Saturday, January 29, 2011

What's up with all the island restaurants? Revisiting Gourmet Island

A friend of mine did a project a year ago that consisted of taking pictures of food from a bunch of restaurants down Valley Blvd. in the San Gabriel Valley. While she was doing her research, she discovered the enormous amount of restaurants being named with the word Garden and Happy. Lately I discovered a few places being named with the word island. I initially thought it was a Taiwanese thing to do since Taiwan is an island. But then when I discovered Gourmet Island, I couldn't figure out what island had to do with their Chiu Chow style cuisine.

I personally have a Chiu Chow heritage. I am seven-eighth Chiu Chow and one-eighth Hakka. I'm no stranger to Chiu Chow style foods. Gourmet Island had a barely adequate selection of authentic fChiu Chow foods, mixed with some other general Asian style foods. I had been here once previously and enjoyed the foods a little bit. The last time I visited there I experienced a major issue; the taro mud dessert was spoiled. My family loves taro mud, a quintessential Chiu Chow dessert. It's only offered at a very few of the Chiu Chow seafood restaurants around town, and only a few make them well. Generally they are served with a sweet wet dressing with lotus seeds and cloud ears. The mud paste itself like most Chinese desserts should be lightly sweetened. It's actually hard and takes a lot of work to make taro mud and so we always get it whenever we visit a Chiu Chow style restaurant. But since we had a bad experience with it the first time around, we opted out of it the second time around.

Nevertheless my family and I decided to return to this place to check out more of what they had to offer. We do generally give restaurants revisits if it's decent enough, if only to give ourselves a variety. The rest of the original dinner was enjoyable so we didn't want to let one spoiled dish ruin the restaurant.

(Beef Stew with Light Broth)
We love a good beef stew. Most people are familiar with the Taiwanese version of beef stew, which has a heavy dark colored soup base. It's extremely rich and generally served with noodles. Sometimes beef stew is served dry over rich or in curry. But if you are in for a slightly lighter in flavors version of beef stew, I would recommend the Beef Stew with Light Broth. This dish is actually commonly found in a lot of Cantonese restaurants around town.

The beef this night was cooked thoroughly to a very nice and soft texture. The soup was very flavorful with a fair amount of spices. The black pepper really added a little sting to the soup. This was also a great way to save some money by not having to order an actual soup. It was kept hot the entire time with a little fire from a small portable stove that came with the dish. It was a bit strong in the beginning so we had to turn it down to keep the water from being boiled off and evaporate. It was certainly a juicy and delicious dish. The truth is all it took to make this dish good was time and enough spices. It's very hard to get it wrong.

(Fried Rice)
A lot of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley recently had been doing promotions by giving away free food. Gourmet Island gave away a free plate of fried rice served in their sizzling plate. I believe Green Island was the first restaurant around the area that started using this wooden framed metal sizzling plate to serve their fried rice. It's a great way to keep the food continuously warm. However the rice tonight was a bit bland and I wouldn't order it if it wasn't free. Even as a free dish, it wasn't all that interesting to eat. It was basically a filler, a replacement for just plain steamed rice.

(Combination Appetizer: Roasted Suckling Pig, Fun Tai and Jelly Fish)
This was the best dish of the night. Although it's an appetizer, I never really think appetizer meant much in Chinese food except during banquets. Ultimately for most meals, things are all served and eaten together. The roasted suckling pig skin was perfectly crunchy while the meat was flavorful and retained some juiciness. The jelly fish was well marinated without it being overly sauteed. The Fun Tai was fine, but I suppose it's just a cold cut so it's hard to go wrong and hard to be impressive.

(Stir Fried String Beans)
I am a big fan of string beans, and stir fried string beans generally is among my favorite. I did find their string beans a bit on the oily side despite being flavorful. I seem to be coming across more and more oily string beans. I really prefer them to be less oily and drier. The garlic also wasn't as strong as I prefer and I generally like it with just a bit of stir fried ground beef in the dish which this was lacking. It would had given it that little bite to the dish that pulls out the crunch in the string beans. It wasn't my favorite version of string beans, but it filled my stomach with enough flavor that neither impressed me nor disgusted me.

The meal was finished off with a sweet soup free of charge. We didn't order the taro mud fearing it may turn out sour again. The sweet soup had some water chestnuts, lotus seeds and an assortment of other goodies inside. However it was way too sweet for my entire family. I never understood why any restaurant would inject their desserts that full of sugar. Fortunately most drinks in the San Gabriel Valley can now be ordered with half sugar or no sugar. But unfortunately the same cannot be said about the desserts. My mother has diabetes and both my brother and I are extremely weary about this since it seems to run on my mother side of the family. So we all basically took a couple sips and decided it was probably best not to finish it. 

Gourmet Island was a nice break from some of our usual joints. It wasn't amazingly prepared but it was still good enough to visit once in a while, very long while. Personally if I were to pick a Chiu Chow restaurant of my choosing, it would be Seafood Village. Their food is much more true to the Chiu Chow culinary style with a few more selections of ethnic dishes. Gourmet Island seemed to be a Cantonese restaurant with a few specifically Chiu Chow dishes added onto the menu.

By the way, Chiu Chow isn't located on any form or Island. It's not even on or near a peninsula.


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