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Foodie Journal

Cha Chaan Teng vs Chop Suey Diners

For those of you who are familiar with my Yelp reviews, I tend to frequent two specific styles of restaurants/diners in the San Francisco Bay Area.  One type is referred to as “cha chaan teng” or “tea spot.”  The other places which are rarer and dying out are the “chop suey” spots.

Prior to the Asian mass immigration wave to the US in 1965, most Chinese restaurants in the Chinatown area or even restaurants outside of Chinatown that were operated by Chinese owners were mostly classified as a “chop suey” restaurant.  Ironically no two “chop suey” dishes were identical because each restaurant operator had a different definition and recipe for chop suey.  It was pretty much a made up generic name for a dish.  Granted, Chinese customers wouldn’t order it for themselves and for good reason.  Chop suey was basically the “specials.”  So whatever didn’t sell on Monday was “chop suey” for Tuesday.  During those times, restaurant patrons were a mix of Chinese customers and non-Chinese customers, so the owners/operators offered a balanced menu of quick Chinese dishes as well as short-order American or Western dishes.  Majority of chop suey houses would offer both a standard American breakfast (eggs, toast, bacon/sausage, hotcakes, omelette, ect) as well as the Chinese standard fried rice, noodles, ect.  Compared to other genres of restaurants, the prices were way lower the most other kinds of restaurants.  In the 1970s in the Chinatowns, the chop suey houses were a main staple that was dying out to the newer style of Asian restaurants due to the wave of 65 and the aftermath of the Southeast Asian war ravaged refugee wave.  My childhood memories consisted of an American style breakfast with my grandfather in Chinatown as he sat down for his coffee and whatever daily special the chop suey house promoted that day.  

One of the older chop suey houses was renovated in the mid-70s and became what was the first known “cha chaan teng” format.  Kay Wah on Webster Street in Oakland’s Chinatown offered a menu similar to it’s chop suey predecessor with a few slightly different items.  Tea was the default beverage, but older patrons could still opt for coffee.  The western breakfast was still offered along with other western entrees.  Then the Hong Kong style noodles and jook (congee) was offered along with other sorts of then unknown hor d’oeuvres based out of Hong Kong.  The owners of Kay Wah were immigrants from Hong Kong who wanted to create more of a restaurant that was similar those offered in Hong Kong.

Cha Chaan Teng restaurants in Hong Kong took off around the 1950s after the conclusion of World War 2.  It was a hybrid of the Dai Pai Dong outdoors hawker and the indoor faires, offering both quickly prepared Cantonese comfort dishes as well as westernized entrees like pork chop and western breakfasts such as French toast.  Like American diners which were referred to as “coffee shops,” because the default beverage for adults was coffee, “cha” means “tea,” so the interpretation (not necessarily a direct translation) of a cha chaan teng can be “tea shop.”  Most common of the simplified cha chaan teng in Hong Kong were those that was limited to the Cantonese BBQ entres (roasted fowl and roasted pork) soup noodles and jook along with 2-3 western entrees with a choice of generic pasta or rice.  Then you can choose between continuing to drink the default generically prepared cup of tea that’s offered upon entering, or milktea or coffee.  Recently the more modern cha chaan teng tries to offer as much variety and has offered a dessert menu.  Nowadays there’s a very fine line between the mainline cha chaan teng and the HK style dessert cafe.  

Nowadays one cannot find any spot called a “chop suey house.”  They’re still around, but they don’t offer “chop suey.”  Lun Ting Cafe on Jackson Street in San Francisco can be categorized as such a spot, though they don’t really offer breakfast.  In SF Chinatown, this place is nicknamed “the pork chop house” because of their inexpensive port entrees.  Before Capital became a lunch and dinner only restaurant and before Yelp made them notorious for their signature chicken wings, they could’ve been categorized as a chop suey house because they did offered western breakfast and I believe they still offer a daily special western entree menu.  Lastly I placed Golden Coffee Shop on Leavenworth and Sutter as a chop suey house because of their extensive breakfast menu along with a limited generic quickly prepared Chinese menu.  Why I don’t classify them as a cha chaan teng is because 1) the Chinese dishes are prep in an older way that was commonly practiced by the earlier Chinese immigrants and 2) either their milktea is terribly prepared because they simply don’t know how to make it or it simply isn’t offered.  3) they’re still owned and operated by older Chinese immigrants from Canton China who settled in the States prior to post Southeast Asian war immigration wave in the 1970s-80s.

ABC can be proclaimed as a cha chaan teng as well as VIP Bakery.  Yes, I said BAKERY.  VIP is my favorite “goto” cha chaan teng spot because their baked western entree items and their freshly made milkteas (both hot and cold) Western “baked” items is normally a western entree covered in tomato paste gravy over either rice of generic spaghetti. (I need to emphasize “generic”)  In Oakland, my “goto” is a spot called Saint Anna’s Cafe because of their baked item and they too make a fresh brew milktea both hot and cold.  The latest trend for the cha chaan teng restaurants is the offering of the “steamboat” menu.  (“Da Been Lo”) Personally, I’m not a big fan of it because when I goto a restaurant, I want those working in the restaurant to cook, I don’t want to goto a restaurant and cook the food myself, which is what the steamboat format is.  There’s a reason why I default the Star rating on Yelp to 1 Star if I find my hot beverage or food prepared in the microwave.  That’s unacceptable for a restaurant to do that.  Why am I paying for food from a restaurant if it’s prepared from a microwave?  I may as well buy dinner from an AM/PM or 7-11.  Anyways some cha chaan teng are offering a steamboat menu now. (Sorry to go off on a tangent)

For those of you wondering if I’m not a fan of Korean self-cooking bbq.  I’m a fan of the taste of Korean bbq, I’m not a fan of having to grill the meat myself.  I’m supposed to pay gratuity on top of that when I did the cooking?  

90% of my regular dining out experience will fall into either categories of former chop suey houses or cha chaan teng.  It’s inexpensive, quick, a pretty large quantity for the price, and I love my milkteas.  Lastly, I miss Southeast Asia so much, it takes me back there without needing to fork out a plane ticket.  

Yelpisode-Dim Sum King

So what’s been making the round in the social media circle in the immediately Bay Area especially the foodie and the Asian community is photos and footages of a rat which landed on a restaurant patron while dining in Dim Sum King in Daly City.  Apparently a group of young Asian American adults decided to celebrate a birthday at the restaurant when a rat from the overhang landed on the shoulders of the one celebrating his birthday.  In this age of video and photo blog on cell phones, the guest of honor ended up being the rat.

Since then, several members of the celebrants as well as a couple of patrons who were there at that time immediately went on Yelp and report the incident along with the digital evidence.  Now the video footage and photo has been making rounds since the incident which took place around the 10th or 11th of this month.

Predictably, in the aftermath of the distribution of the news, I counted 3 new reviews praising the restaurant from reviewers who submitted a review for the 1st time.  Now granted the timing could merely be a coincidence.  However with all this talk and speculation about the Yelp practices, algorithms and all, this is a wonderful opportunity to really see if Yelp can practice what it publicizes.  If the algorithm truly works and the newbies are to have the reviews under scrutiny, why were there three new profiles created within the last 6 months placing their first review praising the restaurant?  It should also be noted that several negative reviews had been removed by Yelp as a “violation of terms” that were posted in the aftermath of the rat incident. (Reviews posted Oct 10-16, 2013) have been filtered.  

I’ve patronized Dim Sum King over the years and never placed a review on the spot.  Normally I took the food to-go, and maybe perhaps I dined there like maybe twice.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Have I had better dim sum? Yes.  Is it worse than other location, no.  Having lived in Daly City for the past 7 years, my only choices were DSK, Koi which is not only pricey, but extremely too long a wait, Tai Wu which is on par with DSK, and TC Pastry which is not only mainly a “togo” spot, but a spot that I made sure was negatively reviewed on Yelp because of their out of the ordinary hideous rude service.

Would I go there after the rat incident?  Maybe after the health department steps in and there is sufficient time for the place to clean up it’s act.  It’s a testament to that entire strip mall located off Skyline Blvd. What concerns me is that it is so close proximity to a health clinic.  If for no other reason, San Mateo County Health Department needs to get their tails there ASAP.  Maybe it’s just in that restaurant only, maybe it’s that entire building which would also include the clinic, Skyline Cafe which hygienic practices I criticized on Yelp also,  Teaven, and 2 other spots.  Regardless I remain unaffected by this episode because I’m not a regular patron to begin with, and there are at least 2 choices for dim sum that I’d goto first.  

In the aftermath of all the back and forth-ness on social media and Yelp, if the health department goes on as business as usual without at least one visit to Dim Sum King within the next 14 days of the reported incident, then may I present to you an incident where the social media has failed.  

Rights of the Billionaire

Billionaires have the privilege of being doing and having what they want when they want to.  It’s the benefit of creating an enormous amount of material wealth.  They earned the right to purchase and have what they want.  They created the freedom and liberty to do as they please.

So most recently, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys NFL team has been chastised for the fact that he chose to use an older model flip phone.  As he was watching the game from his owner box, the television crew broadcast footage of him utilizing a flip phone.  From that point on, numerous people have criticized him for his choice.  After-all what’s a billionaire doing with an old flip phone?

Until I become owner of an NFL franchise, until I’m able to single-handedly build a multi-billion dollar stadium facility, until I own my own jet, I will never criticize Mr Jones for his choice of equipment.  Actually what he chooses to use for communication is none of my business in the first place.  I’m in disbelief that the amount of unnecessary publicity regarding the situation been so excessive.  

Actually, I shouldn’t be so surprised.

I don’t know how many people have actually transformed their lifestyle as a result of the income they created for themselves, however after all the personal development training I’ve undergone, a significant amount of people have augmented their income.  For some reason, people want people with goals to fail else they go out of their way to fault-finding.

I know at the height of my pursuit of an acting career, those closest to me growing up kept waiting for me to fail.  They could only be so happy to say “I knew it.  I told you so.”  This was as if their only purpose in life was to say those 4 words.  In the aftermath of completing my only feature film, a few of my friends complained to other acquaintances about how “I changed.”  

Funny, people live for two phrases when those close to them decide to challenge themselves to take their lives onto the next level.

"I told you so," if they were unable to take it to the next level.

"You changed" if they supposedly succeeded.  

In the case of Jerry Jones, it was really neither one of those phrases.  It was “how can a billionaire use something so obsolete.”  Ironically those were the same folks who criticized him for “being excessive” when his Cowboys Stadium was under construction.  

Best thing to do when pursuing a goal or pursuing a purpose or simply trying to take your life to the next level.  Go collecting.  Collect as many cheerleaders, supporters, people who are like-minded because the majority of people will sit and do their own thing, while occasionally check in on your progress or lack of so they can blurt out their all to comfortable phrases:

"I told you so"

"You changed"  (Add the headshake of disapproval)

And remember while at the top of the peak and you’re calling someone with a flip phone.  

Just remember you can most likely purchase a case of the top of the line latest gadget, so to heck with the critics.  

Our parent organization from Hong Kong.  夏國璋龍獅團.  We simply refer to them as HK YKM

This was their winning routine in 2010.  Even after three years, it’s one of my favorite Mui Fa Jong performance, and after 20+ years of lion dancing, I’ve seen a LOT of lion dance performances.  

Yau Kung Moon was the 1st to bring the LED illuminated lions and dragons to the SF Bay Area.  

Bio on a Bay Area Foodie

I don’t know when the term “foodie” became mainstream and I heard it as a description of me about a year prior to my first Yelp review.  Actually, I really don’t consider myself as a “foodie” because based on definitions, I’m not a gourmet type of person.  In fact, typical foodies tend to gravitate more towards upscale fusion restaurants with an extensive beer and wine list. 

1) Fusion restaurants for the most part or at least 4/5 fusion restaurants are a pet peeve of mine when it comes to eating.

2) I drink alcoholic beverages very seldom.  I couldn’t differentiate between a Napa 1997 vintage chardonnay and East Oakland white ripple. Both will create the same effect: me apologizing to someone the next day after consumption.  

3) Eating is not a hobby for me.  It’s a necessity.  I’m sure it’s a necessity for the majority of us.

That said, my interest in trying out food and such was due to the fact that I grew up in a family where the majority earned a living working directly or indirectly in the food and beverage industry.  Even for myself, my first after-school job was at a movie theater snack bar, and I had a very demanding boss who insisted on fresh snacks, ultra clean facility, and a sincere smile customer service level.  That was my first training in how to serve the public.  That’s not to mention the fact that my grandmother’s take-out business in Berkeley during the late 1960s and early 1970s prior to her position as hostess for Silver Dragon Restaurant impacted me also.  (I didn’t know how to t/walk during those times, but I clearly recall my grandmother and my parents who occasionally worked the front counter able to know the names of their regular customers)  Even in the early 2000s, past customers from China Kitchen approach me about my grandmother’s specialty chow mein dish and lament over how it’s no longer prepared that way.  I should know because a very common theme of my Yelp reviews were about pursuing Cantonese restaurants who prepared their dishes in a similar manner as my grandmother.  

I dined out often due to the fact that because I live alone in a studio apartment, cooking for myself proved to be too costly and wasteful because I chose not to utilize a microwave oven.  So whatever I cooked for myself needed to be completely consumed otherwise the contents were thrown out the following day.  Dining out, especially meals were large quantity/low price were a way of life for me because such meals served as both meals for the day.  That is provided I was able to reheat the items on the non-stick frying pan.  Honestly, I simply got too lazy to cook for myself.  Meeting friends for dinner, sharing food and chillaxin conversations became the norm.  

I’m spoiled when it came to home-cooked meals because my grandfather was a hired cook for Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard, and as I mentioned, my grandmother ran a Chinese take-out.  Eating home-cooked Chinese and American dishes that were restaurant quality was an every day affair.  My father worked for the local butchers union, and my grandparents passed their cuisine skills onto my mother, who was able to take my father’s choice quality meat and create home-prepared masterpieces that would rival and beat many local popular restaurants.

Growing up, on average 5 dinners out of the 7 per week were home-cooked by my mother.  She was able to cook most Cantonese, American (let me clarify “American” first: steaks, pork chops, salads, different sorts of chicken) and even other cuisines like soul food ham hocks and Mexican enchiladas.  Those other days were “grandparents day,” (normally every Tuesdays as that was my grandmother’s day off) where it normally rotated “Goong Goong”(grandfather) preparing western dishes one week, “Pau Pau” (grandmother) preparing not just Cantonese dishes, but more specifically Sun Wui local dishes the following week, or the grandparents would pick a restaurant for the family to meet when they chose not to cook.  

I was spoiled to say the least.  

My mom’s younger sister was married to someone who was well-connected with the local philanthropy community.  She was very well-versed on the ins and outs of the upper echelon regarding dining etiquettes and she made sure my sister and myself knew our P’s and Q’s.  Even in my high school humanities class, we took a week to learn how to dine at a fine restaurant.  

So not only did I know food, I knew how to behave.  I don’t necessarily chose to nowadays, but I could pretty much dine anywhere and everywhere if need be.  

The San Francisco Bay Area is an international city located on a coast.  The diversity is one of the main characteristic of the area and definitely one of the strengths of the area.  Anyone who was born and reared within the region having an area code of 415, 510, 408, 925, 707, and 650 can be considered bless with an access to so many cultures.  The variety of cuisine is endless because I’m also including the regional cuisine of other parts of America as well.  All it takes is a transplant who misses their comfort food and voila, you have a new dining spot.  

By the time Yelp hit the online scene, the local born and bred Bay Arean migrated elsewhere while transplant far and wide came in and added to the dynamics of the area.  Unfortunately they brought along with them their lack of appreciation for diversity and a lack of tolerance.  Even those who sought to escape from persecution as a closeted member of the LGBT community and were seeking refuge in the LGBT-friendly Bay Area held onto intolerance and a lack of understanding of those from differing ethnicities.  Therefore, ratings on certain ethnic restaurants were skewed because of the demand to accommodate the needs of the average reviewer.  Older established restaurants gave way and had to either change dramatically or close down altogether.  

So what kind of restaurants do I actually like?  Truthfully, restaurants that I frequent averages a 3.75 out of 5 Stars on my OWN YELP RATING.  The food may hover on average to above average and/or the food may be exceptional but the lack of service level may deter business.  I am a sucker for comfort food.  I have no dietary restrictions other than I don’t have the capacity to handle hot spicy food.  When it comes to “Chinese” food, my favorite category of “Chinese” food is homestyle Cantonese fare that are normally not found in places categorized as “Chinese” on Yelp and averages 4.5 Stars.  My definition of a “good burger” is a juicy, balanced seasoned medium cooked burger, crispy fries, and a great-tasting milkshake.  I have my “goto” spot in San Francisco, but unfortunately my Oakland spot no longer exist.  Make me a good sandwich and I’ll be a lifelong friend.  Chicken and waffles along with mac n cheese and cornbread with a homemade sugar water beverage puts a smile on my face.  My definition of “fine dining” would either consist of a filet mignon or a slice of prime rib.  Seafood is more tricky as simple is better when it comes to preparations.  I’m just not a big fan of complicated sauces, marinades, gravy, juice on seafood, ie shrimp, crab, lobster, fish.  Freshness goes a long way.  The period of time between death of the sea creature and dinner has to be as short as possible.  My father grew his own vegetables in our yard when I was growing up.  I can tell the difference between a zucchini from the store as opposed to a zucchini freshly grown.  (BTW, crushed garlic and olive oil is the simplest quickest tastiest way to stir-fry sliced zucchini)  Meatloaf and ketchup is home, hearty, and heaven.  Oh and as someone who grew up in a Chinese-American family, all western dishes were accompanied by Chinese white rice.  Yes, that means that a “prime rib dinner” meant, tossed salad, slice of prime rib, side of cook vegetables (stir fried broccoli, or stir fried sliced zucchini) and steamed rice.  Oh wait a second…I was supposed to describe the restaurants I like going to, not describe the food I enjoy.  OK…I like places that prepares the food as I described and the cheaper the better!  

Like I stated I rarely cook, but I do know how to cook and I do have my recipes from my parents and grandparents.  If anyone ever questions my love and care for them after I put forth cooking a meal for them, then they totally missed the point.

Being the Anti-Yelp

To this day I have no idea what it meant to be “Yelp Elite” even though I carried that badge of honor on my Yelp profile from 2009, 2010, and 2011.  All I can say is that I’ve seen the Elite members cyber bully the non Elite on Yelp Talk time and time again, and at times, felt their occasional wrath even though I had Elite status.  

Not only are the Elite Yelpers and even the non Elite Yelpers a bunch of entitled pretentious spoiled brats, they really place themselves under the delusion that they are some sort of food critic. Does Yelp still serve a purpose for me?  Yes.  Though unlike the average Yelper who does not look beyond the star rating system, I actually take the time and read the actual reviews on the business of interest.  To be honest there was a rare moment that I patronized a business BECAUSE of the 1 Star rating, and I took the time to read the reason why they received a 1 Star rating from the reviewers.  After doing so, I was like, “that’s why I’d eat there,” so I did.  Thank you for not liking the place cause I loved it.  

BTW, don’t even get me started on Yelpers who review Chinese restaurants who aren’t Chinese.  I’ll say it: NO, YOU HAVE NO FRIGGIN CLUE ON WHAT GOOD CHINESE FOOD IS. I don’t give a rat’s ass if your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, hubby or last one night stand is Chinese and took you to their favorite Chinese spot.  

The following is a recent review I posted on a place called Elios Family Restaurant:

This is one of those locations that I considered to be an “ENDANGERED SPECIES” for the typical foodie.  No, this spot has no signature dishes or entrees, nor will they host some Elite event for those pretentious wannabes, and none of their items were farmed by some niman angus, grass-fed whatever wherever ranch.  Actually, the fact that the majority of pretentious Yelpers would “1 Star” a location like this is part of the appeal.  It’s the last of those greasy spoon diners where the wait staff will be overheard in insulting the regulars with love and affection, while double-checking if their regulars want their “usuals.”  

This is old skool.  That’s why the average age of patrons hovers around age 60.  (At least perhaps 80% average age 80)  The reality is that the typical restaurant in the Bay Area that averages 4.5 Stars on Yelp would most likely not accommodate those type of patrons.  Your “we need to rid them out of the Bay Area cause they’re part of the problem” typical hipster would 1-Star this place immediately based on just clientele alone.  On the menu, their “cherry Coke” is a “Roy Rogers,” and the “cherry 7Up” is a “Shirley Temple.”  How many of the average Yelper know who those folks are? (I admit, I cheated, I wiki’d Roy!) 

I liked this spot because I ordered a steak and eggs and that’s what I got.  I asked for a “medium” steak, and my steak was cooked medium.  When I received my toast with the meals, they brought up an entire tray of jams/preserves to choose from.  Normally at the older greasy spoons that still exist especially in San Francisco, the Asian aunties who run those spot would normally skimp and give JUST ONE package of jam for two toasts, with no choice of flavor.  And God forbid, if you ask for an extra packet of jam or to change flavors, you’d have to deal with being cussed in their native language or have to tip them more out of gratitude because they granted your request.  Not so here, our waitperson checked up on us numerous times, made sure we were well supplied on the condiments needed, gave us refills before the last sip of “Roy Rogers.”    

I’m sure my fellow Yelpers wouldn’t put forth an effort to save this endangered species of an institution.  Look, Silver Dragon, Bancheros, other “family” (ie, seniors and young children) restaurants have gone by the wayside in the last three years while boutiquish spots that doesn’t really accommodate the entire family sprout up with their wine list and farmer’s market special salad of the days.  If anything, my enjoyment of this spot is more about the weariness I’ve accumulated as a Yelper over the pretentiousness and entitlement of other Yelpers believing in their own BS that they’re some sort of trained restaurant critic.  

I’d rather dine in a spot with average to above average food, cheap prices and service who really cares about their patrons regardless of age than to dine at a spot who received a 5 Star ROTD where a bunch of rolling eyes are the norm.  This place is definitely the former.


Why did I write such a review?  Well a spot like this is dying out to the so-called upscale dining experience, and the typical Yelper looks down on the average patrons of such spots.  (One reviewer gave a 1 Star because the majority of the senior-aged patrons “depressed him”)  Yet, I see other Yelpers downgrade a restaurant’s rating all because the spot wouldn’t accommodate their friggin pets.  Or the Yelper who made sure a star was deducted from their dim sum restaurant because of the annoying crying baby sitting at the next table.  Perhaps growing up in Oakland during the crack epidemic caused me to be a little more tolerant of public surroundings like restaurants.  Oakland had it’s share of good-eats growing up and whatever access baggage that accompanied the good eats such as shady regulars, shady employees, substandard service, panhandlers on the entryway, and even fights breaking out at the restaurant were simply dealt with.  There was no Yelp to virally broadcast the dysfunction.  

Over the past few years, I have used Yelp as a form of therapy.  If I had received crappy service somewhere, I vented my frustration in the form of a negative review.  It was therapeutic.  I voiced my opinion and aired my perceived violation.  It was heads up for those who chose to read my reviews before patronizing the said business.  If I could deter one potential business away, then I felt vindicated.  Sometimes it was simply a form of feedback for the owner to see on how their employees behaved.  In the cases of a spot like Quicklys, the point was mute as for the most part the FOB owners didn’t give a damn about service level so long as they sold enough crappy drinks.  I have still yet to find a Quicklys to serve hot beverages NOT microwaved.  When my friend from Singapore who once worked for a local Quicklys there read my reviews, she was shocked and flabbergasted because Singapore would shut down a spot doing such practices.  I don’t know why the local health department here in the Bay Area allowed the practice to begin with.  I’ve 1 Starred businesses owned by my friends, and that placed a damper on our friendship, but I wasn’t going to lie and they knew that about me.  But nowadays, Yelp has gotten out of hand.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  I’m sure they have coerced businesses to pay the cyber extortion fee while writing off the Elite events as a tax write-off.  That attitude trickled onto the Yelpers now and hence why you have the entitled bullshitters who currently dominate the site.  

From this point forward, I’m going to review businesses here, giving contact info, no star rating, but a basic, recommend, not recommend, what I liked/disliked and why.  In a lot of ways, my foodie days are over and I rarely try new restaurants.  I am finding myself set in my ways going to the same spots that I like over and over.  But it is good to have choices.  I’m sure when the choices run low (business closes shop) I’ll find myself reviewing new spots again.