Liang's Kitchen San Diego - Opening Week

>> Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Date of Dining: 9/30/2011 
Price: $5-7 per dish, at least 3 dishes per 2 people
Location: 4681 Convoy St. #D, San Diego, CA 92111

The Quick Bit:
+ Enjoyable Taiwanese Tapas
+ Low Prices
Δ Parking lot needs to be doubled in size
Δ Not as good as other locations

Disclosure: My party received a 10% off the bill "grand opening"discount. I presume all diners got this same discount and don't know how long the promotion goes for.

Liang's Kitchen (or Liang Mama in Chinese) is a burgeoning Californian chain of what is classified as "little eateries" in Chinese culture. The concept of the little eatery is somewhat analogous to a fast food restaurant except that you still sit in the restaurant to enjoy your food. Thus, it's probably more like a Chipotle, Rubio's, or Elevation Burger in terms of fast food.
In doing some research about Liang's Kitchen, I came across this article, which seems to be the seminal work in providing background information on Mama Liang. I recommend you read the well-written article, but I'll go ahead and paraphrase. While Liang's Kitchen is referred to as Taiwanese cuisine (including here), it is more specifically military village food. Military village food is essentially a mix of several different types of Chinese cuisine such as Sichuan, Hunan, Taiwanese, and Cantonese. The military village was where military families from all parts of China blended together after initially fleeing to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War.
Mama Liang is a real person and mother of Ivan Liang, who is the owner of the Liang's Kitchen empire. Mama Liang opened her first restaurant in 1981 and retired in 2000. When his mother sold the restaurant, her son Ivan modernized the operation and started the current growth boom of the Liang's Kitchen empire throughout California and even New York. The philosophy of the food is twofold - to preserve military village cuisine and to stay true to Mama Liang's recipes.
The cuisine at Mama Liang's is mostly a collection of small plate foods or tapas. They seem to be best enjoyed in a group where each person can sample a little of each dish. Since the plates are small, a group of about 6 is probably the largest group before doubling up on orders. The signature dish is the beef tendon noodle soup, but other favorites include the special oil onion noodle with egg and sesame cake with beef.
I've previously dined at the Liang's Kitchen location in Irvine, so I will compare the dishes where applicable. Since there was no real progression to the menu, I'll simply give comments in the feedback the dishes arrived. Also, I didn't order the dishes, so I'm guessing to some extent what some of the dishes are.
Stewed Appetizer - Mixed Combination 
The stewed appetizer combination contained stewed bean curd, stewed peanuts, stewed pig ear, and (I think) stewed pig's stomach. Stewing in this case means that the items are simmered in a predominantly soy based braising liquid. They are then allowed to cool off before being sliced and dressed with additional chili oils/sauces depending on the portion. 
I found this particular preparation of the stewed appetizers to be enjoyable, but not exceptional. The peanuts retained a nice crunch while getting the sweet soy broth. The pigs ears were slightly undercooked so that the gelatin didn't properly soften, and the pigs stomach was slightly chewy. However, I thought that overall the contrasting textures and preparations ultimately worked well together. Unfortunately, the added bits of chili and spice were not sufficiently aggressive to really elevate this dish. Had the seasoning been slightly more aggressive, I felt the dish would have overcome the slight undercooking of the proteins.
Special Oil Onion Noodle with Egg
This was my favorite dish of the night. After receiving this dish, one mixes the onions, egg and oil together with the noodle to integrate all the flavors. The onions were excellently prepared and imparted a deep rich flavor to compliment the noodles, while the runny egg yolk added and earthiness to round out the dish.
Beef Noodle Soup with Thick Noodles
I actually didn't get to try this dish, but I've enjoyed it at the Irvine location in the past. The noodles are a thicker variety, which adds a rustic touch and actually holds up to the deep flavor of the stewed beef broth well. The soup contains Taiwanese lettuce, green onion, cilantro, and Chinese pickles. The vinegary bite of the pickles are a nice acidic contrast to an otherwise rich broth.
Stewed Pork Thigh
This was one of the better meat dishes of the night. The pork was stewed until tender and retained a lot of moisture. I was not a fan of the added sauce (I think it was oyster) as I felt the pork didn't need it to stand up on its own.
Steam Vegetable - A Vegetable
Yes, the name of this vegetable is A Vegetable. The A Vegetable was slightly overcooked, but the oyster sauce, ground pork, and fried garlic garnishes added additional flavor elements to the dish and made it enjoyable. It was a nice change of pace from the predominant meat dishes.
Black Bean Dry Noodle
Note: I might have the name wrong on this dish
This was my least favorite dish of the night. The noodles are mixed with the sauce like the special oil noodle, but I found the sauce prepared poorly. The flavors were a bit strong, and the bold flavor was actually overwhelming to the point of becoming unappetizing.
Stewed Tofu
I found this dish a little flat. By now the repeated use of the sauce (oyster?) was getting a little old and the addition of the weak sambal was not enough to balance the dish. The tofu was well-prepared and enjoyable though.
Special Red Pork Cutlet
This was basically some deep fried bbq pork. The bbq pork was actually well seasoned and flavorful. Where I didn't like this dish was the texture as the pork was slightly tough to chew. However, it was the better of the two dishes when compared to...
Fried Pork Cutlet
The pork cutlet was typical of what can be expected from many Chinese fast food places, but this particular one was a little tried and the texture was a bit tough. The meat itself was also lacking a bit when compared to the red pork cutlet.
Sesame Cake with Beef
I enjoyed the preparation of the sesame cake wrap, but found the beef a little dry. The wrap contains Chinese pickles to add an element of acid, in addition to cilantro, but I felt the balance of pickles to cilantro was a bit off as I could have used a little more freshness. This was actually a little disappointing as the version of this dish from the Irvine branch was exceptional.
Beef Tendon Noodle Soup with thick noodles
This dish is essentially identical to the earlier Beef Noodle Soup except that instead of just stewed beef, there are pieces of stewed tendon. As a lover of the gelatinous tendon I am much more a fan of this preparation than the previous. However, both dishes were nice and stand up in their own right.
Sesame Cake with Pork
Of the two sesame cake wraps, this particular one was more enjoyable because the pork was moist. The wrap was similarly unbalanced (for my tastes) in the pickles to herbs, but this bothered me less with the pork wrap.
Mix Black Bean Dry Noodle with thick noodles
I thought this dish was excellent. This dish illustrates the textural similarities of the soy beans (2 preparations stewed and steamed), tofu and ground meat even though each has a unique, yet similar flavor. This highlights how tofu and soy beans can be used as a meat substitute in some Chinese dishes that require ground meat.
Spicy Sausage
The sausage actually contained a fair amount of spice, which impressed me. It was fried on the outside so the casing had a nice texture to contrast the spicy mix of meat within the casing.

I hate to attach any sort of "best of" moniker to any restaurant. However, with the dearth of good Chinese food in San Diego, Liang's Kitchen stands out among the pack. I'm going to go ahead and refrain from attaching any adjectives to the restaurant for now simply say that I would return and I would mention it as one of the Chinese restaurants to visit in San Diego.
Had the food been up to par with the Irvine branch, Liang's Kitchen San Diego would be enjoying a bit award. However, there are still some issues with the food to work out as the restaurant discovers its identity, so this will have to wait.


Kirbie October 11, 2011 at 11:07 AM  

I like your little quick summary on top. I've been mulling doing something like that as my posts seem to have gotten longer and longer. I agree with you for the most part. Not as good as the other chain locations, but pretty good in the SD area given the lack of good chinese food here. I hate that parking lot. The stewed appetizer, I think the third item is beef tripe rather than pig. But I could be wrong. I hope service gets better. While I like that they have a ton of servers, they seemed to have memory retentions of goldfish

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gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
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