Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Lao Shanghai

Since we live so close to Chicago Chinatown, love Chinese food, and love the cheap prices, we often end up roaming around new Chinatown square, just trying different places.

In my opinion, dim sum in Chicago is best at Shui Wah, and I heard their dinners are great too, so we almost stepped into the restaurant when we saw 老上海 (Lao Shanghai) across the walkway. I believe this location used to be a Taiwanese place called 海霸王 (Hai Ba Wang), which was exciting and delicious at first, but slowly deteriorated in food quality / flavor. very disappointing.

I saw a supposed 'article' on their soupy dumplings, and thought... why not, lets check it out.

Between the three of us, we shared the following:
1. Shanghai Lao Mien - a bit on the greasier side, but deliciously chewy noodles won me over.
2. Braised Pork Belly - there was this orange/red sauce on it that reminded me of the americanized version of sweet & sour sauce. I love fatty parts of pork belly, but this one had the ratio of 80% fat, 20% meat... pretty disgusting.
3. Seafood Casserole - this was like mapo tofu with shrimp. pretty good w/ rice, big shrimps.
4. Soupy Dumplings - omg, this is the worst EVER! It seriously tasted like the freezer-instant versions I get at supermarkets, the skin wasn't thin at all! SUCKS!
I later remembered that my mom told me about the opening of Lao Shanghai (it's owned by Tony Hu -- same owner of Lao Sze Chuan, and will open Lao Beijing too). I hope they make some improvements or else it won't be able to compare to the success of Lao Sze Chuan.

Lao Shanghai
2163 S China Pl
Ste 1F
(between Princeton Ave & Wells St)


Mai Thai

I think I have my love for pho back, because I'm often craving pho (especially at Tay Do) these days. We tried going there on Friday despite the stormy weather, but it was friggin closed... who closes on a Friday night??

Mai Thai is in the same plaza as our beloved Katy's dumplings (I love buying their frozen handmade dumplings, and they now have baos and man tou too!!). We were always interested in checking it out, since there aren't ANY good Thai restaurants in the burbs, so mom, hub, and I decided to go.

Mom wanted to try their Thai Calamari appetizer, which turned out to be this:

She was hoping it's the kind where they deep fry then saute the calamari with salt/pepper, onions, green pepper and garlic. Their homemade special sauce tasted like a spiked up srirracha sauce. Although the calamari was crisp, it lacked flavor. booooring dish never to be ordered again, please.

Next was the papaya salad, which was refreshing and seasoned nicely. The last papaya salad I had was marinated for so long the papaya softened. This one had a perfect balance of crispy papaya and good flavor.

Their seafood tom yum soup turned out to be quite good too. Nice ingredients that tasted fresh, and isn't so small that you feel cheated, and the flavors were good.

Then we ate their Pad Kee Mao (aka Crazy Noodle) which turned out to be too sweet.

Green curry tasted good, but nothing exceptional.
The service here is really good -- very sweet waitress, and they seem to care about our impressions. The ingredients were fresh, and tastes were decent, so I don't have much to complain about. At the same time, unless I'm desperately craving thai food in the burbs, I probably won't return again. Nothing really stood out.

Mai Thai
697 N Cass Ave
Westmont, IL 60559
(630) 455-4299

NYC 2008: Oh! Taisho, Village Yokocho, and mysterious bar...

As full as we were, I couldn’t resist the desire to have a few yakitori – after all, they’re one of my favorite treats to eat with drinks! We walked by two popular looking places with cute signs, and decided to give it a try:

turned out to be a disappointment – the meats were teeny, overcooked, and very plain. Server was a non-japanese guy who asked us, “you’re going to order more, right?”, apparently not satisfied with our initial order. Aside from the disappointing skewers (I think we tried tongue, gizzard, chicken, chicken bone, squid, etc…all of which sucked)… portions were small, ingredients not fresh, and overcooked.

we also tried their raw octopus in a wasabi sauce… not fresh nor tasty.

Very disappointing place – didn’t even like the place itself either. Seems like a non-food focused, very cheap college drunk kids-intended place.

We decided to walk around some more when we came upon Village Yokocho.

Still determined to find good yakitori, we ordered two skewers... better, but not by much.

We finally gave up and decided to do nightcaps at an underground izakaya with a very interesting vibe. The bar felt like it was owned and ran by a couple young folks with a bit of a nonchalant & tired attitude (the bartenders, anyway). I saw them making food orders by putting them into the microwave and was certain I did not want to order food. Huge variety of sake and shochu though.. (**Hubby just found the name of this bar: Sake Bar Decibel**)

Perhaps it's because of how popular izakayas became (in NYC and Cali, anyway), that so many imitations/average places popped up, or perhaps they've felt forced to sacrifice taste/ingredients to survive... but these places were beyond average. This just reaffirms the fact that I must conduct research before visiting restaurants, especially while on vacation.

Oh Taisho!
Neighborhood: Manhattan/East Village
5 Saint Marks Pl
(212) 673-1300

Village Yokocho
8 Stuyvesant St
(between 11th St & 12th St)
(212) 598-3041

Sake Bar Decibel
240 E. 9th Street
(between 2nd Ave & Stuyvesant St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 979-2733

NYC 2008: Ippudo NY

My hub and I were on a mission to walk around as much as possible (so we can digest, then eat as much as possible). On our way to the area where many Japanese restaurants/bars reside, we needed a bathroom break. We decided to step into Ippudo, do our thing, and walk on out. While hanging out at the bar, we noticed ramen noodles as décor underneath their glass-framed bar.

and variety of ramen bowls on the wall...

I took a look at the menu and realized this is a ramen specialty restaurant, serving our favorite Japanese ramen – Tonkotsu (pork-based broth)! Hubby’s hometown is Fukuoka, which is where this broth originated. Hub insisted we must put our name on the list and get seated as soon as possible.

After our Japanese Shoju on the rox, we were seated at a round table with two other couples (is this a common trend in nyc?) Hub insisted we each get an order of their 2 ramens offered – Shiromaru Moto-Aji (white pork-based broth) and Akamaru Shin-Aji (red, spicier version w/ secret sauce seasoned with garlic oil). Both had creamy & intense broth, fresh ingredients, tender slices of Berkshire pork, and noodles with good consistency (very slightly chewy, mostly tender).

After a quick search online, I found that Hakata Ippudo is a popular chain restaurant in Japan, self-described as “ramen-noodle brasserie*”, opened by Shigemi Kawahara, who is supposedly known as “ramen king”. I also learned thru, “The secret to the milky broth’s subtle flavor lies in boiling pork bones for 18 hours and reducing the stock three times, while reserving a bit of the broth from each step, and then reincorporating the reserved broths with the ultra-concentrated result of the third reduction.”

(*wikinote: In France, a brasserie is a café doubling as a restaurant with a relaxed setting, which serves single dishes and other meals. It can be expected to have professional service and printed menus (unlike a bistro which may have neither), but more informal eating hours than a full-fledged restaurant. Typically, a brasserie is open every day of the week and the same menu is served all day.)

I heart tonkotsu ramen!

Ippudo NY
65 Fourth Avenue

NYC 2008: Craft

I must admit the idea of a famous celebrity restaurant wasn’t the most appealing to me, I’m more into fabulous hole-in-the-wall joints, places that are surprisingly impressive. But as with many curious fans of Top Chef (I’m sure), I thought it would be fun to check out Craft by Tom Colicchio, especially after seeing ‘ravings’ by Andrew Zimmern on his blog.

Still, we weren’t hungry (especially after munching on nachos at a Mexican restaurant while drinking sugary margaritas). But we figured the experience will be interesting, and at least we won’t overly spend.

The restaurant is intimate, spacious, with elegantly simple décor – haven’t been in a restaurant that made me feel so perfectly comfortable in a while. The service was top notch – friendly, unpretentious, very knowledgeable, great recommendations, timely, and not overwhelming. Impressively made us feel relaxed instead of awkward (being in a nice restaurant).

Two slices of bread each were presented to us – I sincerely appreciate bread services by single portions and strongly feel that restaurants should be banned from breadbaskets (what a waste of food!) I’m not a huge fan of bread served at room temp…I prefer mine to feel like it came fresh from the oven. Altho the bread tasted fresh and moist, I wasn’t very into it.

As lovers of raw oysters, I asked her to pick out oysters for us (2 each). I told her we like the fishy & strong ocean taste. At $3 a piece, our oysters were extremely delicious and fresh. They were so creamy and refreshing we wanted to order a dozen (or so) more.

As a girl that was born and raised (til 7 yrs old) in Tapei, Taiwan – I grew up eating intestines, glands, tongues, and brains… so upon hearing how unbelievable Sweetbreads are, I did not hesitate giving it a try. For those unfamiliar, there are two kinds of sweetbreads: one made by young animal (usually lamb or calf)’s pancreas (stomach/belly) or neck (throat/gullet/thymus gland). Indeed this was creamy and delicious in the center and perfectly crispy on top, reminded me of foie gras. $16 appetizer portion was more than enough to share.

For main courses, we decided to go with the $30 Dayboat Diver Scallops and Fish Special (I believe it was trout). The scallops were PERFECTLY flavored and made – plump, silky, meaty. We absolutely loved the crispy exterior and each slice within the scallops. Since we weren't hungry, the proportion was perfect, but if this was my main course, I might feel slightly cheated.

The fish was fresh and flaky, flavored nicely too.

As for side dish, we went with the assorted roasted mushrooms – at $24 it was overly expensive, but delicious nonetheless.

An unmemorable dessert cookie was given to us:
Then a lemon spritzer was the intermezzo to clear our palate before dessert. We barely ever order dessert, but I read ravings about the amazing Doughnuts – so we had to give it a try ($12).

Indeed… the best doughnuts we’ve ever had. Crispy, lightly sugared, chewy center, with multiple layers… non –greasy, perfect by itself but indulgence increased with dipping of chocolate and/or raspberry sauce.

The experience ended with a coffee cake muffin, nicely packaged for us to take home “as a late night snack or breakfast in the morning”.

Hub and I brought it all the way back to Chicago to enjoy Monday morning – wow. What a moist and deliciously fluffy muffin… confirmed my intention to visit Craft again – perhaps in LA.

43 E. 19th St.

Cross Street
: Park Avenue South and Broadway


NYC 2008: Jing Fong and Joe's Shanghai

Jing Fong is a HUGE restaurant that requires you to be seated with other people if you’re in smaller groups, but we didn’t mind since we’re there for the food. Waitstaff came right away with tea, and gave us water/sauces quickly when we asked for them. The pushcarts came around fast too, with fresh and delicious dimsum. I especially loved the sharkfin dumplings, shrimp/vegetable dumplings, and my ultimate favorite – shrimp chang fen. I LOVE DIM SUM! I was so hungry that I didn’t take photos of everything, here’s just a sample.

There’s also a table where you can get pan-fried items like radish cakes, as well as dishes of vegetables, clam in black bean sauce, etc. We didn’t do that because we intended on saving room for Joe’s Shanghai soupy dumplings (which was more than worthwhile)...

There was still a line of 15 or so people at Joe's Shanghai around 2pm, but we didn’t mind grabbing a number and waiting because we were actually full from dimsum at Jing Fong. We grabbed some cheap coffee from a ghetto breakfast joint down the street and sipped while waiting for our number to be called.

Again, this restaurant followed the shared-table procedure. We were seated within 20 minutes at a round table with 8 other guests from 3 separate groups. Waiter immediately came and asked if I wanted “tang bao”, and I said “yes”. Later I found out it took longer to cook, so they advise you to let them know the second you sit down instead of after you’ve thought about what to order.

Hub was so full that he warned me against overly ordering, and I really didn’t intend on doing that either. BUT they had TWO choice of soupy dumplings (crabmeat vs. pork), so I HAD to get 1 of each! Then I thought about the clams I saw at Jing Fong but didn’t order, and thought.. what’s one more platter? They had two different kinds of clams, and a choice of stir fry with black bean sauce or green onions/garlic. Since we’ve always tried the black bean sauce, I went with the latter this time.

Our first order of ‘xiao long tang bao’ came shortly after we placed the full order --- MMM. The skin was perfectly silky and thin, our tongues were immediately burned by the hot and surprisingly a LOT of flavorful soup… the minced pork flavor was delicious. This has to be one of my favorite little packages.. whoever invented this is friggin brilliant.

Second order of ‘xiao long tang bao’ was even better… the crab yolk added so much intensified flavor, our mouths felt sticky. I wish Chicago had a place closer to the perfection of these treasures.

Clams were fresh, and nicely flavored. Nothing I’d cry over with excitement, but it was good… and of course being the pigs that we are, we finished everything we ordered. I don’t think we’ve ever NOT finished something (except a bad sushi experience at Midori years ago).

We left more than satisfied, in fact, TOO satisfied because I actually felt my stomach trying to push out the food I stuffed into my mouth. I tried my hardest to digest by walking til blisters formed on my foot. Painful it may seem, it was worth it… and I’d be more than happy to visit again.

Jing Fong Restaurant
18 Elizabeth St (Cross Street: Canal Street)
(212) 964-5256

Joe's Shanghai
9 Pell St Ste 1
(Cross Street: Bowery)
(212) 233-8888

NYC 2008: Otto Restaurant Enoteca Pizzeria

This intimate & dim Italian pizzeria, modeled after an Italian train station is owned by Mario Batali, Joseph Bastianich, and Mark Ladner (also chef).

Despite the crazy crowd of people waiting for a table, this
turned out to be quite a treat.
The web site said reservations are taken for up to 10 people, but when I called – she said only a 6pm or 10pm reservation was open… and suggested to come and just wait.

While waiting, we enjoyed some delicious martinis, so I’m not complaining – they give you a little ‘pass’ that indicates the ‘train stop’. Once you see your stop on their little board, it’s your turn to eat!

Between the four of us, we shared:

Olives ($4/$9)
(Gaeta, Sicilian, Alfonso) - typical olives

Artichokes "alla Romana" - with cheese and onions

– I love Italian style thin crust pizza with these freshly wonderful ingredients. I’ve never met anyone that hated prosciutto – it’s one of my favorite meats. On pizza with arugula? Delish!

was interestingly unique. I prefer tomato-based pizzas but I have a softspot for clams…mmm. The combination of that salty sea flavor from the clams, tender meat, and white wine made this a delicious treat.

We also tried a pasta and two desserts but by this time I had 2 martinis and a limoncello on the rocks, so I barely recall. oops. This is one thing I strive to refrain from doing, but whether it was because I was with good company, on vacation, or it being a Friday night -- I failed. But here are photos. (you can tell I was tipsy from the blurriness of these photos...)

As much as I enjoyed the experience, and love Italian thin crust pizzas, my memory of Lombardi's stood out more. Although, I would be interested in trying another Batali restaurant, especially pasta and pigs -- apparently what he's famous for.

Otto Restaurant Enoteca Pizzeria
1 5th Ave
(between 8th St & Washington Mews)
(212) 995-9559


NYC 2008: Bar Stuzzichini

The hub and I arrived NYC around 1pm, groggy from the early flight. By the time we settled into our hotel, it was around 3pm when we decided to take a stroll. We passed by the incredibly long line of Shake Shack, and came upon Bar Stuzzichini. I mentioned it sounded familiar, whether it was raved about on web sites or introduced by a friend. Hubby immediately said, "lets go in and give it a taste!" (even though we're full from lunch at the airport, and have a dinner reservation at Otto in a couple hours).

We decided to go with their specialty -- Stuzzichini. According to, "Stuzzichini are the Southern Italian equivalent of antipasti (the word comes from stuzzichare, meaning “to pick”), a series of small dishes served, usually, at the bar. The chef at Bar Stuzzichini is Paul Di Bari (formerly of the Austrian restaurant Wallsé), and he imbues many of the dishes on his sparely edited menu with a light, gourmet touch."

We decided on their 'Choice of 5 stuzzichini for $25' (I also listed the individual prices if they're ordered individually)

Verdure - Melanzane - Marinated Eggplant ($5) - recommended by server - nothing special, slightly overly drained in olive oil.

Fritti - Meatballs ($6) - as recommended by server - It was interesting to try a meatball that's so crisply fried on the outside, and the flavor of the meat was decent with a slight lambish /herby flavor, but I think I prefer my meatballs soft and moist.

Salumi - Prociutto di parma ~ 18 months ($10) - I love prociutto, and these were great -- but I couldn't distinguish the difference between these and whole foods-store bought.

Pesce - Vongole - Steamed Clams ($8) - these were good, tossed in a light white wine sauce -- but I've had better. Not impressed.

Pesce - Polpo - Grilled Octopus ($9) - recommended by server - it was interesting to have octopus that doesn't have a chewy texture! This was very tender and soft, and definitely takes getting used to. I think I missed the chewiness.
Overall, it was alright -- nothing memorable, nothing exceptional. I've heard that Southern Italy is a poorer area (traditionally), and because of landscape, they're abundant in olive trees but not a place to raise cows (for milk, thus butter & cream). Therefore, Southern Italian cuisine is more about using olive oil and light seasoning to enhance the freshness of the ingredients instead of overpowering them.

I do love the usage of light seasoning to enhance ingredients, because I'm not a fan of heavy cream/butter either...but I felt that a majority of these small plates were drained in olive oil, so I couldn't necessarily taste how fresh the ingredients were. Maybe it just takes some getting used to. Still, I'll probably try Southern Italian at another restaurant instead.

Bar Stuzzichini

928 Broadway

(212) 780-5100

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Japanese Cookies

My sister's friend from Japan (who also attended the wedding) gave us a pretty little gift...I LOVE Japanese packaging, delicate concept and presentation:

Chocolate covered candied oranges and cookies were light, thin, delicate, and delicious. A bit too much chocolate for me, but only because I'm not a big fan. The combination of slightly tangy orange and chocolate had a nice chewy/crispy texture and flavor.

Maui 2008: Ba-Le Sandwich Shop

Ba-Le Sandwich Shop

Fast food Vietnamese in little strip malls. The location we went to was a part of a food court -- you'd order at the counter and pick it up within 5 minutes.

I meant to get the 'Spring rolls' wrapped in rice paper, not the deep fried ones... but I guess they refer to those as "Summer rolls".. oops.

The good news is, these turned out to be quite delicious! They were surprisingly crispy and flavorful rolls, plated with lettuce, cucumbers, mint, noodles, for you to grab together and dip into nuoc mam – very tasty, fresh, delicious

Pho Tai – good broth, noodles with great consistency, tender beef, and fresh ingredients. SO MUCH better than the other restaurant we visited in Maui (see previous blog)

Since it's called "Ba-le sandwich shop", I decided to also choose a sandwich from their HUGE selection. Since we don't have this in Chicago, I ordered 'Steamed pork and pate sandwich' – bad mistake. The bread was overly chewy, and didn't seem fresh. Steamed pork turned out to be a fishcake –like product that tasted artificial. Dipping it into nuoc mam made it taste better, but that sauce didn’t come with the sandwich (I used the sauce that came with spring rolls)

Here's Bob holding the sandwich with his skeptical look. You can see the counter behind him with photos that went with their popular dishes.

Ba-le Sandwich Shop
270 Dairy Road in the Maui Marketplace
Kahului, HI 96732
(808) 877-2400