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Ming Kee: Rediscover the Pleasures of Chinese Barbecue 

Wednesday, Oct 31 2012

Last year, a Chinese survey claimed that Hong Kong residents eat per year 66,000 tons of siu mei — a blanket term for the Cantonese barbecued meats you find hanging from hooks in the windows of Chinese delis, as tempting in its own way as a window of Parisian macarons and croissants. Unlike American barbecue, Chinese barbecued meats are spit-roasted over fire or cooked vertically in a rotisserie oven. The delis peddling it fill a niche for families who pick up the prepared meats on the way home from work to eat for dinner.

There are plenty of such barbecue shops in San Francisco, but one of the best, Happy Bakery & Deli on Ocean Avenue, was destroyed by fire in August. It's reemerged in the Outer Sunset as Ming Kee, a full-service restaurant whose popularity hasn't waned even with a change of location, judging from the constant line of people waiting to eat there or buy the barbecued meats advertised in the window.

The specialty here is the soy sauce chicken, which has been braised in a salty-sweet marinade until the skin is firm and crisp and burnished to a deep golden brown. The sauce permeates the chicken down to the bone, and yet the white meat is tender, silky, and falling off the bone. Simple poached princess chicken is another favorite; its pale color and nubbly skin belie a complex flavor from a wine-spiked marinade, which is enhanced by the kicky ginger/scallion paste that you spread liberally on the hunks of meat yourself. Both are made from yellow-skin chickens, which are free-range and tougher than regular birds but have a more robust flavor that shines through the marinades and spices.

Other poultry on display is similarly exceptional. Roasted duck is found in most Chinese barbecue shops, but it's rarely executed with such deftness, as it hits the sweet spot between too greasy and too dry. This duck has skin as bronzed and smooth as the former governor of California, and a round, savory flavor redolent of five-spice. Its ducky essence is enhanced when dipped in the soy-based sauce infused with its own juices (ask for an extra container of dipping sauce). Pigeon and goose are also well represented; goose was sold out on both visits, but the chicken's soy sauce braise treated the pigeon well, though the meat was, as you might expect, darker and gamier than the chicken.

Pork also has a strong showing. Char siu all too often ends up being dry, but this barbecued pork was marbled with fat, scented with star anise, and sweetened with honey. It has a distinctive pale red smoke ring like the best Southern barbecue and a taste so sweet and succulent it's almost like pork candy. Roasted pork is an even more decadent treat, with thick, crackling skin and a layer of fat that brings out the animalistic pleasures of eating meat.

No part of the birds goes to waste. Ming Kee has a cult following for its salt-poached chicken feet, which are meaty and firm with only a hint of gelatinous texture, though they erred a bit too far on the salty side. Duck tongues, goose wings, and various other less popular poultry parts are also in supply for the adventurous.

The line is constant for takeout, along with the rhythmic thwack of the butcher's cleaver as he expertly chops through the chicken and ducks to go, but the new space also has a full-service restaurant if you want to dine in. As you can imagine, roasted meats are the way to go, by far the most popular things on the menu: you can order half or whole chickens or ducks by themselves, or on a rice plate with stir-fried bok choy and the ginger-scallion sauce, which acts almost like a Chinese chimichurri sauce giving bursts of bright flavor to the whole dish. Meats can also come in soup, either with egg or rice noodles and bok choy, and though the broth was bland it was at least nourishing on a cold afternoon.

There's also a short menu of other Chinese-American restaurant standards, none of them better than mediocre. The best of the bunch are the crispy Ming Kee noodles, which come in a tangled jungle of fried noodles with a viscous, savory sauce poured over to create a contrast in texture. Salt-and-pepper chicken wings tasted only of salt and the deep fryer; an experimental order of "Japanese walnut shrimp balls" turned out to be a ho-hum version of honey walnut shrimp with a cloying, mayonnaise-heavy sauce. We obediently ate the non-barbecue dishes we ordered, but eyed the meats hanging in the window longingly.

The atmosphere of the shop is decidedly no-frills, but it's clean and the service is speedy. Its simplicity is a bit at odds with the prices, but this is no ordinary barbecue, and siu mei is so loaded with saturated fat and sodium that it's the ultimate once-in-a-while fast food — and about a billion times more satisfying than a Big Mac.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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