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Friday, February 24, 2012

House of Nanking vs. Chef Jia's: Different Shades of Chinese American Cuisine

Posted By on Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 3:40 PM

Chef Jia's sweet potatoes with string beans. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Chef Jia's sweet potatoes with string beans.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

Since the early 1990s, non-Chinese-American San Franciscans have prided themselves on knowing a secret about dining in Chinatown: House of Nanking might get the tourist traffic, but Chef Jia's, next door, had better food. So inculcated was I with this piece of common wisdom that I avoided Peter Fang's perennially popular House of Nanking for close to a decade before I dared join the line.

There, I remember enjoying something with spicy with sweet potatoes. But it has been another decade since I've been to either place. So when Rice Plate Journal reached the intersection of Kearny and Jackson, I decided to try them side by side (well, within the same week). Standing outside the two, trying to figure out which one to hit first, a white woman walked up to me and whispered, "Go to Chef Jia's. It's much better." 

Did I come out of my visits with an opinion about the two? Oh, definitely -- mainly, that the food both restaurants serve is different from anything you'll eat one block away. House of Nanking and Chef Jia's, like Hunan Home's a few doors up Jackson, are firmly in the Chinese American restaurant zone that rings Chinatown.

House of Nanking has the line, Chef Jia's the local rep. - XEELIZ/FLICKR
  • xeeliz/Flickr
  • House of Nanking has the line, Chef Jia's the local rep.

​According to Andrew Coe's Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, ever since San Francisco's Chinatown was rebuilt post-quake, the neighborhood's restaurants have been divided into two camps: those serving the community, and those designed for outsiders. Over the next century, the dishes that these outsider-focused restaurants popularized -- chop suey, pepper steak, and egg foo young -- soon spread across the country, becoming familiar to Americans but never fully accepted into the cuisine the way pizza and corned beef have been.

The food that Chef Jia's and House of Nanking serve reflects a second stage of the evolution of Chinese American cuisine. In the 1960s and 1970s, when restrictions on immigration from China loosened, a new wave of Mandarin and Sichuan/Hunan restaurants opened, introducing Americans to new dishes like sizzling rice soup, moo shu pork, and kung pao chicken, not to mention the now-ubiquitous General Tso. The Chinese American canon opened up, absorbed a few dozen new recipes from these restaurants, and then closed its doors again, as thousands of chefs in Chinese restaurants around the country reconfigured these new dishes to fit non-Chinese expectations of what they should taste like.

Both House of Nanking and Chef Jia's have a reputation for creativity -- but it's creativity within Chinatown's outsider cuisine. HoN added sweet potatoes and raw slices of chayote to the sesame chicken I ordered, for instance; for its five-spice duck, Chef Jia's poached a duck breast and then coated the skin in a sandy layer of five-spice-powder and salt.

House of Nanking's sesame chicken. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • House of Nanking's sesame chicken.

But almost everything I ate called up memories of all the Northern Indiana Great Walls and Peking Gardens my parents used to take me in the 1970s. ​At Chef Jia's, the string beans with sweet potatoes were coated in a ruddy, mildly spicy sauce that greeted us with the sweet tang of orange juice and sugar. Even more familiar: ginger-honey chicken, large chunks of deep-fried meat drizzled with a pepper-flecked syrup. For what it was, it was well done: The chicken was freshly fried, so its batter barely had time to soften under its cloying glaze. 

House of Nanking charged $3 more a plate for food that was cooked with less care and often slopped on the plate (just look at the splatter pattern on the rim of our untouched dish, which I took a photo of). The batter on the sesame chicken was much thinner and the sauce less sugary, but meat had gone soggy and tough, while the sweet potatoes retained an unpleasant crunch. A bowl of gloppy Shanghai rice porridge seemed to amalgamate egg-drop soup and congee, without adding flavor into the mix as well. The only dish I didn't find appalling was a plate of pea sprouts, lightly stir-fried with garlic and chiles, though it arrived 20 minutes after the sesame chicken, when I had lost my appetite for the place. 

So, yeah, I'd agree with the locals that Chef Jia's is still better than House of Nanking. But if you're in Chinatown looking for outsider food, you might as well go around the corner to Hunan Home's, where the wait is shorter, the service is friendlier, and the pot stickers are pretty great.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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