Posts tagged: restaurant review

Just For Fun: Ping’s Seafood – Elmhurst, Queens Restaurant Review

By , September 3, 2012

Ping's in Elmhurst, Queens

I have a friend who, when he visits New York, needs to have dim sum.  Flushing is the usual spot to hit up for dim sum, but this time, we decided to explore a new and up-and-coming Chinese neighborhood in Queens: Elmhurst.  And that is how we found ourselves at Ping’s Seafood, a small, inconspicuous restaurant on the corner of Queens Boulevard and Goldsmith Street that specializes in Hong Kong dim sum.

Elmhurst is considered Queens’ “second” Chinatown, but rest assured, there is nothing second class about Ping’s.  The entry way itself let’s you know that.  Laminated and yellowed restaurant reviews from such renowned newspapers as the Queens Chronicle fill the vestibule; pictures of the chef with the famous and influential of New York, including Mayor Bloomberg informs the visitor: this is not a place to toy with.

But where as other restaurants might ride the tail coats of their prior fame, Ping’s does not sit by idly.  Instead, Ping’s offers some mighty fine dim sum; dim sum that rivals some of the better known restaurants of Flushing

Unlike the jumbo dim sum restaurants of Flushing, Ping’s is relatively small and as a result, quaint. The requisite red velour wallpaper with a massive, gold double happiness symbol fills the back wall of the restaurant but the front wall, covered with windows, allows in a tremendous amount of light (most Flushing dim sum places have few if any windows).  Floor to ceiling tanks of various crustaceans blissfully unaware that their end is near are found throughout the restaurant.  If the name of the restaurant didn’t give you the hint, the tanks sure do: this is a place to order seafood.

Although it was a Thursday afternoon, the restaurant was still half full and a full dim sum was offered.  If ordering unknown dishes from ladies

Ping's User Friendly Dim Sum Menu

pushing carts is how you get your thrill, Ping’s provides that, even on a weekday.  But if you have been put off by dim sum because you have no idea what could confront you when you unwrap that lotus leaf, Ping’s provides a radical, alternative way to order dim sum: a cardboard menu with clear pictures and a description in both Chinese and English.  For one of my dining companions, this was the most important aspect of Ping’s for it democratizes dim sum and unwraps the mystery of the gloriousness of the experience.  If I was of lesser moral character, I would have swiped a menu to keep.  Dim sum is pretty much dim sum everywhere and this menu is the dim sum decoder.

But Ping’s greatness does not just lay in its user-friendly accessibility.  The food was also solid: there were some dishes that far exceeded my expectations, a few that disappointed, with most providing a steady and good dim sum experience.  The seafood shumai were pretty amazing; the dumpling was bursting with shrimp flavor and was very fresh.  The same held true of thee steamed rice noodle with baby shrimp: a lot of shrimp-bang for your buck and the rice noodle was perfectly moist.

But perhaps the best dish and a dish that should not be missed is the steamed glutinous rice & pork wrapped in lotus leaf.  The rice had a light sweet taste to it and the texture was both sticky and slightly crunchy, making for a fun and delicious experience.  The pork turned out to be crispy sausage with a lot of pork and spice flavor, adding a perfect complement to the sticky rice.  Ping’s Steamed Glutinous Rice is perhaps some of the best in the city.

For me, the barbequed roast pork bun was a bit of a disappointment.  I found the pork too sweet and the bun was a bit too dry.  But one of my dining companions loved that the pork was extra sweet and thought that it was delicious.  I let him finish off the third bun.

We next ordered a series of dumplings – steamed shrimp dumplings, steamed pork shumai and steamed minced beef shumai.  As with all the shrimp dishes at Ping’s, the steamed shrimp dumplings were excellent – the shrimp very fresh and very full.  The texture of the dumpling wrapping was perfectly light and sticky, offering only a hint of an additional flavor and allowing the shrimp to steal the show.

Ping's Decor

As pork is an important meat in the Chinese culture, I expected the pork shumai, like its shrimp brethren, to be good.  But in fact it wasn’t.  The pork shumai was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the day and any trip to Ping’s should NOT include it.  Even my roast pork bun-loving dining companion thought the pork shumai was bad.  But not bad enough that we didn’t finish it.

Ping’s throws down the gauntlet: look out Flushing, Elmhurst is on the rise. Ping’s dim sum is well worth the trip: it’s a nice restaurant with better than average dim sum and the best sticky rice in the city.  It’s also a great experience for a dim sum first-timer.  Given that it is one of the few dim sum restaurants in Elmhurst, expect the weekends to be packed.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Ping’s Seafood
83-02 Queens Boulevard
Elmhurst, NY 11373
(718) 396-1238


Just for Fun: Mao’s Kitchen – L.A. Restaurant Review

By , January 16, 2012

Mao's Kitchen - Venice Beach, CA

Any visit to LA is not complete without a visit to Venice Beach’s Mao’s Kitchen.  I first went to Mao’s back in 2005, long before this blog and long before “Just for Fun,” but I have always remember it as a fun, good Chinese restaurant with surprisingly authentic food.  On a visit back to L.A. a few weeks ago, a return to Mao’s Kitchen was high on the list of things to do.

Of course I dragged along my friend who first introduced me to Mao’s Kitchen, but who now doubted if Mao’s was truly authentic or any good.  She hadn’t been back since our last visit, and it gave me pause too – what if the reality of Mao’s Kitchen didn’t hold up to my memories?  Could I live with the disappointment?  In the end, I threw caution to the wind and decided to go.

After a long bike ride down the coast from Malibu, my dining companion and I arrived on Mao’s doorstep famished, the way one wants to be when going to Mao’s so as to fit more food into one’s stomach.  The outside was not what I remembered; it seemed more upscale, more put together.  Was this the Mao’s of my memories?

But upon entering, I was reminded why I first fell in love with Mao’s Kitchen: the restaurant is perfectly kitsch.  Its sparse design, brick walls, cement floors, and long cafeteria-like dining tables makes it Cultural Revolution chic, with perfectly-placed propaganda posters from the time period lining the walls.  The menu is filled with names of dishes harking back to the more proletarian times, names like “People’s Potstickers,” “Model Citizen Noodle Soup,” and “Gang of Four Fried Shrimp.”

$1 Egg Roll with spicy hot mustard and Mao's secret sauce

Between the two of us, we ordered three dishes and one appetizer, all of which were vegetarian (meat options abound but my dining companion was vegetarian, so we stuck with veggies).  I’m not a fan of egg rolls but at a dollar a piece, we decided to order one and split it.  The egg roll is pure vegetarian, filled with shredded carrots and cabbage.  Although lightly fried – with little grease on it – the egg roll itself is not memorable.  But the Mao’s proprietary dipping sauce – a subtle sweet and sour-like sauce – and the hot mustard make it an interesting experience.  The mustard makes for a precarious situation – a little too much and you feel its effects shoot up your nose but not enough and the egg roll lacks flavor.

The second dish to arrive was the culinary king of the restaurant – Mao’s Kitchen’s Dandan Noodles.  I hesitated when it first arrived – it did not look like all the other dandan noodles I have had.  Normally, dandan noodles are a small dish, with the noodles covered with a watery, oily, and spicy chili and sesame seed sauce.  Mao’s dandan noodles were decidedly different – first, the dish was colossal with enough noodles to feed at least five people.  Second, you could actually see the noodles – they were not completely immersed in that soupy, oily chili sauce that has become somewhat repetitive in Sichuan cooking.  In fact, there was no remnants of an oily sauce to speak of.

Upon first bite, I realized my fears were misplaced: these were the best dandan noodles I had ever had (and yes, I

Mao's Kitchen's Famous Dandan Noodles

understand the seriousness of that statement).  The freshness of the homemade noodles, boiled perfectly al dente, was complemented perfectly by the fullness of all the other flavors; dandan noodles are often over powered by that chili sesame seed sauce.  But here, without the drenching sauce, the freshness of the spinach and carrots came through while maintaining that Sichuan chili flavor.  The balance of all the flavors is perfectly sublime and the tofu was just lightly fried and crispy enough that it also had its own flavor to add.  As new dinners sat down around us, we couldn’t help but recommend the dandan noodles to everyone – unfortunately one of our neighbors had a gluten allergy but her friend, after our recommendation, order it with impunity.  Yes, these dandan noodles are worth losing friends over.

Our third dish was Sichuan Eggplant with Soft Tofu.  As my dining companion noted, the

Sichuan Eggplant

dandan noodles made it hard to move on to another dish, but alas we had to.  The Sichuan Eggplant is just another name for Eggplant with Fish-Fragrant Sauce (yuxiang qiezi 鱼香茄子), although the flavoring has nothing to do with fish but instead is a mix of sweet, salty, and spicy flavorings.  Mao doesn’t do Sichuan Eggplant different from the rest, but it does do it better.  With extremely fresh and firm eggplant not caked in yuxiang sauce and a yuxiang sauce not covered with oil spots, the flavorings of this dished helped to quiet the taste buds after the dandan noodles.

Our fourth and final dish was Mao’s Hometown with fish (sole).  Mao’s Hometown stir fries some smoked tofu and wood ear mushroom with the fish in Mao’s sweet and sour sauce.  It’s sweeter than the other dishes and doesn’t explode with flavor like the other two.  I liked it

Mao's Hometown

but my dining companion was sorely disappointed.  For her, the fish was the dish’s only saving grace – without the fish, the dish would be overly sweet.  The smoked tofu and the mushrooms are overpowered by the sauce; but the fish more than holds its own.  If you like sweet you will still like this dish – certainly not the best on the menu, but still alright.

Mao’s Kitchen is an amazing experience – the dandan noodles alone make it a landmark.  But the other dishes are also excellent.  In fact, at the end of the meal, my friend and I were able to recall what we ordered the last time – the salt and pepper fish.  If only we had ordered that again this time instead of the Mao’s Hometown, Mao’s Kitchen likely would have gotten five stars.  But 4.5 stars make it well worth the trip.  What sets Mao’s Kitchen apart from other Chinese restaurants is the freshness of its vegetables, the lightness of its frying, its ability to capture each enormous flavor, and the awesomeness of its décor.  Finally at $38 for three massive dishes (which provided leftovers for two days), it’s a great deal.

A Utopian Ideal? Inside Mao's Kitchen

Rating: ★★★★½

Mao’s Kitchen
1512 Pacific Ave.
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 581-8305

Just for Fun – London Restaurant Review – Chilli Cool

By , October 2, 2011

London's Chilli Cool

Is it possible to go to a foreign country, live there for a number of years and remain completely unchanged?  In the case of British cuisine, the answer is a resounding yes.  Although England ruled countries with the world’s most flavorful food, the Brits never thought to incorporate any of the newly found spices into their own cuisine.  But while British food has remained unchanged, major cities in the U.K. are filled with foreign restaurants, which have a good number of British customers.  By choosing not to create a fusion cuisine, the Brits have guaranteed that cities like London have some of the most authentic ethnic restaurants;  arguably the best Indian food outside of India can be found in London (major props to Masala Zone – yes it’s a chain, but it was phenomenal).

But what about Chinese food in London?  For over 100 years, England ruled the island of Hong Kong and made significant inroads into the Mainland prior to the Communist takeover, with major concession areas in Shanghai and Canton.  But unfortunately, the number of good Chinese restaurants in London is scant.  In speaking with a London friend  who spent many years in China, she noted that there were only around three good Chinese restaurants in London, a disappointment indeed.

And that is how I found myself at Chilli Cool (the misspelling of “chili” is intentional), one of the recommended three, in the Kings Cross area of London.  From the moment you open the door to the restaurant, Chilli Cool is unmistakably Sichuan, with the smells of the region engulfing you- a very promising sign.  Additionally, Chilli Cool compromises two restaurants, one that serves Sichuan hotpot and one that serves appetizers dishes.  My friend and I opted for the main restaurant to try the dishes.

Savory Hot Spicy Chicken

The first dish we ordered, Sichuan Savory Hot Spicy Chicken (No. 6), a traditional Sichuan appetizer where the Chinese literally translates to “mouth-watering chicken”, was not just dead-on authentic but delish.  The chicken, served in a bowl drenched by a Sichuan hot sauce and sesame seeds, was tender and although the dish is filled with a canopy of spices, the flavor of the chicken (which is served cold) is not lost.  Instead, the spices only enhance the flavor. The chili is the main flavor of the dish, but the subtle smokiness of the black pepper serves as a wonderful compliment.  Any trip to Chilli Cool is incomplete without ordering the Sichuan Savory Hot Spicy Chicken – Chilli Cool offers the best version of the dish that I have had outside of China.

To shake things up, we then ordered the Hot & Spicy Spare Ribs (No. 29) and the Dry Fried Chicken with Cumin & Chili (No. 37).  Unfortunately that is where our culinary adventure began to go off course.  Aside from the meat selection – one with chicken, one with pork – the dishes were exactly the same.  Neither the English description nor the Chinese

Two of the Same - Dry Fried Chicken (near) with Hot & Spicy Spare Ribs

name of the dish signaled that two dishes would be virtually identical and our waiter did not let us know that perhaps choosing two of the same dishes was not a good idea.

Fortunately, the chicken version came out first and was amazingly good and flavorful;  if one had to choose between the two dishes (which one should otherwise it is repetitive), the chicken version is by far superior.  The chicken was lightly fried and breaded, giving the dish a lightness that is often not found in fried Chinese food.  For those with a more delicate palate, the dish was not overwhelmingly spicy and was bursting with flavor.  The scallions, onions and peppers were fresh and perfectly complemented the mild chili flavor.  However, the dish likely could have used a touch more cumin as that flavor went largely unnoticed.

As for the pork version, the spare ribs were a bit dry.  Additionally, the flavoring of the dish tastes better with chicken.  Arguably other pork dishes on the menu would be a better choice.

As our fourth and final dish, we ordered one of my favorites, Shredded Potato with Spicy Dried Chili (No. 18).  When I lived in China, this dish was a staple for me and when made right, is a good carbohydrate alternative to

Shredded Potato with Spicy Dried Chili

rice.  Unfortunately, Chili Cool could not have made it more wrong.  The dish, which is usually very lightly fried, came out drenched in grease.  If made right, the potato slices should be firm; in the Chilli Cool version they were soft and soggy.  For some reason, Chili Cool added cloves to the dish which was weird and messed too much with the flavor.  Our Shredded Potato dish remained untouched during our meal.

Although one of the dishes was largely inedible and we were not properly warned that two of our dishes were twins of each other, I would still recommend a visit to Chili Cool when in London.  Two of the dishes were pretty amazing and could easily compete with the Sichuan chefs of Chengdu or Chongqing.  However, it might be best to stick with the traditional Sichuan “appetizers” (like dan dan noodles and Sichuan dumplings).

However, do note that Chilli Cool is no where near “Chinatown cheap.”  With four dishes and one beer, Chili Cool set us back 40 pounds (approximately $63), a lot of money considering two of the dishes were not that great.  Chilli Cool holds promise to be an amazing experience but a more careful selection from the menu is necessary.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Chilli Cool
15 Leigh Street
London, UK WC1H 9EW
020 7383 3135
Nearest Tube Station: Kings Cross

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