Category: Restaurant Review

Just for Fun: Restaurant Review – Noodles at Yiwanmen

By , September 2, 2021

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, restaurant reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

Yiwanmen in Manhattan’s Chinatown

For many of my friends, I am their “China person.” Questions about Chinese politics, questions about Chinese culture, questions about good Chinese restaurants, they all come to me.  But it is the latter – good Chinese restaurants – that I feel most obligated to answer correctly.

So when my friend Tanya randomly said to me “I want good Chinese noodles,” I went to work, researching and asking friends who work in Manhattan’s Chinatown, what was there number one pick for noodles.  One name that kept coming up was Yiwanmen, or in Chinese characters, 一碗面, “A Bowl of Noodles.”  Seemed like a must try.

Yiwanmen, on Mott street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, has the look of a faux hole-in-the wall spot, with wood paneling on the outside in an attempt at making it look old even though it opened in 2017.  Inside, a small dining area with three tables and a few side seats, its clear that Yiwanmen is too clean to be a true hole-in-the wall.  But don’t let that distract you from the noodles, which are delicious, authentic and not to be missed.

Yiwanmen makes the smart, strategic decision of not offering too many noodle dishes, a total of 11 with only six being noodle soups.  And while Yiwanmen presents itself as a Chongqing noodle spot (it’s chef is from Chongqing), my eyes – and stomach – gravitated to its more northeastern noodle fare, namely the hongshao beef noodle soup. Hongshao, a type of slow braising technique using fermented bean paste common in northern and eastern China, is not usually associated with Chongqing, a city smackdab in the middle of China that embraces Sichuan spicy as its flavor of choice.  Should I go with something outside of the chef’s native city?  I decided to take the risk. I ordered the hongshao. 

And thank goodness I did.  The pieces of beef explode with the sweet, savory flavor of the hongshao, and because it was slow cooked, the beef melted in my mouth, making chewing largely optional.  The broth, a touch greasy, was flavorful withfresh cilantro and the noodles were perfect – not too chewy and they did not stick together. The chef may be from Chongqing, but he obviously is a master of all of China’s noodles.  Although one noodle not on the menu is the famous thick, pulled noodle (la mian, 拉面) of northwest China.  But given the ubiquitousness of those noodles throughout Chinatown these days, it was nice to find a place that shined the spotlight on China’s other noodles.  And at $9 for a big bowl of noodles, Yiwanmen is at the perfect price point. 

Hongshao noodle soup with jianbing in the background

My friend also ordered the jianbing, a crepe-like sandwich sold on the streets of Beijing.  I have never been a fan of jianbing so I cannot speak to whether Yiwanmen makes a good one.  But if it was me (and hopefully it will be me again very soon at Yiwanmen), I would stick with the noodles.  The fact that the place is called “Bowl of Noodles” in Chinese and not “Plate of Crepe-like Sandwich” is telling. 

One thing to do before you go – make sure you aren’t wearing your nice clothes, like my friend who wore her silk dress.  Drops of noodle soup just gets on you even if you try to be careful.  Other choice is to wear a bib.  But no matter what, when you are in the mood for noodles, get yourself to Yiwanmen. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

150 Mott Street (between Grand & Broome Street)
New York, NY 10013

Yiwanman’s Menu

Just For Fun – Restaurant Review: Tasty Noodle House

By , February 21, 2016

San Gabriel's Tasty Noodle House

San Gabriel’s Tasty Noodle House

The thing about Chinese food in California is the vegetables.  With cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco only a stone’s throw away from major agricultural areas, “fresh” takes on a whole new meaning there.  When you mix that with the fact that Chinese cuisine really plays up vegetables and lets them stand on their own, you can find some of the best Chinese food in America.

And some of the best Chinese food in America is exactly what I found last Friday night in a tiny little restaurant called Tasty Noodle House located in a nondescript strip mall in San Gabriel valley, just outside of LA proper.

With three other friends, one who is a vegetarian, we ordered large with a total of eight dishes.  While the waitress told us at dish six that we over ordered, the food is so amazing that, by the time we were done with our meal, not a single scrap was left. Some of this had to do with the fact that we were starving after a day of hiking, but also Tasty Noodle House goes light on the oil, allowing the flavors of the food to stand on its own.  But even without the heavy oil, the food is authentic and the place is perfectly Chinese – a bathroom that can only be found by walking through the narrow kitchen and Mandarin soaps on the flat screen TV.

The first dish to arrive was the sautéed green beans.  Ordinarily, this is a dish with pork but Tasty Noodle House does a different take: thick, succulent string beans, flavored with garlic and ginger with tiny little shrimps.  The ginger addition and shrimp were a pleasant surprise and really made this into a light, delicious dish.

Amazing Scallion Pancakes

Amazing Scallion Pancakes

But what came next is what I would term a little piece of heaven: the scallion pancakes.  These were thin little things, perfectly crispy and soft, and with only a hint of scallion, not the overpowering flavor that usually fill the pancakes in less refined Chinese restaurants.  These pancakes also did not have the grease of a takeout joint and instead appeared to replace traditional Chinese cooking oil with what my dining companions could only conclude was butter.  While not traditional, this addition of butter made these pancakes irresistible.

But the highlight of the meal was the Sichuan eggplant (鱼香茄子).  This is by far the best Sichuan eggplant I have had in a long while.  The tough purple skin was not to be found on this eggplant, allowing the eggplant itself to take on the flavors of the sauce which was exploding with flavor.  Although slightly oily than other dishes, this was eaten quickly by my dining companions.  If you like eggplant, this is a must order dish.

World's best Sichuan Eggplant? Yes!

World’s best Sichuan Eggplant? Yes!

And while Tasty Noodle House does amazing things with its vegetables, its meat dishes are not to be overlooked.  Because we were only ordering one meat dish, the waitress informed us that the best meat dish on the menu is by far the sliced lamb pan fried.  She was right.  The lamb, a good, lean cut, was delicately balanced by the very fresh vegetables that also came with the dish.  All too often lamb dishes in Chinese restaurants are nothing more than a vehicle for cumin, with the cumin overpowering all other flavors.  But not at Tasty Noodle House.  Instead, the chef truly understands subtlety and allows the flavors to work with each other.

Finally, while Tasty Noodle House has pretty amazing dumplings for a restaurant that is not a dumpling house.  These are not store bought dumplings either.  The waitress informed us that all dumplings are made on site, even the skin of the dumpling is made there.  We ordered the leeks and fish boiled dumplings and the filling to dumpling skin ratio was almost perfect, with the filling bursting with fish meat and skin adding only a supporting role.

Our other dishes were also all pretty amazing but these few stand out as truly spectacular. Tasty Noodle House is one of the best Chinese restaurants in America with an all around amazing menu.  This isn’t a place that specializes in one dish or a place where the heaviness of Sichuan’s “mala” flavoring is overly relied on to mask otherwise

Cumin Lamb!

Cumin Lamb!

flavorless dishes. The chef – from the Dalian region of China – truly understands how to play with flavors, allowing each to play its role in the carnival of flavors in your mouth.

Tasty Noodle House is a small space, with about 7 tables.  I would recommend going during off hours to ensure that your wait is not too long.  But if it is, that just means you will be even more hungry and will order more.  And that over ordering will not break the

Plates almost all clean

Plates almost all clean

bank.    For my three friends and me, the total bill with tip came to about $84.  Note that Tasty Noodle House does not serve alcohol and from what I could see from others, does not allow BYOB.  But you don’t need it here.

I will be returning to LA in the spring and rest assured, there will be another trip to Tasty Noodle House so I can order the rest of the menu.  I can’t wait to see what else the chef has in store.


Rating: ★★★★★

Tasty Noodle House
27 W Las Tunas Dr.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 284-8898

Just For Fun: Capital Spirits – Beijing’s First Baijiu Bar

By , April 8, 2015

Cozy Capital Spirits in Beijing

Cozy Capital Spirits in Beijing

For most foreigners in China, baijiu (pronounced bye gee-oh) is a joke, or at the very least, the key element in any story about passing out, blacking out or vomiting up your banquet dinner.  But for the Chinese, baijiu, a strong, traditional grain or rice wine, is a must at any celebratory outing.  While foreigners often turn up their noses at baijiu, the Chinese really seem to enjoy it.  And have so for around 2,000 years.

Capital Spirits, a new bar in Beijing’s Dongzhimen neighborhood, successfully bridges

Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu

Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu

the gap between foreigners’ misunderstanding of baijiu and the Chinese love of it.  Showcasing some of China’s finest and smoothest baijius, Capital Spirits gives the uninitiated a reason to respect – if not begin to love – baijiu.  The bar offers a number of baijiu flights, where for 40 kuai (around $8), you can taste and compare four or five different baijius from around the country.  Each drink in the flight is introduced to you by the bartender, highlighting the differences and history of each brand.

But for those who cannot yet face pure baijiu, Capital Spirits also offers an eclectic and inventive baijiu cocktail mix.  That is the menu my friends and I ordered off of when we were there one recent night.  The cocktails were familiar – the hutong hound, a mix between grapefruit juice and baijiu was similar to a greyhound; the pineapple express had elements of pineapple and Malibu; and the ma-la rita, like a margarita.  But the taste of baijiu was evident if not in the strength of the cocktail alone.  While each was refreshing and tasty, especially the ma-la rita which had an enjoyable Sichuan peppercorn kick to it, because of the baijiu, these were sipping cocktails, not downing ones.  If you do want to down drinks in a more traditional manner, Capital Spirits has a full bar (two men were drinking whiskey when we showed up) and a non-baijiu cocktail mix.

Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits - the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express

Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits – the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express

Capital Spirits’ goal is to convert the doubting to the gospel of baijiu, a task that it appears to be slowly winning.  But what it truly does best is create an intimate neighborhood vibe in this small hutong space.  This is a crowd willing to try new things, and as a result, willing to talk to strangers.  By the end of the night, we had bantered with many of the other customers.  David, the bartender that night, was also hospitable, explaining all the different drinks.  But if you want to be left undisturbed, that is an option too in this dimly-lit space.

I am probably not going to become one of the converted.  Baijiu is still a mean spirit, especially for yours truly who thinks Mailbu and pineapple juice is a strong drink.  But I am going to go back to Capital Spirits.  It’s a great place to enjoy a drink – even a non-baijiu one – with a fun group of a people.




Rating: ★★★★☆

Capital Spirits

大菊胡同3号 (DA JU HUTONG #3)
Beijing, China

Although in a hutong, Capital Spirits is easy to find. Take Line 2 to Dongzhimen and get out at Exit B. You will be on Dongzhimen Nei Dajie and the Second Ring Road. Walk west along Dongzhimen Nei until you hit Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie. Cross to the otherside of Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie and immediately turn left. Pretty much the first hutong on your right will be 大菊胡同 (Da Ju Hutong). Capital Spirits is pretty much five feet in on your right. There is no sign, but there is the address painted on the front: 大菊胡同3号

Note that the bar does not open until 8 PM.

Just for Fun: Hunan Manor – New York Restaurant Review

By , July 18, 2013

Diners at Manhattan’s new Hunan Manor

For the past few years, Sichuan restaurants have opened in New York City like no one’s business , with over six being clustered in just a few blocks of Manhattan’s midtown east.  But if you are like me – you are Sichuan’ed out.  In fact out of all of China’s various cuisines, Sichaun probably has the least versatility.  Eventually that spicy, tingly feeling and taste after every dish gets a bit repetitive.

That is why I was excited to learn that a new cuisine had moved into the Sichuan barrio – Hunan Manor.  Hunan Manor boasts of an equally spicy cuisine – that of Hunan province – but with a lot more freshness, flavor and diversity.  Hunan food relies less on the chili paste and peppercorns of Sichuan cuisine and instead incorporates greater use of garlic, fresh chili peppers and shallots.  Hunan food is usually a treat.

Unfortunately that was not the case at Hunan Manor.  Hunan Manor is the Manhattan sister restaurant of perhaps one of Flushing’s bests, Hunan House.  I had eaten twice before at Hunan House in Flushing and both times thought the food was amazing.  So I was looking forward to trying out Hunan Manor.

But perhaps because Hunan Manor does not serve an exclusively Chinese clientele, its food was bland and ultimately uneventful.  In fact, the menu itself demonstrates that Hunan Manor must serve two masters – the first two pages of the menu are filled with traditional American Chinese food, an option that is missing in Flushing’s Hunan House.

My dining companions and I ordered five different dishes and only one was particularly outstanding, the eggplant and string bean dish.  The

Sauteed Eggplant and String Bean

dish was extremely flavorful and fresh with the string beans appropriately crispy and the eggplant not too soft.  Also the garlic flavor was pronounced in a good way – while noticeable, it did not over power the vegetables .

Unfortunately from this dish it was pretty much downhill.  The Hunan fried noodles were far from spectacular.  The flavor was bland and ultimately it tasted too much like take out.  But not good take out; more like 1 AM hangover take out where nothing better is open.  The braised pork Mao style, which is perhaps one of my favorite dishes in the Flushing restaurant, lacked the flavor and the richness of Hunan House.  And the sizzling tofu with shrimp was nothing to write home about.  It was good but nothing great.

Although there was only one stand out dish out of four, my dining companions and I decided to continue to venture the further down the menu, with the hope that things would get better.  As a result, we ordered one of my favorite dishes – a dish that I don’t understand why more Chinese restaurants in America haven’t realized that this dish would be a big hit: zha mantou (pronounced ja man-toe).  Zha mantou is basically fried bread dipped in sweet condensed milk.  Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.  The zha mantou redeemed Hunan Manor a bit – the mantous came out hot which makes the dish even more divine.  It could have been fried a bit less but ultimately I ate three of these little guys.

Sizzling tofu and shrimp

Strangely, we were served no tea at Hunan Manor.  At first I thought this was an oversight, but many of the other tables lacked any teapots.  This itself should have been a sign.

My ultimate take away – skip Hunan Manor and instead make the venture to Hunan House in Flushing.  The food is more authentic, fresh and flavorful there.  It does justice to the amazing cuisine which is Hunan food.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Hunan Manor

339 Lexington Ave (at 39th Street)
New York, NY 10016
(212) 682-2883

Just For Fun: Restaurant Review – Las Vegas’ Ping Pang Pong

By , June 13, 2013

Ping Pang Pong in the Gold Coast Casins

It’s not an understatement to say that Chinese tourists likely saved Las Vegas from economic oblivion after the meltdown of 2008.  When most of Nevada was in a foreclosure crisis, Las Vegas had to look elsewhere for cash and not surprisingly, that elsewhere was China.  Chinese people have long enjoyed gambling: Macau is the most profitable gaming city in the world and the number of Chinese travelers to Las Vegas has risen 30% every year these past through years.  In fact, last month, two Nevada congressmen proposed a bill to provide a visa waiver to Hong Kong Chinese.

And to thank these Chinese tourists, Las Vegas has given them their just reward – plenty of Chinese restaurants along the strip.  Because if there is something that Chinese tourists like more than gambling, it is eating Chinese food.  Some of the fanciest hotels – like the Bellagio and the Wynn – have premier Chinese restaurants allegedly serving “authentic” cuisine.

But what China Law & Policy wanted to find out – were any of them good?  A review of the internet brought up mixed reviews of some of the fancier places, but the one name that kept popping up as the best Chinese food was the unfortunately named Cantonese restaurant Ping Pang Pong in the old school, $5-table Gold Coast Casino.

Ping Pang Pong and the Gold Coast Casino are about a 20 minute, unattractive walk from the strip.  But every step of that walk is worth if for just

Best roast pork buns outside of Hong Kong? You bet!

for one thing: some of the best roast pork buns (cha siu bao) outside of Hong Kong.  All too often dim sum restaurants give too little attention to the roast pork buns, knowing that it is an easy sell; even a bad roast pork bun is still good.  But Ping Pang Pong’s roast pork buns are not simply good, they are actually divine.  The attention provided to the pork is amazing – not only is the bun full of shredded pork, but you can actually taste the barbeque flavor of the sauce mixed with the sweetness.  The soft bun, which was served hot, was fresh and added a perfect complement to the strong, delicious and distinct tangy and sweet flavors of the meat.  This is the way a steamed roast pork bun is supposed to taste.

The rest of the dim sum was very solid.  Although the restaurant was full of Chinese and Hong Kong customers (out of the 20 tables, only four were non-Chinese speaking) and most of the ordering is done in Chinese, it is still accessible to non-Chinese speakers because of its picture menu.

Spinach in garlic sauce

One of the first things that intrigued my dining companion and I on the picture menu was the shrimp lollipops.  And these lollipops did not disappoint.  If you like shrimp, you will love these.  The ground shrimp meat is fried and breaded and sits on a bamboo stick.  Although fried, these shrimp lollipops are very delicate – the frying is lightly done with no taste of oil, allowing for the flavor of the hefty amount of shrimp meat to really come out.  Even ground, the shrimp was still extremely fresh.  There is a mayo-based dipping sauce that comes with the shrimp lollipops, but this only detracts from the flavor.  There is no need for any sauce with these hefty shrimp mammas, but if you feel the need, go with the table hot sauce.

Next we tried the sticky fried rice with Chinese sausage.  At first taste, there was not much to write home about.  It wasn’t overwhelmingly flavorful, but it was a dish my dining companion and I kept coming back to.  The sausage was nice and sweet and the texture of the sticky rice complemented the sausage.  This was a dish we ended up making a point of finishing – it turned out to be very savory and satisfying.

Our next dish was a bit of a mistake – shrimp balls with rice on the outside, sitting in a congee sauce (rice gruel sauce).  Mixed with the shrimp was a vegetable medley of sorts – corn, carrots and peas.  I would not recommend ordering this.  While it is great that Ping Pang Pong is experimenting with new ideas, this is one experiment I could do without.  The flavors do not really go together and it’s just weird to mix corn, carrots and peas with the shrimp.

Fortunately we were saved by the next dish – the beef and shrimp shu mai.  These shu mai were bursting with flavor and were also very savory.

Turnip cakes

The dish did not come with a sauce and to be honest, it wasn’t needed.  A sauce would again detract too much for the freshness of the meats.  We also ordered off the menu – spinach with garlic sauce.  The dish was good – it was not dripping with garlic sauce which meant that the flavor of the spinach wasn’t lost as all too often happen – but it wasn’t great.

Finally, we ordered one of my favorites – turnip cakes.  These turnip cakes were fresh out of the oven, an experience I never had.  As a result of their freshness, the cakes fell apart very easily when you went to pick them up with your chopsticks.  Also surprisingly, these turnip cakes did not come with the oyster sauce that usually accompany them.  The waitress was happy to oblige when we asked for it, but I have never seen turnip cakes without a sauce.  These turnip cakes were good – my dining companion enjoyed them more than I did – but nothing you can’t get in New York City’s Chinatown.

All done!

Ping Pang Pong offers very good dim sum with exceptional roast pork buns that should not be missed.  The food is authentic and can compete with some of the better dim sum restaurants of larger Chinatowns like New York and San Francisco.  It also can compete with many of the Strip’s more famous chefs. Whoever the chef is of Ping Pang Pong, his genius is evident in the roast pork buns – Emeril could learn a thing or two from him.

What’s also great is that the meal will not set you back in the way that one of the restaurants on the Strip will.  The prices of the dim sum dishes range from $2.18 to $5.88 for a specialty.  Our meal – in which we over ordered – was $35 with tip (no alcohol though).  Certainly a winning find after losing big the night before in blackjack.



Rating: ★★★½☆

Ping Pang Pong
Inside the Gold Coast Casino
4000 W Flamingo Road
Las Vegas, NV 89103
(702) 367-7111


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

Just for Fun: Restaurant Review – Macao Trading Company

By , August 5, 2010

Macau Trading Company - 311 Church Street, NY

***NOTE – On a return back to Macao Trading Co. in October 2011 (just for drinks), no longer on the menu were the to-die-for-lamb-chops. Given that the lamb chops were the best thing listed in the review, it’s questionable if a trip to Macao is worth it. Certainly the ambiance is still there and it would still be a good place for your out-of-town mother-in-law, but the food is only average; edible but average.***

Macau may be a tiny island neighboring Hong Kong, but it has an air larger than life.  The first and last European colony in the Far East (the Portuguese arrived in Macau in 1557, leaving 400-odd years later in 1999), Macau still maintains the romantic feel of its colonial past, where East meets West in the culture, architecture and food.  But with the romantic, there is also the illicit air of Macau’s colonial past.  As the gambling mecca of Asia since the 1850s, organized crime has permeated, controlling Macau’s largest industry – the casinos – and in many ways, its government as well.

But it’s this feel of illegality that makes Macau attractive and the backdrop for some of Hong Kong’s best gangster films.  So when my friend suggested that we have dinner at Macao Trading Company in New York City’s Tribeca, I was excited at the chance to be transported back to the mysterious and dark Macau.

Unfortunately, Macao Trading Company doesn’t exactly live up to its namesake, but not for want of trying.  The bar area of the restaurant could easily be found in the streets of Macau, with strong teak wood elements, Buddha statutes, and iron fans.  But as I sat there, sipping on a glass of Portuguese wine, waiting for my dining companions, I realized that the fault lied more with the customers.  Americans just don’t do colonial sleazy nearly as well as their European counterparts; we are too earnest I suppose.  But in order to help overcome such a deficit, the bar offered a wide selection of drinks, with specialty cocktails starting at $14 each (including a $15 mai tai).  Stick with the Portuguese white house wine.  It was tasty and refreshing on a hot and humid New York City summer night.  As soon as we were seated, we immediately ordered a carafe.

While we were expecting fusion, the menu was largely divided between solidly Portuguese dishes and decidedly

Tortilha do Macao

Chinese ones, with some Chinese dishes oddly of the Sichuan-style rather than Cantonese (which would be the native type of Chinese food in Macau).  We decided to start our adventure with a Portuguese dish – Tortilha do Macao – a lump of crab meat and potato, with a curry dipping sauce.  It was a heavy mix, with a comfort-food type texture but without any of the consoling flavors.  It was too much potato with almost no flavor of the crab and absent the curry dipping sauce, the tortilha do macao would be a dry lump of nothingness.


The Portuguese meatballs (as opposed to the Chinese meatballs) were equally as heavy but with much more of a taste – a very pronounced meat one.  Mixing ground lamb with ground pork and a juicy mozzarella center, the Portuguese meatballs were hearty but nothing to write home about.

The grilled lamb chops on the other hand were almost divine.  Or at least I thought so.  Initially we hesitated ordering the lamb chops because they were listed on the “small plates” side of the menu,

Lamb chops

and we are three people who like to eat lamb.  But the portion size was good – with more than enough for two servings each.  The on-the-bone lamb chops were perfectly tender with a smokey, barbecue taste.  Flawlessly complementing the lamb was a light and savory garnish of bean sprouts, radish, peppers and mango.  For me, the mix of these flavors is Macau.  My dining companions were a little less impressed, noting that lamb chops are a Cantonese specialty (this I never knew – how many times you go to Hong Kong and see lambs walking around?) and that lamb chops this good could easily be found in Flushing, Queens, at a cheaper price.  While this might be true, any trip to Macao Trading Company is not complete without these lamb chops.

Our next dish was a decidedly Chinese and one of my favorites – Ants Climbing the Tree.  While not an appetizing name, ants climbing the tree is a dish of glass noodles with minced pork and a red chili sauce.  It can be a fulfilling, flavorful dish but Macao Trading Company’s version falls far short of the ideal.  There was no distinction in flavors with the chili sauce overpowering everything else and the noodles too pasty.

Bacalao Fried Rice

Fortunately we ended our meal with a bang, the Bacalao Fried Rice – a very Cantonese dish that one dining companion commented was a dish her aunt would make if she was feeling experimental (note that in traditional Chinese cooking, the key is never to experiment but rather to perfect).  The flavor of the salted cod was perfectly pronounced and the use of jasmine rice was brilliant.  With the lamb chops, the bacalao fried rice was off the charts.

With its Tribeca address and dim lit interior, Macao Trading Company, as one of my dining companions noted, is the perfect place to bring your mother-in-law who is visiting from Cleveland and wants a crazy night out on the town.  But its neither terribly crazy nor terribly good.  At the very least though, the check won’t set you back too much.  With five dishes and a carafe of house wine, the bill came to $114 with tip ($38/each).  Macao Trading Company also picks up after hours, staying open till 3:30 AM.  The heavy food could be good to sop up some alcohol and after a night of partying the lack of flavor in some of the dishes will likely go unnoticed.  But in general, Macao Trading Company is average; if you’re in the neighborhood and want ambiance, give it a shot.  Just know what to order.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Macao Trading Company
311 Church Street (just south of Canal)
New York,  NY 10013
(212) 431-8750

Just For Fun: Chinese Mirch – Restaurant Review

By , April 8, 2010

Chinese Mirch

Chinese Mirch

Religion successfully moves from country to country by adopting many of the customs and culture of its new host country.  Similarly, so does Chinese food.  The food you find at a local take-out in Manhattan is different than what you would find on the streets of Beijing.  While some sinophiles might turn up their nose to American Chinese food, it is its own distinct cuisine, to be loved and respected for its own separate reasons.  And love it I do.

But the Chinese have gone all over the world.  So what is Chinese food like outside of the U.S.?  Is there sweet-and-sour pork?  General Tsao’s?  Such thoughts blow my mind, sort of like wondering, what is out there after the planet Pluto?

So imagine my excitement last weekend when a friend (and avid China Law & Policy reader!) invited me to join her at an Indian Chinese restaurant.  And that’s how I ended up at Chinese Mirch on Lexington Avenue and 28th Street.

Chinese food is not new to India and in fact likely has a longer history there than in the United States.  With the Chinese first settling in Calcutta in the late 18th century, Chinese food in India has had the time to fuse some of the best of both Asian countries.  A mix described as “an explosion of flavor, sometimes bold and fiery, but always a delight to the senses,”  Chinese Mirch certainly delivered on the bold and fiery, but at times left me without the delight.

For me, we might have started off wrong.  Chinese Mirch’s appetizer of chicken spiked with curry leaves and red hot

Mirch 65

Mirch 65

chilies, named Mirch 65, was intense and not in a good way; more in a “can I have a bigger glass of  water” way.  I don’t consider myself weak when it comes to spicy, but Mirch 65 had way too much chili, overpowering what otherwise might have been a good dish with fresh, succulent pieces of chicken.  Our dish of fried okra though was pretty solid.  Nice fresh pieces of okra with a light fried batter and good and crispy.  But while it was good, it wasn’t spectacular.

But things decidedly picked up with the main dishes.  Vegetable ball Manchurian is a must.  While shaped as little meatballs, it does not attempt to replicate the taste or feel of meat.  It knows better than that and does not need to stoop to that level.  No, vegetable Manchurian rightfully stands alone.  Made of fresh ground vegetables in a minced onion, garlic and cilantro sauce, and lightly fried, the flavors of the fresh vegetables clearly speak for themselves and trust me, what they have to say shouldn’t be missed.

Chili Paneer

Chili Paneer

The chili paneer, lightly fried cubes of cheese in a hot soy chili gravy, was close to divine.  Outside of a few places in China, cheese does not exist and is not found in traditional Chinese cooking.  So the paneer is much more of an Indian dish than a Chinese one, but the soy sauce and chili gravy allowed the flavor of the paneer to pop.  Likely to the displeasure of my dining companions, I couldn’t stop eating it.  By time I knew it, the whole dish was gone.

After two marvelous dishes, the crispy Szechuan lamb was a bit disappointing.  There wasn’t really anything exciting about it.  It consisted of good pieces of meat, not at all chewy, with good lamb flavor and a nice chili spice aftertaste.  But it wasn’t anything to write home about.

Fortunately we finished our meal on a bang with the Hakka noodles.  The Hakka are a group of Chinese who speak the

Hakka Noodles

Hakka Noodles

Hakka dialect and during the late 18th and 19th centuries, traveled and settled in many places outside of China, including India.  While few Hakkas can still be found in China today, remnants of their distinct food can easily be found in Chinatowns that dot the globe.  Hence, Hakka noodles from India.  Hakka noodles are so common and popular in India that most young Indians today don’t realize that the dish is not original to India, at least according to one of my dining companions.  If lo mein is too greasy for you, hakka noodles are a wonderful alternative.  Thinner, flatter and less greasy, Hakka noodles do not leave you feeling overly full and gross like lo mein can.

Overall, Chinese Mirch was a good find and I look forward to exploring more of the flavors of Inidan Chinese food.  The food has all the savoriness of traditional Indian food but with lighter sauces and flavors.  It also makes significantly more use of the chili which in some cases (like the Mirch 65) can be a bit much but in other cases, really makes the dish.  Prices though are reasonable with most dishes around $10.  Do note that Chinese Mirch is a rather small restaurant and given the increasing demand for Indian Chinese food, the wait can be long.  If you would like to try to make some Indian Chinese food on your own, you can find a great recipe here.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Chinese Mirch
120 Lexington Ave. (corner of 28th Street)
New York, NY 10016
(212) 532-3663

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