Day 73: China
It all started a few weeks ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party. Folk hero Jason Bernstein and I were talking inside of a loud, karaoke-infused bar when I said “Jason. What are we going to do about China?” Then he thought about it for a moment and said, “Oh my God. Dude. I think I might have just had the greatest idea ever. What if this year, we do 11-In-11: China Edition?” A pause fell over the conversation. I nodded happily and right then, it was decided. So what’s 11-In-11? Well, for the past five years, folk hero Jason Bernstein and his cousin Mark have been setting up a one day a year event where “…we visit 11 food establishments in 11 hours and devour 11 mini-meals.” It’s become a bit of an institution, and one that I have not yet had the pleasure of participating in. So when the opportunity to merge two marathon food events together arose, we jumped at the chance. So a long list was created, pared down and then scheduled. There’s some room for improvisation and modification as well. We don’t have to patron Chinese places exclusively, but it is the dominant theme of the day and you don’t actually have to eat at every place. Sometimes you might just need to get a drink and recharge your batteries. How big will it be? Who’s coming? I’m not totally sure, but it’s going to be one heck of an event.
Our day begins, appropriately, with dim sum. It’s 11 o’clock when Mr. Meatball, Bex and I open the door and step inside The Kitchen in Alhambra. Folk hero Jason Bernstein is already here, marking the first time he’s been early for something for as long as I’ve known him. We’re sitting at a large table as other foodventurers begin to file in with such staggering numbers that we realize we’re going to need another table. Even my dad, stepmom and Super Jake arrive (with Super Jake wearing the extremely appropriate Superman “S” t-shirt) to take part in round one. Once we’re all settled in, our group stands an impressive nineteen people strong. Bernstein, who of course knows the manager, starts ordering. Steamed shrimp dumplings, chao chow dumplings, chive shrimp dumplings, pork buns, baked dumplings and other common dim sum staples all make it to the table and are very good versions. I personally love steamed dumplings and could probably spend an entire day eating just that with a little soy and chili sauce. But part of that may be because pasta related foods speak so closely to my soul, they actually share a top secret bat phone.
It is three fried, non-dim sum dishes, however, that make their mark on round one. Tiny cubes of fried tofu that taste like crispy soy air— unnaturally light and tossed with fresh herbs and chilis— are a little bit of a scientific revelation. I’m not sure how such soft tofu can get so freaking crunchy, but I’m really glad somebody figured out how to do it, because I sure wasn’t going to. The second standout was a simple, fried pork belly. A long, thick cut, fried golden on the side, but with the rest of it as tender, moist and juicy as Rush Limbaugh during mile seven of the New York Marathon. Finally, there is a fried green tea ball. It looks innocent at first. I mean, it’s just a crispy green ball. What could happen? Then you bite in, steam escapes and a molten black sludge assaults your face, refusing to take prisoners. The sweetened poppy and black sesame death mud oozes out of it’s crispy, glutinous prison, bringing a flavor deceptively similar to chocolate and peanut butter to your mouth, all while you try to juggle it on your tongue, hoping that something this thick will at some point stop retaining all its heat. But what fun is smoldering, volcanic food if you don’t have to fight like crazy to survive its fury.
I could eat more, but know I’ve got to pace myself. I’d also be perfectly fine if this was my entire breakfast, but there’s no time for such negative thoughts. There are still, after all, ten more places to visit. Everyone poses outside for a picture, holding up one finger, denoting which stop we are on, then the caravan is loaded up and we head off to round two. Even the manager of The Kitchen has decided to tag along for a spell. We arrive a couple of minutes later at the similarly named Mama’s Kitchen in San Gabriel to eat what they are known for: beef rolls. Our very-un-angry mob floods the small establishment, which is conveniently empty, or else we wouldn’t even fit inside. Tony, a serious Yelper and food hunter who has done an impressive amount of Chinese food eating in his own right, has recommended this spot and joins us as well. The woman behind the counter, presumably, “mama”, is smiling with awe struck confusion at this wave of mostly white people who have seemingly rented out her restaurant. Tony, who is Chinese says, “I brought a couple of white people here once and they were kind of freaking out. So this is hilarious.”
The beef rolls arrive, sliced into share-able segments and start being passed around. Barbecued beef with cilantro, egg and something similar tasting to hoisin sauce, wrapped inside of a sort of buttery lavash-and-tortilla hybrid made of rice. The manager of the previous dim sum place takes a bite and simply says, “It’s a Chinese taco.” Bosque sinks his teeth through and says “Cilantro, carne asada…yeah, I’m into it.” Dipped into chili sauce, it gets the wonderful contrast of sweet, savory and spicy, but with a refreshing counter point from the crisp cilantro. We pass around small containers of vibrant, pickled white cabbage, shredded dried tofu and “spicy eight treasure”, whose treasures we can only confirm four or five of (tofu, chilis, pork, something pickled…um…okay, maybe just three and a half of the treasures). The quick hitting nature continues as we pay, pose outside holding two fingers up, then walk back to our cars. During the short walk, Jeff (first time Man Bites World and 11-In-11 member) and I discuss the game plan. “I’m at a perfect level right now. I’m not hungry, but not full either. If we can sustain this level all day, we’ll be in good shape.”
J & J’s Restaurant (in San Gabriel, like just about everything else we have planned for today) is next on the list as stop number four, to try out their xiǎolóngbāo (soup dumplings). Xiǎolóngbāo are basically dumplings with meat and soup inside (hence, soup dumplings), which beg the question “How the hell do you put soup in a dumpling?” The answer is a meat gelatin, which is solid at room temperature, becomes liquid when it’s steamed. I’ve heard great tales of these and are excited to eat them at one of the places a lot of people tend to like (though it is a topic of much debate). It’s a small restaurant, so I pop in to take a quick picture (in front of a lot of confused Chinese patrons) before we all head outside to have a makeshift picnic in the parking lot.
A few minutes later, one of our members comes outside with takeout bags filled with the juicy treats. They’re about the width of a silver dollar, with a thick, pursed skin surrounding the outside. I’ve been warned of hot, liquid explosions and brace myself accordingly, dipping the small, edible water balloon into the black vinegar sauce and popping the whole thing in my mouth and quickly discover what it is that I like so much about them: the Chinese have discovered a way to turn soup into a finger food. Go figure. Now while this specific version is very good, I was sort of expecting better and end up walking away a little happier with the dish than the restaurant. But regardless, I’m going to have to do a soup dumpling taste test one of these days to come to my own conclusions.
We decide it’s time for a battery recharge and head out to a Los Angeles institution, and one that I’ve somehow already visited on this Personal Food Project in Blog Form, Bahooka Family Restaurant in Rosemead. Going to a massive, fish tank filled, windowless tiki bar after dinner with Mr. Meatball and “Danielle” is one thing, going on a Saturday afternoon with nineteen other people is something entirely different. We order giant bowls of flaming, tropical beverages, sharing two to a bowl, and enjoying the moment to relax without any food or language confusion for a spell. Sweet Caroline (in her first Man Bites World appearance) and I share the mai tai, deciding that ours is the best of the bunch, but everyone is pretty territorial with their own decisions and beg to disagree. In an impromptu, alcoholic version of musical chairs, everyone begins rotating from bowl to bowl with their foot long red straws, sipping the myriad options and ensuring that if one of has cooties, then we had all better damn have it.
Then I have what may be the best idea that’s ever wandered into my brain, so I grab four of the bahooka bowls, move them into a cluster, place a long red straw in each one and watch as people line up to try drinking from all four bowls simultaneously. It is quickly dubbed “the best ride ever”. Folk hero Jason Bernstein goes first, using piss-poor technique and struggling to muster the proper suction. Mr. Meatball goes next and falls to a similar fate. Jeff takes the next crack and fairs admirably and step up for my shot. Deciding to go with brute strength over technique, I send the straws deep into my mouth, all but sealing my cootie-afflicted fate and suck the icy, rainbow colored toxins in the general direction of my stomach. It’s a success, but I most certainly looked like a disgusting human being in the process. Then Bosque steps up and decides to put us all to shame, forming a perfectly bowed union of the four straws, then gently beckoning the beverages into his mouth, to which they respond in a trance-like state, fulfilling his every command. But then when he’s done, he gets a sour, painful look on his face which will stay with me for quite some time. But this leg of the journey would simply not be complete without Mr. Meatball going over to Rufus, the large, 31 year old fish that has lived its entire life in this same tank, and with the aid of the friendly Bahooka staff, feeding him a carrot. That, I’m pretty sure, is what 11-In-11 is all about.
Leg five of eleven is next, and we head over to China Islamic Restaurant, taking over half of the entire establishment. What makes it so Islamic? We’re no exactly sure, other than a lack of pork on the menu, but the main feature here is their hand cut noodles, so we order two plates of those, and just for yuks, get some pretty ordinary but tasty versions of beef with broccoli, sweet and sour chicken, fish with asparagus (which is particularly tender, salty and delicious) and spicy sautéed shrimp. The noodles themselves are the real star here— thick doughy and yet with some real bite— sort of like trying good, fresh Italian pappardelle after having had dried fettuccine for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, the sauce itself is fairly pedestrian. It’s not in any way “bad”, but is the sort of sauce you’d be able to get at just about any Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. I head to the bathroom to lower my dangerously high fluid level (thank you, flaming bowls of alcohol), then come back at take a moment to stare, from a distance, at how amazingly large this group is. How do you get this many people to do anything all day on a Saturday, let alone so far away. The credit on this all goes to Bernstein and his delightful and massively kind cousin Mark, who I now think can make anybody do anything. On a sour note, once we head outside, the fires that are working their way across various parts of California are becoming prominent figures in the background, filling the horizon with smoke and making for one guilt-ridden and beautiful sunset.
Working our way toward the half way mark, we pull into the parking lot for Young Ho King Tou Chiang, which is across the street from our next stop and in the same complex as the stop after that. Impressive planning, right? (Thank you, Mark) This place is known for their big, Chinese crullers and home made soy milk, but very little English is spoken here, so after we spread our plague over two whole tables, we do our best to order. We know we ordered something, we’re just not totally sure it’s what we wanted. Soy milks were a dollar fifty each, so I assumed that means we’d want a good number of cups of it, trying their different varieties, both hot and cold. Then they start bringing out giant bowls of soy milk and I realize that I may have ordered far too much. The soy milk is mild, nutty and actually tastes of soy, but in this large of a quantity and with nothing else yet out on the table, It could really use some cereal, or strawberries, bananas and a blender. Then food starts arriving.
“Special cake”, a flaky, soft pastry and a dark, tofu filled, hot, seafood soup make their way around our table. Then the weird things which we may or may not have ordered start to show up. A hot, sesame pastry filled with white, gooey and extremely fishy insides make me actually say “That’s hilarious” after I take a bite. An unsweetened, small twisted cruller, coated in dried fish flakes and wrapped in a long rice roll is a confusing but oddly addictive concoction. Another cruller comes wrapped in egg, tasting like an unsweetened omelet doughnut. We even manage to get a sweet, cold tofu soup with ginger and peanuts. So far, this restaurant is ranking up pretty high on the “confusing” scale as well as the “one heck of a cultural experience” scale. But those scales often operate with a high degree of similarity. After some more confusion, we get our large, fat, crispy and long Chinese crullers. This was the original intent of this segment of the meal— you sweeten some soy milk to your liking, then dip the cruller until it has reached your desired level of softness, then take a moist, crunchy bite. But after everything we’ve gone through at this table so far, that process may have gotten a little lost. A truly interesting time, but if I were to go back, a simple cruller and some soy milk would easily suffice, no matter how interesting everything else is.
Folk hero Jason Bernstein has an unnatural love of banh mi, the French-Vietnamese fusion that occurred pretty soon after baguettes first made their way into Vietnam. In essence, it’s Vietnamese street food, served on a French roll. Obviously, there’s no way that concept could go wrong, and banh mi is building up a pretty strong group of followers throughout the world. One of J-Bern’s favorite places just happens to be across the street, so we head over there for stop number seven. Jaywalking across a busy street with twenty or so people is a first for me, but with a group this large, mob mentality kicks in and you start to feel a little impenetrable. “Maybe after this stop, we should all go put out the fires,” I mutter on the way inside. But now, we’re beginning to feel like a wild pack of rhinos and the whole experience is a little bit of a frantic blur. Mark and Jason head straight for the front counter and start placing orders. I pop outside to take a quick phone call from GirlfriendBites, and by the time I’m back inside, banh mi are being devoured alongside a mysterious, black, gooey dessert which stains your hands like a blacktop basketball court during a hot summer day. There is also a sweet, rice based dessert which looks like a taco but is very sweet and winds up left for dead on the table after a couple of bites. The banh mi, though, is delightful. Fresh herbs, chilies, savory and slightly sweet barbecued pork, all chewed between a crunchy baguette crust. I only managed a brief taste before it vanished entirely, and like a ghost pirate ship, we arrive, conquer, pillage, then are gone leaving hardly any trace that we were ever there in the first place.
We undulate our way across the street once again, heading back into the complex from two stops earlier for stop eight of eleven. Now we’re going into the famed Lu Din Gee, ready to eat one of the dishes I’ve been particularly excited about all day: Peking duck. Mark actually ordered by phone before we arrived, so when our mass of gastronomic vagabonds fills up two big tables, it’s not long before their specialty makes its appearance. Sliced chunks of clear fat beaded duck breast, composed in a delicate structure at the center of the plate and surrounded by golden duck skin crisps sit proudly, inspiring shock, awe and most impressively, silence. Once photographs have been taken, we grab thin pancakes, top them with thinly sliced spring onions, meat, skin and hoisin sauce, wrap them up and prepare to consume. One bite in and I immediately decide that this crushes any Peking duck I’ve ever had before. There is delicate refinement, which is impressive, but the part that stands out to me is having two different textures of duck fat. You’ve got soft/juicy and thin/crispy. Together, it’s like a fat double helix, combining forces and perhaps existing as the source of all life in the universe.
Once our table destroys the duck, I lean back and remark about one of my systems for gauging the true quality of food, which is: when you’re full, does it still sound good to you? You may not want or crave more, but if you’re full, bad food sounds sickening. Great food, however…you can sort of see yourself taking a bite. And just as I’m saying that this dish fits into that category, a confusion over our order occurs and an entire second Peking duck arrives. Everyone sighs, groans, then eats the entire thing. Peking duck also comes with a soup made from the duck and this one does as well. But the version here can’t hold a candle to the duck itself, so I’m just going to ignore it and move on.
With three stops left, we’ve decided on a tea house, followed by a dinner, followed by a bar. So we make our way to Half & Half Tea House and wait for a moment watching yet another small place have to scramble to create seating for our group. We sit down and now I’m really starting to feel the struggle. After Romania Day the night before, going to sleep around one thirty in the morning, then getting up at seven (still reeling from a lot of Romanian moonshine) and writing the post all morning, I’m pretty wiped out. As long as we stay on the move, I’m doing okay, but this small tea house is having a hard time handling twenty different orders, so we’re a bit too stationary for my emotional stability at the moment. Thick slices of their specialty toasts slowly make their way around. The varieties include almond, cream and tuna, with my favorite being the fishier and more savory of the three varietals.
But I’m getting a little jittery and am saved for a moment by my creamy and lightly sweetened hot milk and oolong tea. Other people dive into more creative options, such as iced tea bobas with caramel dripping down the inside of the glass and even an order “tomato plum honey juice”, which gets more than a few “V8 Splash” comparisons. Yet more toast arrives, the teas continue to stagger out whenever they’re ready and even a version of ice kacang, the sweet, fluffy shaved ice dessert gets tasted from all angles. Everyone else seems to be in better spirits at this point and I’m even getting a few “Dude! You really look like you’re battling right now. You okay?” I know that if I were coming into the day with a slightly more normal few days preceding it, I would have ran through this long event with energetic aplomb, criticizing any stragglers I could find. But today, there’s just too much to overcome and I feel, regrettably, a little off my game.
Now, as strange as it sounds, it’s time for dinner. Number ten of eleven. We go to Yunnan Garden for (big surprise) Yunnan style Chinese. This particular restaurant specialized in “crossing bridge noodles” and anything with lots of chilies in it. We break off into randomly assigned tables yet again, and our group gets ready to order. We look over the menu and can’t seem to find the “crossing bridge noodles”, which were recommended by our friend Tony. But the server doesn’t seem to know what we’re talking about and brushes our request off. Then Mark decides that it is an unacceptable close to the food portion of the evening, so he calls Tony on his cell and hands the phone to the server. After a quick conversation in Chinese, presumably in which our food purveyor was chewed out in Chinese, he hangs up the phone, nods and says that they have it. There was obviously some confusion, since apparently, it’s just the “Yunnan Garden house special noodles”. Said noodles arrive, along with thinly shaved, bright red dried beef— chewy, salty and surrounded with small red chili peppers. Ma po tofu, a bowl of soft tofu, ground pork and spicy red sauce is citric, fiery and almost truly spectacular, if not for a high level of saltiness that just can’t be ignored. Crispy fried chicken nuggets, surrounded, of course, by small chili peppers, are very light, though eventually a bit exhausting.
My favorite dish is the sole one which isn’t spicy— the crossing bridge noodles. Soft, chewy noodles in a light broth with slices of beef and pork is a delicate calm which requires a few consecutive bites before it can get out from under the shadow of all the chili peppers. But there is an alarming part of the meal: all of our mouths are starting to feel puffy. The massive amounts of salt and MSG consumed over the course of the day have caught up with us, causing Bex to even remark “My left arm is going numb. Am I going to have a heart attack?”, to which Mr. Meatball replies, “No, no. You may have a stroke, though.” We pay the bill, then I get up and walk toward the front door, thinking I have finished eating for the day before Jeff walks up to me with a small plate and shoves a pork tongue cold cut in my face. “Try this,” he says. I do.
“What do you think?”
“I think I’m dying. Oh, the tongue? It’s all right.”
Our last stop is a Chinese restaurant/bar called Cotton Candy, made most impressive by their seat cushions, which are covered with drawings of wild jungle animals. But this bar turns out to only serve beer and wine, so folk hero Jason Bernstein refuses to allow it to be the final stop of the day. “I’m getting a martini,” he says, so he discovers a dive bar down the street called Jay Dee Café. We all find our way there, enter and discover a place that, in its own way, is the only possible ending to a day like this: a big, old time bar filled with creepy older men with mustaches who stare, nod and grin creepily at the women we’ve brought with us, as if to say “Wow. You’re under forty five. I’d want to have kids with you if I didn’t enjoy staring and nodding so much. I also already have two strikes on my record and can’t afford another bogus sexual harassment claim.” But beers are $2.50 and well drinks are $3, so it all does even out in the end. We stake our claim at a long table in the back of the bar and I nurse a whiskey on the rocks and exhale deeply. We chat, take a look at a few pictures from earlier in the day, which now feels like three days ago, and come to terms with the realization that this daunting day has come to a close. I finish the drink, stand up, and prepare to head back to the west side with Bex and Mr. Meatball.
I give out a lot of hugs, high fives, fist bumps and handshakes, feeling like we’ve all just been through the trenches together. There’s a sense of camaraderie with everyone, especially the ten or so people who made their way to all eleven stops. But the most amazing thing to me about the whole day is just how varied everyone’s experience could have been. With a group this large, small cliques form throughout the day, different people wind up next to each other on any given leg, and no two people will have the same memory of the same day. Luckily, there are a few other writers in the group today and I may be able to read about what this day was like to somebody else. But in the end, it was truly amazing. A love song to Los Angeles and an amazing example of how many regions, dishes and delicacies can be discovered from around the world in one city. Today is about a group of people being brought together by a common love of food and adventure, culminating in one hell of an experience. I can’t wait to do it again in, in whatever context it manages to occur. But I sure will need that full year to recuperate. What a day, indeed.
Jin Jiang Restaurant
109 W Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Banh Mi & Che Cali
8450 E Valley Blvd, Rosemead, CA 91770
Bahooka Ribs & Grog
4501 Rosemead Blvd, Rosemead, CA 91770
China Islamic Restaurant
7727 Garvey Ave, Rosemead, CA 91770
Yung Ho Tou Chiang Restaurant
1045 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Lu-Din Gee Cafe
1039 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776
203 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91801
1718 New Ave, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Half & Half Tea House
120 N San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91775
545 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776
1843 W Main St, Alhambra, CA 91801