CHINA MAMA is Back, Baby!

CHINA MAMA has returned from the dead. If you’re wondering where it went, well, that’s a story as inscrutable as a Mandarin soothsayer.

Those of you who remember our burgeoning food scene of a decade ago may recall China Mama as the first progenitor of authentic Shanghainese dumplings — xiao long bao — those soup-filled pillows of ethereal porcine bliss.

In much the same way as Lotus of Siam was the first authentic Thai restaurant in Vegas, CM brought a taste of real China to our doorstep — things like sliced-fish with pickled mustard and dry-fried pepper chicken — cooking well beyond cornstarched glop of its Chinese-American predecessors.

And then there were those pastries and dumplings. Steamed or fried, or filled with pork or cucumber and shrimp, they were all the rage among intrepid foodies for a good five years.

Then something happened.

Chefs moved on (the siren song of the Strip claimed the first one), ownership changed (more than once), and the food started a slow, steady decline.

Of course, if you asked management if/why things were different, they would look at you with a straight face and say, “Everything same,” but you knew it wasn’t.

Things got so bad that we wrote the place off altogether about four years ago and vowed never to return.

Then, something happened.

A woman named Ivy Ma took the place over recently, closed it down, spruced it up, and decided to restore China Mama to its former glory. And restore it she has.

Taking a page from place like Din Tai Fung in SoCal, Ma  opened up the kitchen and placed it behind a giant glass wall that proudly advertises the fresh-made pastries that made this place famous in the first place.

Those dumplings may bring you the first time, but a menu full of fabulousness will have you returning time and again.

Like the old days, you should head straight to the “Pastry” section of the menu. There you’ll find the Steamed Juicy Pork Buns ($13, above) and Mama’s Special Pan Fried Pork Buns ($12) — as essential to a meal here as chopsticks and hot tea. From there you won’t want to miss either the green onion pancake ($8) or the “Beef Roll” ($13):

The potstickers ($10) are killer too, but be careful lest you reach gluten-overload and lose your ability to dive into a resuscitated menu that’s better than ever.

Ma has done wise by keeping many of CM’s greatest hits. Crispy duck ($22), Jumbo Shrimp in Special Sauce ($24), and Dry Pepper Chicken $16) hold forth with those pastries and hold their own. There are two sides to the menu, and the one with pictures on it is where gringos will want to go. It lists all of CM’s signature dishes, and even has pictures to entice the bold and assuage the timid.

Not pictured but still magnificent are items ranging from the simple (Cucumber Salad with Mashed Garlic $6) to the sublime (Awesome Meatball in Clay Pot $19). In between you have plenty of standard issue stuff that still manages to sing (Szechuan TanTan Noodle, $10, and Twice-Cooked Pork with Spicy Sauce, $13). Also highly recommended is the Sliced Fish in Hot Chili Sauce ($24) — a dish that will never be accused of false advertising — it being for serious chiliheads only.

All of these dishes are meant to be shared, and in keeping with Chinese tradition (at least as it was explained to me), the number of items ordered should roughly equate to the number of diners at table (2 people, 2 plates; 4 people, 4 things, etc.) although The Food Gal® and I usually honor this custom in the breach — it being almost impossible for two hungry gwailo to resist some form of dumpling, and at least two other plates.

Irresistibly, you will be drawn to  the don tot (Portuguese egg tarts, $5, above) for dessert. Resistance is futile so order them as soon as you sit down so you won’t have to wait while they’re freshly made. Order two orders or more. However many you get, it won’t be enough.

All of these things taste as good as China Mama used to taste, maybe even better (those tarts are definitely better)….and all of it making for some mighty tasty leftovers.

As for service, it’s been spot-on, top-notch, and on-it-like-a-bonnet for all three of our return visits. (And they had no idea I write about restaurants.) Whatever Ms. Ma has inculcated into her servers is obviously working, as they are bi-lingual, informed about the menu, and very attentive.

As for liquids, they bring you hot tea, but you have to ask for water.

Just like in China.

CHINA MAMA

3420 South Jones Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89146

http://www.chinamamavegas.com/

Dim Sum Dilemma

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What should you do about mold on your food?

To complain or not complain? That is the question.

And does it matter whether you’re in a Chinese restaurant (where they may or may not speak English that well) or a less “foreign” one?

Allow me to explain.

Here’s the scenario:

You’re driving to Los Angeles.

Part of your tradition is always to stop in the San Gabriel Valley (Monterey Park, Alhambra, etc.) for some dim sum fun.

You’ve been doing this since 1991 — decades before Instagrammers and Yelpers discovered the place, and long before Jonathon Gold made it cool to go there.

In other words, you know what to expect: huge, open rooms, packed with Asian families of all stripes, and rolling carts (or menus) filled with a mind-blowing assortment of small bites, steamed, fried, and baked goodies straight from the Cantonese playbook.

You also know that kitchen hygiene can be a rather flexible concept in certain Asian restaurants. But no matter, the food is usually spectacular (especially compared with the meager dim sum offerings of Vegas), so you look past these shortcomings.

Every time you come to the SGV, you try to hit a new joint. On your last trip you made it to Sea Harbour and it was spectacular.

This time, you decide to try a place that’s received some buzz called Lunasia Dim Sum House.

You get up early so you can get there when it opens, because these places get nuts around lunch time, especially on weekends.

You’re super excited (and starving) when you drive up, especially when you score a parking spot right in front of it.

Right away, you see it checks all the boxes:

Giant crowded room full of Asians – check

Fish tanks brimming with crabs and other creatures of the sea – check

Smells like soy, steam, shrimp, and Shanghai – check

People scurrying about with trays full of delicious looking dumplings – check

Everyone smiling as they stuff their maw with har gow, shu mai, don tot, and char siu bao – check

Chopsticks flying across tables in a pitched battle for the last bite — check

All of this gets you very excited. But then, just to pee in your cornflakes, The Food Gal® — a clean freak but also someone with (slightly) bendable standards when it comes to certain, hyper-delicious Chinese food — notices the sign on the front door:

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“Are you sure you want to go here?” she asks. But you are undaunted — you wade right in, confident it was simply the kind of misdemeanor that would fade from consciousness as soon as your table was swamped by a tsunami of dim sum umami.

And it did, and for a while, it was.

For a while, you were transported by golf ball-sized sui-mai:

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Concupiscent spicy clams:

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Sticky/terrific/thick/sausage/turnip cake:

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…and delectable don tot:

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It wasn’t the best dim sum we’d had by a long shot. But it hit the spot, even if it fell short of Elite, Ocean Star or Sea Harbour excellence.

As you know, dim sum can be a willy-nilly eating experience. Everything shows up in random order, and you might find yourself slurping a beautiful almond milk-puff pastry sweet soup — or those warm-from-the-oven Macao-style custard cups — before you’re done with the savories. No matter, when it’s all good, it’s all good.

Right up until it isn’t.

Because of that delicious chaos, sometimes you circle back to a savory after a sweet. Which is what we did with these peppery stuffed peppers:

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They were hot — that innocuous-looking black pepper sauce was a scorcher — but they were also real good, so you want to tackle one more before pushing away from the table.

Big mistake.

One bite and you know something is wrong. Where before there was pillowy minced shrimp on bright green, herbaceous pepper, now there is an moldy, old, damp and musty taste in your mouth. The textures are still right, but the aftertaste is of dank cardboard — as if you’d just licked a fuzzy petri dish.

It turns out you had.

Tearing the top off of the pepper, there was the culprit: staring at you like a fungal funhouse of funky mold — the kind you grow in labs, the kind vegetables grow by themselves when they’re left too long to their own, organic devices:

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Is this a cardinal sin for a restaurant? Not really. But it shows a certain sloppiness. The kind that gets a “C” grade from the health inspector.

Does it give your wife a gigantic “I told you so”?

Of course it does. And she ain’t lettin’ you forget it for a long time to come.

Was it worth pointing it out to the management? Ah, there’s the rub and the dilemma.

Would it have resulted in them taking $7.88 off the bill? Maybe, but only after discussions, delays and sideways glances, and having to convince them you weren’t trying to get a free meal out of the ordeal.

There might also be debate over what it was. No restaurant is going to willingly admit it serves moldy food, so you’d have to be ready for an argument…an argument that could be won if they’d take a bite out of that musty-dusty pepper….which, most assuredly they would not.

Then you have to consider: will your complaint cause them to clean up their act?

Probably not. If the “C” grade didn’t do it, showing them some fungi fuzz tap dancing on their produce won’t.

So you pay the bill in silence….all $76.28 of it.

But you won’t be back, even though you were probably never going to go back anyway. And now your California food fantasies are a little less fanciful. There is no dim sum Santa Claus in San Gabriel, and you’ve learned no matter how rave-worthy some of it is, some of them are cutting the same corners as everyone else.

And it’ll be a cold day in hell before your wife lets you walk into another low-rated restaurant.

(Sigh)

Letter of the Week – How to Eat Like a Pro

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Troy asks:

I have often wondered how you score so many beautiful and interesting dishes…

What do you say when you visit a restaurant to get the spectrum of great dishes? Also, what’s your approach with an unfamiliar cuisine (if you have one)?

I assume [many places] know who you are, so they will oblige a sampling of their best dishes? I’d like to know what to say, not being famous, and who I need to say it to (waiter, maitre’d  etc) so I can get a spread like that. Or do you just order a bunch of stuff off the menu, creating your own spread?

Do you just ask what’s good then let the restaurant serve their best? Or do you pick random things on the menu? I ask because I don’t know what I don’t know. I’ve eaten all over the world, feel food adventurous, maybe even could be a division A foodie, but am always learning/seeing things in your posts/blogs that look delicious yet unfamiliar. I’m sure a great deal is just experimenting and eating your way to familiarity, but even you must come across dishes you’ve never heard of… I guess that’s a part of your talent as a critic, is having a nose for finding hidden gems.

Dear Troy,

There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll break down your questions into different areas and try to give you some insider tips and a glimpse inside our mind (you wouldn’t want more than a glimpse) to let you see how we approach things in various scenarios.

Scenario #1 – The Familiar Restaurant

The familiar restaurant is one we’ve eaten in many times. It’s one where they know me and I know them. Either I’ve even seen the place through multiple incarnations (e.g. Ferraro’s, Spago), or multiple chefs (Michael Mina, Le Cirque, Twist, Guy Savoy, et al), or maybe I just love it and have eaten there more times than I can count (CUTMarche Bacchus…). In these places, the management and chefs know I’m not interested in trying 10 different things, nor do I want a tasting menu (I almost never want a tasting menu these days, even when it’s the only thing they serve). Most of the time they know I’m not coming in for a full meal. It’s almost understood that I’m there to try new things on the menu, or seasonal offerings (pretty much the same thing), or to sample just enough to tell me the place is still on its game.

A typical exchange will go something like this:

GM: “What are you in the mood for, Mr. Curtas? Would you like me to have the chef send out a few things or would you rather look at the menu?”

Me: “Let me take a peek at the menu, and then we’ll see what sounds good.”

Two minutes later, the chef appears before I’ve had a chance to read anything or even unfold my napkin.

Chef: “What are you in the mood for, Mister C. ? Would you like me to send out a few things or would you rather look at the menu?”

Me: “Thanks. Give me a minute with this great looking new menu ….but what I was really thinking about was maybe an appetizer — boy, those pastas sure look good — then maybe that wild Tasmanian borage and Antarctic duck tongue okonomiyaki risotto with Manchurian pickled leeks and purslane gastrique (TASTY!)….then perhaps splitting a main course with The Food Gal®….I don’t know….”

Chef: “Okay. Sounds good. I’ll check back with you in a few minutes.”

Four minutes later, nine appetizers appear on the table.

Before we’ve even lifted a fork, the manager then reappears.

GM: “Are you ready for those pastas now, Mr. Curtas?”

And so it goes…

What I’m trying to say is I’m always trying to create my own (large or small) spread, but what I want often gets supplemented by what the chef wants me to taste. It is beyond flattering that restaurants want me to try their best stuff, but it is a constant battle (waged with smiles and gratitude) to keep the amount of food on the table manageable. The places that know me best (and there’s over a hundred of them in Vegas by now), will honor my wishes to keep (my meal) to a few things only if I firmly insist from the moment I approach the hostess stand. Even then, they’ll sneak in few “specials” in on me….for which I am always grateful because the specials are usually the best thing on any menu.

Pro Tip: Always eat seasonally. Look for the specials and newest things on the menu — they’re the ones the chefs are most interested in you trying, and the ones they’re taking the most care in cooking.

Pro Tip: After you’ve looked at the menu, ask a question or two about a dish. Try to make this question intelligent and not obnoxious. Asking your free range chicken’s name and whether he was fed non-GMO organic feed makes you look like a picayune little putz. Asking your waiter whether the chicken or the fish is more popular makes you sound like someone who’s looking for the best the kitchen has to offer. Asking the waiter what he/she prefers turns them into an ally. Once you get a meaningful (albeit brief) conversation going with your waiter, you’re halfway to maximizing your meal.

Scenario #2: The Brand New Restaurant

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Let’s take NoMad for instance. I am not that acquainted with NoMad and have made a conscious effort not to do too much research into the restaurant’s vibe or reputation before I go there. (I did the same thing when Carbone and Mr. Chow opened.) I don’t want to have a lot of preconceived notions before I try the food. The main restaurant doesn’t open for another ten days, but I have been to the NoMad Bar twice just to get a feel for what they’re doing.

The Bar’s menu lists six large dishes and ten small ones. It’s full of boring standards like blistered peppers, tacos, salmon and ceviche, so I see it as being either 1) an incredibly boring restaurant; or 2) trying to tweak these old hat items into sublimity.  So what do I order?  The hot dog (named after the chef – always a smart move), a mozz salad, the dry-aged burger, tacos, ceviche, hummus (which I generally hate), and fried chicken. Why do I order such boring things? To see if the superstar chef Daniel Humm can (figuratively) give me a hummer with such standard list of dishes. Does he succeed? Yes with half of them, especially the burger and hot dog. (I still hate all hummus….even if someone named Humm is dishing it up.)

Pro Tip: When you see a boring menu crafted by a top-ranked chef, stick with the standards, and ALWAYS skip the salmon and heave the hummus. Not even Joël Robuchon (god rest his soul), could make hummus interesting.

Scenario #3: I Know You/You Don’t Know Me

There are many in Las Vegas restaurants where I’ve dined multiple times, sometimes anonymously, sometimes not (e.g. Strip House, Cleo, SW Steakhouse, Kabuto, Border Grill, Rao’s, Carson Kitchen and a host of others… ). When I’m there, I’m looking for either a tried and true favorite (the goose fat potatoes at Strip House; lemon chicken at Rao’s; Kerry Simon’s cheeseburger at CK), or to see if things have gone up or down since my last visit. Here I look for changes in the menu and go with them (if they exist). If they don’t, I stick with the basics and see how the execution is going. Restaurants like these run on pretty firm templates (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), so you rarely see a lot of creativity in the menus.

Pro Tip: Most restaurants tell you right up front what they’re good at. If you see a letterbox anywhere on the menu that says: “Try our world famous fried chicken,” don’t get the lasagna fer chrissakes. If mariachi music is in the air, it’s a fair bet the tacos are better than the linguine con vongole. In more sophisticated joints, the things at the top of any menu list (appetizers, mains, desserts) are usually the biggest sellers, so judge accordingly.  (This isn’t always true, but it’s a good rule of thumb.)

Pro Tip: In restaurants that have doing the same thing for a long time (steakhouses, Italian, French bistros, diners, etc.) always ask if there’s something on or off the menu that you “just shouldn’t miss.” It’s really the easiest question of all and can be asked anywhere from a Taco Bell to a Joël Robuchon.

Scenario #4: Asian Restaurants

And by “Asian Restaurants” I mean any eatery where you’re completely, or almost completely, flummoxed by the food. Here, things get more challenging.

The better the Asian restaurant is (and by “better” I mean more authentic), the more likely they are to look at you as some round-eyed interloper who’s going to be more trouble than you’re worth. That’s why you’re likely to get the gringo treatment and asked if you’d like the sweet and sour pork. As challenging as it may be, try to let the staff know you’re there for their specialties, not to eat like a white person. Korean joints (and increasingly more Chinese/Vietnamese/Japanese ones), make things easy by having picture menus. This makes things painless….right up until you point to a big steaming bowl of yukegaejang only to be told “you no like.”

I really don’t think they’re afraid of you not liking it as much as they are of you not paying for it. (Understandable!) Nevertheless….persevere! RESIST MIGHTILY! Rub your stomach! Lick your chops! Tell them you love it even if you don’t know what the fuck it is. Then, when it shows up, eat the goddam thing with a smile on your face. (Okay, if you hate it, eat a few slurps and then ask for it to be packaged to-go because you’re in a rush. The Food Gal and I have used this dodge dozens of times. (IT WORKS!)  They smile, you smile, everyone smiles! You pay the bill with a grin and then toss the offending stew in the nearest trash can. Then you make plans to return in a week or so to try something else that you may or may not like.

Believe me, this is the only way to learn about exotic cuisines. You have to be strong; you have to be adventuresome; you have to be willing to hate something and pay for it anyway.

Pro Tip:  Become a regular. Go to the same place multiple times in relatively brief period of time — be it a sushi bar or a pho parlor. On your first visit, they may look at you sideways when you go off the reservation and start asking for the skewered chicken hearts, but the second time they see you, they’ll be happy as a clam in jogaetang you’re back again. By visit #3 you will start gaining their trust. That’s when the friendly owner might come by and suggest something you’ve never heard of and couldn’t pronounce if your life depended on it. If you like it, great! Add it to your repertoire. And if you hate it, refer to the previous paragraph.

Scenario #5: Practice

Okay, Troy. Now that you’ve seen the inner workings of a critic’s mind, ordering-wise. let’s get practical. Look at the following menu and tell me what you see:

  1. The name of the place is Fu Man Dumpling House. Gee, I wonder what kind of food they cook best? (If you guessed “dumplings” you get a tangerine!)
  2. The next thing you notice is they’re selling their “handmade garlic sauce.” They’re obviously pretty darn proud of their garlic sauce so you can suspect it might be pretty darn good (it is).
  3. What’s the first thing on the menu? Boiled dumplings! I’m guessin’ they want you to order the dumplings.
  4. What’s the next thing on the menu after the dumplings? Two (2!) items that have the name of the restaurant attached to them! (Final Pro Tip: When the NAME of the restaurant is attached to a menu item, you should order it.)
  5. Soups – here’s where ordering gets tricky and my rules get honored in the breach. The hot and sour soup (listed first) is obviously the best in the house (IT IS!), but the eponymous Fu Man Shredded Pork Noodle Soup comes up last. Solution: order both! And forget everything in between. (I’m talking out my ass here as I haven’t had all the soups. But that’s what I would do.)
  6. The other side of the menu (not pictured) has all kinds of fried rice and chow mein stuff on it. It even has a “Fu Man” rice dish, but I WOULD NOT GET THEM! No sirree. Why? BECAUSE IT’S A FRIGGIN’ DUMPLING HOUSE! that’s why. (Why do I have to keep telling you these things, Troy?) Who in the hell cares about the Ma Po Tofu in a dumpling house? I care more about Ben Affleck’s drinking problem than I do about a mixed vegetable stir-fry in a dumpling house.

Got it? Now go get it, Troy. Those dumplings I mean.

You’re welcome.

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