Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
Ocean Pearl may only be a half a block west of Stockton Street, but it seems set apart from the buzz of Chinatown, buffered by a massive apartment complex. Its windows are papered over in menus, so it's not until we pass through the door that we see that during the day, Ocean Pearl is pretty much a men's club.
The combined ages of the diners -- and there aren't many -- must be close to a millennium. No one sits alone. There's a group of three here, a group of four there, the conversation swelling in volume when it leaps from one table to the other. No one enters or exits the restaurant in a straight line; the men slowly zig-zag from one side of the room to the other, slapping tables and backs as they go. We eye each other inquisitively, the old men and me. They're wondering how a middle-aged guy gets to have lunch with a woman their granddaughter's age, and I'm noticing some awfully black hair on a few of the 70-year-olds.
The restaurant looks like the basement of a rec center, with dingy walls and carpet, calendars hanging off-center, and menus whose edges have been gnarled by thousands of thumbs. Still, the fish swimming in the tanks at the back are almost as brusk and energetic in their movements as the waitresses. SFoodie's Cantonese-speaking intern, Caroline Chen, whose language skills I'm going to miss after she returns to school, pulls one aside to ask for recommendations.
We order a couple of seafood dishes, each less than $8, and the waitress brings over a pot of black tea, floral and free of bitterness. Other servers carry dim sum around to the tables -- bony chunks of chicken, chubby meatballs, deflated dumplings. We're probably ordering the wrong thing for a noon rush, but I suspect we're ordering better.
Take the waitress' recommendation, scallops and fish with mushrooms: The scallops aren't AAA quality, but they're satin-fleshed and far from chewy, and the fish is just as tender. Shards of ginger occasionally make their way into the rice bowl, the only bold note in the glossy, clear sauce. The flavor of a catfish hot pot grows on me with each bite: The fish has been hacked up and fried, then simmered with strips of sweet roast pork and tofu rectangles that slurp up the sauce, spurting it back out as we chew. I nibble around the fish bones, enjoying the crisped skin and sauce-drenched meat. Ocean Pearl isn't the W, but I can think of worse ways to spend my retirement than in the company of strong tea, a few dishes, and other men I've grown old with.
Ocean Pearl: 781 Broadway (at Powell), 397-5799.