Category: Eating


This isn’t about pho.  Well, indirectly, this entry was inspired by my recent experience with pho.  So the picture above says it all.  A bow of pho.  A plate of herbs.  Sriracha.  Wait.  Pump the brakes.  Back up to the herbs.  You see those 2 wedges of limes?  Those beautiful wedges of limes is what makes the broth sing.  Don’t get me wrong, the broth itself is already sexy.  But those limes?  They make the broth red carpet sexy.

But what I’ve noticed over the last year is that when the price of limes go up, the pho shops EVERYWHERE demote this very special ingredient to lemons.  LEMONS????  I mean, do they think I’m not paying attention here?  I recently went to a Vietnamese pho place and not only did they serve lemons instead of limes, they took away other condiments on another dish.  I mean, don’t take it out on your customers people.  It’s not our fault the limes are more expensive.  It’s not our fault you put the price of a bowl of pho at $5.  But don’t think I’m not watching.

I know some of you out there, you think I’m just being dramatic.  I mean, limes, lemons, they’re both citrus right?  It’s the same, right?  Well, it’s not.  It’s not the same.  The tartness of the lime is what accentuates the broth.  The lemons is like a bad substitute, like baking a cake with Equal.  It’s like telling yourself that the tofu cake you’re eating is really cake.  It’s like a vegan telling me that the tofu chicken I’m eating is chicken.  Well, IT AIN’T.  But that’s what so frustrating about these places.  The limes go up $0.10 a pound and we get lemons.  What are we going to get when the price of chickens go up?  Oh yea, LESS CHICKEN!!!  And what about beef?  Yea, that’s right, LESS BEEF!!!  Now you’re getting the picture.  It’s less of whatever the price is rising.  Or substitute it for something else, that’s kind of similar, but it really isn’t.  Can you imagine going to Panda Express and getting your fix of their Orange Chicken, but instead of using orange [or whatever flavoring substitute they use], they use tangerines?  But they still call it, Orange Chicken?  See, you don’t think you can tell.  But you can.  That’s the beauty of our taste buds as it interacts with our memory.  We remember.  We remember the first time we ate a great burger.  We know what that burger taste like.  You substitute that ground beef with ground turkey, no matter how much the other stuff stay the same, it’s not the same burger.  It’s just different.  And something’s just a little off.

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Recently, I had the pleasure of eating at Ikko in Costa Mesa here in SoCal.  While there are many, many Japanese restaurants in the OC, few have the elegance and thoughtfulness of Ikko’s approach to sushi.  And with the company I was dining with, the only way to really enjoy a place like Ikko is to have a gastronomical approach of “letting go”.  And in the Japanese approach, letting go really means, “up to you”, or omakase.

Omakase isn’t that popular, I’m guessing, because we all know what we like, and don’t like when it comes to sushi.  In the words of Anthony Bourdain [paraphrased], “If cooking is about control – controlling the heat, timing, ingredients, etc.  Eating is about submission.”  We have a problems with the word submission.  And rightfully so.  Submitting has this undertone of weak, someone lording over you, being under someone else’s control.  But with food, in particular with eating, submission is a good thing.  Submit to what the chef/cook has done because to try and control it from the dining room is not only insulting to the chef, but also not experiencing new things.  Omakase is one of the best ways to submit ourselves.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing omakase at Sushi Boy, even if they offer it.  I’m doing omakase at places I trust and look forward to magical things happening.  It’s a way to relax and learn to experience new things for the next 2-3 hours.  It’s a way to experience sushi where tuna, yellow tail, and salmon [the staples of all customers ordering sushi on their own] is forgotten.  Instead, you get things like seared kobe beef [wait, is that sushi?], squid topped with squid liver, toro, and abalone.  No shoyu.  No wasabi.  Just you, your friends, and the chef.  Allow him to  serve you whatever he chooses.  The “up to you” is not only about submission, but it’s about granting trust to someone else to bring content and happiness with the meal.

Submission is not a bad thing when it comes to food.  We shouldn’t always be scared to try something new, especially when you go to a place like Ikko, where the chef knows more about fish than I ever will.  And to not use the shoyu and wasabi as a crutch where most people drown their perfectly good sushi with the stuff.  Let the chef prepare it the way it was meant to be prepared and then take that piece of sushi and put it in your mouth to savor.  And in the end, just say a simple “thank you”, or “arigato” and know that submitting can be a good thing.

Renewal

It’s been 2 months to the day since my last post.  Time seem to fly with every day life, but then, time seemed to stand still because of it.  No inspiration from the drab dining experiences behind the Orange Curtain and feeling flaccid in any attempt to call upon any muse for something magical.  Then, there’s nothing better to feel a sense of renewal in prose than to be inspired by things that are beyond the everyday.  During our vacation up north, we experienced a lot.  And to be sure, it reaffirmed what I have been pontificating and standing on a soapbox about for many, many posts now.  There truly is nothing less spectacular in our eateries in South Orange County than your average chain restaurants.  Even those we do like sometimes feel overused and over visited.  And yet, we seem OK with that.  We seem OK continuing to get our bagels at Panera Bread and Corner Bakery when we should be demanding the simplest things to come down here, like Noah’s Bagels.  We should be wondering why places like Redd and Cyrus would likely get less customers and attention than a BJ’s or Islands.  But we don’t.  I guess in many ways, we’ve come to expect nothing less than mediocre from our senses as we devour another pizookie.

And yet, when we were in the Bay Area, we truly experienced some places that are magical.  More magical than Providence.  More magical than Mastros.  Places like Redd, Cyrus, Bouchon, Incanto are just a few places we let our sense of taste be released from the dreary and the mundane.  Places like Gott’s, Oxbow Market, and the 1 Ferry Building remind us of how a good public market doesn’t need to serve Baja Fresh and Panda Express.  I had to take a break from my own rule of no more taking pictures of our food during our vacation because the food we were eating were so damn good.

We were surround by great friends and family during our week there and it was those times that stick out, even more than the food we consumed.  But the food, as simple as strawberries from local farmers that tasted like candy it was so sweet, added a dimension to our vacation that we will not soon forget.  It will be tough to come back to the reality of BJ’s and Islands, but we can always draw upon our memories to  remembers that we are not prisoners of our own culinary demise.  We don’t have to settle for mediocre.  We just need to search out something better with vigor and perseverance.

Dai pai dong.  Big license plate stall of goodness and cheap eats.  Where it used to be a ubiquitous sight in Hong Kong and Kowloon, these culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong is slowly and surely dying or moving indoors.  When I think of these food stalls, I think of my childhood where we would love to get the yau tieu’s [fried Chinese donuts, although they look nothing like it and they’re savory, not sweet] and congee.  Wonton noodles, rice noodles were other items we would get.

The rich history of these food stalls cannot go unnoticed.  After World War II, the Hong Kong government gave out ad hoc food licenses to injured civil servants so they can make a living.  These licenses had to be visible in public, and since they were food stalls, they were big.  Thus, the big license stalls.  Dai pai dong.  From there, the popularity and the quality of of food just took off.  But because of the amount of dai pai dongs sprouting, it was causing pedestrian and traffic congestion.  Additionally, because owners of these stalls started to “lease” their space out in the black market, the HK government no longer issued these licenses after 1956.  The licenses could no longer be inherited so if the owner passed away, it could only be transferred to their spouses.  If they didn’t have a spouse, the license would expire at the time of death of the owner.  Since 1983, the HK government, in order to promote healthier hygiene, began to buy back these licenses and push these stalls in doors in what could only be described as food courts.  Since the licenses could not be passed down, the owners were glad to be compensated in this way.  The number of dai pai dongs have drastically decreased over the years, much to the chagrin of people like myself.  Were they the safest place to eat food?  Probably not, but they certainly cranked out some of the best the city of Hong Kong had to offer.

It’s a rich food heritage that has come to a slow death in Hong Kong.  It wasn’t just a place to eat for millions of people.  It was a place where one might make their early morning stop to get a milk tea, a place where impoverished families could still go and get a decent meal for cheap.  A place where lower income couples could have their dates while whispering their sweet nothings to each other over a bowl of rice noodles.  But as most things in life, we learn to move on and change.  And while it lasted, the dai pai dong was good to the people of Hong Kong.  It became integrated in their every day lives as they provided meals for hungry souls in the city of fragrant harbor.

What’s Really In It?

I recently read Mark Bittman‘s piece on oatmeal on the NY Times website.  The article is really about how McDonald’s will do anything to get customers into their doors.  This time, they are trying to do it by offering what they consider, a healthy alternative to their already bloated calorie laden menu.  If what he writes is accurate, the new FMO [fruit maple oatmeal] has more sugar than a Snickers bar, only 10 less calories than a cheeseburger or egg mcmuffin and costs more than a double cheeseburger [at least in NY].  To add more fuel to the fire, the McDonald’s FMO cream “ingredient” has actually 7 ingredients, 2 of which are actually dairy.

We really, really, need to stop thinking that this is good for you.  Yes, you can ask McDonalds to take out the cream, the sugar, the dried fruits and “customize” it the way you want.  But think about this, in the time it takes to drive or walk to McDonalds, wait in line, and wait for your FMO that’s calorie rich and sugar heavy, you could have had a nice bowl of healthy oatmeal at home.  Or if you’re in a rush, boil the water, pour the oats in the pot, get ready for work and dump the whole thing in a Glad plasticware and bring it to work.  Still better for you and you can at least see moderate the amount of “goodness” going into your bowl of goodness.  Making good oatmeal really takes 2 items: water and oats.  That’s it.  Boil the water, add the oats, reduce heat and let it simmer.  If you want to put some honey in there to sweeten it up, go for it.  But just remember, McDonald’s “cream” has SEVEN ingredients.  Just so you don’t think I’m making this up, it’s listed in McDonald’s website: milk, cream, sodium phosphate, datem, sodium stearoyl lactylate, sodium citrate, carrageenan.

I wasn’t aware of this before reading the article, but did you know that McDonald’s yearly sales of $16.5B is just under the GDP of Afghanistan.  Do we really want to hand over another $2.50 to a corporation who’s sole purpose is to get people to eat crappy food and make us feel like it’s worth it?

National Snack Month

A day after the US Government gave a stern recommendation that Americans eat less and better foods, the snack food lobby, whose main goal is to get Americans to eat more unhealthy snacks, declared February as “National Snack Month”.  It’s grotesque to me that these corporate lobbyist do not care about the health of their family and friends.  Or if they do, they don’t care about everyone else’s but their own.  We don’t need another “snack day” or “snack month”.  Isn’t enough that there are still millions of Americans who are out of work?  Isn’t it enough that Americans, by far, are the most obese out of all the nations on this planet?  Must we continue, as a way to make more money, kill our fellow citizens in pushing unhealthy snacks to our faces?

My wife has been working hard on the classes she’s been teaching and as she works, she likes to snack.  Isn’t it enough that as she walks by, she says of her Goldfish Xtra Cheddar snacks: “It’s extra cheddar because they put powder on top.”  [By the way, she wants everyone to know, that she is not obese!]  This isn’t to condemn anyone for buying snacks and eating snacks – snacks from Nabisco or the like.  I like it, you like, we all like it.  But where is the line drawn in reaping millions and millions of dollars in getting people to be obese in this country?  According to 20eat.org:

“Here’s the report’s headline number: $4.2 billion, which is how much the industry spent marketing its wares in 2010.

To put that amount in perspective, consider the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the USDA’s sub-agency that “works to improve the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting dietary guidance that links scientific research to the nutrition needs of consumers.” Its annual budget? $6.5 million,according to The New York Times reporter Michael Moss.”

$4.2B and $6.5M.  How can we compete?  Part of it is educating ourselves to understand that while Goldfish snacks are not evil per se, we don’t need 3, 4, 5, or 6 packs of them as our daily snack ritual.  We have to undertand that while the Sunday coupons may give us an extra $0.50 off that Pepperidge Farm snack, it is still 4 or even 5 times more expensive than a bag of carrots, celery, apples, or grapes.  No, carrots and celery are not as sexy as a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies, but it’s also a lie that we need to eat a bag of carrots to stave off starvation.  It’s a lie that we need to chomp on 3 or 4 Pepperidge Farm cookies and wash it down with a glass of chocolate milk as a snack to be fulfilled.  The amount of sugar in that snack is pushing our diabetic culture spiraling out of control.

It starts with us.  It starts with our generation where we can educate our kids and our kids’ generation that natural foods are good tasting.  But we also have to cook more.  Our kids will not understand the value of nutrition if we continue to call Dominoes and bring home McDonalds as a piss poor substitute of a family dinner.  The “Leave It To Beaver” generation of Sunday dinners are gone.  So far gone that less and less people eat at home on a weekly basis than ever before.  Watching Jamie Oliver‘s “Food Revolution” should wake us up when our kids do not know what a tomato or potato looks like.  As Jamie Oliver said in his TED Awards speech: “[Clutching a fistful of french fries] This is not a vegetable.”  To end this blog with this quote from John Seymour seem to bring it all together for our culture:

“Undoubtedly there is much labor in the preparation of meals from fresh ingredients. To shell a bushel of peas, for example, takes a long while and you can do nothing else at the same time. But those of us who are privileged to live in a home where the ancient skills of preparing and cooking food are still carried out often wonder, as we contemplate another culinary delight, if the time saved by the “modern” housewife is really worth it. For, my God, what a world of difference there is in taste between the heated-up instant meal and the meal that is carefully prepared and cooked from fresh ingredients.”
– John Seymour, Forgotten Household Crafts

When Do We Say When?

Is there anything relevant in this Steve Jobs interview from years ago to the type of restaurants we visit?  Even though Steve Jobs is the furthest figure from any culinary entry, his bold accusation that “The only problem with Microsoft is that they have no taste” is a very subjective opinion.  Steve Jobs’ issue with Microsoft is that all the while when Apple was slogging through the 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft became the quintessential corporation where hefty revenues were to be had as they dominated and almost monopolized the world of PCs.

How does this tie in to food, restaurants, and experiences that I so passionately want each of us to explore?  The more I travel around Southern California, the more I read about other people’s experiences with their culinary adventures, and the more I travel outside of the US, one thing is certain:  The way Steve Jobs describes Microsoft is how I feel about the culinary landscape in America.  It’s a gigantic generalization that doesn’t work on every level, but here in SoCal, slowly but surely, we are being boxed in by big box franchise restaurants.  Almost everywhere I look, there is another BJ’s going up, another Macaroni Grill, another CPK rearing its nasty head out of the wood works.  These franchises are owned by large corporations and the tally of these chains are both staggering and sad:

  • BJs operates and owns 102 locations in the US.
  • CPK operates and owns 230 locations 32 states.
  • Macaroni Grill operates and owns 230 locations globally.

Think about that for a second.  That’s a lot of pizzas CPK is defining for our palettes in our culture.  And I’m not even tallying Dominoes, Pizza Hut, and Round Table.  Of course, it’s not all about the food.  It’s all about the bottom line.  The revenue and profit margin these chains generate, either for the owners or the share holders if they’re a public company.  It’s all about money.  And a lot of money.  CPK’s average annual revenue is $550M.  That’s a lot of Peking Duck Pizzas being sold and eaten by us.  And like Steve, I share the same view of: “The only problem I have with BJ’s/CPK/Macaroni Grill is that they have no taste.  And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way.”

I’m not saying CPK and the like ought to be eliminated.  There is surely enough white space in the food industry for restaurants like CPK to thrive.  Hell, every once in a while, I also get a craving for Carne Asada Pizza, but I don’t want or need to see one in every city in Los Angeles.  What I am saying is, do these companies ever say “Wow, we’ve made $550M this year, I think that’s good enough.”  Of course not.  It’s the endless chase of “just a little more”.

Recently, I had the chance to watch an interview [click here] to hear Thomas Keller talk about his time in preparing an 8 course meal at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong.  In it, he talks about being a good example of what they do at the French Laundry and introducing it to a place like Hong Kong.  They have flown in some of their ingredients here from the States from Californian Caviar, to Vermont butter, and to Michigan dried cherries.   Taking 7.5 months to plan the menu where each diner will be charged $830US.  One of the questions the interviewer asks is whether Keller is going to open a restaurant in Hong Kong.  His answer?

TK: At the end of the day, how many restaurants does one need?

Interviewer: How many do you need?

TK: [laughs] I don’t need anymore.

Clearly, he has his limits.  6 restaurants.  Maybe one day he’ll open another one.  But his reach has limits because he has a brand and quality to maintain and he will not sacrifice all that for an extra million.  I’m not suggesting that we all now go and only eat at a Thomas Keller restaurant.  That’s not feasible both economically or realistically.  All I’m saying is that some of these American “iconic” restaurants perhaps also lack the “taste” that Steve Jobs is referring to.  They are clearly more interested in making money than the food they serve, even if the food they serve are not all bad.  As Thomas Keller says, “how many restaurants does one need?”  I’d rather have a restauranteur give us 6-8 good restaurants [does not have to be Thomas Keller-esque] than 230 CPK locations.  Even though this is reality, we don’t have to partake in equating pizza with CPK.  Or Italian food with Macaroni Grill.  There can be places in our stomachs and hearts for both CPKs and Pizzeria Ortica’s.  There can be places in our hearts for both Macaroni Grills and Roma D’Italia’s.  It’s not all or nothing.  We can say “when”, and we can do that today.

Whether you trust the reviews on Yelp is immaterial.  It’s another social website where food mongers like me write reviews of places we’ve been and share them with thousands of people we will never meet.  Whether it’s Yelp, Chowhound, CitySearch, or Zagats, it’s really where people try to measure a potential dining place to see if it’s going to be money well spent.  Unless you’re working for a food reviewer or news publication, there aren’t too many rules people really live by.  Other than having actually dined at the restaurant, you write what you please and do it with a flair that suits your personality.

But over time being on Yelp, I’ve come to realize that there is a social responsibility, however minuscule it might be, that one must bring to writing food reviews.  This applies more for people like myself, who do not work for any publication, then true professional food critics because we have no “code” to write by.  It’s pretty much thought vomit.  No guts, no glory, no filter.  But  when I read food reviews to see if restaurants are worth the time and money to go, I tend to read reviews from people who are reasonable and responsible.  I often see people giving 1 or 2 stars [out of 5] because they felt they got the shaft because the restaurant charged them $30 for 4 scallops.  Indeed, that is criminal, but when I’m reading the review for a high end restaurants like Mastro’s, Le Bernardin, or Bouchon, I think we have the obligation to tell it like it is.  For example, I’m not giving Bouchon 1 star for giving me steak and fries for $28.  Yes, the steak and fries for that price might be criminal, but to give it a 1 star rating is even more criminal because the quality of the meat, the almost perfect execution of the dish, and the whole dining experience.  While to many, the dish may not warrant $28, it is a great dining experience and the food is damn good.  Unless it is outright and blatantly wrong and egregious, I don’t take the price of the food into account too often, if at all.  To me, it really depends on the restaurant.  If Red Lobster is charging me $30 for scallops, I’m not ordering it.  Because to order any dish at Red Lobster for $30 and then turn around and give them 1 star for that is telling me and the rest of the internet world that I’m just not that bright to begin with.  I would hope that we would have realistic expectations for our meals on the places we dine at, but having one rigid standard and applying that across the board  would be irresponsible.  Not only to others who read the review, but to the restaurants where we dine at.

I probably take this hobby a little too seriously.  I often think about the whole experience first, the decor, the service, and most importantly, the food.  Does it fit the expectation the restaurant is wanting to achieve?  I mean, let’s be real.  Red Lobster is not marketing itself to the same clientele as Le Bernardin.  So as amateur reviewers, we ought to take that into account.  You can’t compare these two restaurants in the same breath.  It wouldn’t be fair to Red Lobster and it sure as hell wouldn’t be fair to Le Bernardin.  I don’t mind paying $45-$50 for sea bass at Le Bernardin, but I sure as hell wouldn’t pay the same at Red Lobster, not that they would even have sea bass.  I think we need to know what it is that we’re writing because whether we know it or not, people do read them, and people do make their decisions based on what we write as a community.  Our weight is not the same for an LA Times or NY Times food critic, and nor should it be, but I think we still need to be responsible in writing the reviews.  And now that I’m going into the second year of being an Elite Yelper, I think about this more.  I’m not giving a place 1 or 2 stars because I am reacting to the fact that the server didn’t bend over backwards for me.  Just like I wouldn’t give 5 stars to a place that has mediocre food and the service was awesome.  At the end of the day, it’s still about the food – first and foremost.  Not all restaurants are created the same, and that’s a great thing.  We need the hole-in-the-walls as much as we need Le Bernardin.  There’s enough white space to go around in the food industry.  But we shouldn’t expect the same from each and every single restaurant.  That’s just not realistic.  I can’t wait for a food truck to get its first Michelin Star.  I can’t wait for the Michelin Guide to return to Los Angeles.  I can’t wait to read reviews from Yelp, Chowhound, and Zagats. It’s all part of an experience of being a novice foodie.

 

Diversity of Ethnic Cuisines

 

In this country, we often categorize different regional cuisines into different foods.  When I say “pineapple”, many instinctively relate to Hawaiian food while “avocados” are Californian cuisines.  While that clearly isn’t wholly accurate, that’s how we view different types of foods.  Certainly ingredients represent cuisines such as Italian [pastas and tomatoes], French [fish and duck], and Chinese [rice and soy sauce].  Even though those ingredients certainly represent those cuisines, the stereotypes break down quickly when you think of Peking Duck and chow mein as purely Chinese and not a hint of Italian or French in them.  And really, do we really think that ham and pineapple pizza is somehow truly Hawaiian?

Here in the US, when we think of Chinese food, we are really thinking of the Cantonese style dishes.  Over time, we’ve incorporated some Sichuan regional dishes [kung pao] into our taste palates, but really, we’ve limited ourselves to one regional Chinese food.  One can argue the same for Italian and French cooking, where different regions produce raw ingredients that are local to those areas, making dishes unique in styles and flavors.  Chinese food, it seems, have been reduced to chow mein, fried rice, sweet and sour anything, and orange flavored anything.  Let me just say, for the record, that PF Chang’s is not Chinese food.  It’s not even localized foods.  It’s just really bad food.

In many Chinatowns in the States, the majority of the immigrants are from the region of Guangzhou, or Canton.  Thus, the plethora of Cantonese dishes have become the symbol of Chinese food.  But there are others, many others in fact, that we haven’t even tapped into as a country here.  Shanghai cuisine tend to be about braises, stews, sauces, pickles, rich and deep flavors that ought to be embraced by the Western palates, but it’s often not found in the US.  Mandarin cuisine, or Beijing cuisine, in home to the famous Peking duck.  Instead of the bun, however, it is traditionally eaten with a flour-y crepe like pancake.  But it’s also home to such things as soup noodles, hot pots and because it’s closer to Mongolia, the influence of Mongolian Beef and pot stickers are also made famous by that region.  Hunan and Sichuan dishes are very similar, both focus on the chili, garlic, ginger stir fries that we’ve come to love as kung pao chicken and orange flavored chicken.  Additionally though, Sichuan is also about salt curing, stir fry vegetables, and tofu dishes.

Each of these regions, unfortunately, have fused into one in this country.  We identify all of these regional foods as Chinese food.  While that’s true, when you visit Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing, you will never hear someone say, “Let’s have Chinese food for lunch”.  One will most likely hear, “Let’s have Shanghai-nese food” or “Hunan food” because these regional fairs are important to the country that borne these dishes.  Like Italian and French regional dishes, we’re missing a big part of the Chinese cuisines in this country.  We’re missing local dishes called “Chiu Chow”, which also has a distinct use of acid, such as vinegar.  One of the famous desserts of Chiu Chow is pan fried noodles with a coating of caster sugar glazed with vinegar.  While that might sound weird, it’s actually a perfect way to end a meal because the acid and sugar temper the oily dishes that one would eat.  And you would wash it down with some typical Chiu Chow tea, coming in a small teacup that is intense in flavor as it is suppose to help with digestion.

Next time you get a craving for Panda’s Orange Chicken, try to find a local Chinese restaurant that’s serving something a little different.  Try braised tofu or seafood hotpot.  See if they have oxtails, whole steam fish, and spiced dried tofu with sliced pork.  While still in the Cantonese style of cooking, it provides us with different tastes from a country so vast, you can travel for a week and not have the same style Chinese food.  And even though many of the dishes can only be found in China, we really should be ashamed of ourselves if we only go to PF Chang’s or Chin Chins of all places.  Chin Chin’s “world famous” Chinese Chicken salad is just ghastly.  It’s truly an awful way of saying that one “likes” Chinese food.  It’s like saying your favorite Italian food is the endless salad and breadsticks at your local Olive Garden, where the only Italian thing about it is that it contains bread and olives.  It’s really a hideous way of representing cuisines that have been perfecting for thousands of years.  So try something new, something weird maybe, because you never know when you’ll be surprised.  And that’s what experiencing food is all about.  We don’t have to be Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Eats, but we can start by trying something slightly different that will bring new experiences to our lives.  It’s worth it.

Depending on where you stand on all-you-can-eat [AYCE] places, they are either a gluttony of goodness or the nadir of culinary ideas that should’ve died at the concept stage, but like a bad virus, has thrived in this country.  With the boon of Las Vegas and its endless supplies of AYCE places, we Americans have come to fall for the gimmick that we’ll somehow eat so much we can bring the establishment to its knees.  The contrary, of course, is true.  The establishment wins every time we go into a buffet because well, the establishment is quite smart.  The marketing itself has beaten our appetites even before we walk into a Hometown Buffet or a classier joint like the Le Village Buffet at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas.  What no one will tell us is that after a few deep fried morsels of evilness, our stomachs are calling it quits, turning our precipitous appetites to vapors.

But not all buffets are created equal.  While having dined at my fair share of AYCE evilness here in the States, not all buffets are crap.  But you have to leave these shores to experience a truly magnificent buffet.  In Hong Kong, where people truly live to eat, there are some amazing buffets to be had.  And I am not referring to cheap “Hometown Buffets” style locations.  The picture above is from the Shangri La Hotel‘s Kaffe Kool, where for $50-$60US per person, you can get great roast duck, sushi, handmade udon and noodles, handmade naan bread with a tandoori oven to boot.  It’s not cheap to eat at Kaffe Kool, but because everything there is made on premise, it’s a far cry from even the Bellagio buffet, where one shells out about $45US per person for a “good” buffet [which I disagree with].  I would give a place like Kaffe Kool 4.5 stars on Yelp if I could.  It is THAT good.  The sushi is better than many sushi places here in LA and the fact that they have made to order noodle bar as part of the buffet is worth the price of admission.  On the other side of the floor is their dessert area.  Handmade crepes with ice cream is just one of the many sweets you can get there.  It really is one of the best AYCE places I’ve ever been to.  A few days later, we visited the Intercontinental Hotel and the buffet there looked even better.

So, while I still maintain that buffets are crap, there are a few that are truly outstanding.  I still haven’t been to a buffet here in the States where it has blown my socks off, but in Hong Kong, they seem to everywhere.  Especially in their hotels, where people tend to go and have a great meal.  Here in this country, we would scoff at dining out for a special occasion at a hotel.  Hotel food, to us, is just overpriced bad food.  But not there in Hong Kong.  It’s another great dining experience.  Yes, it is still overpriced, but people tend to be fine with that because of the quality of the food you get.  Here in the States, I would still encourage us to stay away from buffets if we can help it.  I realize some families view these buffets as a cheap alternative to feed a large family and to that, I say “Do what you need to do” in this economy.  But for those who are not struggling too much, just stay away from the monstrosity.  You won’t regret it.