The Portola District has been off the rest of San Francisco's culinary radar since the mid-1980s, when the great barbecue joint Vic & Betty's closed down. Recently, the proliferation of Chinese restaurants catering to picky Chinese immigrants drawn by relatively affordable home prices has again brought the neighborhood to citywide attention.
A standout among these eateries is Zone 88. Its cryptic name is presumably intended to mean "lucky spot": eight is traditionally considered a lucky number, so 88 is doubly so. The place is nicer than the average inexpensive Chinese restaurant: the dining room is tastefully decorated, the lighting is warm and indirect, and the chairs are comfortable. There are, however, TVs at both ends of the room tuned to different stations, and while the sound isn't too loud, you can hear both.
With the menus, the server brings out a complimentary appetizer of kimchi salad. It tastes like regular Korean mixed-vegetable kimchi that has been rinsed, chopped, and tossed with a dressing that includes hot chile oil and lots of black pepper. This addictive snack wakes up your palate and encourages consumption of fluids — the limited bar offers Tsingtao beer ($3.50) and a couple of wines.
Zone 88 suffers from an advanced case of Multiple Menu Syndrome. The dozen-page main book lists more than a hundred dishes, including many exotic Sichuan specialties such as boiled spicy frog, dry-fried eel, and Arctic snail. For many dishes it provides photos, some of which are helpful. There's a separate menu for hot pots; another for noodles, dumplings, pancakes, and breads (at least some of which appear on the main menu, sometimes under different names); a simplified menu with some standard Chinese-American dishes; a takeout menu with a selection of the less-challenging dishes; and at least one other page that may include dishes not on the main menu. The servers are friendly but don't speak much English, so if you don't speak Chinese you're on your own in sorting all this out.
The top draw here is the Sichuan hot pot, a meal best enjoyed with a group of four or more. The server brings out a portable gas burner, tops it with a doughnut-shaped pot filled with boiling broth, and surrounds it with plates of raw ingredients. You cook your meal yourself by dunking the ingredients in the broth.
Of the handful of places in town that serve hot pot, Zone 88 offers the biggest selection. You get a wide choice of broths ($9.95-$16.95), including regular, spicy, lamb, chicken (I believe this is "black" chicken, which is supposed to have medicinal qualities), fish, and mushroom. There's also a "two-flavor" option, a pot split into two compartments holding regular and spicy broths, but unfortunately you can't choose your own two flavors. The duck with beer broth I'd read about on Chowhound and was excited to try is no longer on the menu.
Dozens of raw ingredients include a wide variety of meats ($4.50-$6.50), seafood ($5.50-$7.50), fresh and dried mushrooms (all $4.50), noodles (all $3.50), tofu and other soy products (all $3.50), and vegetables (all $3.50, except pea sprouts and mountain potato, which are $4.50). The portions are generous: Around two items per person should be plenty.
We ordered the two-flavor broth with lamb, fatty beef, fish fillet (the server said it was sea bass), fresh black mushrooms, tofu skin (thick noodle-like rectangular strips tied in a knot), tong ho (edible chrysanthemum greens), and pea sprouts (aka pea leaf), which came to $45.50. Some ingredients cook so quickly that you just dunk them with your chopsticks: the beef, for example, is sliced so thinly that if you like it rare it's done in two or three seconds. The other ingredients you simmer until they're done, and fish out with your chopsticks or a long-handled mesh basket. The tofu skin in particular needed long cooking before it picked up much flavor.
The spicy broth was delicious from the start, and was a good match for the rich beef, gamy lamb, and musky, strong-tasting tong ho. In addition to chiles, the spicy broth is seasoned with Sichuan pepper, the buds of prickly ash that make your mouth feel like it's being mildly electrocuted, like when you put your tongue across the contacts of a nine-volt battery. (Yes, you can try that. If you don't get a shock, the battery is dead.)
At first the regular broth seemed very bland, but as it simmered it picked up more flavor from the herbs, including Chinese red dates, jujubes, and Sichuan pepper, and eventually proved the better match for the relatively delicate fish and pea greens. This broth (unlike the stronger spicy version) was nice as soup, so noodles would have been a good addition.
On the regular menu, beef tendon and tripe — a cold appetizer — had good textures and lots of hot oil and scallions, but was underseasoned compared with similar dishes at restaurants Spices and Z&Y. Chicken with spicy sauce, also cold, was delicious, intensely spicy, and nicely balanced with crisp cucumbers, but was a pain to eat since it was chopped so as to leave lots of sharp little bone fragments.
Adventurous eaters shouldn't miss the dry fried pig intestine, tossed with a big pile of dried red and fresh green chiles, scallions, garlic, ginger, and Sichuan pepper and heaped up in a bamboo basket; the chewy morsels had a wonderfully concentrated pork flavor. Prepared similarly, spicy tea-smoked duck ($8.95) had very smoky, juicy chunks with a nice layer of fat and skin. Chung Qing chicken wings ($8.95), the smaller flat front sections of the wing, cut in two pieces and deep fried, were juicy and tasty, but watch out for sharp bones. Sichuan preserved meat, thick slices of fresh bacon with a sauce of dried mustard greens, seemed fattier than Ton Kiang's canonical, thoroughly rendered version.
Zone 88's dan dan noodles are a simple dish of wheat noodles, diced pork, a little preserved vegetable, and hot oil, good but possibly disappointing if you were expecting the usual version with lots of sesame oil and peanuts. "Sour preserved veg with sour and spicy noodle" ($5.25) was as intense as its redundant name suggests: Clear rice noodles were tossed with kimchi-like pickled vegetables and doused with a hot, vinegary sauce. This proved better the next day, after the noodles had absorbed most of the liquid. The pumpkin-sesame pancake ($4.50) was something like a pupusa: a pumpkin-based dough filled with a slightly sweet black-bean paste, patted into a flat disk, fried, and topped with peanuts and black sesame seeds. Sounds odd, but the combination worked well.
On one visit, dinner concluded with a complimentary dessert porridge of beans, grains, and dried fruits. We weren't offered any after the hot pot meal, but it was late and the kitchen was closing.
If you live in or near the Portola, Zone 88 is one of your best neighborhood Chinese options. For the rest of us, it's a welcome addition to San Francisco's limited Sichuan and hot pot selections.