Monday, April 25, 2005

Shiang/Charming Garden

Shiang Garden (also called Charming Garden, Chinese name = Hunan Garden Restaurant, 626 458 4508, 111 N Atlantic Blvd) is an offshoot of a Taiwanese restaurant, and is generally thought of as the best Hunan-style place in Los Angeles. It's rather fancy inside but remarkably affordable, and my Chinese food experts tell me that the food is very authentic. As in most of the San Gabriel Valley, the English translations on the extensive menu are generally befuddling. Luckily the service is quite helpful - my three visits have been with Mandarin speakers but you should be able to pick out these dishes with a little help from the staff:

House special duck - A whole duck stuffed with glutinous rice, tiny dried shrimps (har mai), finely diced Chinese sausage and gingko nuts; deep-fried until the skin is super crispy then sectioned. Extravagant and tasty.

House special noodles in "hot herbs" sauce - Ropy egg noodles with a spicy fresh chilli sauce mixed in. Oily texture is luxurious like dan dan mein but the flavour is very different.

House special mushrooms - Very popular dish here, the shiitake mushrooms are spectacularly fresh and succulent, cooked with a little garlic. Sounds plain but is not to be missed.

One of my favourite things about Shiang Garden is the cold dishes that arrive as soon as one sits down - you can start eating immediately! Three I particularly liked:
Cold bamboo shoots (the thinnest tips, very tender) cooked with a thin chilli paste
Seaweed tendrils with numbing hot Sichuan peppercorns
Anchovies cooked with an extraordinary fresh chilli sauce - very spicy

House soup, chicken with herbs and spices - Medicinal is generally an adjective that connotes the worst in food, but this soup is flavoured with wonderful herbs some of which I knew (wolfberries/gou ji zi), most of which were mysterious.

Live tilapia with hunan sauce - A whole fish smothered in a Hunan sauce once again featuring fresh chillis. The peppers could have been hotter according to my expert friend but I loved the flavour of the sauce.

Chicken cooked in foil - Not sure what this is called on the menu, pieces of chicken are roasted in smallish foil packets with a delectable red sauce almost reminiscent of some Shanghainese dishes I've had.

Lobster with ginger and garlic - Shiang Garden can do Cantonese style seafood very well; this was on someone else's tab and for top dollar one can have an immaculately steamed lobster here.

A side note: the rice wine with dried plums is supposedly quite a treat.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Yai Noodle

Yai is my favourite restaurant in Thai Town, so I was excited to notice its younger sister Yai Noodle open at 5401 Hollywood Blvd. It's awfully hip inside but a friend tells me that this is a relic of the previous establishment, which priced itself out of the 'hood to the benefit of Thai noodle fans. Much of the Yai menu is available by popular demand at Yai Noodle, but we restricted outselves to noodle house classics unique to the smaller branch:

Boat Noodle: Thai name is kũay tĩaw reua. Many of the soup noodles are based on the same dark broth rich with beef and anise [chowhound Erik M. informs me that the boat noodle stock probably includes blood]. The Boat Noodle is a compendium dish with thinnish rice noodles, brisket slices, liver, tripe, and meatballs. Terrific deep flavour in the broth. I suspect the other soups based on this stock with different meats are equally tasty.

Kee Maw: The pan fried fat phat rice noodles called fun in Cantonese, fried over very high heat with chilli, basil and copious amounts of garlic. This dish or the fun with black soy sauce (kecap manis) were staples of mine at King of Thai in SF, and this version was equally thrilling. Noodles are slightly charred much like Malay char kueh teow, very difficult to achieve this effect at home without restaurant-grade burners.

Chow mein: Can't remember the name of this dish on the menu, it is the pure Cantonese chow mein where the noodles are pan fried until crispy, then the sauce is poured on top with meat of choice and veg. Note that this is completely different to the gloppy Americanized chow mein from your local "donuts and Chinese food" shop. Execution at Yai Noodle is flawless, the noodles acquire a softer texture where they soak up the sauce and the flavour is typically Cantonese, subtle and delicious.

Yai Noodle is yet another fine destination in Thai Town, equal in quality to Sanamluang for the dishes I tried and serving a different spectrum of stuff from regular Yai.

User Guide to Raffi's Place

Raffi's Place (211 East Broadway Glendale, 818-240-7411) is famous among Chowhounds and others as the best kabob house in Los Angeles, no mean feat considering the huge Persian concentration in the area. I love Raffi's but not until recently did I discover the full Raffi protocol thanks to my Persian friend Kathy - who also revealed that the correct pronunciation is KAH-bob, always a useful thing to know.

Although the main dishes are gigantic, we tried the yoghurt + herbs appetizer called moussokhiar as well as a Mediterranean shirazi salad with a tomato base, from the town that gave its name to the grape. Both were excellent, and of course the house dough ("doog", yoghurt drink) is appropriate by the pitcher.

Kabobs are the standard types:
Barg = thinly sliced beef
Shish = thicker cuts of sirloin
Boneless lamb
Shishlique = lamb chops, superior to boneless
Luleh = minced meat more commonly called koobideh (luleh means "tunnel")
Surprisingly good chicken and chicken koobideh
Mahimahi for those who thought this was California cuisine

Kathy's main revelation was what to do with the carefully sliced lavash, onion and basil that is brought to the table before one's KAH-bobs. This is for wrapping the meat much like the lettuce or rice sheets at a Korean barbecue joint. The choicest part of the basil stalk is the part where the young leaves are emerging, so fight amongst your fellow diners for this. Dust the meat with a little sumac (the purple spice in the shaker) wrap into a roll, and one is ready to eat with one hand and spoon buttery rice with the other - note that the butter pat is fully intended to enrich your rice, not to spread on the lavash. Having eaten most every dish at Raffi's I can say that my favourite kabob is definitely the luleh, it is remarkably moist and delicious. This is a pure judgement call, as the others are all impeccably grilled; Raffi's Place is nothing if not an example of the restaurant that does one thing superbly.