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Friday, March 9, 2012

Kam Lok Is Moderately Loud and Somewhat Close

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 9:30 AM

Kam Lok's clams with black bean sauce. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Kam Lok's clams with black bean sauce.

​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.

Despite the noise that buffets the dining room at Kam Lok, preventing us from hearing one another as well as we would like, reminiscences spool out of Ruby and Ben Tom as we eat. My guests, who are now in their 80s, grew up in Northern California and moved to San Francisco after college. Ruby remembers meeting up for dates in the wooden booths at the Far East Cafe on Grant. Ben remembers visiting Chinatown in the 1940s, when waiters would deliver food from Chinese restaurants to the nearby hotels, balancing trays stacked high with dishes on their heads.

The Toms and Melanie Wong -- Chowhounder and niece -- have joined me for lunch at Kam Lok, one of the Chinatown's three remaining basement restaurants. I've written about Kam Lok's salt-and-pepper crab before, but now that Dungeness season is petering out, the restaurant's advertising $38 lobster wo choy dinners, few of the Cantonese homestyle dishes cost more than $8, and most of the tables around us are covered in plates and loud banter.

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The first dish to arrive, an old-fashioned Toishanese hot pot with duck and taro, does not start the meal off on a promising note. Not only is it telling that the stew arrives before the stir-fried dishes, but the hot pot clearly consists of a pre-roast duck, hacked up and simmered just long enough for the taro to soften, rather than a long-simmered stew made from fresh meat.

Ruby tells me about the food tours of Chinatown that she gave many years ago. But almost all the places she guided people to have left: Oriental Pearl, where they'd go for dim sum, is now Peninsula Seafood, and the tofu factory and the noodle factory have both left the neighborhood. Like many people who've been eating in Chinatown for a half-century or more, Ruby and Ben conclude that food in the neighborhood has declined, despite fresh waves of immigration that have kept the streets and markets bustling.

Kam Lok's stir-fried dishes, when they arrive, are much better than the hot pot. I'm not impressed with the quality of the clams -- they're muddy-mossy tasting -- but the preparation is novel, coated in black-bean sauce dosed up with chiles and then fried garlic, which crackles as we eat it, nutty and slightly bitter. 

The yu choy is blanched long enough to cook the raw crunch out of the greens' stems but leave them al dente, and then tossed with caramelized garlic cloves. And the dried-scallop flavor of the yee mein tossed with Chinese leeks, spindly mushrooms, and ginger could be stronger, but the noodles themselves have a good bounce and chew to them. Teasing out memories requires cup after cup of tea, and by the end of the meal I can feel the caffeine all the way to my fingertips and detect a slight sloshing noise as we climb up the stairs back into the sunlight.

Kam Lok: 834 Washington (at Waverly), 421-8102.

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