Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lai Lai

Lai Lai Chinese Restaurant (Arribeños 2168) in Belgrano - Buenos Aires Chinatown

When Jessie and Dorian from Vancouver visited Toronto a few weeks ago, they recommended that we try Lai Lai in Belgrano for some authentic chinese food during our trip - just in case we felt in any way homesick.  With a sunny warm Saturday morning free of any planned activities, we decided to make the long trek there from Santa Fe and Callao.

"Take the bus, it goes right there!" said Juan José, the friendly shoe shine guy on the corner.  Since we are adamantly not locals (you can even say blatantly touristy), we decided to take a taxi instead.

Even though it was the weekend, it was traffic all the way.  Lots of time to look at the streetscape of Santa Fe and Cabilde as we passed - and to ogle at lovers making out in bus shelters:

The trip to the heart of Chinatown at Mendoza and Arribeños cost 40 pesos.  It was just before noon, so Lai Lai and many of the other restaurants (like Todo Contento, another chinese restaurant we had tried before on previous trips) were still closed.  We took some time to walk around to re-acquaint ourselves with Buenos Aires Chinatown.  We haven't been here since 2008.

The last couple of times we were here we were on tight schedules - classes during the day or Camicando workshops with Martha and Manolo meant that visiting Chinatown had to be hit and run.  We got our instant noodles from the chinese supermarket, and then left!  When we discovered that we could get the same cup noodles at the Carréfour near our hotel (and in better, more Argentinian flavours, like Cheese and Tomato and Chicken) we didn't need to go to Chinatown anymore.  This time we could enjoy more of Chinatown.

It's pretty busy - there's lots of Chinese people but also lots of Argentinians, and every store and restaurant has some Argentinian staff.  We saw help wanted posters on the windows - asking for applicants with DNI.  When we were at Todo Contento, the boss there told us there is now a requirement for all stores to hire a certain number of locals, so you will find Argentinian (as opposed to Chinese or Chinese-Argentinian) sales clerks, waiters and chefs everywhere you go in Chinatown.  This is completely different than the situation in Toronto Chinatown, where Chinese stores and restaurants have 100% staff of chinese ethnicity.

We didn't see this the last time we were here:

Gates of Chinatown

The big election is next weekend so the supporters and campaigners are out in force everywhere we turn.  Martha told me that people over 70 don't have the vote (!!?!) and so I think that's why the people giving out flyers didn't hand any to our elderly taxi driver when we stopped at the traffic lights on the way to Chinatown.  We also didn't get any flyers because with our Tilley hats and other dorky accoutrements, we look like we are from outer space - and I don't think space invaders get to vote in Argentina either.

After a leisurely walk around the block it was time for lunch at Lai Lai.  Lai Lai means "Come Come" in Chinese - and Man Yung explains that one of the two most important hotels in Taipei, Taiwan (in his day) was called Lai Lai Fan Tien, with Fan meaning "Cooked Rice" and "Tien" meaning "Lodgings".  The most common word for "Hotel" in Chinese is "Zhou Tien" which means "Alcoholic Beverage Lodgings" which, strangely enough in the olden days of Man Yung's youth, meant much more basic lodgings several levels below "Cooked Rice Lodgings".  As for why it could be that a place where you can eat cooked rice meant a luxurious 5-star hotel while a place where you could drink alcohol meant a 2 to 3 star hotel, I don't know and I welcome any coherent explanations as to same.

Lai Lai was starting to get busy when we went in.  Apart from another table of regulars, we were the only chinese - the rest were Argentinians.  They like Lai Lai chinese food!

Ambience at Lai Lai - the wall trim has postcards of colourful scenery from all over Taiwan

We ordered  Rice Noodles (Ho Fan) with Beef, Fried Onion with Beef (we figured that Beef in Buenos Aires is a failsafe choice), and Hot and Sour soup.  The soup came first - it looked authentic and tasted great with strong peppery and vinegary flavour.

The proprietress came over to talk to Man Yung (people love to start a conversation with Man Yung wherever we go). She's been living in Argentina for 28 years!  She was part of the immigration wave out of Taiwan in the early 80's.  Man Yung explained to me that people were starting to make money in Taiwan starting late 70's and early 80's due to the manufacturing and technology boom.  Since the Taiwanese still feared invasion from mainland China, they took their money and immigrated to many different places in the world.  Many immigrated to Panama (Taiwan had close political, technology and trade connections with Panama because of the Panama Canal works) but others went to other parts of Central and South America too, including Argentina.

"There were only about 3000 Chinese in Chinatown when I arrived," said the proprietress, "Most were Taiwanese with 20% Cantonese.  Now there are more and more immigrants from Mainland China, mostly from Fujian province."  Toronto is also experiencing more immigrants from China and Fujian province in particular - enormously resourceful people.  Man Yung knows of many Chinese who made their way first to places in South America - and then bought a plane ticket to the States or Canada.  Some would destroy their identification and passports en route, arrive in Canada and declare refugee status.  Both Man Yung and the proprietress agreed that it was very daring - the Taiwanese and Hong Kongers usually went by the regular route and applied for immigration!

The rest of our food arrived:

Rice Noodles (Ho Fan) with Beef and Fried Onion with Beef at Lai Lai

Now, we ordered Rice Noodles (Ho Fan) as an experiment.  It is only in places with a large population of Chinese people that you can get the best Ho Fan - it has to be made fresh daily and delivered each day in order to have a supple but soft bite.  This is fine for places like Toronto with its own Ho Fan and Chinese noodle factories - but places a little further like Hamilton or Ottawa you may find it impossible to find good Ho Fan.  In fact, freshness is so important, Man Yung tries not to order Ho Fan at a restaurant any time after 8:30 p.m. because this means the Ho Fan has been sitting in the kitchen fridge all day and would have become stiff and hard. The Ho Fan used by Lai Lai tastes good, but it has a springy texture which usually means it was made from reconstituted dried rice noodles rather than the freshly made kind we have in Toronto.  "I've been to Toronto too," said the proprietress - "The Chinese food here can't compare to what you have in Toronto!  We simply can't get the same kind of ingredients."  The beef at Lai Lai, however, is of the finest quality - not like some of the beef you can find in Chinese restaurants in Toronto, which have been "tenderized" to death with baking soda and such.

"We tried to keep all our dishes authentic here in this restaurant," said the proprietress.  "Some of the other Chinese Restaurants cater to the people here and offer a mix of Argentinian and Chinese, but we stick to tradition." We asked the proprietress to recommend the signature dish of the restaurant - and she told us to try the "Three Cups of Wine chicken":
Three Cups of Wine Chicken at Lai Lai

Man Yung loved the tasty whole garlic cloves in this casserole!  We better not bump into any milongueras tonight.

So there you have it!  A day in Buenos Aires without food from La Madeleine.  If you get a chance to visit Chinatown, we recommend that you try Lai Lai for some authentic Taiwanese style cuisine.

* Some other interesting things we found in Chinatown:  A huge RAT running into a store of imported Chinese knick knacks!  It was so big I thought it was a dog.  And the people shopping in the store who saw the rat running in didn't even blink or jump when the rat leaped over their feet.  And in the Taiwanese Cultural Centre, there was a notice for... Tango Lessons.  A chica called Emi, apparently the 'Only Taiwanese to receive certification from the University of Tango in Buenos Aires' is teaching Tango there 'for improvement of health', with a practica following the class.  Too bad she is teaching on Tuesdays, we missed it.  Darn.


jessiechung said...

Dear Irene and Man Yung,

We are pleased to learn that you enjoyed the food at Lai Lai. We also loved the whole clove garlic in that chicken dish (Pollos con Tres Aromas)....I am going to make that dish tomorrow for dinner. Thanks for the tips of ho I know why some ho fan that I had in the restaurants in the late night was "not quite right". If you are going to eat at Lai Lai again on this trip, please consider trying their spring rolls, which were honestly made...fully packed of crunchy vegetables. Also, the Taiwanese style fried noodle was very delicious, too.

Jessie and Dorian

lily said...

Dear Irene & Man Yung,

I read your blog of this article, 'Lai Lai' while I'm searching some Chinese restaurant in Brunos Aires. Your comment of this Chinese restaurant is very useful to me. I wonder if you will have some other best Chinese restaurant recommendation in Brunos Aires to me as this is very important to my job preparation. Thank you.

Yours sincerely,


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