Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Home in Chinatown

Chuck: After our extended observation of the Golden Gate Bridge and its coat of fog, we returned to cousin Barbara's original schedule of some high points in San Francisco. A meal at a Chinatown restaurant was our goal.

Walking around Chinatown, we were caught up in the varying paces of life there. Some activity was slow and deliberate, such as this game played by several pairs of men along the border of one of the area’s parks. The round pieces were similar to those used in checkers, but the board was entirely different. One of the game boards was hand-drawn on a piece of cardboard.

This delicate piece of sculpture shown in a shop’s window was described as hand-carved from a single piece of ivory. We could only imagine the time that it took to complete this work.

On the street, the pace was fast. Our slow pace of taking photographs and looking in shop windows created obstacles for the residents of the area.

One characteristic shared by the shops in the 16 square blocks of Chinatown was the use of color in the displays and decorations that are always on display. The photographs below present a sample of these decorations.

In this relatively small area, there are more Chinese living in this “city within a city” than in any other place in the world outside China.

The details on signs and lamps among the shops are also colorful and give a clear indication of the part of the city in which they are anchored.

This building on the edge of Chinatown has an exterior made of copper and the patina creates a striking image.

Kate: A few weeks ago, I mentioned that one of my standards for a good Chinese restaurant is the absence of “junk” vegetables in stir fries. Another standard is whether, upon entering a restaurant’s doors, I immediately begin to salivate when I smell that distinctive aroma of garlic, ginger, sesame, and soy. Let me tell you, the salivary glands were in overdrive when I walked into the Hunan Home’s Restaurant in the Chinatown district of San Francisco. This is Chuck’s cousin Barb Pauly’s favorite Chinese restaurant, and our meal provided ample evidence of why that is so.

One of the joys of eating at a Chinese restaurant is that it is true family style dining where everyone orders something different and plates are passed and tastes are sampled. After much deliberation, we settled on starting our meal with an order of hot and sour soup for three and an order of pot stickers. The soup was a great start to the meal with its rich savory broth lightly thickened with cornstarch and swimming with pork shreds, tofu, peas, and scallions. Too often restaurants get the sour right but wimp out on the hot. Not Hunan Home’s. On our table was a container of red chilies in oil. There was no need to add these to the soup.

Pot stickers are one of my favorite Chinese appetizers (along with scallion pancakes) and Hunan Home’s serves wonderful pot stickers. Inside the thin wrapper nestled an aromatic and flavorful mix of ground pork, garlic, ginger, and scallions and the wrappers had the requisite crisp and crunchy bottom. One very nice touch – from three decanters on the table our server mixed each of us a plate of a soy, rice wine vinegar, and chili oil dipping sauce. I’ve never seen that before.

For our entrees, we tried to run the continuum from not spicy to sort of spicy to spicy. The not spicy dish was prawns with honey walnuts (left in photo). A generous serving of prawns, dusted with cornstarch, stir fried until just cooked, and tossed with honey, sat on a bed of lettuce. Honey-fried walnuts accompanied the prawns and the taste combination of sweet walnuts and sweet prawns was the perfect combination to eat with our two spicier dishes.

The sort of spicy entrée was chicken in spicy garlic sauce. When I saw the number of whole pepper pods mixed with the chicken, I thought this would be mouth searing. It wasn’t. Rather there was a gentle, underlying heat that enhanced the slightly sweet chicken in a sauce given intense (but not unpleasant) flavor from the garlic sauce. And topping the chicken was a light application of sesame seeds.

My favorite and the spiciest of the three were the string beans with pork. Again, a profusion of hot pepper pods were mixed with the beans, but in this case the heat was more pronounced. Way more pronounced. Spicy string beans have been one of my favorite Chinese entrees since I ate them at Henry Chung’s Hunan restaurant here in San Francisco many, many years ago. In fact, using Henry Chung’s cookbook, I have made them often at home. And I order them whenever they appear on a Chinese restaurant menu. The beans were cooked perfectly – no longer raw, but still crisp.

Hunan Home’s has received many San Francisco “Best Chinese Restaurant” awards, and if our meal was any indication, these honors are well deserved. We agree with the locals and give Hunan Home’s 5.0 Addies.

(Note: Although we will be writing about our activities around Lodi (CA) for the next few days, we are now camped in Groveland, CA, just a few miles west of Yosemite National Park. We cannot use our cell phone and our air card does not work, so for the next nine days, our entries may seem a bit different.)

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