Restaurant Review #113: Jin Jiang Seafood Restaurant, West LA (now closed)

Jin Jiang Seafood Restaurant has been around for at least 10 years, from what I could tell from the old reviews posted on the wall and the decor. It's a large restaurant on the second story of a classic west LA strip mall, and it looked to be completely empty at 8pm on a Sunday. The well-spaced, large tables are covered with pink tablecloths and sea green napkins.

I came in for takeout. The whole process was incredibly simple and quick. Read menu. Order food. In 10 minutes or less, take steaming hot containers of food out to my car. Go home and eat. I realize that things should always work this way, but sometimes they don't.

Despite the name, there are plenty of non-seafood dishes to order. Had I been in the mood, I might have ordered the lemon garlic scallops or the kung pao scallops. I ordered kung pao beef, orange chicken, and general Tao's chicken (alternately known as general Tsao's or sometimes even general Joe's), as well as steamed rice, egg rolls, and hot and sour soup with chicken.

The kung pao beef tasted good, but the meat was strangely pale in color, and there were a couple of really pungent, utterly foul tasting black things in the dish (were they supposed to be there?). The orange chicken was quite tough, and I didn't eat much of it even though I was starving. The general Tao's chicken fared a bit better--it wasn't as tough, but well, it was still on the chewy side. By the way, you probably won't want to order both of those dishes at once, since both are deep fried and coated in a sticky sweet sauce. They seem almost identical to me, except that one tastes more like sweet and sour sauce and one tastes more like orange.

I really liked the hot and sour soup, though putting ground chicken in it was weird and kind of unpleasant. The egg rolls were the small, thin kind that I think of as being spring rolls (does anyone still make the thick-skinned kind? Is that a regional thing? Were they, in fact, spring rolls, but misleadingly labeled as eggrolls on the menu?). They were fine, though I prefer a nice thick chewy eggroll. They came with a pleasantly spicy mustard sauce (hot like wasabi) and a thin, radioactive red sweet and sour sauce.

I didn't take photos because it's hard to photograph takeout and, well, you know what Chinese food looks like already. Also, I was so hungry that I was actually starting to feel ill (I had spent 9 hours in the car with mostly candy bars for sustenance).

Overall, I wasn't too impressed with the food. It's better than Pick up Stix or California Wok, but not nearly as good as Joie Luck Kitchen, Mao's Kitchen, or Little Hong Kong Cafe. When a place has been around for that long, you expect quality. The portions were generous, and the prices were reasonable, but who cares about all that when the food isn't up to snuff? And why do they use styrofoam when they could use those paperboard containers that were made for Chinese food?

Given the restaurant's name, maybe the quality lies mainly in the seafood dishes, but now I'm afraid to try them.

Jin Jiang Seafood Restaurant
11057 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
11am-10pm daily


Restaurant Review #112: Literati II, West LA

Crispbreads and tulips

First of all, check out the new site search box in the sidebar (to your left). It actually works now! (I have no idea why it wasn't before.)

Ah, Valentine's Day. That special time of year when you feel advertising agency-induced mushiness for your honey, scathing bitterness towards your ex, or feigned indifference. That special night when it takes 45 minutes to drive a mere 4 miles home from work because everyone is trying to get home in time to change for dinner. Luckily, I have a Portuguese tape in the car to quell my road rage.

"Si, eu sou americana. Sou de Los Angeles."
"Eu nao falo o portugues."

I purposely tried to arrange the evening to be as stress-free as possible. We cancelled our original reservations at another restaurant, fearing that the place would be too popular a destination and therefore too crowded and too noisy. We picked Literati II instead, under the assumptions that 1. the food would be good, because the food at Literati is good; 2. it would not be exorbitantly expensive; and 3. it would be quieter than most places while still being romantic. We were right about the first two, and partially right about the second.

At our prime 7:30 reservation time, the restaurant was packed, and we could barely hear each other while waiting in front of the hostess stand. Fortunately, we got seated outside, where the noise of Wilshire was nothing compared to the noise inside. In fact, the fence and clear plastic wall surrounding the patio area kept the noise out fairly well. The chairs were made comfortable with small chenile pillows, and plenty of heaters kept me warm. We even got our choice of tables. I picked the big round one, knowing that if we picked a table for two, we would probably eventually have other diners sitting 12 inches away from us. I really don't understand the popularity of this phenomenon. I know that restaurants want to have the opportunity to turn as many tables as possible, but christ. If I wanted to eat dinner with strangers, I'd hold an open house at my apartment.

The patio

Aside from the close tables, the patio was lovely -- much better than the Los Angeles average. "Hi, I'd like to make a reservation for two, and can we please get a table in that lovely plastic tent of yours?" Usually, outdoor dining in this city seems designed not to create a European cafe style experience, like it pretends to do, but simply to add more tables, so poorly is the design executed.

The hostess was warm and friendly, and not in a fake way. I liked that. The waiter was professional and competent, though not extra impressive. He did an okay job of picking a wine to go with our food, but he might have done better asking someone else for input. Busboys, some of whom I recognized from Literati, came by regularly to refill water and take away plates.

The wine menu contained mostly bottles, but they did offer about ten wines by the glass at prices in the $9-14 range. They also had a menu of frou frou cocktail drinks, many of which sounded enticing. I had to go with the caipirinha, since I don't often have the opportunity to order one. It was quite strong, and pretty good, though it didn't taste like the ones I enjoyed so much in Spain. I realize that Spain is not Brazil, but it is right next to Portugal, so I like to think that they had some idea what they were doing, convoluted though my logic may be.

I was quite enamored of the crispbread that came as a starter. Regular bread can be too filling, but the cracker-like bread didn't create that problem. Make sure to try the parmesan crisps. The red pepper dip that accompanied the breads was tasty as well.

The menu was just one page long, possibly because of Valentine's Day. By the time I eliminated all the shellfish and hunk of meat entrees, I was left with just two choices, which my friend and I ordered.


Bucatini is sort of like spaghetti, but wider and with a small hole in the middle. The lemon zest-infused butter sauce was excellent, and the leaves you see tasted like sugar snap peas. Do sugar snap peas have leaves? (I'm planning to grow some soon, so maybe I'll find out.) The peas themselves were cooked, which meant they had that mushy pea consistency that I'm not so fond of (I like to eat them raw). The wild mushrooms were tasty, but a little too buttery for me. Literati II apparently prides itself on using fresh farmer's market produce and changing the menu by as much as 30% daily to reflect what was fresh and available that day.

Ocean trout

Ocean trout is pink like salmon, but doesn't have as strong a flavor. This dish impressed me from the moment it hit my tongue. In this case, it was really the herb and salt rub on the skin that did the trick. Here again lemon zest and peas were part of the dish, but there were also artichoke hearts and rapini. Rapini is essentially a weed, but it can be used in cooking as a dark green vegetable that seems like a kale/seaweed hybrid. It tastes better than it sounds.


For dessert I ordered the Pavlova, which was tangelo sorbet, raspberry sorbet (I think), meringue and a rectangle of almond candy. The tangelo sorbet failed to impress me. Its flavor was too mild and didn't proclaim, "I am tangelo!" I have every right to criticize it because I've spent hours scraping the zest from tangelos to make my own sorbet. Literati II's sorbet seemed to rely on tangelo juice, but no zest, for flavor. I didn't love my dessert. I was much more fond of the 10 year old port that I ordered alongside it (I know, I know, it doesn't go). It wasn't as good as Warre's Otima, though.

Overall, I enjoyed my visit. I'd like to go back on a regular night and take in the normal menu and the indoor seating.

Total for 2, including 3 alcoholic beverages, tax, and tip: about $100

Literati II
12081 Wilshire Blvd (at Bundy)
Los Angeles, CA
Website (not really put together yet)


Restaurant Review #111: Le Saigon: Adventures in Westside Vietnamese Cuisine, West LA

This is a re-post of an earlier review with updates from my most recent visit.

After my first visit to Le Saigon Cafe, I said that I would not go back, because the food just wasn't that compelling. Ten months later, I did go back, because it seemed like a better place to take my visiting friend than Phoreign or Pho 99. I think I was wrong there, but more on that in a minute.

LA Weekly's restaurant section describes Le Saigon Cafe as "(a)n itty-bitty, gloriously inexpensive Vietnamese café just west of the Royal movie theater. . . an ideal place to huddle over big bowls of pho or bun (rice noodles), charbroiled meats and glasses of sticky sweet café sua da (iced Saigon coffee). The tables are tiny, the turnover is swift, and the air is scented by grilling meat and freshly cut cucumbers."

The astute reader may notice that the above description makes no comment about the quality of the food. Well, there's a reason for that.

The charbroiled beef, featured in dishes including bun, rice plates, and do-it-yourself spring rolls doesn't have that glazy sweetness that is the whole purpose of eating charbroiled beef. It's just strips of meat, barely flavored. So disappointing. Perhaps it's healthier, but the restaurant doesn't brand itself as the healthy Vietnamese alternative, so I don't think that's their excuse. Phoreign, while their pho is terrible (such a mistake, given the name) does have decent charbroiled beef. Even better? Pho 99. It's not that the beef is bad. Just that it could be so much more.

Other dishes fare better. On my first visit, I orderd bun with tofu. The tofu was excellent. They use a tofu of medium firmness, which you can get fried or steamed. I orderd mine fried. I could have just eaten a big plate of that tofu. It was particularly good in the noodles with the crushed peanuts on top. The texture of the noodles was just right. Also included in the bun were the standard bean sprouts, cilantro, and shredded carrot, zuchinni, lettuce, and mint.

The spring rolls were interesting in that the tofu was warm and the veggies and wrapper were cool. I kind of liked this juxtaposition, unusual though it was, yet I also felt like it somehow prevented me from really tasting all the ingredients because I was distracted by the varying temperatures. The filling was heavy on the foliage and could have used some vermicelli, in my opinion. I also would have preferred cilantro instead of mint, largely because I don't care for the texture of mint leaves. I didn't eat my whole spring roll right away because my meal came at the same time-- perhaps due to generally super-fast service, or perhaps because we essentially arrived when the restaurant was closing and they wanted to get us out as quickly as possible. The delay in consumption allowed the roll's skin to become a bit dried out. I'm not sure if this is a design flaw inherent to fresh spring rolls and a spring roll has just never lasted that long in front of me before, or if it was the brand of rice paper or the restaurant's preparation. Either way, a thinner, chewier, moister wrapper would have been an improvement.

One of my personal gripes about the majority of Vietnamese restaurants is that I really like sweet and sour chili fish sauce (it was a house sauce at a Vietnamese place I frequented in St. Louis), especially for my spring rolls, and most places only have hot sauce, more hot sauce, and plum sauce (hoisin sauce). Le Saigon was no exception. Their house sauces weren't too exciting, either: the peanuty sauce that came with the spring rolls didn't have a very prnounced flavor, and neither did the fish sauce concoction that came with my noodles and also with the rice plate on my second visit. I almost wonder if it didn't have fish sauce in it.

Charbroiled beef

The menu is short and to-the-point, which is great if you're indecisive like me. The restaurant is somewhat vegetarian-friendly, but not enough to make my list. On my first visit, back in my almost vegetarian days, I was able to order both fresh spring rolls and bun with tofu. These were the only tofu options, but probably the ones I would have chosen regardless.

The restaurant makes some attempt at having atmosphere, with red lanterns hanging from the ceiling and nice ceiling fans, which is more than a lot of Vietnamese restaurants bother with.

The service was incredibly fast on both visits, making it a great place for two hungry late-night diners. Also, though they cleaned up the entire restaurant around us, they let us eat our food in peace although we were there past closing (oops, I hate doing that to people). Unfortunately, I could smell the cleaning supplies as I ate.

Though I have many criticisms of the food, as I often do, I still enjoyed both of my meals. Overall, it's faster than Phoreign and has more atmosphere than Pho 99, but isn't as tasty as either. My official position is that Pho 99 is the winner for Westside Vietnamese.

Le Saigon Cafe
11611 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Los Angeles
(310) 312-2929.
Tues.–Thur. and Sun. 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
No alcohol. Pretty easy street parking.
Entrées $5–$8. Vietnamese.
Cash Only!


Restaurant Review #110: The Hump, Santa Monica -- CLOSED

Update: The Hump has closed.

I am re-posting this review with some changes because of the vastly different experience I had on my second visit.

The Hump has an unusual atmosphere for a sushi restaurant. Rather than cool colors, sleek surfaces, and clean lines, The Hump's dining room is warm yellows, and browns and has the round, homey feel of your grandparents' living room with only a hint of LA chic. Even on a Saturday night, and even at the sushi bar, the acoustics are such that you can hear your friends without straining your ears or your voice at all. And even at 7:30 on a busy Saturday night, the hostess will manage to find you a 9:00 reservation.

On my first visit, we sat at the far end of the sushi bar, and surprisingly, it was both cozy and unintimidating. The bar is wide enough and the seats are far enough apart that for once, I actually enjoyed the sushi bar experience. We ordered the omakase and had a friendly, humble chef who accomodated our special requests. It looked like everyone got the same omakase, which made me feel a bit less special. Our chef gave us the inside scoop on the food though, which made me feel a bit more special. Also, I got to try young ginger and fresh wasabi for the first time, both of which I loved. Young ginger comes in round sticks slightly wider than a pencil that are white and taper to a bright magenta. Does it grow like that, or is it dyed, I wonder? Fresh wasabi doesn't have that grainy consistency that powdered wasabi can't help but have. It's also more moist and perhaps more pungent. The basic flavor didn't seem too different from it's powdered cousin, though.

The food was excellent, the service was excellent, the prices were slightly above average, and the atmosphere was unpretentious, cozy, and conducive to conversation. This combination is a rare treat, and makes The Hump one of my favorite restaurants. Oh, and in case you were wondering, its proximity to the Santa Monica airport (practically on the runway) doesn't make it a noisy place, but it's pretty cool to watch small planes landing in the dark.

On my second visit, my friend and I went on a Tuesday night around 8:00, again without a reservation (not that we would have needed one--the restaurant was about half-empty). The shishito pepper appetizer was excellent--a generous portion served piping hot and garnished with shaved bonito. I couldn't quite finish them all. All of the fish was excellent--I ordered red snapper, albacore, and yellowtail nigiri, my usual favorites. I also ordered seared scallop, which I didn't like as much--something about the flavor of the citrusy green bits on top just didn't go with the flavor of the scallop. The quality of the fish itself left nothing to be desired, though. The portions of fish are smaller here, and the prices are standard ($5-6 for most things), which makes the food overall a bit more expensive. I didn't really mind though, because I like being able to fit my sushi in my mouth. Also, to my disappointment, we didn't get fresh wasabi. Guess that's reserved for the big spenders.

Along with any semblance of service.

Everything was fine, until we were ready to order seconds (I always order seconds of sushi, rather than ordering everything I think I want at first, since sushi is so perishable and definitely should never ever ever be taken home as leftovers). No server came our way or even looked at us for what must have been at least 15 minutes, if I'm being generous. When we finally ordered more, it took at least another 15 minutes for our very small order to arrive (again, I'm being generous on the time).
The restaurant wasn't busy, and it didn't seem understaffed. No one looked rushed or overworked.

Then they brought us the wrong check.
If it had been my first visit, I probably would have left an insulting tip in protest at being overlooked almost completely during at least half of my meal (people around us were being seated and served, no problem). I couldn't figure out what to attribute our flagarant lack of service to (I say flagarant because apologies ranged from meager to nonexistent), unless it was because our total bill, including tax and tip, only came to about $75.

I thought The Hump wasn't like that. At least when they brought our final bill, the shishito peppers had been knocked off ($5 in my pocket), but I had a feeling it was an accident, not an apology, based on the rest of the evening.

Now I'm not sure what to think about one of my formerly favorite restaurants.

The Hump
3221 Donald Douglas Loop S
Santa Monica, 90405


Restaurant Review #109: Asahi Ramen, Sawtelle, West LA

Extra spicy ramen with chashu

I finally got to go to Asahi! There is almost always a line several people long to get a table, and I never want to wait, especially when it is cold outside. But I got lucky last Sunday and snagged a table with no wait at 8:30, just 30 minutes before closing time. Maybe that's the secret.

Once inside, I realized that the service is so fast that the wait for a table is probably not that long. Also, quite a few people came to pick up takeout orders. In the future, I think I'll do takeout, since the bowls of soup are enormous and one bowl could easily feed two people. The soups cost about $6-8 each. Talk about a cheap dinner!

I didn't have very high expectations for Asahi after my first ramen experience at Chabuya. There, the broth was salty and the noodles were just noodles, and sometimes soggy noodles.

Asahi is a whole different story. The broth is spicy (if you order it spicy for an extra 35 cents) and not overly dominated by one flavor. The portions are huge. The noodles are pleasantly chewy and somehow actually taste like something. Wow!

The chashu was a leaner cut of meat than what I'd eaten at Chabuya. I was pleased by the absence of fat slivers, but Asahi's pork was unpleasantly dry--quite a feat, since it had been soaking in broth. This was really the only downside of the meal, though. The fantastic wontons in our other bowl of soup more than made up for it. They had an incredibly rich flavor, and a small amount of meat that made them easy to eat in one bite.

Another pleasant surprise were the bamboo shoots. I've never seen brown bamboo shoots before, and they were a lot more flavorful than the pale yellow variety I've eaten all my life. (I'm pretty sure they were bamboo shoots--they have a texture all their own.)

The spicy cucumber slices that arrive at the table almost as soon as you sit down were also a big winner. Too bad they only give you four slices per person.

The atmosphere just floor and chairs and tables for 2-4 people. Grimy old no smoking stickers dot the walls, not quite above each table. Above those are rather nice watercolor paintings of flowers, for sale at low prices of around $50-100. The service was fast, and friendly in a fairly indifferent way.

I love Asahi, and I now understand why people wait for ramen. This ramen is not the same as that 12 cent bag from the grocery store! Now I can't wait to see what awaits me at Ramenya and Kinchans, and I can't wait for the next cold night when I can share a takeout bowl of soup with a friend.

By the way, in case it wasn't obvious from the nearly identical hours and locations, Asahi and Tofu-ya, next door, are under the same ownership.

Extra spicy ramen with wontons

Asahi Ramen
2027 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
11:30-9:00 daily, closed Thursdays