Chinese American Comfort Food

It's Chinese Food. Or rather, it's Chinese American food. When Chinese Restaurant News assigned me to photograph VIP restaurant, I assumed I'd be photographing chow fun, fried rice, steamed fish. But I was surprised. The first thing the owner/ head chef plated was french fries served in a bowl made of baked noodle, with fried chicken.

Then I realized what was going on. This was Chinese fusion. Different from Chinese American dishes like Kung Pao Chicken, Orange Chicken, Fortune Cookies. But also not fancy-schmancy-tiny-portioned-over-priced-catering-to-non-Asian-tastes Asian Fusion a la PF Chang. Rather, this was a fusion of Comfort foods. Or perhaps, Western-food-catering-to-Chinese-tastes food. While much of Hong Kong western food is Chinesified, I'd not been to a restaurant in the US that specialized in this genre. Fascinating!

A customer favorite, and a good example of fusion, was Baked Pork Chop with Fried Rice with Tomato Sauce. The whole thing was baked, with a sprinkle of cheese. It looked like a baked bolognaise, except Chinese pork chop and fried rice lay beneath the generous blanket of sauce.

The owner was eager to share his noodle baskets with me. We went downstairs to the bakery, where he pulled out a tray of various noodle and pastry baskets out of the oven. The noodles were molded over metal bowls, and baked to a crisp. These baskets can hold all sorts of things. The owner seemed really happy to be plating (the art of arranging food, decorating). The curry dish above is comprised of 3 noodle baskets, held in a clam shell shape by strategically placed tomato slices.

I claimed a booth in the back of the restaurant to do food portraits. And then the servers brought out more food. And more food. I had two booth tables worth of food to photograph.

The owner was extremely proud of his cakes. The decorations are entirely fresh cream, he emphasized several times - none of that fondant, or marzipan. Other cake stores send their decorators to him for lessons on fresh cream coloring and application techniques. The hard part he says, is in getting the gradient of colors just right. He decorated this dragon cake himself; took him 1.5 hours. Western style cakes have been appropriated into Chinese cuisine. Chinese food is rarely baked, and usually it's buns. But here we have a sponge cake, with cream - Chinese don't traditionally use cream or milk in anything. But atop this otherwise western cake is an unmistakable Chinese dragon. Often such cakes have Asian-appealing flavors too, such as taro, ube, green tea or mango.

The staff were very welcoming and excited about having a photographer around. They were all ethnically Chinese, all spoke Cantonese more comfortably than English, and all their customers were Chinese too - there was no doubt everyone considered this a Chinese restaurant.

They worked around me and my camera bags without complaint, offered lunch and drinks, warmly insisted that I come back for a visit. They sent me off with 2 large boxes packed with Chinese pastries and egg tarts.

VIP Coffee & Cakes Shop, 671 Broadway in Chinatown, San Francisco. Definitely one of my funner shoots - I miss photographing food. Hopefully I can keep this gig with Chinese Restaurant News.