MOTT 32

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Chinese food used to be everywhere and nowhere. Every town had one; no one paid much attention to them.

Those of us of a certain age remember Chinese food as it used to be — slightly mysterious, slightly boring, and ubiquitous.

Today, if TED talks are to be believed, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King combined.

There isn’t a backwater anywhere in America that doesn’t sport at least one Chinese restaurant. In places as far flung as rural Texas, godforsaken South Dakota,  or suburban New Jersey  — there would always be a “Jade Palace” or “Chang’s Garden” holding down the corner of a building, slinging their stir-frys and satisfying customers with gloppy sauces and kung pao predictability.

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In many of these places, the family running the joint (and make no mistake, the entire family worked there) would be the only Chinese-Americans in town. Like many poor immigrants, they were shunned at first and had to find work where they could. And feeding people (themselves included) was one business readily available. So the Chinese spread throughout America in the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing their tasty-if-predictable food with them. And for about 150 years, things stayed pretty much the same.

Like many Americans, I didn’t discover Chinese food until I left home as a young adult. (I don’t think the idea of going to a Chinese restaurant ever occurred to my parents.) I remember thinking how strange moo goo gai pan was the first time I tasted it. Ditto, shiny roast Chinese turkey, won ton soup and a host of other standards. What was chop suey? And what were these strange, slick, shiny sauces on everything? Who was this Foo Young character, and why was he deep-frying my eggs and bathing them in brown gravy? Confused I was, but intrigued as well.

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Making things worse (and almost blunting my enthusiasm entirely) was a concoction put out by La Choy called Chicken Chow Mein— which was probably many American’s introduction to non-restaurant Chinese food. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that La Choy did for China’s gastronomic reputation what Mao Tse-Tung did for high fashion. Amazingly, even though one of the founders of La Choy was killed by lighting (a sign from the heavens, no doubt, concerning his product), it perseveres.

Thus did generations of Americans learn about this cuisine through a cultural prism refracting decades of tribulation, compromise and synthesis, until the red-gold, banquet hall Chinese-American restaurant became as familiar as an old shoe…and just about as interesting.

(Hot and sour Shanghainese xiao long bao)

All of that started to change in this century, as almost by sheer weight of China’s cultural muscle did its various cuisines start to assert themselves on the American palate. In place of egg rolls came xiao long bao. Candied spare ribs suddenly took a back seat to cumin lamb skewers, and dry-fried this and boiled that became the order of the day, with luminous, supercharged Sichuan fish opening up our sensibilities as well as our sinuses.

If the 19th and 20th centuries represents American-Chinese food’s birth and growing pains, then the 21st century is truly version 3.0 — with a blossoming of taste awareness and appreciation that this cuisine’s great great grandparents could only dream off. The textural subtleties of Canton province have been replaced by the noodles of the north, the dumplings of the east, and spices of the western plains. Regional differences are now celebrated, not glossed over in a sea of cornstarch, and intrepid fellow travelers scour the internet for the best bao, or the most luscious lamian. Knowing your chop suey from your chow mein is no longer enough, now one must be able to parse the fine points of jelly fish salad and fried pig intestines.

So, how does the novice reconcile all of these regional specialties into an easily digestible format? The hard way is to seek out little warrens of authenticity –the holes-in-the-wall in Chinatown (wherever you find a Chinatown) –where unique dishes are celebrated and compromises few.

Or, you can make it simple on yourself and go big box — in this case, with a trip to Mott 32 — the pan-Chinese restaurant that does to Chinese food what Morimoto did to Japanese cuisine a decade ago: present a modern menu in a hip, funky-cool space having more in common with a nightclub than any Chinese restaurant you’ve ever seen.

(Dinner and a show – this kitchen provides both)

Mott 32 seemed to pop up out of nowhere in 2014 in Hong Kong, and immediately asserted itself as a major player on the upscale Chinese restaurant scene. Its website is deliberately opaque about its origins, stating only that it is named after an address in New York City(?). It opened here around New Years and plans are underway for global, big-box Chinese restaurant domination. Singapore and Bangkok are next on the horizon. Vancouver and Dubai have already been conquered.

The glamour you’ll see from the get-go; the money behind these digs drips from every opulent detail. It takes about 10 seconds of checking out the fabrics and comfy booths to figure out that you’re no longer in “Wok This Way” territory. Giant doors off the casino floor lead to a broad and deep bar area, with an ocean of top-shelf alcohol on the shelves, ready to bathe the long bar with their magnificence alchemy into complicated cocktails. (I don’t much bother commenting on great cocktails anymore, because interesting libations are everywhere in Vegas these days. For the record, this bar’s A-game is better than most.)

The lighting is diffuse and muted, but not too much, and the young women dotting the place (at the hostess stand, behind the bar) are as sexy and shiny as a lacquered Chinese box. Dresses are short, black and tight, and the cleavage is so profound, this joint’s nickname ought to be Mott 32D.

Don’t let all the comeliness fool you, though, because the food is the tits as well.

With a bases-covering menu of everything from Cantonese dim sum to hand-pulled noodles to Peking duck ($108), the whole point of M32 is to present upscale Asian with fashion-forward cocktails, in a glamorous setting in hopes of enticing a stylish crowd to descend. The website touts its Cantonese roots, “with some Beijing and Szechuan influences in our signature dishes” — which explains the nightly dim sum (limited if great), and perhaps the best roasted duck you’ve ever eaten.

(Just ducky)

The duck ($108, above) is the centerpiece of every meal here and it deserves to be. The two-day process it takes to bring one to table produces a bronzed, brittle, gleaming skin having bite-resistance of a thin potato chip. There are decent Peking ducks all over town (Wing Lei, Jasmine, Blossom, New Asia BBQ and Mr. Chow spring to mind), but the effect here is an otherworldly contrast of moist, rich meat topped with a duck fat-slicked crisp. Duck doesn’t get any duckier — its only drawback is you should have at least four people at your table before you order it. When you’re asked how you want your second course — as a deep-fried duck “rack,” or minced meat in lettuce cups — insist upon the latter, as the former (above bottom right), is a waste of time and bones.

It’s a shame they aren’t open for lunch, because dim sum at dinner feels as strange as dried fish maw ($498/pp(!)) for breakfast. Those dried fish bladders are for Chinese high rollers who love their squishy, gelatinous texture. (Their appeal to the western palate is, shall we say, a bit elusive.)

The dim sum are more approachable, and you’ll find no better xiao long bao (here called Shanghainese soup dumplings) in Las Vegas. They come four to an order ($14), and you’ll want to try both the traditional pork and hot and sour versions — the latter providing plenty of punch.

Next to the dim sum and the duck, the Pluma Iberico pork (above, $42) gets pushed the most by the staff. It is dense with flavor, a bit too sweet, and juicy  — with as much in common with basic Chinese BBQ as that duck has with a McNugget. Before it arrives, you might want a few smaller plates, like the crispy dried Angus beef (below, $16), which comes out like a tangle of wispy, deep purple folds that shatter in the mouth with barely a bite. It is the barest gossamer beef, the antithesis of jerky. In another type of restaurant you might even call it molecular.

(We’re not in Panda Express anymore, Toto)

For those wishing something meatier, the Triple Cooked Wagyu Short Rib ($88) provides enough beef for four hungry souls to gnaw on…although its inclusion on the menu feels like the restaurant is (literally) throwing a bone to its conspicuous carnivorous customers.

Those not wanting to spring for a whole duck can get some shredded quacker in a Peking duck salad ($18) with black truffle dressing. Lighter appetites will appreciate the wild mushrooms in lettuce cups ($20), or thick slabs of deep-fried Sesame Prawn Toast ($18) — which, in bulk and pure shrimp-ness, redefines this usually bland standard.

Not many non-Chinese are going to drop two Benjamins on the kitchen sink soup known as Buddha Jumps Over the Wall  ($198), but hot and sour ($14) and won ton ($11) give plenty of soupy satisfaction for the price. If you’re dying to try fish maw, $68 gets you a cup of spongy, tasteless collagen. Yum!

In keeping with its Cantonese roots, there are plenty of expensive seafood options, none of which (abalone, sea cucumber, etc.) make much sense for Occidentals. But there’s plenty to love about the lobster “Ma Po Tofu” (above, $68) with its chunks of shellfish swimming with spicy/silky bean curd, as well as the smoked black cod ($42), and the poached fish (usually sea bass, $42) — floating in a Szechuan pepper broth —  makes up in refinement what it lacks in kick.

Just for grins and giggles, we ordered two old reliables — Kung Po Prawns ($38) and General Tso’s Chicken ($28) — on one of our four trips here, and they each were flawless, properly spicy and not too sweet. You’ll have no complaints about the nutty shrimp fried rice, either.

(The Cantonese love their custards)

Desserts got my attention as well. (When’s the last time that happened in a Chinese restaurant?) They feature the au courant (Bamboo Green Forest (top right, $16)) alongside the classical (Mango with Coconut (sticky) Rice Roll ($12) on the split (Modern/Classic) dessert menu. Even an old bean paste hater like me found myself slurping the pure white custard-like Double Boiled Egg White (bottom left, $12) , on top of some grainy/pasty Black Sesame something-or-other. The pastry chefs at Guy Savoy have nothing to worry about, but for a restaurant working within the Chinese vernacular, these are damn tasty.

Mott 32 is as slick as that duck skin, but no less satisfying.  The eclectic menu signifies that Chinese food has now taken a great leap forward into the promised land of high-end, gwailo dining dollars (something Japanese food did twenty years ago). Just because it’s a huge, expensive, well-financed chain doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed. The casual, luxurious vibe and ingredient-forward cooking are calculated to appeal to purists and tourists alike, and by and large, they pull it off.

More than anything else, though, Mott 32 represents a modern Chinese invasion. A China no longer burdened by its past; a cuisine no longer defined by egg rolls, fortune cookies and orange chicken. Whether you’re impressing a date or hanging with a crowd of conventioneers, you won’t find any better Chinese food in Las Vegas.

Like I said, this place is expensive. Expect to pay at least $100 for two (for food) unless you go crazy with the high-end, Chinese gourmet stuff, which you won’t. The wine list is Strip-typical, meaning: aimed at people with more money than brains. The somms are very helpful, and eager to point you to the (relative) bargains on the list, most of which go much better with the food than overpriced Cali cabs or chichi chardonnays. One of our four meals here was comped; another (for three) set us back 460 samolians, with a $100 bottle of wine.

MOTT 32

The Palazzo Hotel and Casino

3325 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.607.3232

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/

Dat Sum PEARL OCEAN Dim Sum

For a town swimming in great Asian food, Las Vegas has always been a dessert when it comes to  dim sum.  Sushi is everywhere, pho parlors seem to breed like rabbits, and Korean bbq is fast becoming the chop suey of this generation. But finding decent dim sum can be tougher than spotting a slot junkie with a savings account. Considering that just three hours down the road — in the San Gabriel Valley of California — you have some of the best dim sum joints this side of Hong Kong, it’s a little sad that we have a bare handful of (barely adequate) places to indulge in our passion for these little bites of steamed succulence.

And when we say “barely adequate,” we mean it. The few off-Strip places that offer these treats put forth limited offerings of standard issue dumplings served with all the passion of a stewardess flinging airplane peanuts. It’s gotten so bad over the past few years that the only places we can get excited about are Noodles in the Bellagio (only on weekends) and Wing Lei at the Wynn (serving for only a couple of weeks a year – around New Years and Chinese New Year).

Then, along came the Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino last month, and with it Pearl Ocean — the first dim sum I’ve had in Las Vegas that reminds me of what you find all over Alhambra. To begin with, there is the selection. Here you order off a menu (like you do in the tonier spots of SoCal, and Hong Kong) and what the helpful picture menu shows are dozens of off-beat offerings like “whole abalone minced chicken tart” to “spicy Szechuan dumplings” to “Five Guys Xiao Long Bao” —  five different buns (spinach, squid ink, flour, beets, and turmeric) stuffed with everything from kale to crab roe:

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Each highlight the delicate way the Chinese play starches, veggies and proteins off each other. Each will disappear fast, as will the superior cha siu bao (baked pork buns) and the pea shoots and shrimp dumplings.

Besides the selection, the easy-to-navigate menu, and the friendliness of the staff, the thing that distinguishes Pearl Ocean from the tired joints serving this type of food along Spring Mountain Road is the quality of the groceries. No gristle-y pork here, at least not on my three visits, and the shrimp in the har gow actually sparkles, instead of tasting flat and freezer-burned. Some of this food is more about texture than flavor — such as the bright red “fish chip red rice roll” in the montage above — but all of it is about one of the tastiest lunches in town.

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 PEARL OCEAN

Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino

300 West Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.579.1287