Chinese food adapts to its environment like a chameleon, so that in each country the taste is a bit different. A good example of this is Mami King, where Chinese dishes are prepared to the Filipino taste with American ingredients.
Noodle soups and steamed buns are Mami King's specialty. The buns, called siopao, resemble the fluffy pork-filled char siu bao you get in Chinatown. But the taste of the pork is different and so are the buns. One jumbo-sized siopao filled the plate. It looked like a flattened volleyball--bigger than anything I've seen here or in Hong Kong.
The "volleyball" contained pork, chicken and salted duck egg. Braised pork or chicken are the options for plain, basic siopao. A variation called bola-bola, which is Tagalog for meatball, is stuffed with ground pork, chicken, salted egg, shiitake mushroom and a chunk of Chinese sausage. And mongo is filled with sweet dark bean paste.
There are also marked differences in the siomai. In Cantonese restaurants, these open-at-the-top steamed dumplings are rather dainty morsels. But Mami King's pork-filled siomai are large and dense with meat. The wrappers on mine were flimsy things that fell away from the sides. What startled me was the dip--a bowl of pure, mouth-tingling lemon juice.
This food has a long tradition in the Philippines. The first restaurant in the chain opened in the Quiapo district of Manila in 1920 under a Chinese name, Ma Mon Luk, and quickly became a crowded hangout. A Filipino friend recalls going there in her high school days for buns and noodle soup after the movies. She swears the soup tasted better in Manila because the chickens there had more flavor and produced richer broth.
There are now two Mami Kings in Southern California. The first of these opened a few years ago in a shopping center on Sunset Boulevard. The small, sparkling, white room is often jammed with Filipino families and customers waiting for orders to go. A larger branch with an expanded menu opened last fall in Torrance. Both operate fast-food style.
The word mami refers to the noodle soups (in Southeast Asia, noodles are mee or mi ). These are big, soothing bowlfuls of clear broth with noodles and chicken, pork or beef. The light, silky noodles are made at a central kitchen in the Torrance branch and trucked to Los Angeles. Pasta lovers can buy them by the pound and add their own sauces.
It is nice that one can eat such interesting food for so little. Two of the fat siomai with a bowl of soup comes to $1.35. The siopao range from 80 cents for the sweet mongo bun to $1.60 for the jumbo "special." The Torrance Mami King has a tremendous buy--half a barbecued chicken, juicy and succulent with its sweet soy marinade, for $5. The plate includes a large helping of macaroni salad with fruit and robustly seasoned Java rice. The barbecued beef plate teams thin-cut, Korean style short ribs with the same accompaniments.
The Sunset Mami King has a smaller kitchen and therefore a smaller menu. Beef and won ton soup and egg rolls have been added, but not the barbecue plates. Filled with pork and a variety of shredded vegetables, the egg rolls are fried to order to make sure they are fresh and crisp.
Desserts veer away from the Chinese to the strictly Filipino. Mais con hielo-- corn with crushed ice, milk and sugar--is one of them. But I prefer halo-halo, a combination of candied beans, coconut, jackfruit, palm seeds and purple yam paste with crushed ice and milk--a colorful collection of treats in a tall glass for $2.
Mami King, 4321 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 669-1078. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Shopping center or street parking. Cash only. Address in Torrance is 21209 Hawthorne Blvd., in the Del Amo Village restaurant belt. Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Cash only. Ample parking in the restaurant belt.