Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
The conversation between the three women who work at Lucky Creation
is as constant as the Stockton street traffic. Conducted in Cantonese, it bounces back and forth as the women wander around the tiny room, ricocheting off the cook who emerges from the back, circling around the cash register where they perch when the tables are either empty or occupied. Matching perms can make it hard for the halfhearted eavesdropper to pinpoint just who's holding the ball, conversationally, except when the blondest of the three breaks into song.
When you go to a ultra-ultra-liberal-arts college, your circle of friends tends to include more than the statistical average number of vegetarians. Which is how I began going to Lucky Creation for mixed gluten plates and unfamiliar species of mushrooms in the early 1990s.
Lucky Creation practices Buddhist Chinese cooking. It's a more rustic version of the food at Enjoy Vegetarian on Kearny
, which cooks with a full spectrum of realistic-looking faux meats. At Lucky Creation, the tofu doesn't look like spare ribs. It looks like tofu. And some of the restaurant's gluten selection resembles barbecued pork bits, but most of it takes the more abstract forms of puffs and chunks, with slight variations on the same bright-red sauce.
Without aromatics to flesh out the flavor of the gluten, sugar reigns -- the cinnamon-scented syrup on the densest chunks of fake pork is so cloying I can only eat one piece, and just as I did 15 years ago, the unsweetened, soy-sauce gluten puffs, whose spongy, chewy interiors soak up the most sauce, are still my favorite.
And without garlic and ginger, the sauce on the gold, black, and oyster mushrooms I order over rice comes out bland; it's barely more than diluted soy sauce thickened with corn starch. One of the newer specials, spoon tofu -- "newer" being relative, since I haven't been back to Lucky Creation in a decade -- has a similarly wan flavor. But it makes up for the blandness in texture: the silky-chewy mass of tangled enoki mushrooms, the fresh bite of the broccoli underneath, and the spoonfuls of fried tofu, their exteriors lacy and crisp, the custard-like interiors studded here and there with more mushrooms.
"How long have you been here?" I ask the humming server when she passes at one point.
"I think I have been coming here for 18," I tell her. The thought seems to hit us both with a wave of weariness.
When I leave, the women have gathered around the table near the front, picking greens. Chatting joyfully. Occasionally breaking into song.
Lucky Creation: 854 Washington (at Ross/Stockton), 989-0818.