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Posts from the ‘China’ Category

La Pampa

1/2 There always comes a point during a vacation when I want non-local food (all right, we already had German). Initially, I thought of FINDS (Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, amusingly enough) but they were closed for a private Finnish Independence Day party. What were the odds?

Earlier, we had been eyeballing La Pampa, which was directly across the street from the tiny Korean sports bar/fried chicken joint we were having a beer earlier. It was still closed around 6pm even though every place else in the neighborhood was already hopping. We suspected they were just being Argentine and conducted business on a later schedule.

La pampa exterior

That proved true. We came back a little later and the cozy, ok, cramped, little restaurant was packed, all prime tables reserved. We squeezed into an awkward two-seater near the door and wondered if the food would be even remotely authentic. The tiny room contained the most Americans (as well as Spanish speakers, all three of them, four including the owner) I had encountered in two weeks.

La pampa empanadas

I was reassured by the presence of sweetbreads, blood sausage, provoleta, milanesas and even Don Pedro for dessert. We probably didn't need an appetizer but wanted to try an empanada. No complaints about the ham and cheese.

La pampa bife de chorizo

There wasn't a lot of variety in cuts of beef, just bife de chorizo and bife de lomo. The rest of the mains consisted of meat skewers, chicken and strange for an Argentine restaurant, cod and salmon. I chose the smallest bife de chorizo, 250 grams, which sadly meat absolutely nothing to me because I have no concept of metrics. I was just hoping it wasn't prohibitively massive. But for HK$ 198 (about $25) I figured it would be substantial, and it was. I ate room temperature leftovers for breakfast the next day.

One thing I was curious about is where beef in Hong Kong might come from. Do they have farms in the region? It seemed like Australian beef was popular in the city. I only just now read that La Pampa's beef is imported from Argentina, which answers my question. I was going to say that the steak definitely didn't taste American, not corn fed, but also not nearly as tender and flavorful as what I had in Buenos Aires. The meat was a little tough and flat tasting, though not disappointingly so.

La pampa condiments

There were only a couple of quirks. One, the corn on the cob on the side. That felt strangely American not South American. And ketchup and two mustards as the default condiments brought with the steaks. We asked for chimichurri and were promptly brought a trio of vinegar-based sauces. Nice.

La Pampa * 32 Staunton St., Hong Kong

King Ludwig Beerhall

While I love Asian mall food, I also have a fascination with pockets of moderately upscale Western food. Clarke Quay in Singapore is overpriced and kind of obnoxious, plus I don't find sitting outdoors in 90 weather to be luxurious. Sure, I'll eat a bowl of laska in stifling humidity, but not a three-course meal with wine. They do have a Hooters, though.

Knutsford Terrace in Kowloon, however, kind of charmed me despite its veering toward tackiness. The collection of restaurants, including fare such as Spanish tapas, Russian I'm-not-sure-what, French bistro and Australian steak, is built onto a steep hill and painted in sunny pastels to evoke a Mediterranean plaza.

Knutsford terrace


We had to pay a visit, especially since it wasn't too far of a trudge from our hotel. Hong Kong is very walkable and the mild winter weather (you barely needed a light jacket) was energizing instead of the island's usual life-draining climate. It was hard to make up our minds where to stop and it's hard to focus when you're being constantly touted Sixth Street style. I was thinking tapas because I was curious about what cured meats and cheeses they would have, though I was also kind of wowed by Bahama Mama's and Que Pasa not so much for a potentially amazing meal but to see how Chinese might interpret Latin fare.

Then I remembered reading about a German beerhall and that was that. Even though we originally were looking for snacks not a full on meal, the siren song of the massive pork knuckle was too powerful ignore. But we couldn't find the restaurant anywhere. It turns out that King Ludwig is a chain affiliated with the same parent company, King Parrot, the Chinese B.R. Guest, as many of the Knutsford Terrace restaurants but wasn't on the premises. Even better, it was directly across the street from our hotel via an underground footpath. We hotfooted it back quickly as it was getting late for a Sunday.

King ludwig interior

The upstairs section was surprisingly full, and no, not with expats, but predominately Asian patrons, possibly tourists but definitely not horrible Westerners who can't bear to eat local food. These multi-culti restaurants are really geared towards Hong Kongers and I had no problem justifying bratwurst over lap cheong for a night. We were seated on the less populated main level near the long wooden tables, semi-open kitchen and stage, yes, stage. I had been surprised the entire vacation how Christmas decoration crazy they were in S.E. Asia, and King Ludwig's was no exception. I wouldn't have imagined anything less from a pseudo-German establishment.

And it wouldn't be Hong Kong without a live Filipino band (it's a known fact that they are the showmen of the continent). This group appeared to be made up of three sisters and a middle aged dude on a keyboard, for all I know he was their father. James was the only one in the entire restaurant who clapped after sassy renditions of Bette Davis Eyes, Daniel, and We Are Family.

King ludwig sausage

So, pork knuckle was a must. That would've been plenty for the two of us, combined with a pint of house brew. But James also ordered a spicy sausage that turned out to be an unusually long chile-flecked hot dog. I didn't sample any because frankfurters always give me a stomachache and I'd already suffered enough intestinal trauma that week.

King ludwig carving

You wouldn't think there was much affinity between German and Asian food but compared to Filipino lechon there is middle ground with the pork knuckle. I've also had a version in Hunan restaurants. And interestingly, we were sitting next to a Pinoy family who yep, had the meaty dish on their table. It was certainly large enough to feed a small group. And our santa hat-clad waitress even carved it tableside for us.

Our neighbors seemed surprised that we also ordered the pork knuckle and kept ogling us, which weirded out James because he's a grump and has childhood issues. When he was a kid Filipino relatives made a fuss over him liking rice, "oh, look he eats rice" like only Filipinos eat rice, when duh, the entire world enjoys the grain. This was similar to what appeared to be going on here, like only Filipinos eat pork knuckle and how could we know about it. Personally, I don't care who wants to claim what food. Like I said, issues.

(Speaking of the Philippines, at some point during this trip James mentioned possibly visiting Manila on business during 2009 because his company had acquired another in that city, and that maybe I could tag along and we'd schedule a side excursion to Thailand to make up for our disappointing vacation. When I brought this up later, he pretended like he hadn't said it so I am repeating it here so that it becomes public record. I've always wanted to go to the Philippines and just to be a pain he's vowed to never set foot in the country. We'll see.)

King ludwig pork knuckle

The pork was all I had hoped for, the right balance of crisp skin to fatty bits and juicy meat. Even the potatoes were winsome; I'm pretty sure because they were deep-fried. Why not Bavarian treats in the tropics?

King ludwig exterior

Strange solo alfresco table.

King Ludwig Beerhall * 32, KCR East TST Station, Hong Kong

Yung Kee

Ah, Christmas. The season for goose, at least in theory. There's something very Victorian and impractical about the bird that makes me want to tackle preparing one. I've entertained the notion of cooking one for a few years but have never been inspired enough to see my antiquated fantasy through.

I had never even sampled the dark poultry until a few weeks ago in Hong Kong. I was remiss for skipping Yung Kee on my last visit deeming it too touristy. Now that I'm older and wiser I care less about bucking convention. I needed to try the roast goose no matter how popular it might be.

Yung kee exterior

I hate to say that the most memorable part of my meal was the gratis starter. Our waiter, who was a dead ringer for George Takei in looks and strongly in voice, first asked, "Do you want the appetizer? It's a Chinese specialty." Sure. I knew what was coming and was well aware why he wouldn't bring it by default to non-Chinese customers. I wasn't scared of a preserved egg. I love fermented things. Or at least I thought I did.

Yung kee preserved egg and ginger

I was expecting something firm and salty, but this was translucent and goopy and tasted sort of blue cheesey, kind of like a rindy soft cheese with ammonia urine undertones. The flavor by itself wouldn't have been so freakish if you thought it was cheese, but the flavor combined with the dark color and gelatinous texture was disturbing. You're trying to intellectualize how an egg could possibly age into this transparent, gooey state and still be edible.

Judging from the diners at the table next to us, you're supposed to put a strip of pickled ginger on top of the egg and chomp away. That worked, the sharp rhizome cuts through the funk though it was a little messy and gray gel stuck to my chopsticks and gave me the heebies.

Yung kee roast goose

As usual, we grossly over ordered. A half portion of roast goose was way too much for two, but we had been burned in Beijing by a miniscule half portion of Peking duck. Shows how little I know about birds; apparently geese are way larger than ducks. The skin was crispy and the meat was much richer and gamier than I had anticipated, not really like duck at all and definitely not like chicken. I kept thinking that the scary gray egg gel on my chopsticks was tainting the meat until I realized the poultry had a strong musky flavor of its own. Not a bad one, mind you. Plum sauce is served along with the goose, and oddly the sweet peach colored condiment is what we call duck sauce in the U.S. even though I've never ever eaten it with duck, just egg rolls. Maybe it should be renamed goose sauce.

Yung kee seafood soup

We felt guilty for never ordering soup in Chinese restaurants so we had the mixed seafood soup, very Cantonese and delicate and likely thickened with a little cornstarch. Probably an extra course that we really didn't need, though.

Yung kee vegetables with crab meat

Vegetables with crab meat turned out to be mushrooms and baby bok choy. Also another mild dish. That may sound like a strange comment, it's just that I tend to have mixed feelings about Cantonese food because it is simple and pure where I like bold and oily Chinese cuisine. Not that I can't appreciate a steamed vegetable.

Yung kee fried rice

I never eat fried rice (yet we did twice on vacation) but it seemed like a popular item at Yung Kee. It was very light and non-greasy and not soy sauced to death like here.

I felt totally fine, stuffed but fine, after our meal. We took goose and fried rice to go (I do love that doggie bags are not frowned upon in S.E. Asia) and grabbed a drink in Lan Kwai Fong afterwards. The story could've ended right there. I wish it did.

Then, in the middle of the night I was struck by the most painful, violent stomach cramps I've experienced in 36 years and spent hours alternating between vomiting and laying in bed trying not to move, even shifting a few inches would trigger another bout of barfing even though there was nothing left to barf.

While hanging out the hotel bathroom my mind kept wandering back to that black egg. Evil egg. I'm not saying that Yung Kee poisoned me, I had been flu-y and nauseous on and off all week, but something I ate that night set off a gut-wrenching experience that wouldn't end. I would eat Chinese roast goose again, certainly, maybe even a few bites of preserved egg because I don't hold food grudges, but the post-Yung Kee trauma only added to my feelings that this was quickly becoming the worst vacation ever.

Yung Kee * 32-40 Wellington St., Hong Kong

Margaret’s Café e Nata

Of the three treats one might seek out in Macau, egg tarts were the only one I got to. Jerky is all over Hong Kong so I wasn’t worried, but I may regret not making time for a pork chop bun.

Margaret's cafe e nata

In a perfect world I would compare tarts from Lord Stow’s and Margaret’s. Coloane is a trek but Margaret’s was just down a little alley one block from the Hotel Lisboa where we stayed our last night. It feels hidden but there’s nothing secret about it. On a Sunday afternoon all of the outdoor seats were taken and there was a huddle (Chinese aren’t big on lining up, or rather queing as they like to say in both Singapore and Hong Kong with a nice Q reminder painted on the ground in front of taxi stands. As an aside, as much as Singaporeans are rigid rule followers, they totally don’t let riders off the subway before rushing on, an aberration to even the rudest New Yorker) of customers crammed into the small storefront waiting to be helped.

Egg tarts are a regular at Chinese bakeries. But the Hong Kong style uses a stiffer shortbread crust and the custard is smooth with an unblemished canary yellow top.

Margaret's egg tart

The Portuguese style favored in Macau (as well as Chinese KFCs) is slightly different, richer and more flavorful. These are wobbly custards encased in flaky, buttery puff pastry layers. The surfaces are burnt in spots and caramelized.

What I found surprising is that these goodies do not have a long tradition in Asia. From I understand they were brought to Macau in the '80s by an Englishman, Andrew Stow of Lord Stow's Bakery, and were meant to replicate pastéis de nata from Portugal, of course. This convoluted history makes perfect sense for such a culturally mixed island, somehow.

My only crime was not eating these while they were still warm, but I had just finished a multi course lunch at Galera a Robuchon across the street. Yes, you get them straight out of the oven and it’s worth braving the crowds for.

Margaret’s Café e Nata * Gum Loi Building, Rua Almirante Costa Cabral, Macau

A Lorcha

It was crazy to think we’d manage A Lorcha after a big late afternoon meal at Fernando’s, but since I never get up early enough for breakfast on vacation (or weekends ever) I at least have to get in two meals per day for maximum eating experience.

I missed my Saturday night reservation because I was jetlagged and couldn’t drag myself out of bed. I wasn’t particularly hungry Sunday evening either, still feeling the effects of a multi-course lunch at Robuchon a Galera, but Macanese food had to fit into the schedule, pathetic appetite or not.

A Lorcha is on the same strip as Restaurante Litoral, a restaurant similar in look and style–white stucco, dark wood beams and brick arches–that I tried in Macau previously. Both serve hearty fare in portions way too big for two to explore adequately. That probably explains why so many pushed together tables were occupied by extended families.

A lorcha pig ear salad

I’m always game for a pig’s ear salad and had no idea what to expect. The cold slices are definitely about texture, more cartilage than flavor. I was hoping all the little white bits weren’t raw garlic but they were. It was way overpowering and I’m not sure if that was intended or not. That’s not to say I disliked this dish; it was just very strong in all aspects, oily, vinegary, and not terribly meaty.

A lorcha macanese chicken

I would’ve tried the African chicken to compare it to Litoral’s but James insisted he didn’t like it last time. I don’t think that’s true. To appease, I ordered Macanese chicken to see what the difference would be. It turns out, I prefer the African chicken, which is a stiffer oilier curry. Macanese chicken is mild, stewy and coconut milk based with roughly chopped chicken pieces and potatoes chunks similar to a Malay kari ayam I later made in a Singaporean cooking class. It’s not too far from a Thai massamun curry either, if that’s more familiar.

I never know what to do with all the sauce and it seems wrong to eat potatoes and rice. This serving was enough of a meal by itself but I can’t justify eating only one dish for dinner, especially in a country I may never get to again.

A lorcha pork and clams

And I’m glad that I overindulged because the clams and pork were worth it. I love the uniquely Portuguese combination. Why not combine shellfish and meat? Clams are fine by themselves but sometimes you want something more substantial, and I guess, fatty. I was expecting little bits of pork but ratio between the two ingredients was almost equal.

I’m still not sure what makes food Macanese. Most of what I’ve encountered seems either Portuguese or sort of Malay or even Filipino (much of the staff and customers at both A Lorcha and Litoral were Filipino) not so much Chinese. I’m not feeling wild culinary fusing.

Of course I’m dying to try Macao Trading Co. which opened just before I left the country, despite being highly suspicious of the venture. I mean, in a way it’s kind of brilliant to sell a mishmash cuisine that most New Yorkers know nothing about in a rustically flashy setting. Maybe someone could sex up Guyanese food next? Interestingly, it looks like they’ve divided their menu up into Portuguese and Chinese versions of the same ingredients with little hybridism whatsoever.

A Lorcha * Rua do Almirante Sérgio 289, Macau


Update: I've heard downhill reports, but I wouldn't say that was the case on my July 2012 re-visit. But I would say that nothing's changed in three-and-a-half years. In fact, my new photos look practically the same as what's below but I feel the need to mention them in case anyone's interested. I imagine everything will look exactly the same in another three-and-a-half years too.

* * *

There was no way I was going to miss Fernando’s on this visit to Macau. After being thwarted by uncooperative cab drivers (after 30 minutes trying to flag one down) during a frustrating daytrip three years ago, I planned ahead this time.

What we hadn’t planned on was spending our first three nights of vacation on the former Portuguese colony. Originally, we intended to take the ferry from Hong Kong and back the Tuesday before heading back to NYC, just lunch and dinner. But we had to make an emergency change to our itinerary after arriving in Hong Kong Friday night with no connecting flight to Bangkok available (I’m still steamed that we had pay the full ticket price when we never got to our intended destination).

Rather than spend our entire two weeks in Hong Kong (a perfectly nice city but not for that long) we decided to regroup in nearby Macau and hoped to pick up the second leg of our Thailand journey after a few nights (way too optimistic). One downside was that while trying desperately to check hotels in the airport with wi-fi that cut out every few minutes, we found out that nearly everything was booked for the weekend or going at a premium. Not wanting to take a chance on a weirdo hotel, (hey, Macau is still kind of seedy despite it’s shiny Vegas aspirations) we went against our loose, unspoken budgetary rule (I don’t spend more than $200 per night on hotels and try to keep it under $150. Everything I’d booked in Bangkok was under $100 so this screwed up things completely. Yes, I am a tightwad.) and reserved a fairly luxurious, over the top, large scale, royal-hued semi-‘90s in feel room at the brand new Sofitel. After traveling for over 24 hours and by nearly all methods—plane, train, taxi and ferry—and stymied by already not having the vacation I’d planned for months, I just wanted to collapse on an enormous pile of down-filled pillows.

And eat suckling pig. By the next afternoon we were ready to tackle Fernando’s. And this time by public transportation. I’d learned my lesson about taxis. Catching a bus (21A or 26A if you care to replicate the route) from Senado Square is easy and at only five Patacas, (about 63 cents) an incredible bargain. The 45-minute ride to Coloane is scenic once you get past all the new casino construction in Taipa. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to finagle a seat (we got one half-way through) and relax during the windy drive to Hac Sa beach.

Fernando's bar

Though it was too cool to indulge in any sand or surf, the weather was just fine for having a drink in the backyard bar while waiting for a table. Oddly, there was no vino verde by the glass so I had to settle for house white. I was thrilled by the temperate, light jacket weather; the 60-something-degrees nearly erased my sweaty and cranky August 2005 memories. Even though both front and back rooms were filled around our 4pm arrival, we didn’t wait for more than 15 minutes. I’d heard service-related horror stories, and sure, the staff all but ignores you, but I’ve had much brusquer and careless treatment in NYC.

Fernando's backyard

It’s fair to call Fernando’s touristy but since that includes mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, Australians and not really any Americans with fannypacks, I was ok with it. This was the only place I ever heard a Spanish accent the entire vacation (Latinos just don’t go to Asia it seems) from a young Mexican woman with a German boyfriend sitting next to us.

Fernando's portuguese rolls

Warm Portuguese rolls are a must. The old lady sitting on the other side of us stuffed a few of these yeasty behemoths into her purse. Practically every restaurant in Singapore and Hong Kong that offered foil-wrapped butter served New Zealand’s Anchor brand, and we also encountered a New Zealand ice cream chain in malls. Apparently, New Zealand is the Wisconsin of Southeast Asia.

Fernando's chorizo

Portuguese choriço isn’t loose and fresh like Mexican-style or even quite like the firmer cured Spanish version. These links were salty, paprika-spiked and chunkier textured in the casing with charcoal tinged edges. Being way too much for two, we made like our table neighbor and James stuffed our leftovers in his bag. This came in handy as a meaty midnight snack when I fell asleep back in the hotel by 7pm, still jetlagged and unable to stay awake for a dinner (the pitcher of sangria didn’t help). I’m never able to stay awake on the second day in Asia. I’m still mourning the hot pot dinner I never got in Beijing because I couldn’t get out of bed.

Fernando's suckling pig

Ok, sucking pig is the reason to come to Fernando’s. And while well-traveled foodies might scoff, claiming better pork and Portuguese cuisine elsewhere in Macau, I was impressed and my view wasn’t just colored by the journey and rustic trappings. For one, the meat tastes richer, and for lack of a better word, porkier, than what I’m accustomed to in the U.S. I could only eat a few pieces when normally a couple of slices wouldn’t seem satisfying enough.

The skin is the star. Sure, it’s crispy, but tissue paper thin rather than bubbly and thick like chicharron or lechon. Biting into the burnished exterior is almost like cracking a crème brulee with a nice layer of fat beneath the shell instead of custard.

Fernando's clams

Clams are sautéed in wine, and are perfectly edible. I would rate this dish higher if I hadn’t had such an amazing clam and pork rendition the following night at A Lorcha.

With my first meal in Asia being a glitch-free success, I had renewed hope for the rest of the vacation.

Fernando’s * Praia de Hac Sa 9, Macau

Whampoa Club

1/2  Whampoa Club was the only restaurant I made reservations for before leaving NYC, and cornily enough, I started having reservations of my own once in China. I got nervous because outside of glossy travel and food magazines, opinions were completely mixed. I couldn’t find one kind word about the place on Chowhound. But then, Chowhound is always a little out of whack for high end restaurants and cities outside of New York.

Our meal was scheduled for our last night in the country so I hemmed and hawed over canceling all week-and-a-half. Did I really want to blow $250 on something lackluster?


I did want to try high end Shanghainese food since it’s not like I’m often faced with opportunity. The reason I’ve postponed this recollection until now is not so much because it was my last meal but because it’s difficult to characterize. The experience was almost more about feeling than taste, which sometimes works.

Whampoa Club is located in an upscale complex, Three on the Bund, which also houses Jean Georges, Laris, Armani’s China flagship and New Heights, a restaurant that is more remarkable for its amazing view. We had drinks on the heated terrace overlooking the Pudong skyline beforehand. And no matter how many photos I took, they all turned out like shit because I can’t seem to master night time lighting. We kept trying to capture shots of this slow moving Goodyear blimp (growing up, my dad worked for the company so I have weird nostalgia for all their logo’d paraphernalia) and it was a blurry disaster.


I honestly don’t know what is so awe inspiring about a view and why looking over a city from above is supposed to romantic. I sort of feel the same way about candles. I don’t fully buy into it, but there are worse ways to spend time on a vacation. The night before, we’d sipped pricy drinks at the Pudong Grand Hyatt for the privilege of gazing across the river the other way.

I’ve barely touched a cigarette since being back home but certain settings just cry out for smoking, health be damned. And those settings usually involve drinking. It’s so leisurely and decadent to smoke during an expensive meal. It certainly felt that way in Spain last summer, though I doubt that will last much longer—even France will be banning smoking in public spaces in three days. And the opulent, modern art deco style of Whampoa was made for cigarettes. In fact, they even had little built in ashtrays in every stall of the plushest bathroom I encountered in all of China (I took a photo but it didn’t do any justice—amusingly, I’m not the only one impressed by the restrooms, this person even took shots of the faucet and toiletries).

I was told we’d have a window seat when I booked, so clearly it’s a selling point. Halfway through our meal, fireworks started going off right behind my head. I couldn’t tell you why, maybe simply because it was Friday. Maybe they do it every night because that’s just how they roll in Shanghai. But two middle aged Chinese men in Member’s Only jackets jumped up and started crowding next to our table to take photos of the spectacle (they did say excuse me and really I don’t mind if someone wants to tourist it up and take photos out of the window of a nice restaurant in another country—it’s only in NYC where I’m sensitive to gaucheness).


By contrast, the table next to us was occupied by rich kid teens (for all know, they were 40—I very much envy the genetic fountain of youth thing that Asians seem to have. Even James who’s only fraction Asian, is two years older than I am and smokes regularly, doesn’t have a single line on his face which is ridiculous) a Chinese Christina Ricci with two pop star looking guys chain smoking and barely eating. I couldn’t say who typical clientele might be.

Thinking back, we probably should’ve ordered Shanghainese food a la carte but whenever presented with multiple menus in an unfamiliar yet notable restaurant, I often go for the tasting menu. We did skip the pricy hairy crab set meal, though. We decided to try a Beijing promotional menu. Why not? We’d already messed cities up by eating soup dumplings in Beijing.


I hate to admit that I can barely remember a thing about the food (it’s nearly been two months), which isn’t to say that it wasn’t memorable. The presentations and ingredients were a bit complicated and the verbal descriptions got a little lost in translation. English as a second (or third) language can be a killer for food explanations. The only reason I remember as much as I do is because I took a photo of the menu. None of the dishes were so compelling that I’d crave a repeat performance, but cocktails and a handful of updated Shanghai classics would be worth a second visit.

Wine served with starters: Watershed Margaret River Sauvignon Semillon 2005

Duo of cabbage and spinach rolls with shrimp and scallop, flavored with yellow mustard and wasabi jelly/Air-dried pork with sweet vinegar dressing

Chinese really seem to be into porky aspic preparations. We had a similar jellied pork knuckle at Made in China. I find the flavor almost too flat and pristine. Strangely, the pungent mustard with spinach was also similar to a vegetable at Made in China. Maybe these really are Beijing flavors.

Wine with mains: Casillero del Diablo Merlot 2005

Imperial-style golden seafood soup


By far the most decadent item. The saline, gelatinous soup was completely teeming with the foie gras and truffles of the Chinese world: abalone and shark’s fin. Oh, and lobster and scallops too. I think I’m supposed to feel bad for eating fins but of course I was curious how they’d taste. Like tendons and other transparent chewy things, I suspect texture is the main attraction. Red vinegar was served with this dish and the sharpness made total sense with almost-too-rich quality of the broth.

Imperial-style fried lamb with sweet bean paste


I wasn’t expecting the spun sugar dome. In fact, I was imagining something more rustic and spicy rather than sweet. This was “ta shi mi,” sweet as honey, the menu says. True. I love sweet meat and could’ve stood for a few more pieces. I liked the fluffy steamed pancake served alongside, so you could make fancy little handheld buns.

Beijing-style slow cooked cabbage in chicken consommé and sun dried scallops

Hmm, more cabbage. I wasn’t very excited about this because it was too subtle , i.e. healthy-seeming, for me.


Beijing-style fermented bean paste and pork with hand made noodles

“I just spent over $200 on ramen and frozen vegetable medley?” we joked about this one. I think I’m going crazy because I swear there were carrots and corn in this dish that looked like they were from a bag of Birdseye, but I’m seeing nothing of the sort in this photo. I liked the diy aesthetic of tossing in as much pork mélange as suited you.

Almond dessert trio.

The tart and candied nuts were nice; not too Western and decadent and not too Asian and unsugary. The sweet almond tea was seriously like loaves and fishes, an everlasting trick. No matter how much you poured in your tiny cup, there appeared to be more left. Or maybe I was really tipsy by this point in the evening.

Whampoa Club * 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, Shanghai, China

Han Cang

Han Cang was one of my favorite meals in Beijing so there’s no logical reason why it’s my next-to-last Chinese restaurant recap (oh yes, there’s still one more that I refuse to drag into the new year). The food is Hakka, which didn’t mean much to me and I still don’t have a full grasp of the cuisine. Hakka noodles are the only dish I know and these are something you’d eat at a Chinese-Indian restaurant. Not Hakka at all, I think, like how we call curry-powdered noodles Singapore noodles but no one eats them in Singapore. Or like English muffins, for that matter.

It’s not the easiest restaurant to Google or find because I’ve seen the name written Han Ceng, Kejia Cai, Ke Jia Cai and more ways than that. And there’s not really an address; it’s on the Southeastern edge of Houhai Lake across a busy street from Bei Hai Park. And if I’m correct, the only signage is in Chinese characters. I only knew we were at the right spot because I’d scoured the censored internet for photos beforehand (I never realized how much I used Wikipedia until it was gone). But it’s not like the cavernous, wood-and-stone styled place is hidden. Our only trauma in finding it was fighting our way through overzealous hawkers as the sunlight started fading.

I have surprisingly little tolerance for aggressive touts, despite growing up in a city that might have the highest per capita number of panhandlers, homeless, junkies and runaways (I always suspected Portland was also the whitest [major] city in the U.S. and this has proven true). I’m never rude, but you can only fend off so many rickshaw rides, massages, postcards and coffee table books while being beamed with laser lights and squeezed next to by slow-moving cars that seem inappropriate on a narrow path, before becoming exhausted.

The lake might’ve been pretty but it’s not like I could stop and take in the natural beauty before being accosted by peddlers. Plus, it turned bitter–wool coats, hats and mittens cold–on our last night in Beijing and I had only packed a light three-quarter sleeved, corduroy trapeze jacket (it was still hot in NYC when I packed and I hadn’t had enough opportunity to wear the thing yet). We were burned out and ready for Shanghai.

The Houhai district appears to be a magnet for bar goers, but I am confused by mentions of it being trendy because it didn’t feel that way to me at all. Maybe I just don’t understand Chinese culture because a New York idea of trendy is very different. I was imaging something foul like the Meatpacking District but it’s more like Prospect Park if there were lots of bars and restaurants around it (that’s a really bad analogy because we don’t have any massive man made or natural lakes here) I would say expat-friendly rather than trendy. I wouldn’t say yuppie, one, because I hate that word, but two, because I think of ‘00s yuppies as being into flash and status, kind of Hong Kong-style and this neighborhood in Beijing was more ramshackle boho chic.

Han Cang (and a few whiskies at No Name Bar up the lane, which we passed by like ten times trying to deduce if it was the right place or not. True, it had no name but it didn’t seem terribly hard to find, no more hidden than your typical well-publicized yet “clandestine” NYC speakeasy. I did get to pet the cat) brightened our evening. The vibe was rough-hewn and raucous, though more upscale than I’d expected (not truly upscale—I still had to pee in a hole in the ground). Maybe it was the big bottles of Yanjing that everyone, including us, was drinking that improved the mood.


I'd heard about salt-baked shrimp. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but each crustacean was individually skewered and served twelve to an order in a damp wooden bucket of salt. Kind of cooler than a KFC bucket. They involve a bit of finger and tooth work to eat; that is if you’re a shell-peeler. I usually just crunch on mine. But they are quite salty, which you really notice if you eat them whole.


Oh, the tripe again. Sometimes I show concern for fellow organ-averse diners and compromise on an appetizer. Other times I selfishly get the tripe anyway. It was our last night in Beijing so I cut loose with the spicy stomach shreds. I don’t know what the vegetable was, though it seemed wet and chewy like something more from the sea than the land.


Three-cup duck. Nothing fancy here, and that seems to be the Hakka M.O. Three cup refers to soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine. Or at least it does with san bei ji, Taiwanese three-cup chicken. I’m assuming the two dishes are related. This is the kind of thing that seems so simple and deeply flavored but that I can never reproduce at home. I’m not sure if it’s the proportion of ingredients, cooking vessel or what. I can’t really chop up a bird with the knives I own, so I don’t go down this path much anyway. Hey, a cleaver—that’s a great Christmas wish list idea.

Han Cang * S.E. bank of Qian Hai, Beijing, China

South Beauty

I hadn’t expected any acknowledgment of Halloween in China, and I was completely wrong. I don’t know that anyone actually does anything on October 31, but stores and restaurants were decorating with pumpkins, ghosts and witches and sales clerks donned costumes during the week leading up to the holiday.


South Beauty also was getting into the game on my Halloween eve visit. This Sichuan restaurant was kind of hard to pin down. Typical for China, it’s a chain with many branches in malls. I chose this particular Shanghai location because it sounded the most over-the-top décor-wise and it was walking distance from our hotel.


And it really was tricked out like a tycoon’s mansion. The multi-leveled bar takes up the entire front building and feels like an enormous study in a British country manor. You half expect to see men in smoking jackets and decanters of port in the wood-paneled side rooms. It all opens on to a reflecting pool lined with outdoor seating and beyond that is the restaurant proper, all glass and shades of ivory.


So, it feels upscale but it’s not expensive (by Western standards, at least—I’m pretty sure most entrees were under $10) and the food isn’t “serious” in a fine dining sense. Everything is garnished to the nines, though. We were given what seemed to be one of the prime tables, flanked by two impractical sofas. The distance between seat and plating was so vast you felt overexposed and bound to drop something from chopstick to mouth.


The service was typically Asian in that you’re constantly being watched and hawked over, yet ordering is kind of painful, involves lots of pointing and head shaking and misunderstandings abound. All over Shanghai our attempts to order fish were thwarted. I’m not sure if they had run out, the fish in question weren’t in season or what. But after about three attempts, we got an affirmative on the fish head. I don’t know why fish heads freak people out—the meat is flavorful, you don’t have to eat the eyes, plus, this one was practically disguised by sauce and chopped onions, anyway.


I also ordered gong bao ji ding. Wouldn’t you want to see how this take out favorite is cooked in its homeland (yes, kung pao chicken is a real dish not an American invention). The flavors were more pristine and vinegar-sour, though I didn’t really get hits of Sichuan peppercorn The tiny uniformly cut bits were tough to tackle with chopsticks and our slow picking meant it got cold before we could finish. You don’t want cornstarch-thickened sauces to cool too much or they turn gooey.


I had no quibble with the sautéed green beans, which was the only dish that hinted at mouth-numbing properties. I didn’t find the food to be terribly Sichuan, at least the little I know about the cuisine. Nothing we ate was emphatically spicy, and the ma la sensation was absent. I’m not sure if that was due to weird ordering or a toned down preparation. I’m always wary of food in pretty surroundings while traveling. We were similarly underwhelmed at easy-on-the-eyes Celadon in Bangkok, which served elegant yet flat Thai food. I would love a stylish setting and kick ass food.


More notable was the freak show that kept parading through the restaurant as we ate. A Chinese woman, clearly a manager, in a skirt suit with a witches hat, was accompanied by two guys wearing Scream masks and they would periodically trail through the room blaring an electronic device making tinny, wailing ghost sounds. We were like, “oh shit, I hope they don’t come over here,” kind of how I feel about the Martians at Mars 2112, but you’re asking for trouble at Time’s Square theme restaurant.

They stopped at every table to try and convince skeptical diners to stop by the bar for their Halloween party. On their second pass through, they upped the ante and offered a free drink. I always feel guilted into taking unwanted coupons and amNY’s on the street, so I was like do we try to sneak out after dinner (you have to walk through the bar to exit) or stay for a damn cocktail? Free is good, plus I wanted to see what the hell was going to transpire. Despite a predominately western clientele, I was fairly certain we were the only Americans in the restaurant.

We were eventually accosted and planted on bar stools next to the only other takers, a middle-aged German trio. The huge space was empty and overstaffed by kids who looked like they’d be breaking American child labor laws. They were really trying. Cobwebs were everywhere, spooky masks had been affixed on available surfaces, a spastic green laser light eventually made an appearance, as did a fog machine. House of Wax subtitled in Chinese was being projected onto the wall. Classic scary songs like, you know “My Humps” and “SexyBack” were blaring. A mojito with so much mint it was nearly a salad and a fruity thing in a martini glass were placed in front of us. Do we pay? Do we tip? Did we ask for these? It seemed best to just start sipping and go with it.

Then, a teenage bartender who was like 5’4, 80 pounds with white oxford shirt, suspenders and a shaggy, mod moptop started flair bartending. I really should’ve taken photos but I was so disoriented that I couldn’t focus. Plus, the staff to patron ratio was so stifling you felt like your every move was being watched.

Each group that passed through, the 30-ish lady boss (who reminded me of a former supervisor, a London-Educated Chinese Malaysian I dubbed The Cyborg because she had no warmth or emotion like she’d been raised in a laboratory. I used to joke that she’d go into the bathroom and just wash her hands [I never saw her in a stall] so everyone would think she was human. Cyborgs don’t cut loose and they get drunk on one glass of wine. They also don’t let their departments leave even an hour early the Friday before a holiday weekend even when the entire company has gone home. ) tried corralling them to stay with about 50% success rate.

Now, they really needed someone to show them how to party. I was all we need to fuck this shit up and show them what Halloween is all about. Part of me wanted to TP the entire immaculately groomed grounds and start egging all the spotless floor to ceiling plate glass window. See, it’s not all about treats, ok? Tricks might bring tears to a cyborg’s eyes.

We had nothing better to do so we stayed for a few more drinks. And a few more parties had settled into sofas in adjoining rooms, so we didn’t feel so on the spot. While peculiar, the bartenders at least knew cocktails by memory and were able to cobble together a whisky sour for me. At our even emptier hotel bar in Beijing, the young bartender seemed super eager to make drinks, handed us a cocktail menu, but had to consult a recipe book for everything. He painstakingly measured out every little drop, shook just so many times, then went and washed everything out by hand before giving us our beverages. If there had been more than two customers, he would’ve freaked. And these tuned out to be $8 drinks, quite high for Beijing. My Chinese bar experiences made me edgy and nervous for the staff.

The manager began consulting with some of her staff and clearly seemed to be talking about us. You don’t need any Chinese language skills to know you’re being talked about. She approached us to explain, “I’m so sorry, but only the first drink is free.” Well, duh, we fully expected to pay for the two additional rounds and had to reassure her that we knew and that was fine.

That exchange crystallized Chinese-ness for me. Like they’re very rah rah and desperate to win over foreigners but when you take them up on their hospitality and settle in, they start to worry. It kind of made me want to TP the place for real, just to see how they’d react to a genuine problem.


South Beauty * 881 Yan'an Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China

Restaurant interior photos from

Prima Taste

1/2  Is eating laksa at a Singaporean chain restaurant in Shanghai any less blasphemous than shamelessly patronizing Pizza Hut? Well, we did both in the same afternoon and I feel very little guilt. It’s a rare vacation where we don’t indulge in our must-sample-everything second lunch, second dinner plan. And this was a rare vacation because Prima Taste enabled our only second lunch in China.

As much as I’m fond of all of Chinese food iterations (it’s strange how much loathing for Shanghainese cooking I’ve run across on the internet—no, I’m not calling anyone out) coconut milk, shrimp paste and fresh hot chiles suck me in like nothing else. I’m already planning (at least in my mind) a 2008 Malaysia excursion.

HamburgerhelperI was initially tempted by the out of place smell of belacan in a Beijing food court. It was the first Prima Taste restaurant I’d ever seen. I only knew the name from packaged spice pastes I bought at a Carrefour in Singapore a couple years ago. Apparently, they have one American branch in San Jose. I’ll admit the concept of brand-inspired restaurant is off putting. I wouldn’t be in a rush to eat at a Hamburger Helper café. But somehow Asians get away with that crap.

And the food’s not even bad. No, of course it wouldn’t get the Makansutra seal of approval, but not everyone is blessed with hundreds of hawker stalls to choose from. We don’t have any Singaporean food in NYC (nah, Singapore Café barely counts, it’s totally Chinese) so a Prima Taste wouldn’t offend me.


Admittedly, I wasn’t that hungry but I did get through most of my shrimp laksa. The broth was very lemak with fish cakes and quite a bit of chunky, shrimpy sambal that came already mixed in, no cockles. I’m still not sure why all my favorite food hails from hot, sweaty climates when I’m a firm believer in temperate weather. To me, laksa would be best enjoyed somewhere in the 60s, just like Shanghai in autumn.


I only had one bite of the char kway teow so I can’t fairly assess it. I’ve never had a version with flat and thin noodles mixed together—I’m sure sticklers would have a problem with that. I was kind of surprised that it contained crispy bits of fried pork lard, it’s not atypical but I don’t recall ever getting porky nuggets in Penang. See? Now, I have to go back to taste test more seriously.

Prima Taste * 3/F 1111 Zhao Jia Bang Rd., Shanghai, China