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/

Alimentary, My Dear Asian

Do you remember that scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego takes one bite of Remy’s ratatouille and is transported back to the tastes of his childhood?

That’s what it felt like to me after my first bite of the steamed dumplings at Fu Man Dumpling House — although in this case, the memories weren’t of my Taiwanese childhood (HEY! IT COULD’VE HAPPENED!),  but of a trip I took to Hong Kong a dozen years ago just to eat dumplings.

You heard me right: I once flew 15 hours across the Pacific Ocean just to gorge on Chinese dumplings in the place that made them famous.

One bite of these beauties and I was back there: in a little cafe off of Hollywood Road that specialized in the tasty little pillows filled with all sorts of meat and vegetable combinations. The Food Gal® and I timed our visit to be there when it opened (not hard to do when you’re waking up at 3 am every morning), and as I recall they came 12 to a platter and we polished off two of them (platters not dumplings). (She also loves to remind me about watching some of the raw dumplings falling on the floor before they could be dropped into their bubbling bath and the cook casually picking them up and tossing them in. Oh, those Chinese.)

The soft packets of pleasure awaiting you at Fu Man are larger than what you find in China (stuffed that way for us big-eatin’ ‘Muricans I’d guess), but they are no less tasty. They are made to order and filled with gently poached ground pork and green onions that beg for bite after bite. The dumpling wrappers are necessarily thick (to stand up to the filling and the boiling) but somehow neither starchy nor filling. Polishing off ten of them is a lot easier than you think. Especially when dipped in the hauntingly sweet, and pungent garlic sauce they make here…the spikiness of raw garlic being muted by whatever they do in cooking it, but still sweetly floating through your senses for hours afterwards:
Honest to Christ, I could take a bath in the stuff; it’s that good.

Don’t miss the hot and sour soup, either — it being exactly what this old standby soup is supposed to be: plenty sour, and intensely hot from a shower of white pepper. It’s the best version I’ve had in Las Vegas.

About the only thing not to like about Fu Man is the location: in a forlorn little shopping center on Smoke Ranch Road. I don’t know why they located something so authentically Chinese ten miles from Chinatown, but people in the northwest part of Vegas should be thanking their lucky stars.

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Another unlikely place to find authentic Asian eats is in a teeny tiny, 14-seat storefront tucked away in the Arts District downtown. Open just 6 months, D E Thai Kitchen took over from an in-authentically awful pasta place and has made the space sing with a small-but-mighty menu of blow-your-socks-off Thai dishes.

On both visits, even an old Thailand hand like yours truly was taken aback by the intensity of the cooking in dishes like larb, Khao soi, and even the simple grilled pork. But what really rang our chimes were two dishes you don’t see a lot of in Thai restaurants: the Kua Gling, an incendiary, dry curry:

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….and soft shell crab with garlic pepper sauce:

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That crab is a fairly tame beast (by Thai standards), but the stir-fried minced pork in the Kua Gling will light you up — the heat seeming almost mellow at first, then coming in waves of fire that roll through your palate and crash around your tongue and the inside of your lips. Best to have a mango slushie or Thai iced tea close by to quell the flames….although the heat will linger for many many minutes. Lovers of chicken wings will love these — they’re carefully spiced, fried and sticky, and even the Thai curry puffs (filled with potato) are made with an extra level of attention that this starchy standard usually doesn’t get.

There is a lot of competition among Thai restaurants these days, and lovers of Siamese sweet/hot/savory/pungent flavors have plenty of options (even downtown where there are now four Thai restaurants within a couple of miles of each other). But D E Thai (named after chef/owner Jompon Chotikamars’ two children) is a worthy newcomer that can stand pepper to pepper with the best of them.

Our plethora of pan-Pacific table pleasures is one of the greatest things about living in Las Vegas. The Food Gal® and I often discuss leaving Las Vegas to conquer another city in America, but we both agree that walking away from all of the great Chinese/Thai/Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese food we have here would be difficult.

It’s obvious, after all, that our Asian allies in alimentation ever afford us awesome,amazing eats — and that would be tough to walk away from, alimentary-wise.

 A dumpling meal for two with a small soup at Fu Man will run you $12….for two. Great food doesn’t get any cheaper. A big lunch or dinner (for two) with 3-4 dishes at D E should be around $30-$40. Like I said: great food doesn’t come any less expensive.

FU MAN DUMPLING HOUSE

6679 Smoke Ranch Road

Las Vegas, NV 89108

702.646.2969

https://twitter.com/fumandumplinglv?lang=en

D E THAI KITCHEN

1108 South 3rd Street

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.979.9121

https://www.dethaikitchen.com/

Where I’ll Dine in 2018 – Part Two

ELV note: Rather than attempt a comprehensive look at Las Vegas restaurants (for that, you’ll have to buy my  book) we at ELV thought it better to let you know where you’re likely to find us dining in the coming months. As we said in our last post, we are done exploring every nook and cranny of the local food scene. We’re not going to ignore the shiny and the new, but more likely you’ll find us patronizing the well-worn and comfortable.  And nothing fits our comfort zone more these days than Chinatown.

The Food Gal® once asked me what I would miss most about Las Vegas were we to move to another town. The things I would miss most about Vegas, would be, in order:

  • The weather
  • My house
  • My swimming pool in summer
  • My barbecue/smoker
  • Chinatown
  • Having half a dozen great French restaurants within 15 minutes of my front door
  • Ditto: a dozen great steakhouses
  • Mexicans
  • Asians

Why the last two? Because they provide more flavor to our humble burg than all the gueros and gaijin combined.

Las Vegas’s Mexicans restaurants don’t compare with SoCal, Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque, but all it takes is a quick trip to any Mexicali eatery in Atlanta or St. Louis to see how good we’ve got it.

And when it comes to Asian food, there are very few cities in America that compare with the offerings up and down Spring Mountain Road.

As with Mexican food, I can hear the aficionados braying: “Nothing you have compares with the San Gabriel Valley, or Garden Grove, or Richmond (outside of Vancouver) Canada!”

True dat, but for a town our size, the quality and variety of our Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean restaurants is pretty darn impressive, and beats anything Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver or Philadelphia can throw at you.

Best of all, our Chinatown (which really should be called Asiatown) is mostly compressed into one, three mile stretch of road. (As tasty as it is, traipsing all over Alhambra, San Gabriel and the Valley Boulevard Corridor can be a slog for all but the most intrepid gastronaut.)

Chinatown really rings our chimes, again and again. It’s the one food address in town that we never tire of exploring. When Thai tedium ensues, there’s always some copious Korean. Should we be sated by sushi, there’s always some restorative ramen at hand. Upscale Vietnamese? Verily, it is so. Interesting izakaya? Indubitably.

Plus, all of this bounty seems to be increasing. As we type these words, a huge condominium complex is under construction near Valley View Boulevard, along with a giant new shopping mall (dubbed “Shanghai Plaza”) a half mile up the street.

Something tells us the quantity and quality of Chinatown eats is about to grow exponentially. In the meantime, here’s where we’ll frequenting in the coming year:

CHINATOWN

(We have purposely included a few non-Chinatown addresses here, but lumped them in this section in the interest of pan-Pacific consistency.)

Noodles, Noodles, Noodles

(“Screaming For Vengeance” at Ramen Sora)

No one does cheap eats better than Asians.  Ten years ago there was nary a noodle to be found in Chinatown that wasn’t in a pot of Vietnamese pho. Now, nourishing noodle nibbling necessitates numerous navigations. Put another way, the number of choices is notable. And without a whole lot of negotiating, you can become a noodle-noshing nerd.

For ramen, we prefer an old reliable — Ramen Sora — along with an interesting upstart: Ramen Hashi, a mile or so up the road. Ramen Sora satisfies our cravings for miso-based noodles (often with everything but the kitchen sink thrown on top), while Ramen Hashi has blown us away recently with its lighter, shio (salt) and shoyu (soy) based chicken broths. We have nothing against Monta, and give it all the props in the world for pioneering our ramen revolution, but Hashi and Sora are just as good, and never quite as crowded.

For unctuous udon,  Marugame Monzo fills the bill with its thick, chewy strands of cotton-white udon (and killer karaage). And for the best of Szechuan, nothing beats Mian Taste (or Mian Sichuan Noodle, depending on how literal you want to be) and the fiery, lip numbing intensity of the Szechuan peppercorns that infuse each dish.

If it’s all-around noodle-liciouness you seek,nothing beats the hand-pulled beauties at Shang Artisan Noodle….or its pocket beef pancake:

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Sushi Fever

Life is too short to eat cheap fish. It sounds elitist (and it is!) but you should have to pay through the nose for your seafood. Nasty, shit-fed, farm raised fish doesn’t do anyone any good, and ocean trawling for cheap tuna is destroying our eco-systems.

My solution: Ban cheap fish altogether and make people shell out a car payment for their sushi. It’s going to come to this eventually, so we might as well start now.

If you want cheap protein, eat a chicken.

If you want wonderful seafood treated right, try this on for size:

(Seared mackerel at Yuzu)

If you want the best sushi in town, go to Yui Edomae Sushi. Or Kabuto. If you want the best sushi in the suburbs go to Kaiseki Yuzu or Hiroyoshi. I don’t eat sushi anywhere else in this town and neither should you.

Why do I have to keep telling you these things?

More Meals of the Rising Sun

The Japanese revolution began in January, 2008 with the opening of Raku. We hear an expansion is planned and we hope that means it will be easier to get into. (Don’t bet on it; it’s still one tough ticket.) Raku’s excellence and popularity shows no signs of abating, as it has continues to elevate our dining scene, and set a standard for all of Spring Mountain Road to emulate.  In the ten years hence, it has begat such tasty options as Japanese Curry Zen and Raku Sweets. Curry Zen is a must for lovers of Japanese curry. Its spinach curry rice shows up at my house at least once a month (the Food Ga®  is a big fan of their takeout), and it might be the healthiest cheap eats in Vegas. Raku Sweets remains a marvel. We can never get in for dessert (always a wait) but weekend lunch is definitely on the horizon.

Very Vietnamese

Gawd I wish I could parse the fine differences between this pho parlor and that pho parlor. They all have the same menu and they’re all alike to this haolie. All I know is this: When I get a hankerin’ for pho or spring rolls downtown, I head straight to Le Pho. When I want more interesting, out-of-the-box Vietnamese, I head straight to District One. I really don’t give a shit about any other Vietnamese restaurant in town, because I’ve been to ’em all, and they all taste the same.

Korean ‘Cue Quest

Last year we did a Korean ‘cue quest. This year we’ve decided to hang out at 8 Oz Korean Steakhouse.

When the mood for more homey Korean fare hits, you’ll find us at Mother’s Korean Grill or Kkulmat Korean Kitchen. 

We don’t give a flying frijole that Kkulmat has only 2 TripAdvisor reviews. It’s really really good, and the people are really really nice. At Mother’s, they barely seem to tolerate round-eyes, but the banchan and dolsot bibimbap make up for the cursory service.

That is all.

Don’t Leave Your Chinese To Chance

(Let Jimmy Li slip you the tongue at Niu-Gu)

Chinese restaurants still outnumber all others on Spring Mountain, and mediocre Chinese restaurants are more the rule than the exception.  The Chinatown Plaza pictured at the top of the page – the place that started our Asian  revolution in 1995 – is chock full of mediocrity, and every strip mall seems to have at least one forgettable boba tea or Taiwanese street food joint. But there is fascinating food to be found. You just have to be smart, read this blog, follow me on Instagram, and buy my book. (That’s two shameless plugs in one post if you’re counting.)

For dim sum, and many other classic Chinese favorites, head straight to Ping Pang Pong. For sophisticated Mandarin-worthy fare at a fraction of what you’ll pay on the Strip, nobody beats what Jimmy Li cooks up every night at the unassuming Niu-Gu Noodle House. (P.s. the tea service is spectacular as well.)

Chengdu Taste is where we head when we’ve got a hankerin’ for dan dan mian, green sauce chicken, or boiled fish in chili sauce. It is a restaurant that brooks no compromise and lays on the tongue-numbing heat the way they do in southwestern China. J & J Szechuan is older, less flashy, and not as of-the-moment as chef Tony Xu’s Alhambra offshoot — but it’s almost as good, even cheaper, and usually easier to get into.

Thai One On

Image may contain: food(Our usual at Ocha Thai)

We group our Thai restaurants into 3 categories:

1) Rustic and authentic

2) Upscale and authentic

3) Everyone else

Gallery(Nam-Prik-Ong – red chili dip at Lotus of Siam)

When it comes to rustic and authentic, nothing beats what the adorable little ladies of Ocha Thai are turning out. A little more polished are the operations at Weera Thai (which features quite a few Laotian dishes) and the incendiary stylings of Chuchote Thai. If you want to know what it feels like to have a flame thrower stuck up your fundament, ask for anything “Bangkok hot” at any of them, and then hold on for dear life the next morning.

Thai comes in more sophisticated form (and with better wines) at Chada Street and Chada Thai as well as at that old reliable: Lotus of Siam. We’ve twice tried to get into Lotus at their new location on West Flamingo, and have been thwarted by long lines every time. At this rate, we may have to wait for their old location to reopen for our yearly fix of Koong Char Num Pla (raw shrimp) and Nam Kao Tod (crispy rice), or to get another chance to waltz around America’s best German Riesling list.

Sweets Release

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What do we always say: When you want a good dessert in an Asian restaurant, go to a French one.

That said, there’s no denying the gorgeousness of Bank Atcharawan’s milkshakes (above) at The Patio Desserts and Drinks, or his Thai toast:

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….or just about any other thing he’s serving to satiate your sweet (or tea) tooth.

Other than that, and the gorgeous creations of Mio-san at Raku Sweets:

…there’s not a whole lot we can recommend from our Asian brethren in the dessert department.

Boba tea is a bad joke (it all comes from over-sugared mixes), Korean pastries are pale, spongy copies of French ones, and the wallpaper paste that the Japanese and Chinese make out of red beans might appeal to them, but we find its best usage is holding down roof tiles. And those slushies that some upscale Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese joints throw at you at the end of the meal are just odd, chunky imitations of something the Greeks perfected 2,500 years ago.

Face it: Asians don’t get sugar. Not like the French do. Or the Italians. Or the Germans. They don’t really have a sweet tooth. But we don’t hold that against them. In fact, it’s one of the many reasons we crawl up and down Spring Mountain Road every week — we always know that wherever we chow down on this most chow-downable of streets, we’ll save ourselves a thousand calories by skipping dessert every time.

In Part 3 of Where I’ll Dine in 2018 we will explore what’s left of Strip dining that still gets us excited. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with some thoughtful words from George Orwell about critical writing and the abandonment of standards. (He was writing about book critics, but the regression to the mean (and mediocrity) holds true for restaurants and restaurant writing as well.):

It is almost impossible to mention restaurants in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one has some kind of professional relationship with restaurants, one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be “This restaurant is worthless”, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be “This restaurant does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.” But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the restaurants they are asked to visit, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. – with apologies to George Orwell