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Asian Food, and the Chowish Spirit, in L.A.

Asian Food, and the Chowish Spirit, in L.A.
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  • Asian Food, and the Chowish Spirit, in L.A.

    Post #1 - July 18th, 2006, 4:45 pm
    Post #1 - July 18th, 2006, 4:45 pm Post #1 - July 18th, 2006, 4:45 pm
    (This continues my L.A. trip report from here. Third installment-- SF and Monterey-- linked here.)

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    Asian Food, and the Chowish Spirit, in L.A.

    While it's never taken on the dimensions of the pizza wars here, there has from time to time been a little Chicago-L.A. sibling rivalry. Now, I think you oughta dance with the gal that brung ya, and so I'm happy to stick up for Chicago on most occasions, but I'm also a realist, and the fact is that many cities stand out above Chicago for this or that, usually for fairly obvious historical and sociological reasons. Chicago has its share of Asian immigrants, enough to result in several healthy Asian restaurant areas aimed at Asians first and gringos second, but it's only reality to recognize that the dominant pattern of Asian migration to North America is to the west coast, and that the best odds of finding the most exciting and authentic, fresh-off-the-boat Asian restaurant scene will be in places like Vancouver, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles.

    Well, all you need to do is drive around a place like Koreatown, or the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Monterey Park, and you'll see that there is indeed a rich and immensely varied Asian restaurant scene in many parts of L.A., restaurant after restaurant (as well as many other kinds of businesses) for block after block, with signage often only in the mother tongue. The question is, how to know which ones to try and what to have there? And as I would quickly find, that is the question.

    Besides asking here, I turned to two obvious sources. The first one, it will come as no surprise to many people, was the L.A. Weekly's dining section and, in particular, Jonathan Gold, the best known name in L.A. dining and a tireless explorer of the local ethnic restaurant scene. Gold has a list of 99 essential restaurants which is the easiest way to get the lay of the land, he's done comprehensive roundups on subjects like Koreatown and sushi, he's got an advice column ("Ask Dr. Gold"), a column (perfectly suited to the L.A. mentality of being told to do what's hip this instant) called "Where To Eat Now", a book, T-shirts, neckties, stained glass windows... he's a one-man food-discoverin' machine.

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    The next source, it will also be not that much of a surprise, was the L.A. board of the newly spiffed up Chowhound. And here I discovered a certain problem. Which is... Jonathan Gold casts such a shadow over chowish dining in L.A. that discussion seems to stick mainly to what Jonathan Gold has talked about. While the insight of the board was often good (as Gold), I felt that the scope of places it talked about was narrow-- narrower than here, I think. To take Chinese in Monterey Park again as an example, people talked about a place called New Concept (reviewed by Gold here, and which is, in fact, where the above pictures come from), or they talked about liking an alternative called Ocean Star better. Yet I saw probably 40 restaurants, no exaggeration, in that area-- and I only toodled around for 15 minutes or so. If we take Chinese in Westmont as being Chicago's equivalent (not in quantity but in terms of being concentrated in an unfashionable, off-the-beaten-path burb-- which also explains why it's less well-covered by a West L.A.-focused publication like the LA Weekly), we've clearly explored and explicated our Asian-settled whitebread suburb more thoroughly.

    Nor is this issue limited to Asian food. I had deplored the state of Mexican food in L.A. on past trips, based on recommendations I'd taken before-- either upscale places like Border Grill which are all right in their way but less authentic and serious than the Bayless empire, or downright lousy stands serving late night hangover food to Anglos from Brentwood. Well, I've now had very good Mexican food in L.A., at a couple of recognized places-- yet driving around I saw dozens of signs promising "tortillas heche a mano" (made by hand) and other signs of authenticity and non-fusion or gringofication, there must be three dozen more places that excel the way a Gold-approved El Parian does... not to mention all the pupuserias which no one seems to have yet dived into. The Great Taco Hunt is a really good start but he's still focusing too far west, if you ask me, and is there a broader community picking up on his explorations as yet? Not much sign of it at Chowhound, anyway. (By the way, on the subject of food bloggers, the other one-- though again she tends to eat at the Gold-known places-- that I found most useful and worth reading was Pat Saperstein.)

    Anyway, I bring all this up not to say nyaah, we're better than you, but to say, if I was living in L.A. and not merely a visitor trying to cram in as many Golden Hits in between amusement parks as I could in one week, I'd be hitting the 10, getting off in the San Gabriel Valley, and trying a new place every chance I got. And if I (or anybody) did that for a year, I think the understanding of what's out there in L.A. would be significantly changed. There's just a lot out there, and while what I had at many places was very good, it didn't quite live up to my hopes of food that was radically more authentic than Chicago's Asian, delectably better, life-changingly new and different. That's good news for Chicago's scene in one sense, I come home more impressed with how good it is, and yet I suspect there still is startlingly new and wonderful food in L.A. hiding behind all those old Denny'ses turned into Asian restaurants in Monterey Park, or the strip malls full of nutritional supplements and phone cards in Koreatown. But the best of it remains to be found by the Internet gringo foodies.*

    One side note: before they flame me, let me say that the LA Chowhound/blogger crowd all deserve credit for eating in Asian places at all these days, considering that L.A. has an A-B-C health department rating system which gives scary Bs so consistently to Asian restaurants that I'd be surprised if there isn't a civil rights lawsuit over it one of these days.

    * One exception is probably sushi, which is trendy enough, and concentrated enough in the yuppier precincts, that it has been pretty thoroughly explored, and does indeed sound outstanding. But for various reasons of location, children-in-tow, etc., that was one major Asian genre L.A. is known for which I didn't eat on this trip.

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    1. It Happened in Monterey Park

    New Concept is an outpost of a Hong Kong restaurant which has been widely discussed for presenting authentic Hong Kong-style food. It's clearly a special occasion place for Asians, to judge by both the hardbound menus (for which they'll charge you a hundred bucks if they catch you running away with one) and the equally ostentatious whole animals being served in the pictures above (the menu also takes in many high-end ingredients rarely seen here, such as abalone and whelks-- not to mention tinfoil):

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    The decor and service fall in that odd area Asian restaurants often do, half Ritz-Carlton, half-Denny's, the dinner-jacketed waiter entering your order on a computer in the middle of the room, under which cartons of 7Up and Diet Coke are visibly stacked. Because not all of us were adventurous adults we stuck to sort of conservative meats, I wish now I'd gone for abalone or something; but since every time I tried to ask our waiter for a suggestion he steered me back toward something from the crab rangoon/cashew chicken side of the menu, I did the best I could ordering things people on Chowhound had recommended. Here's shrimp with toasted oats:

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    I forgot that Gold himself railed against this dish, and it is basically what you'd get if you took a shrimp from Little Three Happiness and dragged it through a bin at People's Market. But if the oats were a neutral nothing, the shrimp were all right. Better was this "Macao-style pork":

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    Very nicely roasted, a subtly sweet sauce, all good-- but just a little on the bland side; I was all girded up for authentic Far East funk and I got roasted pork you could almost slip over on the crowd at an Elks Club.

    We also got the roasted duck, and though I couldn't particularly detect the cinnamon Gold describes, it was first-rate, tender and delicious duck with crispy skin, far better prepared than a duck dish I would have at a high-end place in Monterey (not Park) a week later.

    The sauce with the duck came in handy when we got this:

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    Bacon-wrapped asparagus and as great as they looked, these came with some little fritters of seafood and corn which were delicious... but dry, they cried out for some kind of sauce to dip in. After experimenting around the table, the sweet-and-vinegary duck sauce proved to be just the thing. Not sure why these two very different items are combo'd, but they were the stars of the night.

    This was a curious meal-- we went in wondering if we'd be grossed out by something too strong and weird, we left thinking we could have taken our parents there. Maybe that's why New Concept is the one everyone has glommed onto in Monterey Park, it's good-- things were all very well prepared-- but it's not THAT challenging. Where's the fermented tofu? Where's the fishiness, where's the funk? I demand dishes I'm scared to eat!

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    Afterwards, driving around, we found a bubble tea place (harder than I would have guessed) and stopped in there, as a reward to the younger set for having sat through the meal and tried some things. It's actually a chain, we discovered, called Tapioca Express; the bubble tea was fair but I was most impressed by one of those pieces of needless but cool innovation that you sometimes find in Asian places. Snap-on lids-- that's so old fashioned! So last century! New high tech way is perfectly-centered cellophane-sealed top with incomprehensible cartoon, through which your straw makes perfect hole when thrust with kung-fu force:

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    New Concept
    700 S Atlantic
    Monterey Park, CA 91754
    (626) 282-6800

    Tapioca Express
    157 W. Garvey Ave.
    Monterey Park, CA 91754
    (626) 572-9192

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    2. Forget It, Johnny, It's Koreatown

    Gold's Koreatown list seemed to cover a lot of atmospheres... it was harder to get the sense that it covered a lot of different types of food. For that reason, as well as a passing reference here, I was quickly drawn to a restaurant called Yong Su San (variable spacing and spelling; maybe Yong SuSan, maybe Yongsusan) for a night with my wife sans kids, a place offering what sounded like sort of a Matsumoto-like Korean food experience-- many, many courses of exotic treats, served in private rooms (hence the call button above) and going for a dirt-cheap price, by tasting-menu standards.

    Well, here's the menu:

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    And here's a bunch of pictures of what we had, you tell me what it all was:

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    Hat off to my wife for trying everything, by the way, including the jellyfish and the preserved egg.

    It soon became clear why this was about $50 cheaper than the average tasting menu: because it was nearly all made up of the kind of panchan you get free at a Korean restaurant anyway, just bigger servings (far too big to finish most of them) and more of them. It was basically a buffet, delivered plate by plate to our table. That would be okay if there had been some real standouts, some things we'd never seen before, but nothing transported us-- the best you could say is that some things were pretty good. You know, sort of like a buffet. And sort of not in the least like Matsumoto.

    In fact, by the end of the LA portion of our trip I felt like we had basically blown our Koreatown chance, and so (knowing that the kids enjoy it) we decided to make one of the family nights a Korean BBQ night, picking a somewhat upscale, very popular place called Tahoe Galbi:

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    Nothing we hadn't had before, but all very good. Here is black pork:

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    Even robots like it! (I have no idea what that thing is. The arms did not move, that's all I know about it. Nor did it say "Warning, Will Robinson!")

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    YongSuSan
    950 S. Vermont
    Los Angeles, CA
    213-388-3042
    http://www.yongsusan.co.kr/en/menu-1/menu.htm
    (visit website for a very unfortunate misspelling)

    Tahoe Galbi Restaurant
    3986 Wilshire Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA
    213-365-9000

    3. Indonesia for the Indonesians!

    To Thai, or not to Thai? That was one question as I did research, and found that the writeups of the known places, whatever else might be out there, didn't seem to suggest anything that would seem startlingly new to someone familiar with Chicago's best Thai places. Then I found something that sounded pretty cool: a weekly Thai market and street food fair at a temple in North Hollywood called Wat Thai. At first glance this looked like the real deal, and for all I know it may well be... yet there's nothing in the report linked above, for instance, that I haven't had in Chicago-- papaya salad, satay, sticky rice with mango. Maybe it's still very cool and authentic. Maybe it's been discovered, and changed in the process, already. I just couldn't tell.

    Then I found some references to another, considerably less well-known event offering food I definitely couldn't have in Chicago. In Duarte, a generic suburb about 20 minutes east of Pasadena, there's a motel owned by an Indonesian who sponsors a Saturday morning food fair in his parking lot. The best description of it was on this blog. In an instant I was sold-- who else would spend a precious vacation day in California looking for a motel parking lot in far-inland, largely uncharming Duarte for Indonesian food? With kids in tow? It was just crazy enough to make sense to me; now all I had to do was figure out how to come up with an excuse to be that far east around lunch time on Saturday, and something fun to do with the kids so they wouldn't feel completely shafted in the process on their vacation.

    After a somewhat disappointing slog around the Huntington Library grounds in 100 degree heat, I started searching for Duarte. The fair lasts from 10 to 2, officially, but by our arrival around 1 it was clear everybody was ready to pack up in the heat.

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    Here's the menu at the largest stand:

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    Since I didn't understand a word of it, and they were probably out of most of it anyway, I pointed, and they made. Rice was in sausage-like tubes which had to be cut into chunks:

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    A little of everything that was left:

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    Here's a closeup of the curry with tofu, chicken, jackfruit and other goodies. Sweet, pungent, really tasty:

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    From the next stand, I got some fresh-off-the-portable-Charbroil pork skewers, in the mistaken belief the kids would eat them (they were eventually rewarded with McDonald's):

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    And this crushed-canteloupe drink, which was unbelievably refreshing in this hot sun (I mean, like the prisoners in Cool Hand Luke watching the loosely-clothed girl wash her car refreshing).

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    The food was great, the atmosphere was surreal, the improbability of it all made it a glorious adventure in dining. Only in L.A., I'm glad I did it, even if the kids weren't quite....

    Duarte Inn Parking Lot
    1200 Huntington Dr
    Duarte, CA 91010
    Last edited by Mike G on July 24th, 2006, 7:31 am, edited 1 time in total.
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
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  • Post #2 - July 18th, 2006, 5:11 pm
    Post #2 - July 18th, 2006, 5:11 pm Post #2 - July 18th, 2006, 5:11 pm
    In my few trips to LA, I never managed, oddly enough, to have Chinese food, so I cannot comment much on that angle, but the prelude, well to be banal, that's totally what I thought when I was there. I mean when each corner donut shop seemed to be calling out for a ranking, it seemed that the depths of hounding were being barely scratched. As you note, Koreatown is SO huge, there seems so much to try.

    Obviously, us tourists have so much to cram in on our short stays--I mean Mike did you go to any place I advised ( :twisted: :wink: )--that it's hard to go deeper. But as noted, it seems like a worthwhile challenge fer sure.

    Thanks for the reports. :D
    Think Yiddish, Dress British - Advice of Evil Ronnie to me.
  • Post #3 - July 18th, 2006, 5:21 pm
    Post #3 - July 18th, 2006, 5:21 pm Post #3 - July 18th, 2006, 5:21 pm
    Not only did I not go to any place you advised, I stopped at the quickie mart next to Pie-n-Burger in Pasadena to get water and directions, and didn't eat there.

    I was on a mission from God to eat Indonesian in Duarte!

    It did look great though, and is surely a top contender for The Most Appealing Restaurant Names of All Time. Oh well, I have a great list for next time...
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.
  • Post #4 - July 21st, 2006, 7:41 am
    Post #4 - July 21st, 2006, 7:41 am Post #4 - July 21st, 2006, 7:41 am
    Mike G wrote:(This continues my L.A. trip report from here.)

    Mike,

    My nephew, who is a sergeant in the LA County Sheriff's Department, and knows a thing or two about the city, and family are visiting for a few days. He read your LA posts and commented how impressed he was with both your knowledge of LA and the places you hit. And this from a guy who keeps a copy of Jonathan Gold's Counter Intelligence in both his personal and work car glove compartment.

    Thanks again for the posts, great info for my next visit.

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    Hold my beer . . .

    Low & Slow
  • Post #5 - March 6th, 2008, 3:12 pm
    Post #5 - March 6th, 2008, 3:12 pm Post #5 - March 6th, 2008, 3:12 pm
    hello mike!
    i was in LA last week and i want to thank you for this wonderfull job you have done!
    i went to New Concept and Tahoe Galbi Restaurant .
    both were excellent!
    thank you very much
    nirp from DiscussFitness
  • Post #6 - March 6th, 2008, 3:18 pm
    Post #6 - March 6th, 2008, 3:18 pm Post #6 - March 6th, 2008, 3:18 pm
    FWIW, you can find great (and inexpensive) Indonesian food at a little hole in the wall in Redondo Beach. Though tiny, its cozy and nicely decorated. I've seen it called different things, including the Banyan Indonesian Restaurant or the Banyan Water Garden Cafe. It's on the non-beach side of PCH at:

    600 South Pacific Coast Highway
    Redondo Beach (California)
    (310) 316-0316
    Hours: Mon-Sat, 11am-9pm

    Parking is behind the restaurant, just around the corner.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #7 - March 6th, 2008, 4:30 pm
    Post #7 - March 6th, 2008, 4:30 pm Post #7 - March 6th, 2008, 4:30 pm
    Mike G wrote:Even robots like it! (I have no idea what that thing is. The arms did not move, that's all I know about it. Nor did it say "Warning, Will Robinson!")

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    That, my friend, is a Koldwave 4AK Airmaster. I literally wrote the book on that device. Well, in full disclosure, it was actually an installation and maintenance video. The robot arm looking part is called a snozzle.
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven

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