There are two kinds of hunger: one for the familiar and another for novelty. Six nights out of seven we may be content with foods we've eaten many times before — but on the seventh, we'd like our appetites stimulated by something brand-new, a dish we've never had before.
Never fear becoming jaded in San Francisco. Not when you can stumble upon a Chinese restaurant on Clement that offers unfamiliar yet homey dishes from Taishan, a coastal city in southern China, only 140 kilometers (about 90 miles) from Hong Kong, but with its own distinctive cuisine.
Many Chinese have immigrated from Taishan. Its Web site proudly proclaims it "China's First Homeland for Overseas Chinese," saying that the 1.3 million who have left its shores for other countries outnumber the 1 million who currently still live there. And many of the Taishanese who left China work in Chinese restaurants, but not, it seems, preparing many of the more authentic Taishan (also known as Toi Sa, or "hoi san," as it's pronounced) dishes.
The Clement Street Taishan Cafe location has been open for about two years, and has never felt the need to augment its completely Chinese-scripted awning with any English signage — save the neon "Open" sign in the window illuminated from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. You can walk right up to the window to peruse the three pages of its menu, with its headings of Taishan Clay Pot Rice; Steamed, Lotus Leaf–Wrapped Food in Bamboo Box; and Taishan Specialty Dishes, containing a smaller list of chef's specials. If you're as intrigued as we were by such ingredients as eel, frog, Chinese sausage, and pig intestines, then walk right in. And have no fear if that doesn't sound alluring — there's plenty of less-challenging stuff, like chicken, spareribs, and duck. (But spareribs here mean little chunks of bone-in pork. More on that later.)
Inside there's a narrow storefront with a big round table near the window and two rows of tables, each against an opposite wall, beyond the open door into the kitchen. There's not much attempt at decor: Above the round table, there's a massive photo of Taishan City, and on the opposite wall, an even bigger one of Hong Kong at night. Almost all of the signs covering the walls are in Chinese, but the three big menu pages — and the takeout menu — contain a lot of reading in English, attesting the authenticity and healthfulness of the cooking.
According to the menu, there are more than 150,000 Taishanese living in the Bay Area today, but Taishan Cafe is the first restaurant in the United States to feature its cuisine, a subset of Cantonese.
For our first meal, the three of us skipped around, ordering from the over 20 clay pot rice dishes, one with salted fish and pork patty ($6.95); and from the Taishan specialty dishes, green chives with clam meat ($6.95), cauliflower with preserved pork ($6.95) — because we've never seen cauliflower on a Chinese menu before — and an almost-as-rarely-seen lamb dish, house special homemade lamb stew clay pot ($8.95). When the server said they were out of pig intestine with jalapeno ($8.95), we substituted pig intestine with yellow bean sprouts ($6.95). And when one of us begged for more vegetables, we ordered crispy green beans with garlic sauce ($6.95), found under the chef's specials.
The pig intestines came first out of the kitchen — the luck of the draw! — and they proved to be tender yet chewy little curls of flesh in a light brown sauce with a few green onions, chunks of red pepper, and some sprouts, with only the slightest edge of funk. Even the one innards-averse diner among us found it pleasant. Then followed a pottery crock of free soup, laden with greens, tasting mostly of the earthy beans it also contained.
The steaming clay pot was topped with slices of a salty preserved white fish and crumbles of pork, something like a fresh country sausage, a nice blend of flavors and textures. When the dish is almost finished, there's a layer of crispy, toasted rice at the bottom that's much like the caramelized soccarat prized by paella aficionados in Valencia.
The lamb stew was my favorite dish, long-cooked pieces of real lamby-tasting flesh, falling apart in a dark, succulent, meaty sauce that had permeated the two kinds of tofu — skins and chunks — that were present in modest amounts. It tasted something like a classical French lamb stew, despite the tofu.
Another surprise was the green chives with clam meat. At first we thought it was a heap of minced clams mixed with strands of chives and crunchy skin-on peanuts, but further investigation and consultation with the servers revealed that the tiny bits of briny flesh were whole, not minced. We were assured that they were a type of clam, but we've never seen clams this small, and thought they might be small periwinkle snails.
Another star was the fresh cauliflower mixed with green onions, chewy sliced Chinese sausage, and even chewier preserved pork, a fatty, bacony-tasting cut. The side dish we'd ordered of barely cooked, still-snappy fresh green beans was a perfect foil for the rich pork.
When every dish ordered, almost at random, is as good as these were, it inspires the confidence to run riot through the menu. So we trekked out to the second, year-old Taishan Cafe, in the outermost reaches of the Richmond, within sight of the ocean. This corner spot does say Taishan Cafe on its rather cheerless exterior. The very large room — it could hold five or six of the Clement Taishan Cafe — contains mostly large round tables, with a few smaller four-tops. There are good-sized photos of some of its dishes affixed to the walls, and two TVs, which on this early Sunday afternoon were playing a documentary about Taishan. In a bow to less adventurous tastes, there's a brief menu of familiar Chinese dishes such as kung pao chicken and broccoli beef.
The free soup on that day was laden with carrots, celery, tofu, and savory melon, and my friend said its taste reminded him of the revivifying liquid from a classic French pot au feu. The clay pot we chose came with spareribs, which proved to be those little chewy hunks of bone-in pork mentioned before; even chewier slices of pungent, dense Chinese sausage; crumbled, bland pork sausage; and morsels of duck ($8.95). You're encouraged to season it with the chili soy sauce on the table described as "an excellent blend which is neither spicy nor salty," though we found it to be both.
Mindful that "the lotus leaf...[has] a special quality that helps lower high blood pressure and reduces cholesterol," we tried the chicken with dried mushrooms ($5.95), a delicate dish of boned chicken bits and mushroom shreds on rice topped with cilantro, folded in the lotus leaf, and served in a bamboo steamer.
Equally delicate was my favorite dish of the meal, salt and pepper frog ($12.95), delicious, lightly breaded, and expertly fried chunks of the fragile, barely-fishy-tasting white flesh. Surprisingly, my French friend had never before tasted frog; unsurprisingly, he loved this incarnation. A free dish of lettuce sautéed with ginger that arrived as a surprise was a perfect foil for all the meat-and-flesh-heavy dishes we'd ordered.
Clams in black bean sauce ($8.95) were, this time, the expected bivalves, in the shell, and were a good version of the familiar Cantonese dish. Taishan duck (half $11, whole $20) was chunks of roasted duck drenched in a strong brown sauce that struck me as rather ordinary, perhaps the only disappointment over the two meals.
Well, there was one other disappointment: As we exited, we spied two dishes on neighboring tables that we hadn't known about (hiding, of course, in plain sight on one of the many Chinese-pictogram signs tacked up around the room): fresh sautéed crab in the shell, and sautéed greens that we thought were pea shoots, but turned out to be sweet potato leaves. Next time. But I'd come back for the salt and pepper frog alone. Not to mention the lamb stew.