I learned all about authentic Chinese food in Los Angeles from Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold. If he likes a restaurant’s food, he’ll give the place its due moment in the sun whether it’s a C-rated (the city’s kitchen cleanliness rating) greasy spoon, a carry-out window, a Hong Kong style dim sum palace, or a suburban neighborhood family restaurant. When it comes to Asian food especially, he’ll go where no Anglo has ever gone before, and that’s what I like the most about his reviews.
What I’ve always loved about Los Angeles is that you can go on an eating tour of authentic Asian restaurants for years and then, when you think you’ve hit the end, you only realize that there’s a whole batch of new players in town and you have to start your scrumptious quest all over again. Not too shabby.
With that said, here’s a selection of my favorite dishes at my favorite L.A. Chinese restaurants, assuming that management and chefs haven’t already left to open their own restaurants. Part one covers mostly Chinatown.
My very favorite Chinese (and maybe my very favorite dish) is the Chiu Chow style House Special Wonton Egg Noodle Soup served at Kim Chuy, a Chinatown strip mall dive. “Chiu Chow” refers to the people of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. As one might expect, their food is a mix of the best of Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Thai cuisines. Kim Chuy’s House Special Wonton Egg Noodle Soup reflects this cultural mix.
Now, a warning: this soup is very authentic, meaning it comes chock full of ingredients, some of them unrecognizable. Pick those out of the soup if you must (I eat everything). Then go for the recognizable ingredients: the fluffy fishballs, savory roast duck leg, the superbly spiced marble-shaped wontons, the tangle of noodles, Vietnamese pork pate slices, etc. Oh, one more thing. Don’t forget about the spices and condiments. They’re an essential part of the meal, especially Kim Chuy’s own homemade hot sauce, a one-of-a-kind sweet fiery grainy mix of hoisin, chili paste, and other ingredients. I also like to tear Chinese doughnut pieces into the mix.
For coldish winter days (L.A. never gets back-east winter cold), I’d order their Chiu Chow seafood rice porridge. It’s almost as tasty as the House Special Wonton Egg Noodle Soup.
A couple of doors down from Kim Chuy in the same lackluster strip mall is the original Mandarin Deli (there are a few of them in L.A.) While I love their made from scratch hand-cut noodles, my favorite dish here is the steamed fish dumplings. These aren’t your standard dim sum cart lead-shot steamed dumplings. These are made almost in front of your eyes, and come out almost as light and fluffy as a fine soufflé. I get an order of these when I feel homesick for my Jewish mother’s homemade gefilte fish. And they have to be good because I sometimes choose the dumplings over Kim Chuy’s soup.
Chinese Friends is a restaurant at the very edge of Chinatown. It’s been at the same location for decades. Don’t let the plain white décor, fluorescent lights, long takeout line, and tables filled with Chinese and Hispanic families fool you into thinking that the food isn’t the real deal. Yes, it’s a neighborhood Chinese restaurant and, when you open up menu, you’ll see that the prices are cheap compared to most other Chinatown restaurants. But make no mistake about it. The food is as good as the best Chinatown restaurants.
My favorite dish here is the House Special Shrimp. Another warning: the menu’s description of the dish makes it sound like just another plate of suburban sweet and sour shrimp; my most hated suburban Chinese restaurant dish, a glutinous sickeningly sweet mess. Chinese Friends’ House Special Shrimp is, however, the plumpest freshest possible shrimp prepared with the lightest possible touch with only a hint of breading and a sauce that’s a subtle masterpiece with just enough chile sting and just enough sweet and just enough crunch to make it perfection.
Okay, I had to mention my favorite L.A. suburban Chinese restaurant, Twin Dragon, located in the heart of West Los Angeles, hardly a Chinese food enclave. Imagine my surprise when I discovered by accident that they make the best bowl of Hot and Sour Soup that I’ve ever had. In fact, if I’m ever on that side of town, I always stop there and make a meal of the soup.
It’s a giant bowl loaded with meat, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tofu, and other goodies; but it’s the spicing that makes this Hot and Sour Soup soar above all other Hot and Sour Soups. The spicy zing is just right, not overpowering the soup’s chunky ingredients yet not wimping out for the unsophisticated suburban occidental palate.
P.S. If you’re planning on sharing the soup with another person, order the steamed dumplings. They’re almost as good as the Mandarin Deli’s dumplings.
Stay tuned for part two. It will cover my favorite dishes in some of the many restaurants in L.A.’s huge Chinese community in its northeast suburbs.