Sunday, November 29, 2009

Newport Tan Cang Seafood -- Best Chinese in SGV?

If I'm going to claim that Newport Tan Cang is one of the best Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, then I can just about say that it is probably one of the best in the country, knowing that this area is ground zero to so many excellent Chinese restaurants. Newport Tan Cang has been on my hit list since I started this blog, and on Thanksgiving night, myself and eight others--including my wife and her family--made the eastbound journey to San Gabriel to partake in a Thanksgiving dinner of lobster and crab. Even after a full day of chowing on a diet-busting spread of traditional turkey day eats with my folks, I made sure to bring my A game appetite for this culinary milestone.

I've had several opportunities in recent months to mark Newport Tan Cang off my list, but I could never get a group large enough--at least eight--to make the feast worth the hour-plus long wait and to keep the cost in check with ordering a variety of dishes. The special here is fresh lobster and it is not cheap at $15/pound, with most lobsters (according to our server) tipping the scales at about five pounds. Throw in a plate of their highly-regarded French-style beef, a fresh crab, a noodle dish, and few other dishes and you can see why I wanted to wait to truly relish in all that Newport Tan Cang has to offer.

We arrive on Thursday night to a bustling scene both inside and out, and after a wait of about an hour--which is not bad from what I've heard--we take our seats at a lazy Susan equipped table. As a crazed foodie whose always studying menus and reviews before stepping into a restaurant, I'm generally prepared with what I want to order and I waste no time in commandeering the menu. I summon the server and proceed with ordering the house-special lobster, a fresh crab, Chinese broccoli, and their famous French-style beef. The group also participates with ordering honey-walnut shrimp, seafood noodles, and kung pao chicken.

Wait--did I just say kung pao chicken? OK so we had with us a visitor from South America and that was her request as this was all new to her, but (and I'm jumping ahead) she did eat a portion of everything that was brought to our table.

On every table was a drink menu displaying fresh fruit concoctions, and on said menu was a durian shake with boba. As a newly appointed member of the durian fan club--which was bestowed upon me during my recent Bali trip--I just had had to order one, as did my friend Sandra. Her family actually owns a durian plantation in Singapore. Yeah I know -- that fact has no relevance to this review.

The taste was incredible and was every bit as refreshing as the fresh durian I consumed in Bali. Even in shake form, the "King of fruit" still musters an in-your-face odor that someone at the table described as natural gas. It does smell--like what I can't quite seem to describe--but it doesn't bother me or Fonda. I honestly think this fruit is simply over hyped in terms of its odor and exotic taste; it is truly a deliciously sweet treat and if you can't get past the interesting odor, then you are missing out on something unique.

Back to our food, the first dish arrives and it's the honey walnut shrimp, which is a popular item at many Chinese restaurants. Newport Tan Cang's version is absolutely perfect and is in fact better than any I've had, period. The balance of sauce, shrimp, and walnuts is textbook, with no overpowering of the thick mayonnaise sauce. Tender, plump shrimp and a generous supply of nuts solidify Newport Tan Cang's version of this dish in the record book (not for sale!)

The Chinese broccoli arrives next and is served with fish flakes. A few of us at table were astounded by how perfectly cooked and brightly green this dish was. Also brought out was the kung pao chicken, which was, well, quite good =). A group picture of both dishes is coming up; I don't have individual pictures of either dish, because as I was adjusting this and that with my beloved Canon s90, our $85 lobster touches down in the center of our table.

Newport Tan Cang has a variety of lobster preparation, and this was their special house version. It's served over a bed of stir-fried veggies, chilies and lobster eggs. The lobster appears to have been steamed or boiled, then cut up and stir fried with heavy doses of garlic and ginger. To really get at the meat, you just have to use your hands and gnaw in and around the shell.

Fonda took this pic and--geez--I'm such a pig! I mean look at the placement of my fork--it's backwards for crying out loud! Is the fork handle resting on my plate stacked with lobster shells? Check! Is there a mess around my plate? Check! My fingers on my right hand are completely coated in shell bits and sauce and I actually cropped them out because I really can't stand to lose any readers. This is obviously one of those don't bother me I'm eating moments. Oh but wait, I have those moments just about daily.

Our fresh crab arrives shortly after to join the party. Our server explained that the restaurant only had small to medium sized crabs that night; the one brought to us was indeed small for our table of nine. Nonetheless, the crab was nicely cooked and prepared, and what little crab meat I got to try was very tasty.

One of the dishes that gets unworldly praises from Yelp is the French style beef, and so of course I ordered a plate for the table. The tender chunks of melt-in-your-mouth beef earned high praises from our party, and are much more substantial in flavor and size than the greasy paper-thin slices of fatty beef found on comparable dishes at many other Chinese restaurants. My sister-in-law later confesses that she wasn't able to try a piece because they were all gone. That statement tells me two things: 1) The beef was simply too good and obviously vanished before she could claim her portion, and 2) we'll need to make a return visit =).

No Chinese feast is complete without a noodle dish, and so we ordered ours with mixed seafood. This was very good with its crispy noodles and a generous quantity of nicely-cooked pieces of calamari and shrimp. How good was it? Well it was the first dish to be completely cleared, though not far behind was the aforementioned French-style beef.

Here's a group pictures of our dishes:

The Chinese broccoli and kung pao chicken are up on top and on the right. Everyone gave Laura--who requested the kung pao chicken--a hard time but in the end, we all enjoyed it and in fact that dish was finished long before the lobster was.

The total damage for this gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner feast was about $230 with tax and tip, which is a fantastic deal when you consider the amount of high-quality food we ate. Service was adequate, polite and slightly above par for the 'hood. Everyone left full and happy, but with Phoenix bakery located a few blocks down, we just had to make a stop. And of course we all drove--I mean this is LA after all, and at 60-degrees we're breaking out our heavy coats.

Most people in the group go for the always delicious black sesame soup and almond soup. I break from the pack and dive in to some tasty mango mousse cake.

Everything from Phoenix is so good and this cake was no exception. I also slurped a healthy portion of Sandra's black sesame soup, and to be honest it was better than the versions I had in Hong Kong. Wow, what a perfect way to end my day of Thanksgiving feasting. We're already planning a return trip as we want to try a different lobster dish, sea cucumber, and a larger, meatier crab. So is this the best Chinese in SGV? In my book, yes. And it was good enough to receive utmost praise from my critical Guangzhou-born mom-in-law who had not one bad comment to dispel about our dinner. That's all the proof I need.

Newport Tan Cang
518 W Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel CA, 91776

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dean Sin World

What is it about steamed soup dumplings--otherwise known as xiao long baos--that makes them so desirable and delicious? Is it the incredible juiciness, the savory fillings, the soft skin wrapper which holds it all together as one? When I think an excellent dumpling, I think of the explosion of meaty, juicy flavors and textures as I devour one of these tasty treats. I was first introduced to authentic soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, a mecca of sorts for soup dumplings in Arcadia, and I clearly remember having to be helped out of the restaurant after my meal because I was so ridiculously full from consuming one too many a xiao long bao. OK I'm being a little dramatic with that statement, but I was uncomfortably full and that is no overstatement.

On a recent shopping trip to the Cabazon outlets--where I dropped a pretty penny at the Nike, Cole Haan, and 7-For-All-Mankind outposts--Fonda and I decided to make a dinner stop in the San Gabriel Valley during our ride back home. In fact it's not often that we pass through this area without making a detour off highway 10 or 60 for some good Chinese grub. I suggested Dean Sin World to Fonda and made mention of their famed soup dumplings, and that was all the convincing my better half needed.

Dean Sin World is not a large place; the picture above depicts about a quarter of the dining area. You could probably fit the entire dining room in the waiting area at the enormous multi-building Din Tai Fung restaurant. With just four or five tables--two of which were occupied by the owner's family and another by a tray of baked goods--this place is obviously less of a sit-down place and more of a to-go one. The restaurant is well hidden, dimly lit at night, and boasts a cash-only policy; case in point: be prepared when you make your visit.

We grabbed one of two free tables, took our seats, and proceeded with the ordering. The menu has both Chinese and English wording, and there are also some pictures for those of you who, um, need assistance.

Our dinner starts with braised bamboo in special sauce:

Fonda was thrilled to see this on the menu and ordered it with no hesitation. Tender bamboo served with a slightly sweet sauce proved to be a delightful combination. A few pieces were a bit fibrous and made for tough chewing, but overall we enjoyed this little dish of goodness.

Won tons in soup:

Big and bursting at the seams (literally, right?) with juicy pork, these won tons were delicious and served very hot. The soup was equally as savory and made for the perfect, heart-warming dish on a chilly a.k.a 60-degree Saturday night.

Soup dumplings with pork:

These are the much-reviewed xiao long bao that ultimately drew us here, and they were well worth the wait. Served hotter than a McDonald's cup of coffee, you have to eat these carefully so that you don't burn yourself. The wrapper skin is slightly thicker than the paper-thin version at Din Tai Fung, and the overall size is larger. The pork meat within is very tender and full of flavor, and the soup is delicious. Eating one of these results in a one grand combustion of flavors and textures in your mouth. You might notice that there is one dumpling missing from the set of 10--and I can only say that someone couldn't wait to take a picture.

Beef noodle soup:

As good as the dumplings were, this hearty bowl of beef and noodles proved to be my favorite dish of the night. The meltingly tender chunks of beef and the thick, perfectly-cooked noodles swirling in a rich, meaty broth make for an excellent version of this popular Chinese dish.

At the end of our meal, the owner hands us a red-bean cake in a bag, which we ate later at home and found to be very tasty. The total for all this with tax and tip was about $25, which is a fantastic deal when compared to Din Tai Fung, whose dumplings are about twice the cost. Keep in mind though that Dean Sin World and Din Tai Fung are completely different experiences, with Din Tai Fung boasting a gleaming new dining room to go with those higher prices. So whose dumplings reign supreme? Well I still prefer the thin-skinned dumplings at Din Tai Fung, but for a quick meal at a substantially lower price, Dean Sin World is tough to beat. At the very least, you'll want to come here for the beef noodle soup and those incredible soup dumplings.

Final note: I asked for wine brew and ear-wax cake (which is not on the menu, so I pointed at my ear as suggested by another foodie), both of which are items that my Twitter pals recommended, but I never received them. I'm not sure why but I'm guessing I may need help with ordering for next time.

Dean Sin World
306 N Garfield Ave, #2
Monterey Park, CA

Friday, November 13, 2009

Highlights from Hong Kong

Now on to part two of our Asia trip which included a five-day stay in Hong Kong to visit with Fonda's family, who live in the Kowloon area. Having arrived from the hotter, more humid climate of Bali, we were pleasantly greeted with dryer, cooler temperatures when we landed. After our 40-minute ride to the Mongkok area of Kowloon, we checked into our hotel and then meandered outside for some dinner-time grub, peeking our heads into the various noodle shops that lined the nearby streets. One particularly bustling noodle eatery caught our attention and thus we proceeded to take a seat and peruse the menu:

Now I realize that some of you can read this, but--and this should come as absolutely no surprise to many of you--I can't. Nonetheless, Fonda's bare-bones knowledge of conversational Chinese pays off, and minutes later, two hearty bowls of noodles are brought to us:

Noodles with BBQ pork

Noodles with chicken

I finished my bowl and then went to work on Fonda's. Shocking, right?

After our impromptu dinner we walked a few doors down to a dessert shop whose menu consisted mostly of shaved ice desserts. One item caught my attention, a "Black and White Jungle" with black sesame ice flake, dragon fruit, and black pearls:

Crazy, huh? That really is ice you're looking at, and it was incredibly light and flavorful. It was a perfect way to end the night.

The following morning arrives and we're anticipating a packed day of sightseeing with Fonda's cousins who live just a few blocks from our hotel, so a hearty breakfast is in order. We drop into a busy eatery just steps from our hotel where I notice most patrons enjoying a breakfast of noodles, fried eggs, and toast. The server looks to me to order, and so I point to one of the noodle and egg dishes on someone's table. She nods silently, and then takes Fonda's order of a plate of fried eggs and tomatoes:

Yep that's a fried egg with one, two, three slices of tomatoes.

My hearty breakfast of noodles, fried egg, garlic-butter toast, and some type of meat product (spam?). It was delicious and left me very satisfied, ready to barge my way into the subway cars.

Our busy day two included a trek to Victoria Peak, sightseeing in downtown Hong Kong, and of course plenty of good eats. Lunch was a fantastic dim sum meal at a huge banquet style restaurant that looks as if it could hold a 1,000-person wedding. We let her cousin order and he went with the usual standbys of pork buns, shaomai, dumplings, and har gow.

Delicious steamed buns. Steaming hot when they arrived.

Shaomai. The texture and quality was much better than anything I've had in LA.

After lunch, we spend a few more hours trekking through the Kowloon area, and then head to Fonda's cousin's house for some tea and snacks. Snacks? How about some home-made Taiwanese style moon cakes, courtesy of Fonda's cousin:

These were so good and light. I actually prefer these over the denser variety that have the solid egg yolk in the middle.

After a few hours of mingling at the house and devouring moon cakes, we hop into a taxi and head over to a seafood restaurant for dinner. For me, this dinner was the highlight of our Hong Kong trip, as Fonda's family treated us and they clearly did not hold back, taking to us a very nice and classy seafood establishment in the Kowloon area. Our three-hour degustation included Peking duck, sea cucumber with mushrooms, shark fin soup, a whole fish, and cold-cuts of BBQ pork and goose.

Our duck on display.

Server carving our duck. I'm salivating at this point. You would be, too.

Duck presentation with, ahem, Pringles. It also came with the larger tortilla-style wraps.

Sea cucumber with mushrooms and Chinese broccoli. Excellent. The sea cucumber was very fresh and cooked nicely with a slightly crispy outside texture.

Platter of duck, goose, pork, and chicken. The goose has a nice, crispy fried skin. Fonda has in the past always told me to serve others at the table, which I was, but everyone was refusing so I just kept eating until it was all gone!

Black sesame dessert. Extremely rich, heavy, and satisfying. Your diet is kicked the hell out the door when this bowl of guilt arrives.

The next morning arrives and Fonda was craving congee so our day three starts with two bowls of this Chinese rice porridge at yet another bustling eatery close to our hotel. Fonda attempts to order ours with pork and preserved egg, but the restaurant didn't have this combination so we're left with chicken and raw egg instead. Yeah as if I'm going to complain!

If you eat slowly like Fonda does, then the raw egg actually cooks to a soft boil. If you eat like me, then "huh what there was an egg in there?"

The main event for this day was a ferry trip to Macau island to visit the sites where Fonda's father and grandfather were born, raised, and laid to rest. Macau is a special province of China and has its own currency, a complex of mega Vegas-esque casinos, and excellent cuisine. Some pictures:

Lunch that day was a stop at a three-story restaurant seemingly packed with locals. The menu showcased mostly braised house-made noodle dishes, some with options such as pigs feet or tripe, but I go simple with a plate of braised noodles and pork dumplings.

Busy interior.

A beer I've never seen in the US. It tasted like Kirin, which I don't like, and when I inspected the can, I noticed it was brewed by Kirin. Beverage fail for me.

Excellent house-made noodles with fresh, hot dumplings. This was actually one of the better meals I had during my trip.

Several more hours of sightseeing follow and then we head back to Hong Kong in time for a quick dinner of more dumplings and noodles. This particular restaurant was filled with mostly tourists, so my exceptions were lowered a bit knowing that the flavors might be tamed to appease foreign palettes. My expectations were correct and the food was indeed just average.

Sugar snap peas. Overcooked and too much sauce.

Dumplings with a spicy chili and peanut sauce. Just OK.

Day four begins with a breakfast of chee cheong fun, or basically rice noodle pancake which are very common at dim sum restaurants. These were being made on a food cart outside of a restaurant, and were being served to guests in the dining room. For lunch, we snacked on all sorts of treats from various bakeries and street vendors within the Kowloon area. It is here where I tried the stinky tofu--a fermented tofu which truly does have a strong order that I'd compare to, well, sweaty socks. The smell hits you from a dozen feet away so you'll know when you're in the vicinity of stinky tofu. You can also just look for the crowds hording certain street vendors, as stinky tofu appeared to be incredibly popular with the locals.

Stinky tofu about to go down.

Sauces for the stinky tofu. I tried the "BBQ" sauce. Tasted just like something you'd get from a squeeze bottle.

According to the Wikipedia article about stinky tofu, preparation of stinky tofu can be unsanitary and is largely unregulated, but I have no clue as to how this particular tofu was prepared. Nonetheless, I found the taste and texture to be extremely satisfying and better than any other deep-fried tofu I've tasted--the outside was slightly crisp and the inside was deliciously spongy and full of intense flavors--and aroma. The fish balls were delicious as well, though I had to be careful with the skewer as I got close to middle balls.

Deep fried fish balls.

I also tried Chinese egg balls, which are waffle-like snack foods that are cooked to order from various street vendors. Similar to a waffle, these have a lighter and airier texture; the pockets or "balls" of air have thick walls of cooked batter that are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.. The taste was slightly sweet and the mingling of crispy, chewy, airy textures made this simple snack a very memorable one; I could have eaten these every day of my trip.

Chinese egg balls and the apparatus for making said balls.

For dinner we step into the seafood restaurant at our hotel and bring along two of Fonda's cousins. I wasn't expecting this place to be crowded, knowing that it was the hotel's restaurant and that we're in an area filled so many excellent dining options, but it was completely packed wall to wall. Somehow we managed to snag what I think is the best table in the room, right in front of the seafood tanks. We order one of the set menus which included a whole fish, cold cuts, shrimp, shark fin soup, and vegetables. We also threw in a small crab because the crab looked particularly fresh and lively in the tanks.

Fresh shrimp. Peel and clean them yourself. Cousin Donald make this look easy, I made this look like a train wreck.

Fresh whole fish; eyes, bones and all.

Unique presentation of Chinese broccoli and mushrooms.

The dinner was very good but not quite as good as our Peking duck dinner two nights prior. The cold-cuts plate wasn't nearly as fresh or flavorful, the crab's sauce was overpowering, and the dessert red bean soup was a bit runny, not thick and hearty like at the other restaurant. We end the night with some cocktails at the luxurious Royal Plaza hotel, about a half-mile walk from our hotel. I don't have any pics of our drinks, but I will say that I enjoyed my Manhattan and about two-third's of Fonda's Grand Marnier.

On the final morning of our stay, we board the subway to central Hong Kong to another dim sum spot, which came highly recommend by our Lonely Planet book. No carts here, just a small piece of paper to fill out your order, similar to ordering sushi plates. I'll also note that the other dum sum restaurant had no carts, quite unlike the majority of dim sum restaurants in the greater LA area.

Congee with pork and preserved egg. Very good.

Har gow. Fresh, still hot, and very delicious.

Steamed ox tripe. This was, well, interesting. I ate a fist full and then called it quits.

For lunch we opted to partake in afternoon tea at the Peninsula Hotel, regarded as one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. The wait on this Sunday afternoon was about an hour long, but well worth it. I take my place in line and Fonda scoots off to do a little window shopping at the high-end shops within the hotel. Some 45-minutes pass by and she returns to join me in the line, and 15-minutes later our table is ready and our tea service commences.

Interior of the dining area. Live orchestral music was being played from a balcony on the other side.

Tower of goodness. The little sandwiches and scones were the best part.

Tiny cakes. These were just meh, to be honest. That orange cookies in the back scared us. And yes, that is a slice of fruitcake on the left. Glad I paid $40 for tea service that included a fruitcake.

Excellent lychee tea. Note the little handle covers to protect your paws.

After more sightseeing and a quick foot massage, we hustle over to a sushi restaurant before our final meal in Hong Kong. This place came recommended by the concierge at the Peninsula hotel. We were in a bit of a hurry to eat and head out to the airport, so we when saw the conveyor belt of sushi plates, we'd knew we could be fed and scooted along quickly.

Blurry picture. Hey I told you we were in a hurry!

Toro with gold leaf. It was just OK; you could tell this fish was just defrosted as it was still very cool in the center. I really can't complain because it was served quickly and it was very cheap. I think this was about $7 US.

Spicy tuna over rice. Not bad. Not much spice, but the textures were nice.

Off to the airport we go to catch our plane, and with that said, I'll leave you with a picture of my dinner on the plane:

Chicken with rice, served with some salad and a very commendable coconut cake. Quite tasty, actually.

So there you have it, the culinary highlights from our Hong Kong trip. I hope you've enjoyed the pictures and descriptions, and I'm quite sure I've introduced you to some new foods you have probably never tasted, let alone seen. The fact that I was able to try so many new and exotic eats is what made this Asia trip that much more special. I'm not sure where our next trip will take us, though we are planning for a long stay in China next summer.

The pictures above only represent a portion of all the foodie pictures I took in Hong Kong. If you would like see more pictures, please visit my Hong Kong Flickr set here and you'll find over 100 images to make you drool (or cringe).