Friday, January 30, 2009

If Only These Walls Can Talk @ Dean Sin World (Monterey Park)


They just took off the bakery sign and hastily put up a banner

Before you take a bite of that dumpling you just ordered in a tea house or a local Shanghai eatery, ask yourself this one question: Are these dumplings made by Dean Sin World? Chances are, it might be.

Dean Sin World comes to us at a time when dumpling houses are exploding everywhere in SGV as it seems. Dumplings were the rage in 2006 as the must get comfort food and was one of the most popular take out items that can rival a Taco Bell chalupa. Little did we know, Dean Sin World actually was here in the old days (as in a few years ago), but we just didn't know it.

Before starting up this restaurant, two sisters decided to go into wholesale business selling dumplings and other small snacks to supermarkets, bakeries, and other snack eateries places. Chances are, you might see some small items like their sesame cake being repackaged with labels of the proprietor's own brand. These two sisters also make their signature dumplings in huge packs for restaurants across SGV.

Think about it for a moment, it's not the boiling of these dumplings that are hard, it's the wrapping of each and every single one of these dumplings that will take so much time. Not too many places would take that much effort and energy into make dumplings from scratch.

The hard work effort finally paid off for them to open up a small place on Garvey Avenue on the same plaza as Giang Nan. The place is still going through *cough* renovations *cough*, but it's a work in progress to get the places more ready for a mini cafe experience.


Chinese menu on the wall

Barebone with almost non-existent decor and no ambiance of any kind to speak of, at least we were thrilled that most of the dumplings and four choices of noodle cost less than $5. We knew that we can eat a lot for cheap and that's how exactly what me and my pal Danny did that night.

To start off, we ordered a lotus sesame cake that only dinged us for a dollar each. Lao Bang Nian (English translation: old boss lady) gave us each a cup of complimentary soy bean milk to go along with this delicious starter.


Sesame Lotus cake ($1 each) with Hot Soy Bean Milk

The signature items were the juicy pork dumplings and their home made boiled dumplings are the specialty, we decided to divide and conquered to ordered one boiled pork dumpling with leaks to start off, then getting a bowl of noodle for a main course with the juicy soup dumplings to cap our night.

The boiled pork dumplings with leaks are very delicious when you dipped it in a chili sauce. I don't think dumplings have any kind of stink like some of these pork with leaks at other places would exhibit. They pretty much keep ingredients simple and fresh so that your taste buds won't get ruined by that weird after taste.


Boiled Pork Dumplings with Leaks ($4.25)

The Xiao Long Bao (Juicy Soup pork dumpling) were wrapped very well without breaking apart or having the soup leaked through before you picked it up with the chopsticks. I also enjoyed the fact there were plenty of soup inside the bao when it was piping hot. Give them credit for making it hot and fresh without being over cook which would lead to dryness on both the skin and lack of soup.


Xiao Long Bao (Steamed Juicy Pork Soup Dumplings) - $4.85

Before the noodle came out, we also ordered a pan fried baos. Regretfully they ran out of this item as it was sold out right before we came in. They gave us an option of replacing it with goyza (pan fried dumplings aka potstickers), but we politely declined. To make it up to us for the oversight, Lao Bang Nian gave me and friend Danny a bowl of Wine Blew. It's a bowl of sesame and rice bowl in a wine soup. You have to get a taste of this because it has a small hint of wine aroma, but when you take a sip of the soup, I thought for a moment I was getting a rice ball in a sake. It has a sour flavor mixed in with a bit of sugar in the soup.

The rice was fermented for a brief time and it extract the smell of wine. Think of stinky tofu from soy and you get the same idea for wine brew. You are not going to get a sake because ti's still need to be distilled, but this obviously will get still get a texture taste of wine in this fermented rice in this soup. Very offbeat and very cleansing right before our noodle soup.


Wine Brew ($2.75)

To end the night, our shredded pork egg noodle with mustard green was not bad at all. I think our original thought of sticking with the dumplings at this place should have been follow through. Since the dumplings were the specialty of this place, it would been wiser to order a different type of dumplings, but I guess we just wanted to see if the noodle was any good here. Next time, we can figure that out.


Shredded Pork Egg Noodle with Mustard Green ($4.50)

Overall, we did have a very good meal where everything came out to be less than $17 (before tips). It was probably the bargain of the century for two people that were ready to pig out. The service was very good and we even get to share some stories of our foodie adventure with a couple that was sitting next to us.

We were talking about places that we have visited in SGV and compared notes on where else to go for certain cuisines. Good ol' Lao Bang Nian shared us some of her stories as well and told us about the deeds regarding the businesses in all parts of SGV. Right before we left, we all complimented on how we love her dumplings and have made comparisons to others. She then let us know on a little bombshell: some of those places served her dumplings.

The sisters are still in the wholesale business of selling dumplings to restaurants. When some of the names of popular tea house chains and a few of the well known Shanghai restaurants have all served her dumplings, that's when my jaw had dropped. It's one thing to have your innocence shattered, it's another to have been told there was no Santa Claus. One of those place she mentioned of serving her dumplings was a well known place I have frequented before.

So before you take that bite of the dumpling you have just ordered, ask yourself that one question: did you just ordered a Dean Sin World dumpling? If so, why not come here and ordered here?

Dean Sin World
306 N Garfield Ave #2
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 571-0636

Grade:

Dean Sin World on Urbanspoon

Dean Sin World in Los Angeles

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Epic Bánh Mì crawl along Valley Blvd @ San Gabriel Valley

Before anyone start jumping up and down about the carbo overload, let's sit back and access on why I want to go through the madness of Bánh mì (in my fantasy world, this would be the name of my 2nd wife).

HUGE WARNING: It's a long review with visits of 7 places along Valley Blvd in San Gabriel Valley, east side of LA county. If you want a cheatsheet, go down towards the bottom of this entire section of review where I will give the recaps and final analysis of the 7 places I have visited.

Why in the world would I be obsessed with Bánh mì sandwiches? In my college days, I was a poor lad that didn't have much money to spend on finer things, especially on food. I cherish the value of the American dollar and would maximized it to its full potential. You can imagine that my buddy Kevin hated shopping with me at Costco when I demanded he bring his Cadillac because his car got a bigger trunk and we would be on a Saturday afternoon run for that Donkey Kong-sized box of Hot Pockets.

My world changed in an instant and the quality of my life improves when an ex-coworker of mine bought some supermarket made Bánh mì sandwiches for lunch. When I asked him how much, he told me to keep my money in my wallet as he played it off like a major baller. When I nagged enough, he told me that these 8 inch sandwiches were bought at a Vietnamese market in Westminster for 65 cents each.

My jaws dropped. I have never looked back since then.

For a quality Bánh mì sandwich, most places used a baguette sandwich bun and have all sort of veggie ingredients mixed with the choice of meat. The usual suspect for these veggies would include cucumbers, carrot, cilantro, onion, Chinese radish, and jalapeno pepper. To fill up the sandwich, the meat would includes from various pork pate, spam meatballs, grilled or roasted pork, shredded chicken, or just leave it alone with plain vegetable sandwich.

For my little Bánh mì crawl, I picked 7 of the more frequent sandwich shoppes along Valley Blvd in San Gabriel Valley area. I skipped Lee's Sandwiches because I detested them and would never acknowledged them until they improved on the quality of the meat for their sandwiches.

Let's break it down on the positives and negatives of each shop with a little recap at the end.

*******************************************

Stop #1: Ba Le French Sandwich & Bakery

Scene: I supposed this place should have been a standalone bakery, but we are finding out it's a front for these sandwich shop these days. There is no dining area to speak of, where it's practically a take-out joint. The service was not bad, but having two cute girls working is always a plus for the gents.

Positive: Their #2 special of guess the meat sandwich is awesome! They don't have a name for that #2 special which I'm guessing it's two forms of pork pate and ham on the sandwich. Ba Le French is very generous on their veggie toppings, especially with the radish, carrot, and cilantro. Very tasty for a guess the meat special.


#2 Special

Check out their regular pork pate sandwich also. That was quite good with most of the sandwiches for less than $3.

Negative: No ambiance, no decor. Price of those sandwiches justify the low maintenance of the place. They pretty much want you to take the sandwich home and eat.

Ba Le French Sandwich & Bakery
1426 S Atlantic Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 308-3003

Grade:

Ba Le French Sandwich & Bakery on Urbanspoon

*****************************

Stop #2: Banh Mi & Che Cali

Scene: Yay! It's a restaurant. You also can ordered just the sandwiches if you like as they have a register for take outs and small bagged items. One of the three stops in this epic crawl that have a dining room area.

Positive: When I first came here, they had a buy-one get-one free special on their ice coffee. To top it all off, they also had a special where if you buy two of their sandwiches of $2.50 or higher, you get the third sandwich for free. Some of the "economy priced" sandwiches are in smaller portion. However, if you are willing to spend a little bit more for the bigger sandwich, you can get a free sandwich out of it for the meal tomorrow.

Thit Nuong (Grilled Pork Sandwich)

My favorite sandwich is the Thit Nuong (Grilled Pork Sandwich) which was very tender and succulent. I also love the flavor of how they grill the pork for the sandwich. The toppings was very heavy loaded.

Negative: I didn't like their Ga sandwich (chicken) which was way too dry. One thing that didn't sit well with me was also their bread. It was too hard and crunchy. The way on how the bread was breaking, you would have thought you were eating a salad because you can break the bread like a crouton. I also hope that they can slice the pepper and cucumber into much more smaller pieces because the big portion was way too much to swallow in those big pieces.

Banh Mi & Che Cali
647 W Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 293-8396

Grade:

Banh Mi Che Cali on Urbanspoon

**************************

Stop #3: Banh Mi My-Tho

Scene: The place looked more like a mini mart or a liquor store. There is no way you can grab one of the two table situated outside of the place because some regulars would just socialized in front of the store all day long. It's best to go home with the sandwich or eat it in your car.

Positive: Long lines means something is about to get good. It definitely did not disappoint after what it seemed eternity when the sandwich was finally ready to be picked up. The BBQ Meatball sandwich is delicious! The meatballs are cut into smaller one quarter of a size with the vegetable toppings adequately sliced thin that made it even more enjoyable to eat. The bread wasn't as impressive as some of the baguette bakery stores, but the meat more than make it up.


BBQ Meatball Sandwich

The service was a major plus here as the young man manning the counter was polite to everyone and was on his toes taking orders and sending the sandwiches to the appropriate customers.

Negative: Not really anything major to report. The place was just tiny and because people are standing around waiting for their food next to the refrigerator section, which made it impossible to grab any drinks or get any other small items to go along with the sandwich. In fact I was thirsty afterward. I blamed it more on the loitering customers who are waiting for their orders than Banh Mi My-Tho. However, the small space was the contributing reason for that problem because they had missed out on potential extra sales.

Banh Mi My-Tho
304 W Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 289-4160

Grade:

Banh Mi My Tho on Urbanspoon

****************************************

Stop #4: Saigon's Bakery & Sandwiches

Scene: This place has all the reminiscences of a bakery. They have a full operation of baking ovens and a station counter where you can see the line cooks constructing those delicious sandwiches. Surprisingly, only two of these sandwiches have make their operation out in the open. As in for the dining area, only three small tables for a sit down. Like most of the others, it's strictly a take out joint.

Positive: This shop is my favorite Bánh mì sandwich shoppe at this installment of the crawl. Hands down they got best baguette where they bake it fresh, one of the more affordable prices at $2.00 (it used to be $2 even with sales tax included, but they increased the price by 17 cents), and one of the better deal in town. If you buy three of the sandwiches, you get a free loaf of long 24" baguette to take a home. Also, one of the friendliest and fastest service in customer service which was another badge of honor for them.


Free loaf of Baguette when you purchase three or more sandwiches

One of my favorite sandwich was their Vietnamese Ham sandwich which was loaded with the right portions of the assorted condiments and ham in the soft, chewy baguette. The ice coffee is a also cheap and delightful companion to whichever sandwich you get. Majority of the time, you will see customers walking out with at least three sandwiches, a free loaf of baguette, and an ice coffee.


Ham Sandwich

Negative: They need to have more room or space for dining. Maybe set up an outdoor patio? Otherwise, no major complaints from me.

Saigon's Bakery and Sandwiches
718 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-6475

Grade:

Saigon's Bakery and Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

*************************************************

Stop #5: Bale Banh M Coffee and Sandwich Shop

Scene: This place looked like a tiny donut shop with nothing more to speak of. Seriously, I'm not even fronting on this one. There is nothing here that will suggest a sandwich shop. Other than the sign, it would be a pass for me in most days. No dining area and really bare on the selections in the menu. Depressing to come here and makes you want to get out as soon as possible.

Positive: I'll give them this much, the meat loaf sandwich is a hit with me. Often times, this place get high raves from others for the excellent quality in the meat in the sandwiches and some good Vietnamese treats in the store.


Vietnamese Meat Loaf Sandwich

Negative: Oh, where do I start?

I have bad vibes about this place even before I made my payment for my order of sandwiches. It seemed like I had interrupted one of them from watching some sort of V-soap on a mini TV they have in the back. It took a while for them to make any of these sandwiches as I was just lounging around the small shop resembling a donut shop.

The sandwiches themselves have very skimpy amount of both the condiments and the meat. The baguette overshadows and swallow up the entire sandwich where you wouldn't noticed the meat or condiments sticking out from the baguette (not a problem with other places, except for Mr. Baguette). Usually, I complained about too much condiment from other shop, but this place really dialed it down on everything to make sure it is cutting every corners to keep the overhead cost down.

Comparing to other places, there is minimal foot traffic to speak of. I can tell they wanted me out there ASAP when they pretty much slammed the sandwiches in the bag and gave me the cue to go. It's like I have interrupted them at a bad crucial time. Man, I'll never go there again if I knew I am intruding on them from an important V-soap scene.

Bale Banh M Coffee & Sandwiches
725 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 571-5436

Grade:

Bale Banh M Coffee & Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

*****************************

Stop #6: Banh Mi & Che Cali

Scene: Just like the same namesake west on this street, this place also have a big dining room with plenty of tables to enjoy your food. The only issue I have with this place was the sanitation of this place. Otherwise, it's a solid place to sit and eat at this pit stop.

Positive: I love their "Special" combination sandwich. I suspected just like others, it tend to stack with ham and pork pate to along generously with all the veggie condiments.


The Special Combination Sandwich

Negative: Just like their sister location, the buns was way too hard and was breaking like a salad crouton. It's not chewy like most of the others. I'm not expecting soft and chewy baguette, but at the same time it shouldn't be hard & crunchy like a toasted bread. The service could be a little bit more smoother. The construction of the bread is like a conveyor belt like in Lee's Sandwiches where people print up the order and constructed the sandwich right then & there.

The wait time was almost as long as Bale Banh M, but at least those ladies at BBM was a bit peeved when I walked in. These guys at Banh Mi & Che Cali had no excuses and they were really slow at churning out those sandwiches.

Overall, their prices were okay. If I wanted a better price and much more smoother service, I would hit up their identical namesake at Alhambra's location over this one.

Banh Mi & Che Cali
8450 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-5600

Grade:

Banh Mi & Che Cali on Urbanspoon

************************

Stop #7: Mr. Baguette

Scene: Probably the cleanest local and most pleasing in terms of ambiance and decor for the sandwich shoppe on this tour. That's probably the big positive there on this venture.

Positive: Other positive on this final destination? I do love their iced coffee here, as also with their baguette and croissant as well. Considering they were also doubling as a bakery, it would be a good point to make sure they were immaculate at churning out these sandwiches. Their operation is much smoother run than their neighbor a few blocks away, Banh Mi & Che Cali.


Saigon Sandwich

Their Saigon Sandwich with a few variety of meat was also one of my favorite sandwich at this locale. Perfect place to dine in and relax for a quick meal.

Negative: Mr. Baguette charges an arm and a leg for their sandwiches. Their iced coffee was the one going over two bucks, so they set them up as the top echelon in the Bánh mì world. The other negative that I was very down on them was the fact they are too stingy on the veggie condiments in their sandwiches. Now, the meat are getting smaller and the prices are going higher. It does not bode well for them in the long term for me as a customer going in there.

Maybe they can justify it by charging extra for ambiance. For the people want to take it home and there will be plenty of take out orders, it really doesn't make sense for the small portions anyways. Definitely not the best value for the price they are charging for the sandwiches.

Mr. Baguette
8702 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-9166

Grade:

Mr. Baguette on Urbanspoon

***************

The Breakdown:

Best Bread: Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich
Worst Bread: Banh Mi & Che Cali (both locations)

Best Veggie Condiments: Ba Le French Bakery & Sandwiches
Worst Veggie Condiments: Banh Mi & Che Cali (both locations)

Best Meat or Use of the meat in sandwich: Banh Mi My Tho
Worst use of meat: Mr. Baguette

Best Overall Service: Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich, Banh Mi My Tho
Worst Overall Service: Bale Banh M Coffee and Sandwich Shop

Best Overall Price Value : Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich, Banh Mi & Che Chai (Alhambra)
Worst Price Value: Mr. Baguette

**************
Best Overall: Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich, & Banh Mi My Tho

Rankings
1. Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich
2. Banh Mi My Tho
3. Ba Le French Sandwich & Bakery
4. Banh Mi & Che Cali (Alhambra)
5. Banh Mi & Che Cali (Rosemead)
6. Bale Banh M Coffee and Sandwich Shop
7. Mr. Baguette

Saturday, January 24, 2009

BBQ Prayer Answered @ Prayer Assembly Church of God in Christ (Los Angeles)

What is the most unusual place you ever have to go for dinner? For me, it was driving up to a train station for a casual upscale dinner. Coming to a church's parking lot to pick up some BBQ ribs would probably topped that by a mile.

Here's the most unusual part of this story about coming here for BBQ grubs: a church pastor started this venture as a way to raise money in trying to finish building his church around the corner of El Segundo Blvd and Avalon Blvd. There are many different stories out there with many different recollections on how this BBQ was started in the parking lot of Prayer Assembly Church of God.

The most popular retelling of the story was that the church Pastor Clevester Williams was looking for additional funding in finishing building his church. In his humble story, a divine intervention from God one day gave him the solution that he should build a BBQ joint to raise money for the church. All the proceeds that is made from the BBQ operation would go towards the church. It struck a chord with Pastor Williams and indeed he did built a BBQ joint which he have never looked back since.


Did anyone see the letter "A" posted on the window? Wow!

The tradition still continues on Friday and Saturday from 9am to 9pm (flexible schedule) where a catering truck is on the parking lot next to the side of the church. A huge station with a metal tent is where the meat will be cooked by four big BBQ grills take place. You can see all the commotions going on as smoke will be brimming with that awesome aroma.


See the smoke coming out of the grill?

Right before you step up to the catering truck to order your food, a menu board is posted on the entrance step with all the items listed for sale. The most popular item that the locals seemed to order was their BBQ ribs dinner combo, which consists six slabs of delicious barbecue ribs with side order of potato salads and beans for $13.25.

The ribs has this awesome aroma that has been smoked enough with the meat been so tender it melt right off the bone when you take the first bite. To be barbecue properly, it has been slow cooked with the smoke, but does not have any hint of charcoal smell left on the meat. Even before getting the sauce on these ribs, it already have excellent flavors, but the sauce add some sweetness to that flavor. Needless to say, I can understand why the ribs was a popular choice among the regulars to this establishment.


BBQ Ribs Dinner combo with potato salad and beans ($13.25)

The most offbeat item on the menu was the turkey neck. It was long been told that Pastor Williams was from the south and he felt this item would great enhanced the menu and bring authenticity to southern BBQ fare offered here. Let it be known that even though the Pastor doesn't do any cooking here, he does enjoy his BBQ.

The turkey neck is just what it is. Turkey.

I ordered the turkey neck combo where I can add an extra different meat to that platter, which I decided to go with sausage link. I'm pretty sure a lot of us have ate chicken or duck necks before and would think of bone morrow for that turkey neck. It's cut up into smaller cubicle with ample amount of turkey meat on that neck bone. It's enjoyable, but it does some work to sipped out the meat and spit out the bone. Nonetheless I still enjoy both of the the popular items on the menu.


Turkey Neck Combo with Link ($14.75)

There are also other menu items listed such as chicken and other smaller side items such as greens and pies. I probably come back for those next time. As pointed out earlier, the proceeds from this BBQ venture goes to the church and will only operate on Friday and Saturday during the day time and early evenings.

Align Center

This is strictly a take out place with no tables to sit for dine in. You will also need to take in to account that people will line up during the lunch and dinner rushed hours where rumored long lines of wait time of more than 30 minutes have existed. I came in during the nap time period and sneaked in and out within 10 minutes.

Go ahead come in for some spirituality because your BBQ prayers has been answered in all of the most unlikeliest places to get some delicious ribs: In God's backyard.

Please note: They do have a Health Code regulation posted and the operation hours are Friday and Saturday from 9am to 9pm. If you do want to take it somewhere close to eat, there is the Magic Johnson recreational park in the Northeast corner of El Segundo Blvd and Avalon Blvd. Eat there at your own risk!

Prayer Assembly Church of God in Christ
442 E El Segundo Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90061
(310) 523-2481

Grade:

Prayer Assembly Church of God in Christ on Urbanspoon