Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hang Fer Lo, the "Delmonico's" of 19th Century San Francico Chinatown

"Hittell's Handbook 0f Pacific Coast Travel," by John Shertzer Hittell had this account of San Francisco's leading Chinese Restaurant in 1885:

The Hang Fer Low Restaurant, on Dupont street, between Clay and Sacramento, is the Delmonico's of Chinatown. The second floor of this and other leading restaurants is set apart for regular boarders, who pay by the week or month. The upper floor, for the accommodation of the more wealthy guests, is divided into apartments by movable partitions, curiously carved and lacquered. The chairs and tables, chandeliers, stained window panes, and even the cooking utensils used at this restaurant were nearly all imported from China. Here dinner parties, costing from $20 to $100 for half a dozen guests, are frequently given by wealthy Chinamen. When the latter sum is paid, the entire upper floor is set apart for their accommodation, and the dinner sometimes lasts from 2 P. M. till midnight, with intervals between the courses, during which the guests step out to take an airing, or to transact business. Among the delicacies served on such occasions are bird's nest soup, shark's fins, Taranaki fungus (which grows on a New Zealand tree), Chinese terrapin, Chinese goose, Chinese quail, fish brains, tender shoots of bamboo, various vegetables strange to American eyes, and arrack,(a distilled liquor made of rice). Champagne, sherry oysters, chicken, pigeon, sucking pig, and other solids and liquids familiar to the European palate, also find their places at the feast. The tables are decorated with satin screens or hangings on one side; the balconies or smoking rooms are illuminated by colored lanterns; and Chinese music adds to the charms of the entertainment.

Hang Fer Low was located at 713 Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) prior to the Great Earthquake of 1906, and moved to 725 Grant Avenue after the quake. Somewhere along the way the spelling of the name was changed to the risible Hang Far Low, and in the 1950's, perhaps tired of the low humor the name engendered, it changed its name to the Four Seas. It still exists today, but has long been overshadowed by other Chinatown restaurants.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dumpling Kitchen -- Pretender to the Dumpling Throne?

I haven't been doing my homework; otherwise it wouldn't have taken me two and a half months to discover a new Shanghainese restaurant out in the fog belt claiming dumpling royalty. It wasn't until Jonathan Kauffman's review that I discovered Dumpling Kitchen, named modestly enough in English, but called 一品包餃王 in Chinese, which translates to something like Number One Grand Poobah of Making Dumplings.

The smallish room formerly housing Han Goeng Seafood on Taraval was slammed at lunchtime on Christmas Eve, and the din filling the room was predominantly Cantonese. According to Kauffman's review, the chef at Dumpling Kitchen is a veteran of Shanghai Dumpling King on Balboa. Sure enough, as I was being seated at the only empty table, a two-top at the back, I spotted a plate of what looked like SDK's signature sugar puff pastries floating through the crowd. I ordered xiao long bao, of course (my chief mission being to check them out) and sheng jian bao. The prices were certainly reasonable ($6.00 for ten XLB and $5.50 for eight SJB). However, the xiao long bao were something of a disappointment, oversized and sloppy in construction. The skins were supple enough, and the minced pork filling of the right texture, but the essential "soup "was characterless and oddly sweet. In addition, the vinegar dipping sauce was somehow off; I'd swear it was cut with soy sauce.

The sheng jian bao were also a disappointment. To use an Irish Bull, I'd say they weren't as good as I expected, but then I didn't expect they would be. Compared to street food-worthy sheng jian bao in Shanghai, they were undercooked on the bottoms, and seriously lacking in fatty broth. This seems to be almost universally the case in the US (and Canada), where apparently SJB are treated as if they were supposed to be healthy eats, instead of the drizzle-down-the-chin fat bombs they are meant to be.

Dumpling Kitchen has a fairly full menu of Shanghainese appetizers and xiao cai to check out at humane prices. There may be some gems on the menu, but xiao long bao and sheng jian bao aren't among them. In his review, Jonathan Kauffman suggested that the xiao long bao at Dumpling Kitchen might be in the sweepstakes for best xiao long bao in San Francisco. For what it's worth, I'd peg them at no better than fourth, behind Shanghai Dumpling King, Shanghai House, and Bund Shanghai's XLB.

Dumpling Kitchen, 1935 Taraval at 30th Ave., San Francisco

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Poster Bao for San Gabriel Valley Dumplings Hails from San Francisco

I post a lot of pictures, largely food-related, to flickr. They're licensed as Creative Commons - Attribution, which means that anyone can use them for any purpose whatsoever as long as they acknowledge the source. Sometimes the emphasis is on "creative" in their use. A picture I took of zeppole being sold at an Upper West Side street festival in Manhattan showed up in a popular magazine's online feature on ballpark food -- representing the food sold at Yankee Stadium. The French onion soup I photographed at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal ended up at a similarly named restaurant in Paris, a SF Japantown noodle shop ended up in Tokyo, and Torta Loca in San Francisco's Mission District found new fame posing as one of the best places to eat in Acapulco.

In general, I've adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward location misrepresentation of my photos, as long as my phony name is spelled right. The latest instance, however, of a referential head-fake involving one of my pics is so egregious that it almost borders on chutzpah, especially in light of the historic SF-LA rivalry (which I'm always happy to stir up). I have to call you on this one, LA Weekly.

In the article depicted and linked above, the redoubtable and award-winning Jonathan Gold (he's a writer, not an apple) uses juicy political gossip as a hook for strutting about some of San Gabriel Valley's juicy dumplings, known to us cognoscenti as xiao long bao. The article goes so far as to dub a San Gabriel mall as the "the U.S. epicenter of the soup dumplings called xiao long bao" and was headed by a column-width photo by yours truly of some of the most photogenic dumplings ever to appear on the face of the earth.

Well, Jonathan (and I know the photo selection is not your bad), I don't do LA, and therefore can't call you on the excellence of San Gabriel Valley soup dumplings. I haven't been to LA in decades, and certainly not since my 1992 xiao long bao epiphany in Shanghai. What I'm getting at here is that the mouth-watering dumplings in the picture you honored by using it in your article cannot be found anywhere near San Gabriel. The picture was taken of the dumplings at Shanghai Dumpling King in the foggy outer Richmond District of San Francisco, the venue most loved by Bay Area xiao long bao aficionados. They're real, and they're spectacular.

Come up and try them some time.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Biang! Biang! You're Fed

Biang biang mian, a.k.a. you po che mian at Xi'an Famous Foods, Flushing

[This article has also been posted in my Full Noodle Frontity blog]

"Biang Biang" noodles are the stuff of folklore. Not because of the dish itself (though it deserves to be legendary) but because of the very name. The word "biang" is a Shaanxi localism not found in any modern Chinese dictionaries, famous for its complexity. It is written with 57 strokes, and pity the poor sign-maker that has to paint it twice. No one knows for certain where the name originated, but the most plausible guess is that it represents the sound of the noodles being slapped against the work surface when being made. This theory is advanced by Xi'an Famous Foods' Jason Wang in this video. Biang Biang noodles, being "as wide and thick as belts" are also famous for that reason as one of the "ten strange wonders of Shaanxi." But don't look for "Biang Biang" noodles on your menu; although phonetic substitutes like 棒棒麵 (bàng bàng miàn) or 梆梆麵 (bāng bāng miàn) may sometimes be used, according to Wikipedia, the dish is most commonly listed on menus outside of Shaanxi as you po che mian (油泼扯面).

You po che mian, roughly "oil-sprinkled torn noodles" are wide wheat noodles tossed (or stirred) with chili oil and some or all of: bean sprouts, crushed garlic, chili flakes, cabbage, and cilantro. The noodles are made by tearing wide strips of noodle dough in two lengthwise, rather than iteratively pulling them to thinness as done with "hand pulled" noodles (la mian). Traditionally they were supposedly made more than an inch thick and a meter in length, but fortunately are found in a more manageable size nowadays. Biang biang mian/you po che mian is an excellent hot weather dish, hard to find even in China outside of Xi'an. If you're lucky enough to be in New York, though, head for the nearest outlet of Xi'an Famous Foods for the excellent version depicted in the photo at the top of this page.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Now Bao: Four Postmodern Pork Buns

A year ago, I knew little about gua bao, the Taiwanese steamed clamshell buns stuffed with savory meat. When in New York my mind would be set on their distant cousin, the rou jia mo found at Xi'an Famous Foods in Flushing, the split-open pan bread with yawning maw stuffed with an explosive mixture of lamb, cumin and jalapeños. Then came another New York visit and the ritual of treating my daughter to a trendy, but always ethnic, restaurant meal as a reward for use of her apartment. This time it brought us to Momofuku Ssäm Bar. At Momofuku you have to try the "pork buns" the buzz went, and so we did.

The pork buns you get at Momofuku Ssäm Bar are not your father's pork buns and maybe even not your father's gua bao. They were envisioned by one David Chang, a Korean-American who has parlayed a large cooking talent, hype, and a sense of location, location, location into a mini-Momofuku empire, with his signature pork buns as a touchstone at each location. Chang's venues charge a momofukin' fortune (sorry, couldn't resist) for their offerings, and his pork buns have been taken note of both by imitators with dollar signs in their eyes and by other cooks who feel challenged to make something better or more authentically Taiwanese. The spawn of Momofuku's pork buns dot the haute Asian Fusion landscape; collectively, they involve a more or less traditional folded-over steamed bun, pork belly of some provenance. and various approaches to spicing (generally including sweetness). I've had occasion to sample three notable successors as well as Chang's original, and here are my reflections.

From the start, David Chang's pork bun is an odd duck. Or pig. Or both. A couple of slabs of slow-cooked pork belly, along with scallions and pickled cucumber are placed in a bun which has been slathered with hoisin (haixian) sauce. The intent was apparently to combine the trendy excess of pork belly (the culinary gift that keeps on giving) with the luxe experience of eating Peking Duck. I'm not opposed to sweetening the meat, being married to a Shanghainese of some coooking skill, but I found the use of hoisin sauce for this purpose a bit jarring. Just what the hell was I eating? Not only was this gustatory head-fake a bit uncalled for, it was also dearly bought. At $9.00 for two smallish buns it fell off the value scale, according to my felicific calculus. (But I'll leave the ranting about Momofuku's prices to others.)

One who seems challenged to one-up rather than imitate David Chang is Eddie Huang, the Taiwanese-American chef and former lawyer who founded Baohaus New York: Fresh off the Boat. Arguably in the same talen league and even brasher than Chang, Huang has also just opened the more ambitious Xiao Ye, the second outpost in what may be his own mini-empire (the Momofuku for the rest of us?) Huang skyrocketed to fame with his gua bao selections (cited as Best Bun in New York by New York Magazine). His take on the pork belly gua bao, The "Chaiman Bao," became his most popular item and incidentally launched a transcontinental controversy which is yet to be resolved. Eddie's Chairman Bao uses a generous hunk of pork belly (mine seemed leaner than Momofuku's) which has been "red cooked" in what I recognized as traditional Shanghainese style, made Taiwanese by being covered with with crushed peanuts and red sugar. Pickled mustard greens and cilantro add to the complexity. Not only did I appreciate the fuller symphony of flavors and textures, I found Baohaus' bao a better value, $4.00 for a palpably more generous portion of leaner meat.

A few months after Eddie Huang's baos, including the Chairman Bao, propelled him to casual food stardom, a food truck called "The Chairman Bao Truck" began serving gua bao on the streets of San Francisco. The Chairman Bao Truck was a concept which sprung full-blown from the head of a company called Mobi Munch (who later claimed to never have heard of Eddie Huang and his Chairman Bao). According to SF Weekly, Mobi Munch was founded "to offer turnkey infrastructure and development planning to the growing wave of gourmet food trucks." The founders, veterans of the chain restaurant industry, tried unsuccessfully to interest several local gourmet street food vendors in their service, then came up with the Chairman Bao Truck and populated it with a chef-operator named Eric Rudd (from Minneapolis, but with some local cooking experience). As might be expected, the mercurial Eddie Huang went ballistic over the use of the Chairman Bao name. I've shared his anger, but am trying not to aim it at the hapless operator, who is caught in the middle.
The affair will end in a sporting, if not completely amicable way with a bun-off between the two enterprises in September in San Francisco.

I caught up with the Chairman Bao Truck's pork bun last Friday night at Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center. It was the cheapest (at $2.95) but also the smallest of nouveau gua baos that I'd tried to the moment. It contained grilled pork belly, pickled daikon and pickled sweet onions. It was more discreetly spiced (NO hoisin sauce) and, though texturally monotonous, a well-behaved disciple of Momofuku's pork buns, though not as interesting or as satisfying as the Baohaus version. On a previous visit, when they had no pork buns on offer I tried the meatball and the tofu buns, and I'd actually recommend the tofu bun of the three.

The last of my four samples, encountered barely two hours ago, came from the opening lunch service of Spice Kit, a new San Francisco Financial District venture which looks like a winner. Fred Tang's gua baos are truly on the tiny side (indeed, they are listed on the menu as sides) and are $2.95 for one or two for $5.00. But the mighty mites, so round, so firm, so fully packed with grilled pork belly deserve to be upgraded in size or quantities to mains (which, for the record, includes Banh Mi, Ssam and salada). What hoisin sauce was present (and the menu claims it was there) kept a discreet distance from my palate, letting the flavor of pickled cucumber and scallions come through, and the firmer texture of the grilled (rather than slow-cooked) pork belly made for a nice contrast to the steamed buns. I made a meal out of my two mini-buns by adding an order of not particularly memorable ginger slaw and amazing house-made lotus chips. Who knew lotus root could taste so good?

Overall, as is probably is clear from the above comments, I prefer the gua bao from Baohaus NY for its flavors, textures, value and attitude. But I also have to give a nod to the porky munchies at Spice Kit, certainly my surprise of the week so far, and I wouldn't toss the pork buns from Momofuku or The Chairman Bao Truck into the compost barrel if they were handed to me. But to tell the truth, if you laid out all four next to one of Lao Liang's rou jia mos at the Golden Mall, hmmm......