Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lamb Gone Astray - 818 Shao Kao (a.k.a. JN Kitchen)

There are few things that entice me as much as finding great Lamb dishes, and finding Specialist restaurants, that focus on making a few things great. So when I heard various reports last year about a Specialist that also focused on Lamb, I couldn't wait to wrangle up some friends and try the place out. :) That Specialist turns out to be the oddly named "818 Shao Kao", but they also kept the old signage from the previous tenant "JN Kitchen" which only adds to the confusion (for the record, according to the manager, their official name is "818 Shao Kao").

818 Shao Kao is a tiny little restaurant that could be easily missed if you're not paying close attention while driving down Valley Blvd. As we approach the storefront, one of my dear SGV Hounds translates the Chinese characters written in the window: "Lamb Skewers" "All Lamb Soup!" and "Authentic Xinjiang Skewers". Excited, we quickly sit down in the tiny restaurant whose dining area is smaller than an average-sized living room.

With all the signs and early press about the Lamb Skewers, that was the first thing we had to order: 818's Kao Yang Rou Chuan (Lamb Skewers, listed as "Grilled Lamb").

Each skewer is heavily dusted with a variety of spices, but taking the first bite reveals only a very light Cumin flavor, with more Red Pepper, Salty and Hot-Spicy being the dominant flavors. And sadly, more disappointing than that is the Lamb that's been cooked to beyond well-done: Each skewer is a dried out, chunky, completely overcooked bite of Lamb "Jerky." :( Hoping it's a fluke, I order the Lamb Skewers again on another visit and it's still the same; it's nowhere near the amazing Lamb Skewers at Feng Mao Mutton Kebab.

Next up is their Kao Ji Rou Chuan (Grilled Chicken Skewers listed as "Grilled Chicken").

Sadly, this is even worse than the Lamb: It's the exact same seasoning mix (heavily favoring Red Pepper, Salt and Spicy), except even saltier than the Lamb and even more dried out (if that was possible). Sadly, probably some of the worst skewers of meat I've had in the past few years. :(

Their Kao Ji Chi (Grilled Wings) fare a bit better (probably due to the amount of fat and skin that helped to keep the meat moist). But the same salty seasoning powder from the previous skewers tastes even more prominent here, making it so salty that it's really for sodium fiends more than anyone else.

While we originally were enticed to stop by because of the Lamb Skewers, after noticing they serve Tianjin Baozi (Tian Jin Bun), made in-house, my guests and I can't resist an order, and we're secretly hoping this will be another great Baozi (Steamed Bun) specialist in the making. :)

One order results in a huge plate of 7 Steamed Buns, done Tianjin-style, and taking a bite, the initial outer skin of the Steamed Bun is slightly pillowy but not as fresh or vibrant as it could be. Still, it shows potential.

But then continuing further into the bite, the Pork-Ginger filling comes pouring through, and it's completely, overpoweringly salty. :(

One dish that seems to be a later addition to the restaurant is a sign posted on the wall, which my SGV Hound translates (and insists on ordering): Zha Chou Doh Fu (Fried Fermented Tofu). (~_~)

Ah, yes, this (in)famous Chinese dish almost ranks up there in vileness for some to Durian, the super pungent Southeast Asian "King of Fruit" that you can smell from blocks away. :) I've grown accustomed to Fermented Tofu now, and give this version a try. My guests and I try a bite and come to the same conclusion: Surprisingly very plain (given the other heavily spiced and seasoned dishes so far). It's sufficiently smelly (which is what it should be), but really mild and plain compared to other versions throughout the San Gabriel Valley.

In addition to being a Skewers specialist, and making Tianjin Steamed Buns, they also make their own Jiaozi (Dumplings), and our waitress excitedly proclaims that they're made every day and very good. We decide to try their Zu Rou Jio Tsai Shwei Jiao (Pork Chives Dumplings).

The Dumpling skin turns out to be a bit thicker than I like (thicker than 101 Noodle Express, which is on the thicker side already), but it has a respectable chew to each bite. The filling is a good balance of Jio Tsai (Chinese Chives) and Marinated Ground Pork, and it's well seasoned. But there might be a bit too much salt, because by the 3rd Dumpling, we all started noticing a saltiness growing and becoming more prominent. Otherwise they turned out to be the best item we ordered on that visit.

One of the most intriguing items that I'm curious about is their Feng Wei Jian Bing Guo Zi (Special Pancake & Twisted Biscuit).

I remember seeing Mr Taster ask about this Northern Chinese breakfast creation, and was happy to find out 818 Shao Kao serves this breakfast item. Their Jian Bing is a thin layer of fresh Eggs and a crispy, thin, crepe-like flour pancake. 818's version include a heavy dollop of hot Chili Sauce, and the end result is a savory, crispy, spicy egg pancake. It's a bit underwhelming but I'd imagine for those that grew up on this, it might hold fonder memories.

Continuing with the Breakfast theme, I try their Doh Jiang ("Bean Milk"), which is their fresh Soy Bean Milk.

Sadly, their Soy Bean Milk has an old, musty funk, making it quite unpleasant to finish.

Another of their specialty items is their Hsien Rou Hsiao Hwun Twun (Pork Wonton Soup).

The Wontons turn out to be quite tiny with each Wonton being primarily skin and not much filling. Some of the Wontons also turn out to be too clumpy (undercooked), leading to eating some raw dough. The Broth itself is quite rich with a good infusion of Seaweed. If the Wontons were larger (leading to a better balance between Wonton skin and filling), and the raw, undercooked dough was cooked through, this would be a pretty good dish worth ordering.

Their Jiang Nio Rou Shao Bing (Beef Pancake) does little to reverse the disappointments of the later visits.

The Beef isn't cooked long enough, leading to tough, overly chewy slices of Stewed Beef with tendon and gristle in most slices that take away from the dish.

We decide to try another of their specialties Quan Yang Tang (All Lamb Soup).

Hearing a name such as "All Lamb Soup" makes me think that we're in store for a soup that's utterly infused with a good Lambiness, featuring large chunks of delicious, long-stewed Lamb (Leg, Chops, etc.). I was partially right.

The All Lamb Soup turns out to be in reference to it using as many parts of the Lamb as possible, with a heavy funk of Lamb Offal / Organ Meats. There are chunks of Lamb Stomach, Lamb Liver, Lamb Skin, and Lamb Fat. Unfortunately there's almost no actual Lamb Meat, and the Lamb Soup is dominated by the metallic, mineral-y taste of Lamb Liver. :(

For the soup, our waitress recommends ordering some Zi Ma Shao Bing (Sesame Pancakes) to complement the Lamb Soup. We take her advice and order one. It's flaky, but surprisingly mediocre: It's a bit lumpy and doughy, and not something we'd order again.

For a tiny, tiny hole-in-the-wall, service at 818 Shao Kao is decent: You just wave at the waitress and she'll come over and try and answer your request. Prices range from $1 - $7.

818 Shao Kao represents another example of a great concept gone horribly wrong. It has the makings of a specialist - in Lamb Skewers (or all types of Xinjiang-style Skewers), along with some rarer Tianjin cuisine items. Unfortunately, through multiple visits, the complete lack of grilling skills, overseasoning, and general underwhelming creations for their non-grilled items, make 818 Shao Kao a huge disappointment. It pains me to write this (as it is someone's livelihood), but unless they improve the kitchen staff's grilling and general cooking techniques, there are many other places to visit before spending your time and money at 818 Shao Kao.

Rating: 2.7 (out of 10.0)

818 Shao Kao
818 E. Valley Boulevard
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Tel: (626) 307-5128

* Cash Only *

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 8:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.


Gastronomer said...

What a travesty. The array of dishes you sampled all looked very familiar from my travels through China! A shame 818 didn't rock the party. Let us know when you find a really great lamb joint!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

Definitely. :( My guests and I were so sad on our multiple visits. For Lamb, definitely check out Feng Mao Mutton Kebab on Olympic. (I have pics on my site.) Some wonderful Lamb Skewers with great spice balance! Love it. :)

weezermonkey said...

I pass this place all the time.

I shall keep passing. :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

As it stands right now, I'd have to sadly agree.

burumun said...

Eek, sounds like some bad visits - very underwhelming to say the least. Well, this post did remind me that I still need to try Feng Mao :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

You definitely need to try out Feng Mao soon. Winter weather is perfect for the delicious Lamb Skewers. :)

pleasurepalate said...

Wow, so sorry to hear about your bad experience. I actually went there a few times early last year and absolutely loved it each time. I wonder what happened between then and now. :(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

No worries. Thanks. I'm not quite sure either. My guests and I were so excited to try it, and even after a few visits, we didn't see any improvements.

KirkK said...

I agree, this place is mostly a big miss... too bad. And that Jiang Bing was terrible. Strangely, I do want to go back for the Guo Ba soup, which was pretty good.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi KirkK,

Thanks for your thoughts on the place. I'm sorry to hear you also had some bad experiences here; and it's good to know your experience on the Jian Bing (and how it compares to other versions you've had).

Kung Food Panda said...

Like WM, I've driven past this place quite often. I too, will have to keep on passing. The fact the skewer uses the same seasoning, food salty, etc....just sinful!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

It is definitely a disappointment. :( I was hoping they would be pretty good so that I'd have an excuse to visit my SGV friends more often. :)

Ren Liu said...

For their Jiang Nio Rou Shao Bing (Beef Pancake), that's the way it's supposed to be prepared: hard and filled with ligaments. I used to eat those everyday when I went back home to China.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Ren,

Thanks for your thoughts. Interesting. I guess many of the restaurants I've had it at were lucky to have gristle-free, tender Beef.

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