As Hong Kong gets the shaft, we get the chefs.
It's San Francisco's dark blessing that, whenever the political streams grow toxically muddy in some other part of the world, we enjoy an upwelling of a new cuisine. Restaurateurs, cooks, even waiters are bailing out of Hong Kong, arriving in Vancouver and San Francisco by the thousands before the big Red squelch descends. The pioneers here (e.g., Hong Kong Flower Lounge and its several offspring) were primarily large, somewhat gaudy establishments that settled either in the Richmond District's New Chinatown, or else on the Peninsula (and I don't mean the Kowloon Peninsula) to pick up the airport's Pacific Rim business trade. Now, with the influx escalating to an inrush, the Sunset (for many decades the city's own private Idaho, whitely bland as any baked potato) is growing exciting, exotic, tantalizing, fed by urban emigres who demand neighborhood food of the same astounding gracefulness, subtlety, and range as the hometown fare.
Food lovers consider Hong Kong equal to Paris as the ultimate culinary paradise. Its local style is Cantonese -- not the gluey chop suey we grew up with, but the light, bright, semitropical maritime cuisine of the South China Sea, based on bringing the best out of a vast range of ingredients, including many that Westerners don't regard as foodstuffs. It may seem like anything that isn't outright poisonous is cooked up one way or another, and those comestibles that have little intrinsic flavor (tree ear fungus, sea cucumber, chicken feet) are prized for their interesting textures. HK also draws (or drew) runaways from all over China, and hence boasts sublime restaurants specializing in every Sino-regional cuisine. A zillion restaurants vie for every pound, dollar, yen, and baht, so that aside from a handful of degenerated tourist meccas, not even a noodle stand can survive the competition unless its noodles are supernal -- or close, very close.
Jumbo Seafood opened last year on Noriega Street at 23rd Avenue, where the parking is easy and the traffic is light (at least until the two Irish bars down the block get rocking). Within days of its opening, it started doing land-office business at both lunch and dinner with the local Chinese community. Jumbo offers food to go as well as sit-down; the fare is distinctive, and the prices (about $20 per person for a big to humongous dinner) are reasonable. With my buddies Robert (a true trencherman) and TJ, I ventured hungrily into Jumbo on a weeknight. "Don't worry if we order too much food," we told the waiter, who didn't worry. Jumbo is a medium-size room with a stacked pair of live tanks at the back, accommodating lobster, crab, rock cod, and catfish on the night we were there. Its decor is pleasantly plain, and the restaurant serves no wine, no cocktails, no serious booze (just beer, including the inevitable Tsingtao).
We quickly discovered a Jumbo advantage in a waitstaff who don't stand on ceremony or at their wait stations; any of them will help you whenever you need anything. It gets better: One of my secret delights in Hong Kong is its New Yorker-ish gruff-droll attitude, and at Jumbo you find it at its most comfortable. The waiters are brusque, accommodating, unself-conscious, self-respecting. The staff seems to assume that if you know enough to eat at Jumbo, you know Cantonese cooking. When we ordered soup, the waiter asked us at what point in the meal we wanted it served (often, the soup course comes near or at the end of a large meal), and didn't mind bringing it immediately while we agonized over the rest of our order. Even in sophisticated Hong Kong, waiters have occasionally flatly refused to serve me the exotica of my choice. At Jumbo, when we ordered conch, nobody pronounced that most dreadful of sentences, "Oh, you don't like that."
We started with a seasonal Eight Precious Winter Melon Soup. Any "Eight Precious" item is supposed to have at least eight distinct ingredients appropriate to the dish -- eight being a lucky number associated with Buddhism's Eightfold Path, the eight directions, the I Ching's eight trigrams, etc. We were not so lucky, and our soup held just three preciouses: chicken, peas, and diced winter melon. The broth, though, was a sturdy poultry stock. Soup stock is key in any Cantonese restaurant. It serves as the basis for many stir-fry sauces and some clay pots. Weak, thin broth presages that the other dishes are liable to be either flavorless or overwhelmed with soy, MSG, or cornstarch. Jumbo's stock merited an "A," a good omen.
Although Jumbo offers spicy Mandarin dishes as well as Cantonese, we cleaved to the latter. (Even Mandarins envy Cantonese cooking.) The two most distinctly HK-style courses are a fish from the tank and a seasonal vegetable. With the fish, you choose the species to be sacrificed to your appetite but can leave it up to the kitchen to decide the optimum treatment for it. With the vegetable, it doesn't matter if the "specials" are listed solely on a sheet of Chinese calligraphy that you can't read: There's always a special veggie, and it'll be one of the night's best dishes because it's whatever's freshest and most enticing to the chef.
Our fish was steamed rock cod (often called "Pacific snapper"), tender-fleshed and lovingly embraced by a subtle broth-based sauce scattered with cilantro, scallion, light soy, sesame oil, and yellow chives. (These last are Chinese flat-leaf chives "blanched" by wrapping the stalks as they grow, so they never develop chlorophyll.) The waiter neatly dissected the fish, separating out the spine and leaving the tail and head on the platter for us in traditional fashion. While I can't bring myself to address fish eyes, even the queasy might like the other delicacies in the head, the tiny packets of meat just below the eyes, which are called "fish cheeks." They're rich and creamy, like lobster. You don't want yours? I'll take 'em.
The special vegetable was water spinach (ong choy), and there were two treatments that night: One was shrimp paste, which, to me, smells like aquatic Limburger, and the waiter correctly intuited that we would prefer the alternative. The succulent greens came with some semihot red-pepper shreds in a light, creamy sauce; the secret flavor was fermented bean curd "cheese" (we only figured this out at the very last bite). Simple but with complex, intriguing undertones, this really took me back to Hong Kong.
For our other dishes: The House Special Lamb had thin, boneless meat slices with snow peas and semispicy red pepper chunks in a tasty, slightly smoky, lightly thickened sauce. The lamb was velvety, but it was mild and un-lamblike in flavor. Robert suspected it might be breast, which has the double virtue (to a restaurant, not necessarily to its customers) of being both cheap and bland. The Conch With Yellow Chives, in a completely different but equally subtle sauce, also came with red pepper, crunchier snow peas, plus the chives. Conchs (pronounced "conks") are those big pink shells that the "natives" blow like horns in old Dorothy Lamour sarong movies. I've eaten them many times in the Caribbean, but have always come away with mixed feelings. I ordered them at Jumbo as a nasty test for the kitchen. By nature, the meat has a texture like rubber and tastes like a mere ghost of abalone, but Chinese gastronomes prize the slight crunchiness, similar to cloud ear fungus. Jumbo didn't try to cook the mollusks to mush (with conch, the choice is chewy or gooey; the former is better). Robert (whose gastronomic training consisted of years spent in Italy) started to like them as he ate; TJ (a Redondo Beach boy) quipped, "Tofu would have been cheaper"; and I felt the kitchen passed my test.
At the end, since we'd run up such a giant bill (with tip, it came to $64, including doggie bags all around) the house treated us to the warm tapioca coconut milk dessert, but alas, it tasted like a tropical version of thin cream of wheat.
A few days later, TJ and I returned for lunch. For the first several months of operation, Jumbo's window was bedecked with large-writ bilingual lunch menus, featuring mainly rice and noodle dishes in the $3 to $6 range. You can order from the dinner menu as well, but we decided to sample the cheap eats. We started with a bowl of the Jumbo Wor Won Ton Soup, which had a slightly salty but tasty broth filled with scallops, squid, a little roast pork, a lot of chicken-breast slices, and a normal portion of normal won tons. It was good, not outstanding. Apparently soups aren't really Jumbo's forte. More exciting was the Taro and Chinese Sausage Fried Rice, which was grease-free -- almost dry -- intensely focused, and richly flavored with a touch of smokiness. The diced taro (a tropical root) was sweet and starchy, the lapchong sausage bits sweet and meaty. Less successful was our odd Combination Seafood Fried Silver Noodle and Rice Noodle. We'd hoped the fried silver noodles would be deep-fried to puffs, but instead they'd been soaked and stir-fried, and tasted wet and bland like the rice noodles they were presumably supposed to set off. The waiter (one of the same competent crew who'd served the dinner) had looked pleased when I ordered the lapchong fried rice, and discomfited when I ordered the combo noodles -- so the moral is, watch your waiter. If your order makes him happy, it'll probably make you happy. All in all, we were very happy with Jumbo.