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All in the Family 

Eight Immortals

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
As the story goes, it began in the sixth century B.C. when Lao Tzu ("The Old Sage," "The Grand Old Master"), a keeper of the imperial archives in western China, became disillusioned with the ways of men and rode off toward what is now Tibet to pass his final days in solitude. Before turning his back on the world, however, he was persuaded by a gatekeeper to leave a final record of his thoughts. Hence, the Tao Te Ching.

A collection of simple -- yet often enigmatic -- meditations ("Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles"), The Way and Its Power contains what some consider the most perfect recipe for human contentedness ever written. By eliminating striving, desire, and unnecessary action (a simplified explanation), practitioners believe they can align themselves with the ever-present, indefinable force known as Tao.

Of course, study of Taoism didn't end with Lao Tzu, and over the next 25 centuries, alchemists, philosophers, faith healers, and yogis all drew from this short but unfathomably rich work. A vast gallery of legends arose, from the deification of Lao Tzu himself (he was conceived by a shooting star, carried in the womb for 82 years, and born a wise old man) to the creation of innumerable lesser deities.

Not that most of us here in the West tend to trouble ourselves with such details. Better-known, and equally ancient, Chinese gifts to the world come from the kitchen, from the delicate immediacy of dim sum to the thousands of orders of sweet and sour shrimp prepared worldwide every night. Another great tradition is the family-style feast, an elaborate, multitiered bacchanalia designed so each guest finds at least a few dishes to his or her liking.

And if this is what you seek -- not that you should be seeking anything, according to Lao Tzu -- but still, if you must, you will find it at Eight Immortals. Named after Taoist mythology's Eight Immortals, popular figures whose good works were rewarded with the gift of eternal life, Taraval Street's Eight Immortals offers everything from the familiar (Mongolian beef, cashew chicken) to the not-so-familiar, at least in the West (shredded duckling with jellyfish, sea cucumber with duck feet); from ordinary meals to magnificent, seafood-oriented banquets.

The last of these are what my friend Richard recommended, and since he warned me things would get fairly extravagant, we invited a few guests: my mother, stepfather, brother, sister-in-law, and 4-year-old nephew, plus Richard's friends Dino and Martin, plus a whole other Richard, who, along with the original Richard, plus me, made for 10 hungry mortals seated at a large, circular table, a Lazy Susan at its center just waiting to be spun.

To say that Eight Immortals has been discovered would be an understatement. The place was packed when we visited on a Saturday, and packed again when I returned on a Monday, the result not so much of ambience (bright, bustling, a bit chaotic) but food (inexpensive, heavenly). Fixed-price dinners range from the simple, six-course, $28 version to the more sprawling, two-lobsters-and-a-jellyfish (plus seven other dishes) $98 feast. But since we were seeking more of what the Buddhists call "the Middle Way," we opted for a modest $48 dinner (winter melon soup, braised squab, crispy skin fried chicken, "special sauce" lobster, spicy salt shrimp, mustard greens, steamed oysters, a steamed flounder), which we supplemented with the $55 dinner (shredded abalone with duck soup, squid with XO sauce, ginger-onion lobster, Szechuan-style chicken, steamed oysters, a steamed catfish, Peking-style spareribs, mustard greens) and, for the hell of it, the Eight Immortals special sauce duck ($8.50).

The last item, however, drew a frown from our waitress, who very kindly explained that, in her experience, Caucasians didn't always like that style of duck. Not that all of us were Caucasians (although, it should be noted, the white folks we did bring were pretty much the only ones in the restaurant), but still, it made us pause, if only for a moment, at which point we asked ourselves how bad it could be and ordered it anyway.

Just as the most violent deluge begins with a single raindrop, the most elaborate legend with a solitary word, so too commenced our meal. In very ordered fashion, 10 bowls were set atop the Lazy Susan, and each was filled with a light, clear, winter melon soup. Ten bowls were emptied. Ten bowls were whisked away. And 10 more bowls replaced them, home to a darker, richer, more opulent brew whose flavor can be described with two words: pure duck.

These bowls remained, a repository for the heads, legs, bones, and other inedible byproducts of the 15 entrees that arrived over the next hour. One of the first table favorites was the Szechuan chicken -- a boiled half-chicken, cut into pieces, topped with thin-sliced green onions, diced bell peppers, a few hot peppers, and served with a rich, clear sauce whose surface bore savory pools of chicken fat.

The braised squab, on the other hand, was a bit dry, though my brother did appreciate the inclusion of the head, while the mustard greens, sautéed with garlic, were as tender as any vegetable has a right to be. Both lobsters were well-received -- the ginger sauce wickedly pungent, the "special sauce" a bit more starchy -- as were the Peking spareribs, a tangle of deep-fried pork that, while glistening with grease, was supposed to be that way, and was consumed to the last morsel.

The crispy skin chicken -- tender, juicy, still on the bone -- was likewise a hit, and while I wasn't too crazy about the steamed oysters in black bean sauce, my brother declared it one of his favorite dishes, and was in luck, because a second plate was on the way. The salt shrimp -- whole, deep-fried, crispy little buggers -- made a nice counterpart to the steamed flounder and catfish, each of which was bathed in shimmering broth. Though lacking the texture of Western-style preparations, the fish, in both cases, detached from the bone with an effortlessness I think even Lao Tzu would have appreciated, achingly tender flesh that was consumed, then forgotten, and so shall last forever.

Of course, it wasn't as methodical as that. As the plates were piled one atop the other, each member of our party sampled each dish, then revisited those that struck his or her fancy. Then, about two-thirds of the way through, salt, fats, oils, and, according to our waitress, just the tiniest smidgen of MSG (which can be withheld on request) harmonized themselves into a single, tablewide desire -- beer. So we ordered a round of Tsingtao ($2.50 each), which arrived just in time for our final entree, the dreaded Eight Immortals duck.

I'm not sure who the Caucasians were who misled our waitress as to the tastes of the palest race, but if you ask me, well, it's hard to complain about half a duck buried under cabbage, pork, chicken, beef, squid, shrimp, and a few quivering bits of sea cucumber, then bathed in a clear, brothy sauce. Dino -- or maybe one of the Richards -- declared it his favorite dish, in fact, and things continued, each of us taking a bite here, a nibble there, until hardly a scrap remained.

During all this, our waitress kept asking if we'd received everything we ordered (we were, after all, one of a dozen or so large parties). And while I kept assuring her we had, a final glance at the menu revealed one item was missing -- the squid in XO sauce. She frowned -- the kitchen was closed by this time, the waitstaff picking up the literally hundreds of plates strewn over tables around the restaurant -- then came up with a brilliant solution: a double order of dragon's eye fruit over ice ($3.25 per order).

Sometimes, simple endings are the best, and this was such an occasion. The pale, sweet, fleshy longans made the rounds first by hand, then via Lazy Susan, which, by this time, my nephew had mastered as though he'd been using one all his life. I ate the second-to-last dragon's eye, he ate the last, his smile seeming to indicate this pure, unadorned delicacy was like the universe itself -- sacred, a thing that cannot be improved.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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