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.
If you're looking for someone to blame for Chinatown's profusion of mediocre cha chaan teng, restaurants serving Hong Kong takes on Western food, point to the success of ABC Bakery Cafe, whose original location opened on Jackson Street in 1990. And if you're looking to point to any SF restaurant that comes close to getting cha chaan teng food right, that'd probably be ABC, too.
It's more or less the Denny's of Chinatown, with stiff, full-color menus and beige-on-beige cafeteria decor (one friend called the architectural style "nursing home"). Once I made it to the top of the line and was ushered to a seat, it took about as long to flip through the menu in search of lunch as it did for the waiters to notice me. Which is to say: Nowhere near quick.
The menu could be considered an encyclopedia of HK tea shop food -- baked spaghetti, curry ox tongue, sizzling-platter pepper steak, macaroni with Spam, not to mention noodle soups offered in variations minute and baroque enough to befuddle sneakerheads. It even befuddled the waiters, too: On one visit, a friend pointed at a plate of fried rice on another table he wanted to try. The waiter first asked her coworkers, then the diners, who all shrugged, so she finally ordered the wrong dish. (It was still too good to finish.)
And while several experiments with ABC's noodle soups never amounted to much, it took only a glance at the glassed-in cooking station that juts into the dining room to figure out which dish I should order: Hoi Nam chicken. In slow, unceasing rhythm, ABC's Hoi Nam chicken guy, who perpetually looked like he'd rather be out on smoke break, took a cleaver to chickens, scooped rice into bowls, and ladled up broth while his assistant arranged the plates onto platters. Stacks of Hoi Nam chicken sets rose and ebbed as waiters ferried them out to the tables. The Hoi Nam chicken is so brisk and regular that it's the quickest dish on the menu to order.
Hoi Nam chicken, aka Hainanese chicken rice, might possibly be more famous in Singapore than on the island itself. It's about as plain a dish as meatloaf, which may be why it attracts so much obsessiveness.
And if the frame of ABC's version is classic, the execution is Cantonese: A yellow-feather chicken, briefly poached in chicken stock and then cooled before the meat seizes up, is served with a mound of rice cooked in the broth and glossy with chicken fat.
There is an extra bowl of the soup itself arranged on the tray, with a tiny, clawed chicken foot floating below its surface. The broth is underseasoned; the appeal of the dish belongs to the chicken, which seems so tender that I inspected the cut to make sure it wasn't inflated, and to the salty ginger-scallion relish, which I first dipped a corner of my chicken into and eventually slathered on the meat with my chopsticks. Should I blame ABC for the four or five lousy versions of Hainan chicken I've eaten in Chinatown since the Rice Plate Journal project began? Instead, I think I'll pledge never to order it anywhere else.