Tuesday, May 22, 2012

[UPDATED] Recovery Slow for Fire-Ravaged Chinese Restaurants

By Luke Tsai
Tue, May 22, 2012 at 4:49 PM

Did someone anger the gods of Chinese cookery? How else to explain the spate of kitchen fires that have knocked out three of the East Bay’s better Chinese restaurants — all heavy in my personal rotation — in a little over a year?

It started with the oft-overlooked L & L Chinese Seafood Restaurant (10140 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito), which had been one of my favorite spots for low-key dim sum — easy parking, no wait for a table, less-greasy fare (including some of the tastiest turnip cakes you could find in the East Bay), and all for cheap cheap cheap.

But then, late last February, an employee working the morning shift alone accidentally locked himself inside the restaurant’s walk-in freezer after he’d put a pot of oil on the stove. The subsequent fire destroyed the kitchen and shut L & L down indefinitely, according to El Cerrito Patch, which first reported the story. Thankfully, the unlucky cook wasn’t injured, but the restaurant has been closed for well over a year now.

Great Chinas legendary Peking Duck
  • Great China's legendary Peking Duck
Next to get hit was longtime downtown Berkeley fave Great China (2115 Kittredge St., Berkeley), purveyor of maybe the best Peking Duck I’ve had on this side of the Pacific. On the evening of January 25 — a couple days into the Chinese New Year, of all times — a fire broke out after hot oil that had gotten into the restaurant’s kitchen flue system ignited, The Daily Cal reported. The Berkeley Fire Department quickly got the flames under control, but not before extensive damage was sustained — to the building itself as well as to the restaurant’s prized wine collection.

Finally, in March, China Village (1335 Solano Ave., Albany) — Sichuan specialist extraordinaire and creator of one of my all-time favorite Dungeness crab preparations — got taken out when a fire started during a semi-annual cleaning and degreasing of the kitchen. According to Albany Patch, the restaurant’s hood and duct system put out the flames before firefighters arrived on the scene.

Zao Jun, the Kitchen God
  • Zao Jun, the Kitchen God
All in all, it’s been quite the series of unfortunate events. And while I was hoping I’d have good news to share, mostly it’s been slow going. Though the management at China Village had planned to reopen within a couple of weeks, the restaurant eventually put a message on its answering machine alluding to an extensive three- to four-month remodel — a July or August opening, if that timeline holds true. Chef-owner John Yao couldn’t be reached for comment.

I hadn’t heard any word about L & L, so I was mildly surprised when an employee answered the phone when I called the restaurant last week. My source didn’t offer any specifics about the progress of the construction project, but he did say the restaurant planned to reopen by the end of June.

Meanwhile, James Yu, Great China’s wine guru and second-generation co-owner (the son of the chef), is working as a manager at the nearby Revival Bar & Kitchen while his own restaurant is out of commission. Yu told me that repairs haven’t even begun — only design work. The problem is that the building itself is old and not up to code. There needs to be a plan in place for how to address the city’s current regulations before construction can begin in earnest.

Realistically, Yu said, Great China will likely reopen at some point in the fall.

In the meantime: Readers, if you have an idea for where I can go for the time being to get my ma po tofu or Peking Duck fix, please share your recs in the comments section!

Update: Tien Yao, wife of China Village chef-owner John Yao, called me with additional information about their remodel, and it appears they're in a similar boat as Great China — the Yaos have hired someone to put together drawings, but the actual construction work will be held up until they can get the necessary permits from Albany's health and building departments. Because the heath codes have changed, the entire restaurant will need to be updated; consequently, China Village isn't likely to reopen until September. The good news, Yao said, is that they'll be able to retain their staff. Food and pricing will remain the same as before.

Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.

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