Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Handmade noodles, Otafuku

Handmade noodles! Presumably a staple of many peasant diets, in our mod-ren fast-paced society they have become the province of food fanatics with access to the deepest ethnic conclaves. At many of these restaurants, the noodles are the star attraction and can be enjoyed practically au naturel. The tremendous diversity of international dining in Los Angeles is reflected in the handmade noodle masters plying their trade:

Ma Dang Gook Soo:
Robust Korean gook soo, a thick wheaty cut noodle.
Delicate ropy udon, a world apart from the prepackaged kind from the Japanese store.
Mandarin House:
Bean-y jajiang sauce covers these hand-pulled beauties.

There are many spots I am keen to try; Heavy Noodling has the famous noodles sliced from a ball of dough that have a thickish centre and delicate frilly edges, and Mr Chu's is famous for hand-pulled noodles. These are described in "Counter Intelligence" and Carl Chu's books, see my links for details.

But back to Otafuku. This is a tiny wood-panelled treasure esconsced in a Gardena Japanese 'hood (16525 S Western Av, Gardena, 310 532 9348). House specialties are handmade soba, udon and especially the white "sarashina soba", made with flour milled from the heart of the buckwheat grain. Naturally this is imported from Japan. I sampled the sarashina soba - termed seiro on the menu after the serving container - and they are spectacular. Handmade noodles are generally a textural thrill but these have a wonderful pure flavour also. Most diners in Otafuku have a little bamboo stand with unadorned soba to dip in sauce or broth served on the side. Handmade udon at Otafuku are right on par with Kotohira, delicious in chicken soup. Traditional Japanese starters are terrific too, I loved the pickled vegetables and the mountain yam with seaweed. Another L.A. destination of the highest quality!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Lu Din Gee

After purchasing Carl Chu's book I was sorely disappointed to learn that Quanjude and J.Z.Y. Cafe - his suggested purveyors of Beijing/Peking duck - had both closed. Thankfully a new contender serving the real thing has opened in San Gabriel and chowhounds can rejoice again.
Lu Din Gee (1039 E. Valley Blvd, B102 San Gabriel, CA 91776 Tel: (626) 288-0588.) is kind of fancy, with Stan Getz on the stereo, exposed brick and at least some waitrons with cool spiky hair. It's in the same mall as a broken rice shop, a Taiwanese snack restaurant (both of which I'm keen to try) and the best place to buy Hong Kong movies in L.A., Five Star Laser. House specialty is Beijing duck in the "one duck, three ways" style:

1) Duck skin - the most treasured bit, try it and you'll instantly know why - and meat carved separately. Assemble with pancakes, spring onion and cucumber sprigs and sweet/salty bean paste. This is the backbone of the meal, the crispy skin and tender moist meat are a perfect textural contrast (shades of Limster in these notes).
2) Duck meat stir fried with bean sprouts.
3) Duck soup in the Shandong style, milky white through long cooking over high heat and flavoured with some secret and wonderful herbs, some of which lurk at the bottom of your bowl.

This is a spectacular dish, one can easily discern the difference between the multi-step Beijing extravaganza and conventional roast duck from the Cantonese bbq shop. Check out Professor Salt's duck odyssey for mouth-watering pictures and his thoughts. Two ducks served six people easily for lunch - order at least 1 hour ahead - unfortunately we didn't try the crazy konyaku desserts but there must be a next time.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Yungui Garden

030905: Updates from a great meal with my good friend and Chinese food expert Xiaoyu. Confusingly this restaurant is now called Yungui Garden, the third name change I am aware of for English signage.

How many Westsiders long to move to the San Gabriel Valley, or at least within reasonable striking distance of real Chinese food? It's a not-so-secret sorrow and even with my sub-ten commute on foot I sometimes question the sanity of living so far from the Motherlode.

Yungui Garden (formerly Yunnan Garden or Hua's Garden) at 301 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park south of the 10, is not a chow discovery per se, having been touted as perhaps the best Yunnan-plus-Sichuan place in town by the storied Jerome, J.Gold and Carl Chu.
However, my compadres and I had a good run at the menu and it's worth reporting what we ate. Incidentally, although my hack Cantonese and my friend's Hokkien were not useful with the Mandarin-speaking waitrons, the English speaking proprietor was extremely solicitious, steering us away from the Kung Pao chicken "too popular!" and recommending Yunnan dried beef for a future visit. Fear not, there is little discrimination here. On another visit, I would also try the cold dish counter up front where maybe lurk the brisket-and-tripe makings of my favourite "couple's delight" appetizer.

- Yunnan Rice Noodle Soup aka "Across The Bridge Noodles". Limpid broth brought to table with raw meats that cook in the soup when assembled by server. Not spicy, but an excellent foil to the nerve-jangling dishes below. A Yunnan specialty and worth trying especially for the subtle, pho-esque herbs.
030905 note: the name of the restaurant in Chinese script is Yunnan Rice Noodle Restaurant.

- Yunnan Chicken in Claypot [aka Airpot].
A tricked-out steamer, the Yunnan airpot is something I've only seen here. Inside is a rich, brown chicken soup fortified with Chinese medicinal berries (some familiar from house special dessert at Teochew palace 888 Seafood) and small mushrooms. If lack of Chinese food is the illness, consider me cured.

- Ma Po Tofu.
Let the games begin. Soft tofu is cooked in a casserole with ground pork, chillis and something more. This incredible dish is the root of many a Cantonese rip-off, but the Sichuan version has a secret weapon in the Sichuan peppercorn, imported illegally as I understand it, which imparts a dreamlike numbing sensation, exacerbated by cold water! Try tea or the salty soups instead for relief. I've eaten at the excellent Little Sichuan in San Mateo, but Yunnan Garden uses far more, or far fresher Sichuan peppercorns. A true test of one's sensory physiology, and not to be missed.

- Chongqing chicken.
Recommended by the proprietor instead of Kung Pao chicken (I was actually looking forward to the stripped-down, Sichuan chicken chilli and peanuts), this dish was at least half dried red chillis by volume, an astonishing challenge to the adventurous eater. My friends stayed clear but I ate enough of the dried chilli to end up in some trouble. Chicken itself was crispy fried and quite dry i.e. sauceless but moist. Tasty.

- Water-boiled fish and beef in Szechuan special sauce.
A famous, misleadingly named dish again celebrating the numbing hot chilli/peppercorn duality. Soupy red broth is filled with excellent fresh fish, beef slices, and Chinese cabbage. Although the flavour of this dish was superb, it wasn't nearly as spicy as some I've tried (still killing by Cantonese standards) and thus falls short of the Sichuan ideal where one emerges from the fire purified. Best Szechuan is across the street and their version is even better.
030905: Having eaten this again last night I stand corrected, it is as spicy and delicious as one could wish for (perhaps toned down for my non-Chinese friends previously?). Very tender beef and fish mixed together. According to my friend Xiaoyu, the final step in the cooking involves adding dry spices, then a load of hot oil on top. Thus, anything extracted from the pot passes through this layer of deadly spiciness.

- Lamb with cumin.
Delicious lamb is as tender as one could wish for and the cumin + not-incendiary chilli flavour quite heavenly. Scores big for ingredients that you'll almost never see on a regular Chinese menu.
030905: Cumin note is exceedingly popular in China these days, and probably originated from the Northeastern Islamic cuisine.

030905 extra dishes
- Twice-cooked pork.
A Szechwan classic, this dish uses fatty belly meat sliced thinly, cooked in a mix of spices to impart flavour, then stir-fried with sliced leeks. Yungui Garden's version was better than the one at Best Szechwan, particularly if the pork is eaten together with leeks. Xiaoyu said that neither approached his Platonic ideal, perhaps because the flavours imbued from the first cooking step could be more intense.

- Fuqi feipian
Delightful and classic Szechwan cold appetizer that Carl Chu translates as "table scraps". Often called "Couple's Delight" on English menu, a common version is brisket and tripe, both thinly sliced and served with a stunningly delicious numbing-hot sauce. Yungui Garden's dish has only brisket but is still a winner, probably my favourite from the cold dish counter out front.

- Other things from the cold dish counter that we really liked. Only $3.50/plate with up to three choices.
pig ears - chewy thin slices.
pickled beans
chicken gizzards

Yunnan Garden [now Yungui Garden] moves into my pantheon of the finest the San Gabriel Valley has to offer, and offers tremendous bang for the buck (we spent under $15 each and had copious leftovers). One of my close family friends is Yunnan and now I see what she's been raving about.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Hulu House

Since adding one solitary photo to my blog I thought I would put my Chowhound posts about Hulu House here as well. If you're an Angeleno, read 'em and weep, there's nothing to approach this in our part of Cali.

Dear Chowhounds,

This post will be long but here’s the punchline. Authentic laksa – the quintessential Singaporean/Malaysian curry noodle dish – is available at HuLu House Vegetarian Restaurant (Kirkham @ 12th, 415 682 0826). Hurry there and order yourself a bowl, it’s far better than Straits, Banana Garden or Singapore/Malaysian. This restaurant MUST stay in business!

A little history, proving that lightning can strike twice in a given location. Sunset Star used to be possibly the worst restaurant in the Inner Sunset, somehow surviving at the godforsaken corner of 12th and Kirkham. I went there on my birthday one year and had a bowl of won ton noodles whose miserable flavour surely cancelled out any longevity promoting effects of the noodles.

Then a miracle happened. The place changed hands and for a brief golden age one could get outstanding Szechuan food from Sunset Star (the “couple’s delight” tripe and beef dish was the equal of Little Szechuan). It was too good to last and the food collapsed into generic take-out Cantonese after the chef moved on.

Thus I was intrigued but little encouraged when Sunset Star was reborn as HuLu House Vegetarian Restaurant – it opened tonight. Buddhist vegetarian is usually forgettable, and what were they thinking opening in the middle of nowhere? Reading the menu made things MUCH more interesting. In a manner analogous to the overrated Golden Era, these folks were cooking Buddhist vegetarian ingredients with Singaporean/Malaysian recipes.

I had to order the vege laksa, it’s a keystone of the Malaysian hawker food pantheon and unlike beef rendang (for example) is poorly rendered at Indonesian restaurants in town. Authentic laksa contains chicken, so the vege version lacks a certain, well, meatiness. It’s also made with thick rice noodles, while my favourite renditions use ropy egg noodles with the occassional addition of thin vermicelli. Now for the good news. As soon as the generous bowl arrived, I smelled the aroma and knew the flavour would be OK. Good laksa has a milky, opaque broth redolent of coconut milk, with fierce orange-red spots of oil rising to the surface. The curry spices are very warming but the heat is modulated by the richness of the soup. HuLu House adds fat cubes of fried tofu (dou fu pok), tasty vegetarian goose and vegetarian fish to the traditional bean sprouts - no hard-boiled egg unfortunately. It’s not your grandmother’s curry laksa but in a city starved of the real thing it will serve. Triangular, flattish samosas were typical Chinese versions of the Indian appetizer, good value at $3. Complimentary lor bak ko/radish cake was OK but should have been more radish-y. I intend to eat at HuLu frequently and will soon work my way through the limited menu. Immediate must try dishes are vege nasi lemak (coconut rice) and the oxymoronic vege Hai Nan rice – hey, it can’t be worse than the sorry, overcooked gai fan you’ll find in local restaurants. “Special dessert” is $3.50. With luck it will be pulut hitam, the lovable sweet black rice served with coconut milk. Or ice kacang, or cendol with palm sugar, or bu bo cha cha...

I spoke to the chef who is Singaporean, she had a sunny first-day optimism about the restaurant’s prospects. I’ll be doing my part to keep tasty Malaysian food alive in San Francisco. Follow my lead!

Happy eating,

Low End Theory

Limster popped into town for a whirlwind visit. I took him and some pals to HuLu House Vegetarian Restaurant at Kirkham @ 12th for Singapore/Malaysian fare cooked with Buddhist vegetarian ingredients.

Limster noted the authenticity of the herbs in the curry laksa broth, and shared my opinion that the novelty of the vege goose and fish scored points. His delighted observations:

"Like finding a pot of gold."
"I would totally eat this in Singapore."
"This place opens AFTER I leave town."

As chibi noted in her earlier post, the nasi lemak is not very moist. The coconut flavour is tasty but could stand to be more pronounced. My ideal nasi lemak includes several accompaniments: curried beef or chicken, cucumber/carrot slices, hard-boiled egg, deep-fried peanuts and ikan bilis. The latter, literally "small fish", are delicious deep fried anchovies but of course they are absent here. I liked the vege eel/snake/animal that substituted for the curry. HuLu House does an OK job with this dish given their limitations. It's certainly equal to nasi lemak in Singapore/Malaysian restaurants that serve meat round here. Note also that Hulu House makes a passable vegetarian version of sambal belacan, the chilli sauce mixed with 1000x fermented shrimp paste that is the Malay condiment par excellence. It won't make your heart sing like real belacan but that's unrealistic.

For chowhounds who don't know, Hainanese chicken rice is a magical dish that inspires citywide competitions in Malaysia and Singapore. The rice is cooked in broth and fat from whole chickens and has an incomparable flavour. The chicken can be deep-fried but in my favourite version is barely parboiled - the bones should be bloody - and is thus incredibly tender. Chicken rice is served with chilli sauce, ginger and soy for dipping, and usually comes with a bowl of clear soup and some salad fixings. Again HuLu House produces an intriguing vegetarian, nay vegan facsimile of this dish. As chicken rice it scores 2/10. As vege chicken rice it is as good as it gets - a preposterous idea that is pleasing in its execution. The rice is cooked with sesame oil and tasted remarkably similar to the real thing given the lack of chicken. The "chicken" is painstakingly crafted from gluten and soy and comes in three varieties, each with a distinct texture. The "drumstick" was especially popular. As Hainanese chicken rice is terrible when ordered from most Cantonese restaurants (overcooked chicken is universal) and sub-par at Singapore/Malaysian places locally, I give HuLu House a thumbs-up for audacity.

Appetizers of note. The samosas and egg rolls are about average. I would pass over these in favour of the excellent HuLu tofu - sweet soy marinade, very delicate - and vege goose. You'll find the latter in many of the main dishes but it's worth ordering a plate to share.

Curry and rice was OK, though the curry was a little heavy on cabbage. This dish came with achar, pickled vegetables that were unfortunately too insipid, lacking the vinegary snap I look for. Thick noodles and veg contained lots of mushrooms, competent Cantonese cooking that was somewhat bland by comparison with the Southeast Asian fare we had. Add sambal "belacan" to increase satisfaction.

Distracted by picking over the wreckage of our lazy Susan - 6 mains among 5 plus appetizers for a Low End Theory-esque $12 incl. 20% tip - I completely forgot about dessert, again! Not to worry. There will be many other nights like this (even if there will never be another Limster).

Happy eating,

Low End Theory