Restaurante Litoral, Macau

If you have never been to Macau, or Restaurante Litoral, I urge you to get on a plane or ferry this instant.

Macanese food is one of the best little-known cuisines I have come across. It dates back almost 500 years, from when the Portuguese settled on a little peninsula of fishing villages and married into local Chinese families. Over time, the Portuguese-Chinese fusion picked up influences from around Southeast Asia and other colonies in Africa, Goa, and Brazil. One of the best spots in Macau to taste real Macanese cooking is Restaurante Litoral, a beautiful two-storey restaurant on Rua do Almirante Sérgio.

The upstairs dining was enormous (the owners also took over the 2nd floor of the next building), but because of the slideable wooden doors, it still felt intimate. Litoral is a rare restaurant that can be popular with both locals and tourists; my companions were two British expats who have lived in Macau since the early 1980s, and claim this restaurant serves the best Macanese dishes.

Caldo verde (potato and kale soup, in top photo) is similar to the Portuguese original, but instead of kale the locals use the more abundant bok choy. Though like the Portuguese, we doused the tops of our soups with extra olive oil.

Restaurante Litoral also does an amazing tamarind pork. There is a sweet and sour element from the brown sugar and tamarind paste, but the salty shrimp paste and sliced chilies make make it extra pungent and unmistakably Macanese.

Minchi may as well be Macau's official comfort food. It consists of ground beef or pork sautéed with onions, bay leaf, soy sauce, and Worcestershire sauce, and usually paired with crispy potatoes. Litoral adds a runny fried egg on top, giving the meat a delicious oozy sauce.

Another Macanese dish you need to try is curry crab. Usually restaurants will serve a whole crab in curry sauce, but Litoral does all the work of plucking out the crab meat. The bowl also comes with shrimp and quail eggs. The diner only needs to spoon as much as she wants onto her rice, which can be a problem if she loves crab and has little self-control. (Guilty as charged.)

Did I mention Restaurante Litoral, as per Macanese tradition, dishes everything in huge portions?

 

Restaurante Litoral 261A Rua do Almirante Sérgio Macau

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More food in Macau:

Fernando's

Restaurante Escada

Pasteleria Koi Kei

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Cantonese Casserole Love

(Braised lamb at Kuen Fat Restaurant)

I ate a lot of casseroles on my last visit to Hong Kong. The weather wasn't particularly cold, but for some reason the restaurants my relatives chose for Chinese New Year get-togethers came with a lot of casserole specials. Not that I minded. Braised meats and sauces over rice are comfort food heaven.

Kuen Fat Restaurant in Sai Wan Ho is one of those rowdy, Chinese-menu-only restaurants where the Harbin beer girl comes around with your booze in a bucket. You almost need earplugs for all the high-decibel Cantonese conversation around you. We ordered 7 dishes, including 6 casseroles, some set over flames to maintain the heat. The lamb casserole had a nice light broth, less likely to put you in a food coma than Beijing or Dongbei lamb dishes. But the lamb needed about 15 minutes more of braising to be as tender as I'd like. The braised chicken with chestnuts, though, was well-cooked and coated in a slightly caramelized, just-thick-enough sauce.

(Braised chicken with chestnuts at Kuen Fat Restaurant)

Previously on this blog I have written about Tai Hing, a chain of upscale cha chaan tengs, upscale meaning it's clean, moderately priced, and serves more food than just noodles and pineapple buns. (They have a very good iced milk tea, served in a bowl of ice instead of with ice cubes to not dilute the flavor.) We also love going there for dinner. Tthe food is moderately priced, there's no 10% service charge, and each table has its own elementary-school-style drawers, filled with chopsticks and silverware.

Their lamb, thankfully, tasted as good as it cooked. It melted on first bite, skin and meat and braised oniony juices forming a perfect union.

(Braised lamb at Tai Hing)

Their braised eggplant with minced pork had bits of chili pepper and a surprising touch of lemongrass that elevated it from merely good to "wow, I need to figure out the recipe and make it every damn night."

The only bad part about hearty casseroles, and their abundant amounts of sauce, is running out of rice at the end.

(Eggplant with Minced Pork with Chili and Lemongrass at Tai Hing)

Kuen Fat Restaurant (權發飯店) 1/F 121-131 Shau Kei Wan Road Sai Wan Ho 西灣河筲箕灣道121-131號金寶大廈一樓 2513 0065

Tai Hing (太興燒味連鎖店) G/F 26-31 Tai On Building, 57-87 Shau Kei Wan Road Sai Wan Ho 西灣河箕灣道57-87號太安樓地下G26-31舖 2567 7362

 

San Francisco Budget Eats

(Fish tacos, Taqueria El Zorro)

There are few things more wonderful in life than fish tacos from a California taqueria.

San Francisco bookended my 6-week holiday visit to the US. Tampa had great Cuban food and Southern barbecue, and Salinas Valley has perfected grilled meats, but the Bay area had everything I sorely missed while living in Beijing. With the recession in full swing, I spent a week trying out a wide range of cheap eats in and around San Francisco. Here are some new-to-me favorites.

(Tacos al pastor, Taqueria La Morena)

Mexican - In New York you cannot find tacos like these, except maybe if you trekked out to Jackson Heights on the 7 train at 11pm to seek out taco trucks. Most Mexican food in California isn't very Americanized, unlike in the rest of the country. These are simple hand-sized soft tortillas, piled with meat, freshly diced onions, cilantro, and (often) homemade salsas. If you fork out more than $3 for a non-seafood taco, you're paying too much.

Casa Sanchez (2778 24th Street, San Francisco) has, according to my friend Jason, some of the best salsa in the Bay area. The restaurant has a table of free chips and house brand salsas for customers; I wolfed down a healthy portion of chips along with my chicken tacos "super" style (lots of guacamole and sour cream.) Another favorite spot was Taqueria El Zorro (308 Columbus Ave at Broadway, San Francisco), which, despite its location in the trendy and touristy North Beach, serves some amazing fish and prawn tacos with just the right amount of spiciness. One night I also met up with fellow China blogger Elliott Ng (of CN Reviews and Uptake) in South San Francisco at a spot called Taqueria La Morena (307 Baden Ave, South San Francisco). We discussed the Chinese blogging community and social media over incredibly savory tacos al pastor. Well worth the trek!

(Wonton noodle soup, King's Won Ton and Noodle)

Chinese - You didn't think I would go over a month without some sort of Chinese food, do you? San Francisco has something Beijing doesn't: good and cheap Cantonese food. (You can read my rant of Beijing's Cantonese depravity here.) King's Won Ton and Noodle (1936 Irving St., between 20th and 21st Aves, San Francisco) satisfied my craving for springy wonton noodles and tightly packed shrimp and pork wontons. While eating I noticed a big bamboo pole in the corner, the kind used to tenderize handmade egg noodle dough and rarely used nowadays. The waitresses confirmed that the noodles are indeed handmade the old-fashion way, not on the premises but at a nearby location.

(Nouveau chicken 'n waffles, Gator's Neo-Soul)

Soul Food - The first time I ever had fried chicken and waffles was at the legendary Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in L.A, an institution that became a cult favorite for both the food and the danger factor; locations are in seedy neighborhoods and windows lined with thick bars. This soul food dish was new to me, but apparently the combination of a syrupy breakfast item and greasy take-out chicken enjoyed a huge student following in L.A. My impression was...eh. I was never a huge fan of ultra-thick American waffles, and the chicken, though indeed glistening with beautiful fat, seemed too dried out, perhaps a few minutes too long in the deep fryer.

Then on this trip I tried the chicken and waffles at Gator's Neo-Soul (129 South B. St., San Mateo.) The menu revolves around a Californian take on soul food, meaning dishes are lighter and reasonably portioned. And while the restaurant's dinner entrees are in the $20-$30 range, not exactly "cheap eats", brunch is a much more affordable way to try out Neo-Soul. The chicken's skin was perfectly crispy, and the thin wheat buttermilk waffle came with a mound of not-too-sweet peach cobbler butter. I also liked the barbecue shrimp, simmered in herbed butter and set around a bowl of saucy grits. It was a good amount of food, meaning I could finish my dish and not collapse into a food coma.

(In-and-Out burgers with strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla shakes.)

In-and-Out - I'm cheating, since this isn't a new discovery. I can't go to California without eating In-and-Out at least once or twice. A few years ago I experimented with the secret menu options, including the "Protein style" with lettuce in place of a bun that proved too messy to try again. Now I stick to a combo of cheeseburger, fries, and vanilla shake, classic and dependable, for just over $5.

In the unlikely event that the recession is over the next time I'm in California, In-and-Out would still be my first stop out of the airport.

Hot Pot Inferno, Beijing

When Jacob and I first moved to Beijing we were infatuated with hot pot. It was the beginning of winter, when low temperatures and relentless winds made dinner over a pot of boiling broth very enticing. We didn't have a kitchen in our first apartment and ate out almost every night at hot pot restaurants both cheap and pricey.

Then, spring came. With the warmer weather emerged the more discerning, and lazier, eater in us. Why should I pay higher prices to cook my own food? Isn't the purpose of eating out to sit back and enjoy other people's creations?

So we avoided hot pot completely until a two weeks ago. It was freezing in Beijing and we walked past a hutong restaurant through whose windows we saw only steam and blurry outlines of people dipping food into a pot. Sold.

The place was as local as you could imagine. "No smoking" signs covered the walls but every other patron was puffing on a cigarette. Tabletops were cracked and peeling. Beer was served in little neon water tumblers manufactured for small children. But the attraction was the hot pot itself, this ancient iron monster heated by charcoal, not those nouveau thingies with induction cookers. (I particularly love the photo up top, in with the hot pot looks like this inferno surrounded by bits of swimming goji berries and enoki mushrooms.)

I opted for the clear broth instead of the sinus-clearing spicy broth. We ordered our usual spread of food, which is way too much for two people: lamb, shiitakes, enoki, spinach, cabbage, vermicelli, all to be cooked and dipped in a peanut sesame sauce.

Granted, I have had much better hot pot, in much better environments. And at 71 RMB for two, it was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten in a hutong hole with sketchy hygiene and cracking tables. But then again, after a year of avoiding hot pot, it was a novelty to sit in front of a flaming relic from a bygone era, and yes, cook our own food.

A Peking Duck Thanksgiving; Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24

American expats in China, far from home and faced with limited supplies of turkey, have been known to celebrate with Peking duck. Here, duck dinners are the next closest thing to a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. This was my second Thanksgiving in Beijing, and my second with Peking duck. Really, what is the difference between a big beautiful turkey that spends 4 hours in a home oven, and a big beautiful duck that spends 30 minutes in a brick restaurant oven? (Other than a lot of work for someone else?)

I try to limit my Peking duck intake to when friends and family visit, but Thanksgiving brings out my love of laboriously-prepared birds. When Foodbuzz put out a call for another 24, 24, 24 event, I knew I wanted pay homage to what has become a new Thanksgiving tradition in China. Last year Jacob and I ate at the unspectacular Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant, but this year we invited 3 other friends out to Da Dong, one of the best duck restaurants in town.

(Peking duck and condiments in a sesame puff; Duck bone soup)

The Nanxincang branch of Da Dong has an open duck kitchen right next to the lobby. (Peking duck primer: Ever wonder why the ducks have such crispy skin? A day before cooking, chefs blow into the skin area to separate it from the meat, creating a puffed-up shell. They then hang the ducks to dry overnight, sometimes in front of a fan.) During the busy times at Da Dong you can watch the chefs rotating the ducks inside the three brick ovens, and about 10 to 15 other chefs are lined up ready to escort a finished duck to the dining room. I don't know how long chefs train to slice duck with such speed and precision, but a duck would usually be fully sliced and neatly plated in five minutes. (See more photos of the carving.)

That night we were able to get both sesame puffs and thin pancakes to fill with sliced duck and condiments. There are few gastronomical pleasures (at least in Beijing), better than a bite of both dark meat and skin dipped in some hoisin sauce and granulated sugar. The one gripe I have with the condiments is that Da Dong charges an extra 8 rmb per person, when almost every other duck restaurant in town gives the condiments for free.

(Stir-fried duck in a lettuce cup and crispy "nest"; Shredded duck wings in Sichuan pepper oil)

No respectable duck restaurant would offer guests only sliced dark meat. You also get a savory soup made of duck bones (or a doggie bag of remainders for broth-making at home.) Like home cooks using every part of the turkey in creative ways after Thanksgiving, Beijing chefs are no less inventive with the duck. Our cold dish of shredded duck wings and cucumber dipped in Sichuan pepper oil was particularly juicy. And I couldn't resist ordering stir-fried duck wrapped in lettuce and a crispy "nest"; you scrunch up the "nest" with your hands before shoving the whole thing in your mouth.

(Peking duck and condiments in a pancake, pre-wrapping; Hot and sour Mandarin fish soup)

Of course, we needed to balance out the duck consumption with seafood and vegetables. My favorite dish of the night was a hot and sour Mandarin fish soup, brought out in a metal hot pot over a burner. It wasn't very evocative of Thanksgiving, but still soul-warming and a great combo of savory and vinegary flavors.

(Dividing the Mandarin fish and soup; Goose liver fried rice and millet with seared eel)

And of course, no Chinese Thanksgiving meal would be complete without fried rice, a staple of my childhood Turkey Days. Back then, it was vegetables and maybe cha siu fried rice. On Thursday, it was goose liver (regular, not foie). Heart health be damned. The goose liver rice was certainly delicious and befitting the over-indulgence theme. The other selection of millet with seared eel was a little dry and not as good.

(Winter squash in passion fruit juice; Sweet potato balls; Braised eggplant in soy sauce)

Like all of Da Dong's dishes, our seasonal vegetables we ordered came creatively plated. (What a departure from most Chinese establishments!) Our winter squash, shredded and enhanced with passion fruit juice, came as little balls. As did our sweet potatos with candied tangerine peels, though their taste was much blander. I couldn't help but love our braised eggplant in soy sauce, for both the simple rich flavor and the pearl onion adornment.

(Persimmon sorbet with almonds and light coconut sauce)

Da Dong may overcharge with condiments, a mandatory tip (not customary in China), and pricing fish entrees by weight instead of a set amount, but it gets credit for providing free dessert. Given a choice of three, I passed up the sweet congee and sesame porridge for a persimmon sorbet in a watered-down coconut syrup. Granted, it's an ultra-light dessert designed for the Chinese palate, but we were so stuffed from dinner nobody cared.

And of course, there are few better ways to end a Chinese dinner than over a plate of fruit and dry ice.

Despite trying curb my tendency to over-order and stuffing ourselves like a patriotic souls, Jacob and I still took home a container full of duck and fried rice. It was a lot of food, but still more manageable than the one year we cooked an entire turkey for two, then ate the remains for the next month. On Friday I finished the leftovers in two go's.

See, I doubt a Peking duck sandwich with stuffing and mayo would be very good.

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Bonus alcohol fun facts:

What do the Chinese drink for holiday celebrations? Or just special occasions involving Peking duck? In Beijing, you may see groups of male business colleagues challenging each other to chug baijiu, a potent and noxious grain alcohol best left unconsumed.

But in family situations when machismo and "face" aren't factors, locals like to relax with some Tsingtao or Chinese wine. I am not at all a fan of Great Wall wine with duck (or Great Wall wine with anything), but my relatives are.

And of course, there is the perennial favorite drink imported from the West, cradled gently in a waiter's arms and presented to the table with flourish: a gleaming bottle of Coca-Cola, 2008 vintage.

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Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant 北京大董烤鸭店 1-2/F Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsi Shitiao, (southwest of Dongsi Shitiao Bridge) Dongcheng District, Beijing 东城区东四十条甲22号南新仓国际大厦1~2楼(立交桥西南角) 5169-0328