Dear fellow Chowhounds,
I know you meant well.
I've come to seek your advice, fellow hounds, on many occasions and truly, I've had countless food successes thanks to your help over the years. My Chinese food world has expanded well beyond my childhood experiences. In fact now that I've been to China, I can now appreciate how lucky we are to have such diverse, delicious and authentic variety in Chinese food here in Southern California.
This time, however, it just didn't work out.
I'm one of those back-easters (born in Lakewood, New Jersey) who is always looking for the occasional bit of culinary nostalgia from my youth. For me, this means great red sauce italian (Baked ziti, anyone?), the quintessential slice (if you need to ask what this means, don't worry about it), and of course the ultimate egg roll. My god, I miss those egg rolls.
I'd heard rumors at one point that decent ones could be had at Manhattan Wonton before they went out of business (they were on Doheny, south of Wilshire), however I never tried their version. Needless to say, I'm always on the lookout.
To date, the closest I've found have been the ones at Genghis Cohen (which are actually billed on the menu as "New York Style Egg Rolls". While they are unspectacular, the do the trick as they have those difficult-to-find-qualities that are the hallmark of a good New York egg roll... the thick, brown, chewy skin (as opposed to the flaky spring roll type skin you find everywhere else in America, including Panda Express... *shudder*). They're also a great deal thicker and longer than spring rolls... sort of like a mini Chinese deep fried burrito. They have a shredded cabbage interior, with bits of flavorful pork and/or tiny shrimp inside. The exterior layer of skin is crispy which the underlayer is chewy. The cabbage is crunchy and the bbq pork is soft and juicy, salty and sweet. Necessary condiments are little packets of sinus-blasting Chinese mustard and "duck sauce", a sweet and sour sauce which is branded as "Saucy Susan" nationally (you can find it in some supermarkets here.) Note to those who grew up in LA: duck sauce is NOTHING like ketchup!
Eggrolls from New York are a perfect melange of junk food greatness, and even the cheapest random dives in New York can crank out a decent egg roll, usually for no more than 99 cents. So why, praytell, is a decent eggroll of that variety so hard to find here?
Today a visit to the fashion district to purchase $7.00 sneakers turned into an improptu chow hunt (as it often does in my world.) My Lovely Tasting Assistant (LTA) and I started by grubbing on a Tijuana dog (those street vendor griddle dogs wrapped in bacon, topped with grilled onions and peppers... yum! $2.00 from a lady on the south end of the Maple mall in front of guys selling copied DVDs). This deliciousness sparked our mutual chow-dar to seek out other munchies in the area and it was not long before we found ourselves in the venerable Canto-American Paul's Kitchen on San Pedro, south of Olympic. We popped in for the basics... wonton soup (you can keep your wor) and eggrolls. The wonton soup was fantastic... a real throwback to Chinese flavors of my youth, with tender, favorful chunks of juicy bbq pork (though back east they would not be chunks, but shredded-- though this is an incidental detail), some crunchy bok choy, a flavorful broth brimming with tasty MSG and nice full, chewy, meaty wontons. It was a little pricey at about $5.50 for a medium sized bowl, since we're used to getting a giant bowl of dough sliced noodle lamb soup at China Islamic for about $6.50, and that's enough to fill 1-2 people. The wonton soup, while delicious, was thin and left us still hungry. We decided to press our luck and ordered an order of eggrolls... 2 for $3.50. I crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best.
Strike one. These were spring rolls, not eggrolls. Flaky skin, flled with bland cabbage, and not a hint of that succulent bbq pork we had in the soup. Too bad.
My LTA saw the spark in my eye. She could tell that we were on the verge of a new chowventure.
"So, where are we going now?"
"Mar Vista, my dear. Mar Vista."
We leaped on the traffic-free 10 freeway and sped westward. In about 15 minutes we found ourselves at the doorstep of the divey take-out joint called "Canton Kitchen". I'd been meaning to try this place for a while. Jackie Chan filmed a scene from Rush Hour there, with photos and his autograph on the wall to prove it. Very nice.
I ordered 2 eggrolls, $3.50. We sat down in their waiting chairs and opened a 6 month old issue of Time magazine.
About 10 minutes later I was handed a small paper bag. "Eggrolls!" the man behind the counter announced. My heart skipped a beat. We went back to the car and I anxiously opened the bag. The first thing I saw were two packets... the first yellow packet was labelled "Chinese hot mustard". Very promising! The second packet was labelled... KETCHUP. My heart took a nose dive.
I parted the crinkled wax paper and took a peek. I saw a dark brown, bubbly skin. This was promising... my heartrate sped back up a bit. I exposed the entire eggroll and saw... what did I see? What the hell was this? This was a square, not a roll. This was an eggcube. I couldn't quite figure out what I was looking at. It was dense, deep brown and bubbly on the outside. It sort of looked like a New York eggroll's retarded cousin. No matter, I took a bite.
Extremely crispy exterior, but very thin, not thick and chewy. The underlayer didn't quite seem like it was cooked at all, as if it were just warmed eggroll dough from the shelf of Ranch 99. The interior? Totally weird. Whereas most out-of-NY eggrolls are spring roll type ventures filled with flavorless cabbage, this was the opposite... it was one solid pork mass with little bits of cabbage inside to augment it.
So imagine, first bite:
Ultra light, flaky crust
Soft, doughy, uncooked layer
Chewy pork meatball interior
This turned out to be more like a sort of bizarre deep fried shweijiao than anything like an eggroll I had ever experienced anywhere in this country, or in China for that matter.
Now don't get me wrong. It did not taste bad, it's just nothing (nothing at all, in fact) like the yummy nostalgia that so many of us east coast hounds are seeking here in Los Angeles.
Please do consider my plea in future before recommending Canton Kitchen as an alternative for those homesick hounds looking for a taste of their childhood.
With great respect and appreciation,