Dragon River is a near-secret source of authentic, strikingly delicious Hakka cooking at remarkably attractive prices. You may already be familiar with the cuisine: The first Hakka restaurant to open in the city, back in 1976, was Ton Kiang, named Best Chinese Restaurant in this year's SF Weekly Readers' Poll. This makes Dragon River the Avis of San Francisco Hakka cookery, serving very similar food, but without the crowds waiting at the doors -- or the upscale tabs.
Dragon River has many graces, but its decor is merely functional: The lighting is fluorescent, and the flocked wallpaper has purposely been painted over in bright white to emphasize its texture. The room is a little crowded, with many family-size tables, each boasting a Lazy Susan so that everybody can get a taste of everything without rude reaching.
The menu looks just like any other Chinese menu of daunting length and enormous breadth, with a short section of Hakka specialties followed by a hundred or two Cantonese and Szechuanese items. Even in familiar dishes, though, the flavors are a little different, a little surprising. The Hakka people may now live in southern China, but their origins are mysterious -- though their language seems related to Thai and Burmese, the first historic traces of the Hakka are found at the other end of Asia, in northeast China. And they firmly maintain their own distinctive customs, language, and cuisine. That's why, after 1600 years as Guangtung's "Guest People" (that's what "Hakka" means in Cantonese), their cooking still retains a northern Chinese perspective: It's clear, hearty, and simple in the best possible way.
There's no soy sauce or sesame oil on the table, but even before you order, a waiter brings ramekins of Hakka condiments: a standard thick red hot sauce, a fierce mixture of minced raw garlic and ginger, and a fresh, delicate minced green chili sauce with a touch of sweetness. Hakka dishes don't normally include hot pepper, but those who want it can add it.
In contrast to the informal atmosphere at Dragon River, the service is excellent. Instead of loading all our dishes on the table at once, the waiters brought soup first, then appetizers, and then all the entrees. Not only were empty serving dishes removed promptly, but our dinner plates were replaced with clean ones partway through the meal. And the restaurant's policies are equally gracious. Arriving as a sextet, we didn't need to order rice; it was served automatically at no charge.
Soup is an important clue to the quality of the rest of the meal you'll get in any southern Chinese restaurant, all the more so in Hakka cuisine, in which reduced soup-stock (with little or no soy or cornstarch) forms the sauce for a great many dishes. I was both relieved and delighted that the exemplary chicken broth in our "Hakka combination beef and fishball soup" ($5.50) was neither too salty nor too weak, just beautifully substantial. Around the spongy, mild-flavored white balls of fish and beige balls of beef floated Chinese spinach and cubes of tofu. Hakkas are famous in China for the superior quality of their bean curd; Dragon River's tofu is remarkably firm-textured and clean-flavored.
A classic Hakka appetizer, deep-fried meat-stuffed bean curd ($5.25), nearly made a convert of even a deep-dyed tofu-hater at our table, with its crisp exterior giving way to a custardy layer surrounding savory minced pork. A large plateful of nine or 10 crispy shrimp balls ($9) proved utterly lovable, the golden brown coating surrounding full-flavored minced shrimp bound in egg white. These came with duck sauce for dipping. In the Hakka version of deep-fried squid ($6.50), the squid bodies are cut diagonally (not in rounds), dipped in a very light, tempuralike batter, and fried very quickly in very fresh, fine-flavored peanut oil. This rendition proved more durable than any we've had at trendy restaurants, remaining tender and fully edible even when cooled, though the accompanying sweet-sour dipping sauce was best ignored.
Nearly everybody who knows Hakka food orders salt-baked chicken ($6.75) -- which is just that, chicken that's wrapped in paper and then baked in a shell of heated rock salt to keep it moist and tender. Dragon River's version proved less salty and a little less oily than average, the meat almost (but not quite) moist and tender enough. The condiment that traditionally goes with the dish is the raw garlic-ginger dipping sauce that was already on the table.
"Us Hakka know the sea," says a charming smuggler-spy in John Le Carre's The Honorable Schoolboy. "We breathed the water, farmed the water, slept on the water." Little wonder they invented the unique "steamed stuffed shrimp minced in clams" ($9). Briny and thrilling, tender near-raw clams shared their shells with little balls of minced shrimp and an airy, velvety egg-white sauce, absorbing and then yielding back the sea-fresh clam liquid. A claypot of oysters and pork ($6.75) was also unusual. To begin with, the pot was a one-handled Vietnamese-style vessel of stainless steel, not clay. Cantonese claypot dishes typically start with a lining of napa cabbage, which exudes a lot of liquid and keeps the contents of the pot from burning. But here, the bottom layer consisted of halved baby bok choy. In the middle were succulent oysters, cubes of dried tofu, and (in place of the usual roast pork), rich Chinese "bacon" -- unsmoked pork belly. The top was strewn with shiitakes (which I expected) and baby corn (a surprise).
Unsmoked bacon is a favorite meat of the Hakka, who steam or gently poach it for several hours to melt off the excess fat. What's left is a jiggly, tender gelatin surrounding streaks of lean, chewy meat. At this meal, we ventured on steamed bacon with taro ($6.50), a dish in which the meat alternated with slices of the grainy, dryish root under a faintly sweet sauce. The combination may be too rich for most tastes (including mine); a more palatable adventure is the steamed bacon with dry mustard greens ($6.50), with the greens lending an attractive pungent contrast to the meat.
At the end of the meal, we received a big bowl of warm, comforting soup, with tapioca floating like soft little pearls in a thin, opalescent, barely sweet coconut broth. Like most of the earlier dishes, it was a gem. Avis, although in second place, is still a winner. So is Dragon River.