Sunday, July 09, 2006
Taste test: Chop Suey Cafe
UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for their comments and links. To Linda, the chef: thanks for your input; unfortunately there were no soft portions of the noodles and no discernible gravy. But hey, if other diners like it, then no problem.
To everyone else: I get it, the restaurant has a long historical association in the community and many people who would like to preserve that nostalgia. However, you can't run a restaurant on history alone -- especially a new one -- so the food, service and ambiance will still have to be comparable or better than other restaurants in order to prosper and serve the community.
CHOP SUEY back in Little Tokyo
Little Tokyo's Far East Cafe, which opened in 1935, looks like the set of a film noir, the kind of place where an innocent man could be ambushed by a gunman hiding behind a weathered wood partition, who would escape out the back way while the drunks in the lounge had their attention on the whiskey bottles in front of them. In fact it did appear in the 1975 version of "Farewell My Lovely," but I don't remember ever eating there when it was open. The Chop Suey Cafe has now opened in the old Far East location as kind of a fusiony open-late spot aimed at nearby loft dwellers and college kids who have eaten at Suehiro once too often.
The old Far East Cafe surely had almond duck, orange chicken and chow mein on the menu, and the new one does too. The new menu goes farther afield into the likes of Thai beef salad, Asian burgers with garlic fries, bahn mi-type sandwiches and small plates of fried squid, edamame, etc. The place just opened a few days ago and is still getting its sea legs -- in fact, according to a Chowhound post, the permanent chef is still in Paraguay!
The room: The server told us they couldn't change much of the inside, as it's under some sort of historical preservation, although it's hard to believe they couldn't add a little decor to the decades-old wood dividers and kitchen-table style chairs and tables. It's an odd feeling eating divided from the other diners, kind of like eating in your office cubicle, and lacking the cozy intimacy provided by curtains and booths like at Luna Park.
There's a patio prised into an adjacent space between buildings, and the best part, a hidden bar at the back which will no doubt become quite the place to be when word gets out. But the restaurant itself is an odd bird which may take a while to find itself.
The food: I ordered the Asian burger, which was fine -- a smallish patty with a hint of chiles on a huge glazed bun, with some slightly limp but tasty garlic fries and aioli. Matt tried the special chow mein (pictured below), which like the other noodle dishes, is served "bird's nest style." We were perplexed by the rigid, hard, greasy, noodle hockey puck topped with somewhat cold vegetables that emerged from the kitchen.
When we told the server it didn't seem possible to penetrate the mass with either chopsticks or a knife, the manager came over to rather smugly inform us that it was supposed to be that way, period. (Apparently bird's nest noodles are normally loosened up by the server as well as bt the dish's hot gravy). She did take it off the check, though, and Matt ordered the very average sweet and sour pork instead. Service was friendly, if slightly flustered -- "You guys make me miss my black glasses!" our server winningly blurted at one point.
The verdict: Downtown could certainly use some more late night options, and perhaps if the chef ever arrives, Chop Suey will be a good alternative to Full House or Suehiro. Prices are fairly reasonable -- about $7-10 for most dishes. But the concept needs a little more work -- the fluorescent lights are ugly, the music is awful, and the noodles suck.
Chop Suey Cafe
347 East 1st Street
at 8:55 PM