Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hop Li Seafood Restaurant - restaurant review

Hop Li Seafood Restaurant has four different locations, and since one of them is not too far away from where I work, I've gone there a number of times for lunch. Their service is generally good, and the food is excellent. They also have a location in Arcadia, and we had dinner there with a group of friends this past Saturday night. The Arcadia location is open from 11am to 1am, which surprised me. There must be something about that particular location that warrants them being open so late. I was even more surprised to find out that they were a Chinese restaurant that actually took reservations.

The restaurant has a parking lot behind it, but it wasn't nearly as large as I thought it had been at first glance. There's a KFC right next door, and there's a lot for KFC behind their building that is adjacent to Hop Li's parking lot. We and several members of our party ended up parking in that lot, even though there are signs clearly posted that it's KFC parking only. No one got ticketed or towed away, but be cautioned that you run that risk if you do choose to park there.

We ended up getting there a bit late, but some of our group that had arrived were already seated at the table, so we joined them. Our party of 12 was being seated at one of their large round tables, and with that size table, there was a lazy susan in the middle (a smaller round circle that spins so you can more easily pass food around the table without having to lift plates, and you can also pass the teapot and condiments that way as well). I was a bit surprised that the lazy susan seemed to be such a novelty to most of the people at the table. I guess I was so used to them and love their utility that I figured it was just common knowledge. However, one lesson that had to be learned by at least one person in our party later in the meal - if a dish is extending past the edge of the lazy susan, you have to be mindful before you push it further in, because you might just be pushing something off at the other end. You also have to make sure that glasses and cups and other things have to have a clearance from any dishes that are extending past the border of the lazy susan, not to mention serving spoons on plates on the lazy susan.

The last two people arrived shortly thereafter, and we all perused the menu. I hadn't been sure how we were going to order, as I'm used to ordering family style, but I wasn't sure people would be comfortable with that. Some people ended up ordering on their own, and some people ended up grouping up a bit to order. When we had all made our decisions, our subgroup ordered first, and because it's not customary for individuals at the same table to order separately, it took a while for me to get the waiter to understand that I was only ordering for our little group and that he needed to go around the table to get everyone else's orders.

Chinese food can sometimes involve what I term "scary food", ranging from squid, which might be pedestrian to some but exotic to others, to things like chicken feet, tofu, clams, oysters, sea cucumber and steamed live fish, which you don't necessarily find in everyday restaurants, and even if you're familiar with those, they might not be prepared in dishes the way you're used to. Some people asked me for recommendations and questions about specific items, and the best I could do was give my own opinion, because obviously, there are things I like and don't like, but that doesn't necessarily mean someone else would share my tastes. I ended up steering some people away from certain items because since this was a fairly new experience for them overall, I didn't think the items they asked about were good things to just jump into. In another case, I gave my opinion about a particular item, but after hearing my reasons for not liking it, the person decided they didn't have that issue and so ended up ordering the item and loving it. In our ordering, I mostly went with "safer" things to accommodate those who wouldn't necessarily be interested in the "scary" food. Since we were sharing, it wouldn't have been fair to subject them to something they weren't necessarily interested in trying or wouldn't end up liking. In some cases, it might even be the preparation of the dish that could be daunting. Everyone's had chicken and beef and pork, but Chinese dishes using those meats don't come out the same as American dishes or Italian dishes or Mexican dishes, not to mention that in Chinese restaurants, you can order whole fish and whole chicken, both of which come with head and tail/butt, which can be a bit disturbing to newbies. I've been used to scary food all my life, and my tastes have branched out in the last multiple years so that I've come to love lamb and venison, and I've even tried elk and goose, though I will admit I've drawn the line at rabbit and alligator. I can eat quail but squab aka pigeon is iffy. But I digress.

We had decided to start off with the hot and sour soup, something I happen to love, but since everyone makes it differently, with different quantities of different ingredients and differing spicyness, it can sometimes be hit or miss. The soup turned out to be quite good, with a lot of different ingredients and plentiful as well. At first, I didn't think the soup was spicy enough, but since it seemed that they used red peppers to make it spicy more than white pepper powder, the spicyness accumulated so that the more you had, the more spicy it got. Definitely a recommend.

As I mentioned, it was customary for the table to order as a group, so as dishes came out, they didn't necessarily give them to whomever had ordered it - they were all just put on the lazy susan. There also wasn't any rhyme or reason to what dishes showed up in what order, and dishes would appear pretty much whenever they made them, unlike in other restaurants where the entire table would get their order at generally the same time. One unfortunate accident that happened out of this is that the first several dishes that came out were all items our subgroup had ordered, so whereas we had gotten three of our dishes, no one else had gotten anything yet. They had already brought rice to the table, but no one had anything to eat with it. The good part about this, though, is that it turned out that people just started sharing, and it turned out to be mostly family style anyway. Because there had been an array of different dishes ordered, people could get a taste of different things, some of which they might like and some not as much, but it's a great way to sample and especially to know what you might want to order on a return visit. There were so many good things to eat that I ended up having very little rice at all.

We had ordered a half order of the Peking duck, which I thought was pretty good. There's generally not a lot of meat on the bone still, but the cut meat and skin part were really tasty and roasted well.

We also ordered the sauteed prawns with sweet peas, which I thought was ok - I mostly enjoyed having the sweet peas as a vegetable - and we ordered sliced beef with vegetables. We had also ordered scallops with Chinese broccoli in black pepper sauce, and when the scallops arrived, I was disappointed that instead of Chinese broccoli, it was just regular broccoli, which I like anyway, but it's not the same as Chinese broccoli. I also thought the dish was rather bland. We discovered later in the meal that someone else at the table had ordered scallops with vegetables, and we had gotten our dishes mixed up, so she'd ended up with our dish and us with hers. When I had a taste of the dish we'd actually ordered, I really liked it. The brocolli was just the stems, which were cooked perfectly, and the black pepper seasoning was terrific. I would definitely order this dish again next time so that I can have more of it.

(sauteed prawns with sweet peas)

(scallops with Chinese broccoli in black pepper sauce)

As I mentioned, others at the table ordered different dishes, and I had tastes of some of them. One friend ordered the golden sand shrimp, and that ended up being one of my favorite dishes of the night. It's pretty heavy on garlic, which I love, and the garlic flavoring on the shrimp was just wonderful. That's a dish I'd order in the future as well.

Others at our table ordered orange peel chicken, kung pao chicken, kung pao shrimp, black cod with black beans hot pot and two other beef dishes. I'd definitely be interested in trying the kung pao chicken on some future visit. That's a dish that I find tends to be so homogenized and made uninteresting that I almost never get it anywhere, even at fast-food Chinese places, but I remember the dish looking pretty good with lots of different ingredients, so I'm sorry I never got around to having a taste because there was too much other food.

In general, I thought the food was pretty fantastic, and I'd definitely like to go back to try a few other things, including the sizzling rice soup. Not too many places have that, and even when they do, not all places do it well.

The atmosphere was about what I expected. Chinese restaurants tend to be a bit louder than most other restaurants, so people unfamilar sometimes aren't fond of that. I actually tend to look suspiciously on Chinese restaurants that are austere or are very quiet and subdued. I have sometimes been in Chinese restaurants that are too loud, but generally, I find the noise of the hustle and bustle to be quite comforting and easy to deal with.

In general, the service was about what I expected - Chinese waiters aren't really into the customer service that you'll find at other restaurants, and it's mostly just very business-like. They also share their tips, so it's not as vital to find "your" waiter when you need something. My one complaint is that it did take quite a while for most of the food to show up. As I mentioned, most of our dishes arrived first, which wouldn't have been as big a problem if others' food had arrived shortly thereafter, but there was a lull where nothing else arrived for some time, and at one point, I actually had to ask a waiter about two dishes that still had not arrived quite some time after everything else had. For the amount of time it took for those to arrive, we figured they had somehow missed those dishes on our order, and they didn't cook them until I had inquired about them.

I was also a bit disappointed that we got fortune cookies for dessert. I looked around to see if others had gotten something else, and sure enough, the table next to us had gotten tapioca or red bean pudding or something else served in a bowl. That's the usual dessert served on a complimentary basis in restaurants, or sometimes, you might get cut oranges. But I figured we got the fortune cookies because the majority of the people at our table were non-Asian, so the wait staff probably decided on the "safe" option. I wished they had asked, as I would have preferred the opportunity for those at the table to try something else for dessert rather than boring pre-packaged fortune cookies.

But even with the few glitches that arose, this is a restaurant that I'd definitely recommend and return to.

Hop Li Seafood Restaurant
855 South Baldwin Avenue
(off the 210 freeway, just south of Huntington Drive, on the west side)
Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 445-3188

Here's their official website, and from there, you can go to any of their four locations. I was interested to note that the dinner menus are different at different locations. The Westside and West Los Angeles menus are identical, but the Chinatown menu has some more exotic items, and the Arcadia menu seems to have the most "scary food" of all on their menu, and to me, that's the menu that looks most interesting. The Arcadia menu also seems to be the only one that has pictures in their menu, and I'm a fan of pictured menus.

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