If Jin Hua Li, chef of two-month-old Hakka Restaurant, were cooking Italian exactly the way he cooks Hakka and Cantonese, San Francisco foodies would be hailing him as the new Craig Stoll.
Stoll's Delfina excels in ways that the outer Richmond restaurant never will: in the provenance of its ingredients, which come from farms with Ferry Plaza stalls patronized by the trendy classes; in its wine list (Hakka doesn't even have a wine license yet); in the way the Mission bistro gets the importance of ambience. It's much harder to attract Beard Award nominations when your restaurant has floors decorated by Carpet Outlet and an "Opening special: 10% off" sign in the window. Fluorescent lighting does not make for good photo shoots.
But over the course of a couple of meals out at 45th Avenue and Cabrillo, it seemed to me that Li was cooking in all the ways that have made Stoll an emblem of San Francisco style. Bringing out simple, transparent flavors — the glossy-mag jargon, I believe, is "ingredient-driven cooking." Using formal culinary technique to refine peasant food while staying true to the dish. Showing off what he can do with the belly parts.
A quickly stir-fried vegetable dish, lily bulbs with snap peas and wood ear ($7.50), captured all the vegetables at their brightest — the translucent, sweet lily-bulb curls before their snap faded, the electric-green peas still popping as I chewed them, the wood ear at the height of its slippery crunch. They were tossed in an invisible glaze, which you'd swear was artless until you noticed how well the spring flavors of the vegetables came together. On the other end of the chef's range: a famous Hakka dish, braised pork belly over preserved mustard greens ($8.95). A solid block of pork belly had been braised in a sweet soy sauce for a few hours — half a day at least — until the lean layers barely held together, the fat softened to the texture of whipped frosting, and the porous skin swelled with braising liquid. The chef fanned even slices of the cocoa-colored meat over a mass of chopped mustard pickle, salty, dusky, and coffeelike in its intensity. Our waiter, who'd gamely translated every Chinese dish on the menu for us, attempted to forget to deliver the pork belly, admitting that he was worried non-Hakkas would find it too rich. My tablemates and I may have had to cut off the fat stripe on the last few slices to justify finishing off the plate, but finish it off we did.
The vegetables are evidence of Li's training in Cantonese restaurants, and the pork belly of the time he spent refining his list of Hakka classics — the "house specials" on the menu — at Golden Mountain, a Hakka restaurant, in Hayward. He and his wife took over the Cabrillo space from Taishan Cafe just in time for Chinese New Year. San Francisco has seen the appearance of a number of restaurants calling themselves Hakka (Dragon River and Ton Kiang, for example), but Hakka Restaurant has one of the largest, most varied selections of authentic dishes I've yet seen.
A brief primer: The Hakka people were Han Chinese who migrated south to Fujian, Jiangxi, and Guangdong provinces a few millennia ago (Hakka means "guest families"). Shunted into marginal agricultural regions wherever they settled, the Hakka made the most of what the land gave them, giving the cuisine a reputation for pickles, salt, and lots of offal. Over the past four centuries, the Hakka have migrated all over Asia, and Hakkanese San Franciscans can trace their roots back through Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Li began and ended my meals with complimentary soups, both the savory and the sweet honoring the most rustic aspects of Hakka cuisine — a murky pork broth with a few slices of arrowroot and carrot, and a clear syrup with tapioca pearls and cubes of pumpkin. It was a manifesto of sorts, the kind we're used to reading into a bowl of polenta with cheese shaved over the top.
That's because most of the entrées were only humble in appearance, but had a lightness and a clarity that are rare even in much higher-end restaurants: frilled slices of lamb tossed with fresh mushrooms and snap peas ($9.95), the spicy sauce a fluty counterpoint to the flavor of the main ingredients rather than a full-brass fanfare. Strips of pork stomach with "ginger powder" and Chinese leeks ($6.95), wok-tossed just until the meat was edged in brown and had the most amazing springiness, as if it had come from a mochi pig. Li stir-fried Chinese broccoli with just a bit of rice wine ($6.95), another transparent glaze that brought out a rare note in the broccoli — its sweetness.
For an appetizer that the waiter told us came from the chef's home village, Li dipped strips of pumpkin ($6.95) in a saffron-hued batter made with egg yolk and fried until it puffed and crisped, tempering the pumpkin's richness with the funk and salt of the yolk. Li also coats a whole crab in the same batter, a dish that appears to have attained meatball levels of trendiness in Malaysia a few years back. And his signature dish seems to be the salt-baked chicken ($11.95 half, $23 whole), another time-consuming Hakka dish he doesn't shortcut: rubbing the bird in wine and seasonings, covering it in hot rock salt, and roasting it slowly. The method drives all the chicken's juices back into the meat, until it tastes like chicken squared; chicken cubed, even, if you swab a piece of the golden-skinned meat through the grainy brown dipping sauce Li sends out alongside, a blend of meat drippings and sesame oil.
If there was one off note, it was the straight-up Cantonese crab with ginger and scallions ($22 on the night we went), beautifully cooked but coated in a brown glaze that had all the dynamism of a Keanu Reeves Hamlet. Stick to the nearby seafood restaurants for that dish. Few of them would lavish the same attention on one last Hakka classic I tried: tofu stuffed with pork ($8.95). Each 2-inch square of soft tofu on the plate had been scooped out in the center, filled with coarsely chopped pork, and slowly cooked. It was the kind of dish any 4-year-old would gobble, with the texture of panna cotta and the flavor of a pot sticker. Somewhere in between my third and fourth piece, though, I stopped and thought about the technique involved in the dish, which required the chef to cut a jiggly block of curd into even squares, stuff it with perfectly seasoned meat, and then fry and simmer it so that not a corner broke off, not a bubble appeared. Like the most celebrated California cuisine, there was an awful lot of work hidden behind something so easy to love.