Last month, the SF Weekly moved offices within a mile of Chinatown, allowing me to embark on a new project I've been wanting to take on for years. Inspired in part by Seattle's MSG150, my goal is to systematically visit a different Chinatown restaurant each week, starting at Powell and moving south and west as I go. Maximum entree price permitted: $10.
At the table next to me at Kam Po, two women in their 70s and 80s, a walker leaned against their table, chat over beef chow fun, their Cantonese conversation occasionally interspersed with an, "Oh my goodness!" Next to them, a tourist couple strain to convince the server they indeed want everything on the combo rice plate, intestines included. The rhythmic slap of cleaver on wood provides the backbeat to the buzz of the packed room. And I am fervently hoping my second trip to Kam Po is not in vain, because the roast ducks hanging in the window look too good to pass untasted.
There are more dishes on Kam Po's menu than restaurants in Chinatown, I'd wager: dozens of variations on congee, rice plates aplenty, hot pots, noodles, and of course, barbecued and stewed meats. Straightforward Cantonese dishes, they cost less than $5, which explains why the waitresses spend as much time sprinting as a seventh grade gym class.
With a butcher on premises chopping soy sauce chicken or dishing duck tongues into takeaway containers, there didn't seem any point to ordering stir-fried shrimp with vegetables. But my first visit to Kam Po, several days ago, proved disastrous: Drawn to the crispy-skin roast pork (siu yuk) hanging next to the cutting board, I'd ordered it over lo mein, then watched as the butcher microwaved a plate of dry egg noodles and brought it over to me. The noodles were disgusting, the half-warmed pork lean and moist.
Coming back a few days later, not only did the server give me a smile of recognition as I sat down, I was able to order the dish half the tables around me had been eating on the previous visit: A field of rice, a quarter of a duck, some fried cabbage (oily, sweet), and a fork to scoop it all up with. While the rice was clearly scraped from the bottom of the cooker, the duck was fantastic. With all the fat beneath the crisp skin roasted away, and meat no more tough than a kickboxing Kardashian, Kam Po's roast duck was on par with the ducks from Cheung Hing and Win's. A good start to a year's worth of rice plates.