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Grand opening: Happy Valley, Oakland - result of visit (long)

SU | Jun 2, 200604:31 PM

When I swung by on their official grand opening day, I saw the sidewalk outside completely covered in debri left over from red firecrackers, and people sauntering out after their meal. So I decided to check it out with a group. The items on one of their menus appears to be similar to the type of food served at ABC Bakery, D&A Cafe, etc. Plenty of chow fun/mien/rice dishes, noodle soups, rice porridges, baked pasta/spaghetti platters, some sandwiches, bubble tea drinks, and the like. They also have the mid-afternoon specials like ABC and D&A. Another menu listed a whole plethora of dinner choices, 3 dishes plus house soup/broth for $15.99. We ordered blanched pork liver/kidney (from appetizer section rather than the 3 dish section, about $4.50 i think); then honey walnut shrimp, salt & pepper squid, and fried pork intestine (all from the 3 dish section); and rounded out the meal with an order of dry scallop seafood fried rice.

The restaurant is located on a corner, and is brightly sunlit during the day from having both street facing walls mainly windows. I noticed that along their glass windows, they advertise dim sum in Chinese characters, so I asked if they serve dim sum. They will start serving on the 15th. They have large family style tables in the center of the dining area, and booths along the four walls. Their china bears the Chinese name in bold red characters, and even the wood panels covering the exposed side of booth chair backs have the name engraved. There was a flat screen TV on showing the game last night, and along the back wall they have Asian art sculpture/pieces in frames set into the wall. All in all a very open and sunlit atmosphere. Last night much of their business came from Asian construction/building industry folks, who can be a bit loud/rowdy at times.

First item to arrive at the table prior to ordering was of course the tea – no tea bags, real tea leaves… but definitely not as fragrant as the Old Place on Grand – more like average Chinatown restaurant tea. When the broth arrived and was served, I was surprised in tasting my first spoonful – by sight this appeared to be an average run of the mill house broth from any number of joints in Chinatown; however, my taste buds were registering a different opinion. My first spoonful tasted like nothing – and I stopped in my tracks for a moment as that sensation really registered. Here I was, tasting something I assumed would taste like most other house broths I have had in my life, but there was no taste. For a second I even thought that maybe my soup spoon had sprung a leak and I actually had not gotten any into my mouth. When I realized that was not the case, I tried a second sip. This time my tongue finally picked up a bare whisper of the essence, a combination of the veggie (watercress?) with meat (pork). I looked up and asked the rest of the table if they noticed something different compared to other Chinese restaurants. General consensus is either the cook did not simmer the broth long enough, or they don’t flavor their soups with MSG or salt – it was too bland to tell which.

Next dish was the honey walnut shrimp: it was about 2/3 the order we would get at Manila Garden Café if Manila Garden listed this item in their $4.99 per dish menu. Lightly sprinkled with sesame seeds, it looked as if the cook had been a bit too generous with the mayo. There wasn’t much lettuce/cabbage shreds, definitely not enough to call it a “bed”. Although the walnuts were fine (as they are kind of hard to ruin unless stale or oversauced), the extra mayo was not homogenously mixed in and threw off the balance of flavors for the shrimp.

The pork liver & kidney that showed up at our table was actually only pork kidney drenched in a soy sauce mixture and practically hidden underneath the pile of long shreds of green onion with bits of ginger mixed in… and I prepared for another “off” dish. I was wrong, for this was the real gem of the evening – blanched to just perfect, not overcooked at all; does anyone know how difficult it is to find non-overcooked pork liver/kidney. The soy sauce mix was light enough to not overpower this dish. All in all, a quite refreshingly crisp dish, only downside was the missing liver. Now I know where to go for my liver/kidney cravings.

Then came the crispy fried pork intestine; a fairly disappointing dish. Even taking into consideration how different folks have varying takes on this dish, it failed to live up to 1/3 of $15.99. The only place I’ve had worse is Joy Luck (and that time they forgot to defrost the intestine so biting into the bite sized slices gave us icy mouthfuls). In this meal’s rendition, it was barely a handful of slices scattered on a huge bed of pickled shredded veggies with a large cup of dipping sauce – was the large volume of sauce for the pickled stuff or for the “star” of the plate?! IMOP, it was barely worth $2.99… If you like D&A’s version of really crispy fried until it crunches a bit brittley in your mouth, don’t ever order this here – it was more chewy than crispy fried. In fact, don’t ever order this dish unless you love pickled veggies and there are no more pickled veggies left in the world.

Finally out came one of my faves, the much anticipated salt & pepper squid. If you are a salt & pepper squid aficionado, steer clear of this for now; I don’t know if the overall disappointing experience was mostly because of grand opening day or if this is really how the cook makes the food. Prior to tasting, the squid was not lightly golden, it was more golden dark brown, and there was way too much flour. Upon tasting, although it packed the requisite crispyness, there was really too much salt. My biggest pet peeves for this dish in Chinese restaurants: too much sugar; then next in line is too much flour; third in line is too much salt. This was hugely disappointing as it has 2 out of 3 pet peeve factors. I actually like the Manila Garden version even with the over abundance of flour because they also add garlic in addition to salt and pepper – and at $4.99 per order the Manila Garden version is 1.5 times larger than this one. My favorite place for this is still Chef Lau’s or whatever its name is now.

The last item to arrive was the fried rice – usually one of the first dishes to arrive, unless dining banquet style in which case it is considered a filler at the end of the meal. I don’t know if they intended to attempt a fine dining style or if they were just working out opening day kinks; maybe I’ll have to try them again in a few months. The “dry scallop” part actually lived up to its name, although not as prominent as Legendary’s version. But everything else about it didn’t match the name… the “seafood” was barely “sea-n” (seen), only a few miniscule bits of scallop and squid. Done properly, this should be one of the better quality fried rices on any Chinese menu; usually consisting of egg white, plenty of shredded dry scallop, thin slices of Yau Tsai (Chinese broccoli) stem, and any other ingredients the house chooses to put in. Overall this dish tasted fine, it was just skimpy on the ingredients.

For dessert, the waitstaff gave us a plate of orange slices. All in all, the service was quite efficient for an opening night. After tax, the bill came to roughly $28 for 3, and we barely had anything left. Usually when we eat at Manila Garden in a party of 3, we come out paying about $22 after tax, with enough leftovers for an entire dinner the next night. Since this was their opening night, I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and return in a few months to see if the servings are larger and better quality.

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