R&G Lounge (San Francisco, CA)

R&G Lounge
631 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108
Dining date: 12/24/14

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One of the most popular (if not the most) restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown is R&G Lounge. It’s been around for almost 30 years, but has gained more widespread fame/popularity in recent years as it’s been featured on TV (most notably by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations).

R&G Lounge frequently draws a line for dinner service, but it was a madhouse on Christmas Eve. It was totally a cluster as the entire lobby was literally shoulder-to-shoulder, spilling out onto the street. Luckily I had made a 7:30 reservation, but our table still wasn’t ready until 8:30. I heard walk-ins quoted at 1.5-2hr waits, so the reservation did help a little.

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Hakkasan (Beverly Hills, CA)

Hakkasan Beverly Hills
233 N. Beverly Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Dining date: 9/28/13

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Hakkasan’s Beverly Hills location opened last week, the latest of three West Coast openings in the past 10 months. This location didn’t open with nearly the splash as the last one (club/lounge/restaurant in Las Vegas), but with the same standards in food that’s awarded the chain Michelin stars in New York and London. I dined at the Las Vegas location in May and thoroughly enjoyed it; I’ve been awaiting this outpost’s opening in order to try more.

Hakkasan’s always sought a fine balance between serious dining and a hip, trendy culture. Its Beverly Hills location, across from Scarpetta and Bouchon, promises to be fairly scene-y already attracting the attention of celebrities around town. Even on this evening, paparazzi were hanging out outside the restaurant awaiting glimpses of anyone worth taking pictures of. I’m always skeptical of the see-and-be-seen restaurants, but Hakkasan seems to have the pedigree to meet the needs of those who are there for the atmosphere and those that just want a delicious meal.

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Hakkasan (Las Vegas, NV)

Hakkasan
MGM Grand Hotel & Casino
3799 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Dining date: 5/12/13

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London-based Hakkasan first appeared strong on my radar when it opened in San Francisco late last year. I had heard great reviews but just couldn’t fit it in while I was up there during Christmas. That location was the tenth in the worldwide chain, known for its high-end Chinese cuisine; in fact, two of its locations (NYC and London) have garnered Michelin stars, a relative rarity for a Chinese restaurant. Hakkasan’s eleventh location marks its biggest splash of all, with a $100 million, 5-floor, 75,000 square-foot restaurant/nightclub. Literally and figuratively, it’s Las Vegas’ biggest opening this year.

The ground floor is the main dining room; above it, the private dining area overlooks the main room. The third floor is the exclusive Ling Ling lounge, followed by two additional floors for the nightclub. The dining room, dim and full of blue hues, is divided into many sections making the room appear to be full of smaller, more private dining areas. Although this location is more known for its huge club and all-star DJ lineup than its restaurant, the cuisine here is supposed to be just as serious as the rest of the chain.

hakkasan dining room

hakkasan dining room

hakkasan dining room

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San Tung (San Francisco, CA)

San Tung
1031 Irving St
San Francisco, CA 94122
Dining date: 12/24/12

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San Tung is consistently one of San Francisco’s most popular Chinese restaurants, known for its long waits almost as much as its food. Located in the Sunset district of the city, the first-come first-served restaurant always seems to have a crowd waiting outside, especially on the weekends. Its 3,000+ Yelp reviews (currently a 4-star rating) place it in the top 10 of most-reviewed S.F. restaurants and I feel like I always hear it mentioned when people talk about “must-try” dishes in the city.

What’s the must-try dish? San Tung is known for noodles and dumplings, but their real signature is their “dry fried” items. Shrimp, calamari, flounder, beef and chicken are fried by the batch here, then glazed in a sweet-savory sauce. The most popular, by far, is the chicken wings.

We came early on a Monday for lunch and got one of the last tables available.

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Lunasia (Alhambra, CA)

Lunasia
500 W Main St
Alhambra, CA 91801
Dining date: 8/27/12

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Dim sum is something that I often enjoy as a weekend lunch. It’s a very ‘social’ meal always involving the sharing of a variety of small plates. The multitude of flavors and textures is something that’s pretty unique, and it has become a sort of comfort food even though I didn’t eat it all that often growing up.

I’ve been going to the Lunasia spot for a few years now, the first time being when it was Triumphal Palace. Ownership/management changes have resulted in some name and chef changes, but I’ve enjoyed meals here pretty consistently. Long lines on the weekends tell me I’m not the only one.

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Lunasia’s ordering is menu-based; you order off a menu and the plates come directly from the kitchen. It’s not quite as playful or curiosity-inducing as the cart-based places, but I find the food to come to the table much fresher. Turnover is usually pretty quick at popular joints with the carts, but you never know how long it takes a dish to get from the kitchen to the table. My favorite “delivery model” is actually a combination of both; some places are menu-based with a handful of carts coming around – the best of both worlds.

Pictures of each dish and English descriptions is key in choosing what to order!

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Scallop Taro Cake

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A crispy exterior hid a hot filling of taro, scallop and what I think was ground pork. The sweet-salty combination was a good one, and it was fried just right.

Steamed Chicken Feet

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Hong Kong Roasted Duck

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I thought this was a well-executed roast duck with a crispy skin and succulent, moist meat. A sweet soy glaze provided extra depth in flavor.

Crispy Shrimp Roll

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This was a different one for me; small chunks of shrimp, complemented by parsley, were fried in a light batter. Loved the textures, and the shrimp and parsley were balanced well.

Shrimp Har-Gow

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A dim sum standby, I found these to be a good example. The noodle had a nice sticky chew and was packed with plump shrimp.

Pork Siu-Mai

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Another dim sum staple, these came out piping hot. I thought these were very flavorful, though a bit heavy on the fat-pork ratio.

Shanghai Dumplings

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The next thing to come out of the kitchen were these dumplings, which I found to be on the doughy side and devoid of the characteristic juicy filling. Not sure what happened here.

Pan-fried Potstickers

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I thought these simple potstickers were a disappointment too. The dough was sort of soggy and easily broke apart, not to mention being kind of oily too.

Shrimp Rice Noodle

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We rebounded with one of my dim sum favorites. Soft, glutinous noodles were wrapped around individual shrimp and drenched in soy – this simple dish was done well.

Egg-roll Rice Noodle

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This was another new item for me – shrimp paste was fried in a dough, covered in rice noodle. I liked the crispy texture that the fried dough provided, while the shrimp/rice noodle/soy combination had already proven to be a winner.

Located in the same plaza, milk tea from Tea Station was an ideal cap to the meal – always a plus when dining at Lunasia!

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There were a few misses, but due to vast menus, it’s hard to find a spot that does everything well. I found the food to come out fresh and hot from the kitchen, and the ‘highs’ greatly outnumbered the ‘lows.’ In my opinion, Lunasia remains a strong bet for dim sum in LA.

Clams in Black Bean Sauce

Dining date: 3/18/12

clams in black bean sauce

Growing up, my family would often celebrate special occasions at Great Eastern restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, ordering a host of dishes to share family-style. Over the years, there have been a number of staples including this dish of clams in black bean sauce. Like many dishes I often ate when I was younger, it’s become something very homey and comfortable.

I first made this dish at some point during my college days. It’s actually a very easy (and fast!) dish to make, primarily requiring ingredients already in the pantry of a typical Asian household. I’ve prepared a number of variations of the dish; the one below is pretty close to the one I ate growing up, with the exception of the addition of Thai basil. As far as I know, Thai basil isn’t particularly authentic in Chinese cuisine, but I really like the aroma and flavor it provides to the resulting broth. Perhaps this dish is best described as Chinese with a bit of southeast Asian flair.

Like most stir-fry dishes, I rarely measure anything but I think I’ve got a pretty close approximation below.

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 scallions, sliced thinly with white and green parts separated
1/4 cup sliced ginger
1 1/2 pounds littleneck clams, cleaned and scrubbed
2 tablespoons black beans, lightly crushed
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
3 tablespoons (about a dozen leaves) fresh Thai basil, slicing optional
1/2 teaspoon corn starch, mixed with enough cold water to create a slurry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions:

I first started by soaking the clams in fresh water for about 45 minutes to remove any sand or impurities, then lightly scrubbed each to remove any debris.

When the clams were cleaned, I added the oil to the pan over high heat. Once the oil was shimmering, I added the white parts of the scallions and the ginger. I like to cut my slices of ginger on the larger side so that they’re easier to avoid when I’m eating.

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After about 30 seconds, add the clams and cook for 2 minutes. Add black beans, garlic and Shaoxing wine (and any sliced chilies, optional) to the pan and stir to combine. Some recipes call for adding stock at this point, but I don’t think it’s necessary. There should be plenty of juice released by the clams to create a hearty broth.

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As the clams open, remove them from the pan and put into the serving dish. I think this is an important step; some clams take a few minutes longer than others to cook. The ones that open first can overcook by the time the last one opens. So I remove them one-by-one as they’re done, finally leaving just the resulting brown liquid.

Add corn starch slurry. We don’t want a rich gravy, but this will be just enough to create a little body so that the broth isn’t too watery. Add Thai basil and allow it to infuse its flavor for about a minute. Salt and pepper to taste. I usually find there’s enough salt packed into the black beans, but obviously this depends on the brand.

Pour the broth over the clams and garnish with the sliced greens of the scallions. Serve with steamed white rice.

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I like to pick up the clams and suck them straight from the shell, scooping up some of the broth into each clam. Yummy. I also like to pour some of the broth into the rice just to double-up on the flavor there. While the tender-yet-chewy clams are very tasty on their own, the broth is the difference-maker in this dish. The natural juice of the clams is layered with ginger, onions, garlic, Thai basil and, of course, the black beans. Pretty delicious if I say so myself!