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Hunting for Heavenly Hot & Sour

carnivore | Dec 19, 200312:25 PM

Summer, five years ago...

It was an overcast day in San Francisco (I hear this is common). I had just graduated from college and a career was on the horizon, but all was not well. Being forced out of New York for financial reasons and having broken up with my girlfriend had put me in a sour but not so hot mood; not to mention, the thought of having to move to L.A. after living four glorious years in Manhatten -- ugh. Nevertheless, I found myself in this strange city heartbroken but still, like always, famished. Instead of doing something rash, like eating at McDonalds, or worse, the Cheesecake factory, I wandered, or should I say, hiked up into some Chinatown eatery/dive. It was there that my palate was soon soothed, my soul suddenly nurished by an all-too-unexpected discovery: really, really good hot & sour soup. Instantly, faint memories of NY Chinatown starters vanished from memory. This stuff was truly Old Testament manna: made from a base of Chinese superior stock with the hint of chicken, pork, and even seafood essence. There were slivers of pork as well as shrimp both juicy and succulent. The bamboo shoots were undoubtably fresh. So were the Lily buds and tofu equally vibrant. And the woodear mushrooms weren't the usual beef tendon wannabees but melted luxuriously into the broth. Best of all, the seasoning was mindblowingly perfect: vinegary, naturally sweet with stock richness, and just the right amount of soy, chili oil, and pepper. Finally, all elements of this heavenly stew were tied together with currents of just-cooked egg and shards of sharp scallion. This soup was truly more than the sum of it's parts, exploding with adictive, enigmatic goodness which one may occasionally experience in a chips $ salsa find or those elusively spiced steak frites in some out-of-the-way bistro.

Ever since then, I have been on a quest for this hot and sour soup of legendary status in Los Angeles. But so far, my journey has yielded a few bowls of mediocre soy-ginger flavored chicken stock and way too many flat-out nasty concoctions. The verdict on the hot & sour soup of Westside fame (J&R, Chin-chin, Panda, ect.): ugh! Although Thi's description of Oriental Pearl's sichuan flavoring freshness is mostly right on, their hot & sour soup is at best disappointing with the background taste of stale dried mushrooms. The offering from Ocean Seafood downtown was pretty lame, too.

So, my fellow chowhounders, I am still searching fevorishly for that ultimate bowl of that Chinese-American favorite that haunted me in a most excellent way five years ago in San Francisco. Yes, I may have left my heart there but for damn sure not my appetite. Any ideas?

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