour wrappers. Steamed BBQ pork buns were fluffy, but too bready, and their insides involved a nasty mash of gelatinous, finely chopped hog meat.
Macau roast pork was absolutely inedible, little pork hunks with pronounced fat striations, each ribbon a different color and completely heinous, even when dipped in the dish of brown sauce/salt.
Finally, pan fried scallops & taro cake came as three crisp, brown bars of taro and scallop strips; a little dry, but still decent. We also had major service problems. We never received water glasses even though we asked twice. We had to protect any plate we wanted to keep on the table; a herd of waiters would grab for any dish that was even close to finished. We actually liked the satay sauce that the tripe came in; the first two times a waiter grabbed it, we made them put it back down, but the third waiter must have studied us to find our blind spot, because he swooped in and grabbed the sauce, and by the time we realized what happened, he was already through the kitchen doors. New Concept’s dim sum, praised as some of the best Los Angeles had to offer, turned out to be fair at best. The only way I would have felt worse about the meal would have been if we’d arrived later and actually had to wait to eat at New Concept.
One incident sums up the meal. I flagged down a passing waiter and asked him to please remove the plates; I couldn’t stand to see or smell the fermented bean paste one second more. The waiter wrapped it up and handed us a to-go bag, thinking he was doing us a favor. Ben was shocked, saying, “No, That’s all garbage.”
Since we were so close, we had no choice but to stop at Tea Station again. Ben got iced fruit tea and I ordered large iced royal black tea. Of course they were sensational; they always are. We scrolled through more old food photos until my laptop ran out of power.
We hit the gym for a couple hours to burn off our misbegotten dim sum, then drove south to Little Saigon, AKA the adjacent towns of Garden Grove and Westminster, in north Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam: 250,000 people.
Ben was in awe of mall after mall, street after street, and store after store with signs only in Vietnamese. Since Quan Hy was the best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve eaten at in Little Saigon, I had to bring Ben. Quan Hy is certainly stylish, with several tall bamboo partitions and wood. A koi pond with a little foot bridge greets diners upon entering the dining room.
We drank excellent coconut juice, with fresh scooped coconut sheets lining the bottom of the glass.
Since Nuoc Mia Vien Tay opened eight years ago, the sign’s featured sugar cane stalks, and while the store sells assorted Vietnamese groceries – dried tamarind, anyone? – most people line up for fresh squeezed sugar cane juice. A man takes two sugar canes, fits kumquat halves in the middle, and runs the entire thing through a slot in a metal press, squeezing kumquat and sugar cane juice into a pitcher. A woman strains the frothy lime-colored juice into a glass measuring cup, back into the pitcher, and then strains the juice again, into either 16- or 32-ounce Styrofoam cups. 16 ounces = $1.50, and 32 oz. = $3. I can’t imagine ever settling for 16 ounces. The sweet, citrus-tinged nectar is easily the best juice drink I’ve ever had. Thank you, OC Weekly, for introducing me to this Vietnamese jewel.
Duong Son BBQ is another OC Weekly find in Little Saigon. The publication raved about roasted pork, duck, and chickens. Unfortunately, it was the end of the day, and DSBBQ was down to five ducks and one solitary hog stub, all on hooks in a display case by the door. The counterman took one look at the pork and wouldn’t even sell it to us: “Just okay.” But he dubbed the duck “good,” so we got half a quacker ($7). The counterman cleaved our duck and loaded pieces into a Styrofoam box. Ben was over the duck after one bite, meaning I had leftovers for Monday.
Ben and I were stuffed, but still set out to find another Vietnamese restaurant. He figured he may not return to Little Saigon for a long time, so why not. Unfortunately, another restaurant that OC Weekly recommended had changed names, 32 ounces of sugar cane juice are surprisingly filling, and it was rapidly approaching Ben’s departure time, so I drove him to Long Beach Airport. Ben said he was happy with the weekend’s restaurant choices (New Concept excluded). I’m glad. He took off and I drove home, contemplating my next epic eating weekend with Ben, whenever, and wherever that may be.