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Friday, December 9, 2011

New Lun Ting, One of San Francisco's Last Bachelor's Cafes

Posted By on Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 10:30 AM

New Lun Ting's oxtail. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • New Lun Ting's oxtail.

Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

​New Lun Ting Cafe, on Jackson and Beckett, has been around for longer than you, and probably your parents as well. Some say it was founded before World War II; some think the cafe is even older. It has several nicknames in Chinatown: "pork chop house" -- for the cafe's most famous dish -- or one of the neighborhood's "bachelor's cafes" that single men used to frequent for homestyle American food. New Lun Ting has its own Facebook fan page. Its technicolor gravies are mysterious as they are famous.

For a restaurant whose decor has barely changed since the last world war, the place has worn well. The wood paneling that stretches two-thirds of the way to the ceiling is unscratched, the brown tiles underfoot dated but not scuzzy. The owners took out a U-shaped counter in the 1970s, one Chowhounder remembers, but replaced it with a long counter along the left wall that faces the tables and booths that crowd the dining room. 

Older men wearing everything from camo jackets to business suits make their way in, spy friends, and sit down. Younger men in black suits, their hair gelled up to a precise crest, lean into their pork chops and spaghetti as if they're braving time and the elements to finish their food before the lunch hour runs out. Customers call across the room to the waitress in Cantonese, then return to gossiping with their tablemates in English.

New Lun Ting in a Hopperesque moment. - JASON G./YELP
  • Jason G./Yelp
  • New Lun Ting in a Hopperesque moment.

Every table has a couple of different menus, encased in crumpled plastic sleeves, that list homey Cantonese dishes like beef with bitter melon or Singapore rice noodles. But most of the diners stick to a handful of dishes: rice plates with roast pork or lamb curry, pork chops with spaghetti, oxtail and tongue, all served with knives and forks. Every $6.95 rice plate comes with a soup -- I've eaten watery tomato soup there, but also a clear broth with pork, bok choy, and white beans -- and if the waitress remembers it, she brings out a single pot sticker.

I've ordered the oxtail twice. The beef itself is great, braised so long that it's easy to poke the meat out of its bony nooks with a fork. I have no idea, though, what the bright orange gravy that smothers the oxtail owes its color to. Carrots, perhaps? Thick lengths of them poke out of the sauce, and a bit of their sweetness does seem to leach into the gravy's pale flavor. The tennis-ball yellow of the curry lamb is easier to identify. It is a dense, forceful curry, with enough black pepper and cayenne in the spice mix to set the mouth abuzz. The lamb, with its striations of lean and fat, seems to come from the belly and flanks, and it, too, is cooked until it's more tender than it looks. 

I find New Lun Ting's food more comforting than good or bad. It's also unlike anything else around. Dozens of nearby restaurants serve Hong Kong Western-style food, but this isn't the same. It's Chinatown cuisine, as rooted and specific to its environment as the Clarkia franciscana that grows in the Presidio and almost nowhere else. 

And while a generalized nostalgia pervades every visit to New Lun Ting, the feeling becomes both acute and personal with the dessert that accompanies the check:

  • Jonathan Kauffman

New Lun Ting 670 Jackson (at Grant), 362-5667.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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