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Feet, Fins, and Heads 

Wednesday, Apr 16 1997
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Hung Tho Seafood Restaurant
1556 Noriega (at 22nd Avenue). Open daily from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Credit cards are accepted; street floor is wheelchair accessible. Call 661-8860.

"I've seen plenty of chicken feet in my life, but they were still attached to the chicken," said TJ, for 20 years a rancher on the high desert northeast of L.A. The occasion was dinner at Hung Tho, when the first item to arrive was the Hung Tho special cured chicken claw.

Despite its unglamorous mid-Sunset location, Hung Tho, next-door neighbor and archrival to Jumbo (reviewed here a few weeks ago) looks almost intimidatingly "gold cup" -- resembling an elegant Hong Kong "business dinner" restaurant. It has white tablecloths and walls, large floral paintings, and a handsome wooden frame around the seafood tanks. Adding to the formal feeling, the uniformed waitstaff are hoversome -- annoyingly so, if your group wants to discuss the food. But if you're a guei lo it may be moot after all, since they're less English-proficient than the Jumbo staff. The beer selection is minimal, the few wines are abysmal; obviously, if you book the "private" upstairs balcony for a banquet, you BYOB. Despite the dressy decor, most of the other dinner customers were Chinese families in weeknight garb.

The ambitious menu includes such rarities as geoduck (long-necked clams), shark's fin, and abalone (any of which may or may not actually be available) with unlisted "seasonal" prices; Peking duck is listed at a remarkable $12, but since it's the menu's lone quacker and requires two days of prep, I have my doubts about it. At our first meal, when the waiter didn't try to talk me out of ordering the chicken claw, I knew we could do business. When I was a kid -- back in the Mesozoic -- chickens still had feet (though the heads were already extinct), and whenever my mom made soup she'd give me the tootsies, my favorite meat at age 3. More recently, I've dived happily into Dixie cups full of chicken foot souse (a fresh, spicy, poultry rendition of pickled pigs feet) in Trinidad -- and I still love them. "What did I get myself into?" asked TJ, who didn't have a Jewish or Trini mother. He gingerly tasted the "claw," and then tasted some more. The pedal extremities were colossal, served cold in a mild marinade of excellent chicken stock, sesame oil, Fresno pepper shreds, and cilantro leaves, with a thin sweet-sour dip on the side. "You've just gotta get past the thought of eating feet," TJ said, chomping happily at the soft skin covering small, succulent pads of foot flesh.

Then we plunged into a crab and corn soup ($6) that was slightly undersalted and had sweet, barely cooked crab meat (but not enough of it), so tender it had evidently been dropped into the lightly thickened egg-drop chowder at the last second. Despite the uncorny season, the partly pureed and partly whole-kernel corn was sweet and firm enough to pass for cob-fresh.

The waiter's suggestion from the live tank -- the lobster in ginger and scallion sauce for "just $10" -- wasn't so great: Our toy-size lobsterling was cut up awkwardly. There were too many segments, given its tininess, and most pieces included knobby swimmeret joints that soaked up the (overly gingered) sauce and made it hard to eat the meat.

The tail was invisible but for the finial. On the other hand, the special vegetables that day were sublime pea shoots (the leaves and vines of snow peas), which taste like a sweeter, pea-flavored version of the best organic spinach. (You can buy them most of the year in Chinese vegetable markets, but they're tastiest February to April.) These were cooked very simply, as befits something so ravishingly good, with a little broth, sesame oil, and a breath of sugar.

We returned a few nights later with our best Culinary High-Dive Team of Robert, Gail, Peter, and Anita. We started with the assorted cold appetizer plate ($10). It included jellyfish, but the subspecies was by nature thicker-fleshed and less flavorful than the ethereal slim jellies I've eaten in Hong Kong. The beef tendon, char siu (barbecued pork), and braised pork shank were all just OK. We also tried the fried squid with spiced salt ($6), which had a heavy cornstarch coating that required too much frying time for the good of the squid.

The dinner took a much better turn with the day's special green and orange carrot soup (on the house, since we were such a large party). A deeply flavorful broth held tender, juicy pork (perhaps a knuckle bone) and thick slices of the carrots. I've never eaten a green carrot before, but it was succulent and, well, carroty but without sweetness. We continued on a high note with a pair of roast squabs ($8.50 each). Squab meat is delicious, but the best part of all has to be the head. At Chinese banquets, the honored guest always gets the head of the fowl, and the crowning glory of fowl heads must be squab head, which (roasted or deep-fried) is totally crisp outside and lusciously creamy inside. You pick it up by the beak and just chomp the rest of it, skull and all -- exactly like French gourmets devouring the tiny songbirds called ortolans. (Only difference is, the Frenchies cover the heads with a napkin when they do it.) Deciding to honor myself, I took one head, and Robert tentatively agreed to accost the other. "This is really good!" he exclaimed after the first bite. "Next time, I'll eat the head," TJ said, trying the last tiny nibble of mine.

Best of all was the day's live-tank fish, which was to die for, and it did. It was black bass, as tickle-pink sweet as fresh-picked July corn, steamed tenderly and sauced with light soy, yellow chives, and cilantro -- one of the best three fishes of my life. And we had another plate of pea greens, almost buttery-tasting with a touch of garlic this time. Another great dish was the house special pan fried noodles ($6), which English-speakers know as "chow mein." The noodles were terrific -- boiled and then fried semicrisp, tossed with a delicious sauce, and smothered in tender squid, scallops, prawns, char siu, stir-fried pork, and shiitake shreds. "I don't think I ever had chow mein this good," said Gail.

Two dishes were less pleasing. I wanted to try the frog and rice clay pot (I've eaten the legs but never the rest), but the kitchen was all out of frogs, so the waiter took our measure as culinary daredevils and suggested a special clay pot, salt fish and pork rice. All the flavorings were cooked on top, so they'd drip down to flavor the ginger-strewn rice. At the table, the waiter expertly tossed the ingredients to bring up some of the crisped bottom. The dish was obviously perfect but exotic even to my weird tastes. The strong-scented salt fish abounded in fins, tails, and bones to gnaw through -- it was one of those Cantonese texture-extravaganzas, born from a genius for using every part of every critter. Another substitution was sheerly accidental: We'd ordered the sea scallops with pine nuts ($8.50), but the waitress, misunderstanding, delivered scallops with boring stir-fried veggies, which included pitiful canned water chestnuts. The melt-in-the-mouth shellfish blew away their banal companions, but we didn't have enough appetite left to send it back and get what we wanted.

Soon afterward, we tried out the dim sum brunch, which Hung Tho serves daily at lunch to a well-dressed Asian crowd, offering delicacies at prices notably lower ($1.60 to $3.20 per plate) than those at, say, Harbor Village or Yank Sing. The good and the bad news is that the restaurant isn't large enough to accommodate rolling trays in the aisles. The dim sum is menu-driven rather than cart-driven, so you don't get to point-and-shoot at passing "little bits of heart" that intrigue you. You eat less this way. However, several of our choices never showed up. Maybe they just didn't believe that three of us could really eat 13 plates of dim sum. By the end of lunch we were pointing at other tables and demanding, "Whatever that is, gimme."

Winners? The Canton egg roll was a tight, grease-free, crisp cigar densely packed with minced pork and shrimp. The stuffed eggplant was a symphony of mixed sensuosities. The shark's fin with superior soup dumpling had two simmered dough crescents with a delicious minced-seafood filling (I don't care to know the percentage of shark fin) floating in a soup that was superior indeed. Most of the other bites (including siu mai, shrimp har gow, turnip cake, taro turnover, and a mysterious green shellfish dumpling) were very tasty but unexceptional. A bit below-average were the blandly filled scallop with garlic dumpling and the rice-flour crepe rolls (with beef or shrimp filling) in a thicker dough than I like -- while the alarming Hung Tho duck roll (consisting of a little bony braised duck gift-wrapped in a thick sheet of anise-seasoned pork fat) has to be the original Heart Attack on a Plate.

Looking at neighbors Jumbo and Hung Tho together, I'm still rejoicing that the once-bland Sunset has attracted restaurants of this caliber to feed its new Asian residents, including the many middle-class sophisticates from Hong Kong who've been skedaddling while the getting's still good. Just as in their home city, the Sunset's Hong Kong-style restaurants can only survive by winning the local diners' loyalty, and this lends a special sparkle to their kitchens. Of the two neighbors, all in all I feel more comfortable with Jumbo's casual service, informal ambience, and reliable kitchen. Even though gambling is second only to eating as a reigning Chinese passion, obviously the joy of risk-taking doesn't jump from the mah-jongg table to the dinner table -- which is probably why Jumbo is busier than the more ambitious but less consistent Hung Tho. At the latter, however, those dishes that are good are actually great. A few weeks after these "test meals" I took some out-of-towners to the Geary Boulevard branch of Flower Lounge, the local "gold standard" for Hong Kong cuisine. As we finished our meal I realized that we'd have had better, brighter food (at a lower price) by judicious ordering at Hung Tho. After all, the latter is still competing for a demanding, food-savvy patronage -- just as Flower Lounge did before it got famous.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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