Saturday, June 30, 2007

Viva! Las Vegas! and the Bellagio Buffet

It's been almost six years since I've been to Vegas, eight years since Norwegian cousin has been here, and first time for her friend. I almost always have lots of fun, even though I never gamble. Well, once I spent $10 on the slots. I won $6 and should have cashed out! Hmph. Really, I hate losing money.

Since it was Norwegian friend's first time to Vegas, I started the tour off at my favorite hotel - The Venetian.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Revisiting Mission 261- San Gabriel and Pinkberry - Rancho Cucamonga

Besides taking my Norwegian cousin around to experience as many of America's culinary offerings as possible, I also wanted to change her misperceptions about certain foods. She always declared that she didn't like dim sum because she could never fill up on all the little dumplings. *Gasp* I know! Well, I think it's also because dining out is frightfully expensive in Norway so it would cost a lot of kroners to get full on dim sum.

Lately my favorite dim sum restaurant is Mission 261 in San Gabriel, which I wrote about in this post. So go there if you want to read all about the history of the century-old building and all that. Although, I should probably visit a few new places and do a dim sum series like I did with my dumpling series.

This also marks the debut of my new camera, a Canon SD1000. It's nothing fancy, but I needed the bigger screen because I'm just getting too old and my eyesight isn't what it used to be. ;) I think you'll be happy with how very colorful these photos look as compared to my previous visit.

Preserved duck egg and pork congee.

Turnip cake.

Char siu bao.

Abalone mushroom dumplings.

Pear tips and peanut dumplings?

Shrimp and scallop dumplings.

Har gow.

Chicken feet.

Steamed crystal buns.

Shrimp cheong fun.

Dried shrimp cheong fun with scallions.

Lotus leaf sticky rice.

Mango pudding.

Pork spare ribs.

Oh, yeah, I think I definitely changed my cousin's perceptions of dim sum for the better. :P

My brother's friend, who missed his flight out to Vegas, hitched a ride with us. And since we were already going to be on the 15 freeway, we made a quick detour to the Pinkberry in Rancho Cucamonga.

We were only going to share one or two between the four of us, but when they saw how good all the toppings looked, they each wanted their own. And afterward, my brother's friend had to call up the other two guys who were stuck in St. Louis on a layover just so he could rub it in that they missed out on the latest SoCal food craze.

OK, next up will be my mini adventure in the desert.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Rockin' Crawfish - Westminster (Little Saigon)

As I mentioned in my C&C Express post, as my cousin was snacking on the hot vit lon (Vietnamese fetal or embryo duck eggs), we were headed off for appetizers before going to another place for dinner. This is after a quite full lunch at Brodard Restaurant. Yes, we're still talking about the same day. It just got stretched into three posts. :) We went across the street to the Asian Village Mall so the visitors could take pictures with Confucius and all his disciples at the Cultural Court, and so my brother's friend could stop off at the grocery store to look for fresh jackfruit. Unfortunately, they were out of jackfruit, but I scored 2 very fresh and very sweet Dole pineapples for only 88 cents each! My brother's friend also wanted to eat at one of the many Vietnamese-owned Cajun crawfish places that have opened up in Orange County in recent years. Does it make you feel like you're in a honky-tonk in the deep South? It's as bare bones as possible. Paper on the tables. Bibs for patrons. A whole roll of paper towels. The waitress even nicely went around tying the bibs on for all of us. Well, all except for one of my brother's friends who was kicking himself for sitting so far away that the waitress handed over a bib and asked him to tie it himself. :P The seafood usually goes for market price and on this particular night, the crawfish/crawdads/crayfish was $6.99 per pound. They were completely out of crab. And shrimp wasn't exotic enough for my cousin to try. My cousin had never had raw oysters before. So we ordered a dozen for $14.99. I have no idea what kind these were. We just squirted some limes, added some cocktail sauce, and they just slid down my throat. After two, my cousin decided she had had enough since she just wanted to try them to say she experienced it. The basket of calamari was nicely crispy, not heavily breaded, and only $5.99. We ordered two pounds of crawfish with mild seasoning. The choices are lemon pepper, garlic butter, and rockin' combo. The crawfish are served in a clear plastic bag, often with a few pieces of sausage or corn thrown in. One of my brother's friend's, who's from Mississippi, kept exclaiming that these prices were completely jacked up. Cajun crawfish places are cheap and ubiquitous in his neck of the woods. He said in Mississippi, fresh crawfish range from $1.50 to $2 a pound, and in Houston they're $2.50 to $3.99. Not that crawfish are only confined to the South, mind you. I've caught a few in my time. They're plentiful in rivers and streams in Oregon. We'd usually stop off on our way home from fishing along the coast. I'd tie a rib to a long stick, jab it under a crevice, wait until the crawfish grabbed a hold of the meat, and then I'd shake it into a bucket. If that didn't work, I'd scream for my brother to hurry over and grab it before it crawled away. Nothing beat fresh crawfish that I caught myself. My mom would boil them. Then it was time to eat. Ripping off the heads, sucking out any juices, bending the tail lengthwise to break the shell, before pulling out the tail. They were so delicious dipped into salt, pepper, and lime juice. So much work for so little meat. But it was sooo worth it. So succulent. Tastes like lobster to me. Eating these crawfish, even with the very strong Cajun spices, brought back some nice memories from my childhood. Oh, yes, back to the story, here's the "after" picture. After I left to wash my hands, our order of potatoes arrived. 50 cents each. I had totally forgotten about these. And actually, I wonder if the waitress had heard our request for mild because these were spicy! So spicy that two of my brother's friends literally had sweat running down their faces. So spicy that one of them peeled the skin from the potato and he was still sweating. Anyway, surely you didn't think we were done? Two pounds of crawfish, 1 dozen oysters, 1 basket of calamari, and 6 potatoes for six people? Nah, that was just the appetizer. :P We then moved on to Seol Ak San - Stanton for our real dinner. Nothing fills ya up like Korean barbecue with all the panchan (side dishes). Other Cajun crawfish restaurants: The Boiling Crab - Alhambra (Main St.) The Boiling Crab - Alhambra (Valley Blvd.) Rockin' Crawfish 9211 Bolsa Ave., Suite 120 Westminster, CA, 92683 714-894-4536 Monday to Thursday 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday 2 p.m. to midnight Sunday 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

C&C Express (C&C Food Co.) - Westminster (Little Saigon)

So after our lunch at Brodard Restaurant and laying out at Huntington Beach, I gave my visitors the quickie tour of Little Saigon. Basically, that meant heading to Bolsa Avenue to the Asian Garden Mall and the Cultural Court behind the Asian Village Mall. You can read my virtual tour of Little Saigon if you missed that post and don't know what I'm talking about.

The food court is in the center of the Asian Garden Mall. It's a popular place for people-watching, or grabbing a quick bite to eat. The sign says C&C Express, the white pages lists it as C&C Food Co., but either way, it's usually good for snacks such as fried bananas. Although, it wasn't the bananas that lured my cousin over. It was a little crock pot of eggs.

Not just any eggs, mind you. These were hot vit lon (Vietnamese fetal or embryonic duck eggs), also known as balut to Filipinos.

WARNING: I'm advising you to stop reading now if you're easily squeamish.

Stop now.

I mean it.

Last chance.

OK, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Brodard Restaurant - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)

Brodard Restaurant - Garden Grove (Little Saigon) 1

Yes, yes, the yummy photo is to tide you over as I go off on a tangent. I'll get to the food in a bit, but we're still discussing the wedding you see. We are? Certainly, have you so quickly forgotten the wedding ceremony and reception? And that for several weeks I'm entertaining my cousin and her friend who are visiting from Norway? This part is important as it characterizes the next dozen or so postings. My cousin called to invite me out for lunch before he headed back up to Portland. Now, I've mentioned my many cousins before but they're all on my dad's side. This cousin and his family is pretty much all that's in the U.S. on my mom's side. And my Norwegian cousin is from my mom's side too. So, of course, we had to meet up with him.

Anyway, this was the second time my Norwegian cousin has come out to visit me. Her visits are usually filled with requests to try all the ethnic food she can't get or is vastly more expensive in Norway, and things that she picks up about American culture from television and movies. The first time she came, she wanted to order Chinese food with the traditional take-out boxes (Seinfeld) and a vanilla coke (Pulp Fiction) and to eat at a kitschy 50's-style diner (Johnny Rockets). This time around she requested cannoli (Sopranos perhaps?) and more ethnic food.

Since my Portland cousin was already hanging out in Little Saigon, I suggested Brodard Restaurant in Garden Grove. Brodard is the place to go in Little Saigon for Nem Nuong and Nem Nuong Cuon (Vietnamese Grilled Pork Patty and Vietnamese Grilled Pork Patty Salad Rolls). It's current location is on the back side of the Mall of Fortune, behind the 99 Cents Only store, enter from Brookhurst Street and not Westminster Avenue like its address indicates.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Empress Harbor Seafood Restaurant (Wedding Banquet) - Monterey Park

The wedding banquet was held at Empress Harbor Seafood Restaurant in Monterey Park. Right across the street from Capital Seafood Chinese Restaurant, which I attended for another wedding slightly less than a year ago. Read that post for my discussion about Monterey Park's role as the first suburban Chinatown in the country and why American-style one-entree wedding banquets just don't cut it for most Asians. In case you missed the previous post with all the wedding stuff, here's what the orchid centerpieces ended up looking like. OK, it looks more impressive when you see them scattered amongst all the tables but my family was everywhere, I couldn't get a people-less shot. And I forgot to get a restaurant shot for ya'll too. There were about 36? 38? tables. So at 10 people per table, with some empty seats, that's about 360+ people. Supposedly the restaurant can hold up to 500 people but I don't know where they'd all fit. The food! That's all you really care about right? 11 courses and cake. There were also egg rolls during cocktail hour to feed all the prompt attendees because you know Vietnamese-Chinese weddings never start on time! Cold appetizer platter of roast duck, roast suckling pig, char siu, head cheese, and jellyfish. I was too distracted listening to speeches or something on stage so missed getting the shot of the shrimp-wrapped crab claw. I actually put my piece on the platter just so it would look pretty for you. :) Shrimp, scallop, walnut, asparagus stir-fry. Asparagus was nice and crispy, seafood was fresh. Empress seafood soup. This was good, but many of the guests said they wished for the more popular shark fin and egg drop soup. Braised abalone and mustard greens. Lobster with ginger and green onions. Luckily half the table wasn't keen on eating with their hands so I got my fill. :) The waiters also brought out wet towels for us to clean our hands. Golden fried crispy chicken with shrimp puffs. I think I tried a piece, but really, by this point I was way over-stuffed. Steamed fish with soy sauce and scallions. Fried rice with scallops and seafood. I revived a bit to eat the fried rice. I never pass up scallops. Chinese cookies. Eh. Red bean puree with lotus seeds. The bride wanted a Cantonese menu so we got this Cantonese dessert, but I and several guests longed for the Trieu Chau mashed taro and gingko nuts we got at Capital Seafood. Overall assessment of the wedding banquet? The restaurant was nicely traditional Chinese red and gold, food was good if not spectacular, and half-eaten plates were transferred to smaller plates to make room for more entrees. The restaurant met the request for a "cocktail" appetizer of egg rolls which held off hungry people who arrived on time. I liked the decor and more intimate feel (if you can call a wedding for 360+ people intimate). But, and this is simply a matter of personal preference, food-wise, I liked my experience at Capital Seafood better because of the shark fin soup, bird's nest made out of chow mein noodles, and the Trieu Chau mashed taro dessert. What's a wedding without cake? Wedding cake by Maxim Bakery in Alhambra. Top two layers were lemon and pineapple, third layer was tiramisu, fourth layer was chocolate. Umm, I have no recollection which piece I got since it just tasted like wedding cake to me. The wedding souvenirs were jasmine and rose tea in spice jars. Lovely aren't they? The souvenirs and centerpieces were quite a hit with all the guests.
Empress Harbor Seafood Restaurant (Wedding Banquet) - Monterey Park 16
My other wedding banquet posts: Capital Seafood Chinese Restaurant (Wedding Banquet) - Monterey Park Hong Kong East Ocean Seafood Restaurant (Wedding Banquet) - Emeryville Pearl Chinese Cuisine (Wedding Banquet) - San Diego Prince Seafood Restaurant (Wedding Banquet) - Cerritos Regent West Restaurant (Wedding Banquet) - Santa Ana (Little Saigon) Empress Harbor Seafood Restaurant Atlantic Place Shopping Center 111 N. Atlantic Blvd. #350 Monterey Park, CA 91754 626-300-8833 Maxim Bakery 111 N. Main St. Alhambra, CA 91801 626-282-9990 Patsy's Orchids (Located at the Alhambra Farmers' Market)
On Monterey, between Bay and Main Streets Alhambra, CA 91801
Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Vietnamese Wedding Preparations and Ceremony

OK, I know you've all been waiting and waiting...

Vietnamese Wedding Preparations and Ceremony 1

Phew! Took me a while to sort through the photos. And I had to save the people photos over to another folder. And of course, you know my laptop and Wi-Fi have been having issues lately. And I could have included some pithy tidbits on Vietnamese and Chinese wedding traditions except that well, there's no consistency!

Basically, the groom's side comes over to the bride's side bearing a roast pig and various gifts. Pays respects to bride's ancestors. Bride's family is introduced. A tea ceremony is held there for the bride's family. Groom's family eats. When they leave, the bride's side, if they're nice, will share the bridal gifts and return half the gifts. (If they're not so nice, they'll only give you the head, legs, and tail (none of the meaty goodness in the middle) of the roast pig instead of splitting it in half. But then my mom says country folk say returning head, legs, and tail means you're returning a whole pig. OK, whatever, but no one eats the head or legs of a roast pig. We're not country folk anymore, so don't be greedy OK?)

Anyway, then the bride's side comes to the groom's home. Groom's mom gives gifts of jewelry to welcome the bride. Pays respects to ancestors. Gets introduced to the groom's family. Tea ceremony for the groom's family. Bride's family eats. Got that?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sika's - Alhambra (Closed)

One of the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley is the Hong Kong-style cafe. What is a Hong Kong-style cafe you ask?

Well, there are several characteristics. They usually serve a somewhat pan-Asian/pan-Chinese menu, concentrating heavily on Cantonese/Hong Kong cuisine. That means about two dozen kinds each of chow fun, chow mein, porridge, and fried rice from various regions of China or Singapore and Malaysia. There's usually some sizzling udon and ramen thrown into the mix too.

The Hong Kong part is British-influenced. For example, you can get hot tea with milk, but Hong Kong-style, which is with condensed milk. Most places will have an afternoon tea special (usually from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.) that features a drink and sandwiches or snacks for about $5.

What makes them really popular though is that they're almost always open late at night. Most will stay open until 1 a.m. or so, but Sika's in Alhambra is open 24 hours. Back when Sika's used to be DJ Cafe, and before that when it was OK Cafe (I know! I liked this name best.), it was a frequent haunt for late night shrimp wonton noodle soups and deep-fried chicken wings after a night of clubbing.

Recently when cousin T and her husband flew in from Oregon near midnight, and my Norwegian cousin and her friend were waking up from a jet-lagged nap, I thought I'd revisit Sika's. But first, photos from a previous dining out with lil' sis. As we ordered only two dishes on that occasion, I had this sitting in my queue for months. Also, it was a good opportunity to film a little video of something SimCooks had requested a while back as well. But more on that at the end. So back when the restaurant had changed its name yet again, and they basically kept their staff and menu, lil' sis and I had made a visit. She ordered her usual honey lemon drink for $1.90.

I got a Hong Kong hot milk tea with condensed milk for $1.90. Free refills!

This sometimes happens at these places, but not always so don't expect it, but on this night we got free soup. It was a corn cream.
We decided to be adventurous and ordered Fu Zhou fried rice for $6.95. (We normally get Fried Rice Yang Chow-Style which is the Chinese barbequed pork kind.) We were a little surprised by the sauce topping of gai lan (Chinese broccoli slices), mushrooms, scallops (dried and fresh), and shrimp on a bed of yellow rice. But oh man! It was sooooo good. The shredded dried scallops added a nice brininess to the dish.

The other new-to-us item was the $6.95 Portuguese baked pork chop. Comes with a rice or pasta option. The pork chop was in a curry sauce with some bell peppers, onions, and potatoes on top. This was really good as well.

Patting ourselves on the back for venturing away from our usual deep-fried chicken wings and beef chow fun that we usually order at Hong Kong cafes, we finished off the meal with a free shredded bean curd skin dessert soup. Looks like egg drop soup huh? It tasted similar to the sweet tofu dessert you get at dim sum restaurants, but in soup form. And again, always a nice surprise when a freebie comes to the table.

So back to the other night when my cousins were flying in from various points, what usually happens in my family when one of the cousins comes into town is we all start figuring out when, where, and who will meet up to eat. Yes, we rarely socialize in any other way except eating. I think on this night, it was just 7 of us. No free soup or dessert soup this night. One of my cousins ordered the Spanish coffee for $3. Comes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Several of my cousins had already eaten so they just got dessert. (Really, the point of our dining out isn't so much to eat as it is to catch up with each other.) The mango ice cream was $2.29. Funny thing. I handed my camera over to my cousin's husband so he could take the photo for my blog, but he just wasn't doing it right (too far away, weird angle). So he finally handed the bowl over for me to photograph so he could eat it. You know, my cousins all complain about waiting for me to take a picture before they can eat it, but they all read my blog. It's a Catch-22 guys!

I almost always order a beef chow fun with dry soy sauce at a Hong Kong cafe. This night was no different. $6.79. This was a little lackluster this night. Can't put my finger on it, and memory escapes me as to why. I much prefer the version at Baccali Cafe and Rotisserie.

The shrimp wonton noodle soup for $4.59 easily feeds 2-3 people. Not as many shrimp and not as big of wontons as I remember from before the name change. Hmm. Was my memory that bad, or has the chef changed when the restaurant's name changed? Don't get me wrong, it was still tasty, I just remembered it as better.

The deep-fried squid with spicy salt for $7.99 wasn't as light and crunchy as I remembered either.

Deep-fried chicken wings for $6.29. These were good with their crispy outside and juicy inside, but some pieces were bigger than others. I like the almost-all big pieces of wings from Phoenix Food Boutique.

And finally, my cousin's crepes with mango ice cream for $4.29 came out. She had a hard time cutting the crepes with her fork, and said they didn't taste too fresh. Which is kind of funny since they came out last, there was certainly enough time to make them fresh. But with 3 maraschino cherry stems available, we had something to work with here!

So recalling my conversation with SimCooks, who wondered if her tongue skills with spitting out bones when eating fish helped with French-kissing. I had said my cousin T can tie a maraschino cherry stem into a knot with only her tongue. See the knot?

Don't believe me? Well, I videotaped it just for you.

December 14, 2008 Update:
Sika's is now closed. A new restaurant called Face Cafe is opening in its spot.

Other Hong Kong cafes:
Baccali Cafe and Rotisserie - Alhambra
Garden Cafe - Alhambra
Sunday Bistro - Alhambra

301 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
Hmm. The take-out menu lists the hours as 7 a.m. to 4 a.m., but the neon sign at the restaurant proclaims "Open 24 Hours."