Cheap Chinese, Classic Flavors

Two overlooked, inexpensive Chinese restaurants -- just in time for the Year of the Horse.

Which one should we get?” I asked my companions as we surveyed the bank of aquariums at the back. We were not going to leave Yuet Foo Seafood Restaurant without eating some of the seafood surveying us from the other side of the glass. Restaurant reviewing is sometimes an eat-or-be-eaten profession.

“Crab,” immediately replied one friend, an East Coast native who found the thought of boiling a crab the least alarming. On the menu, “live crab” (cited with “live lobster,” “live fish,” and other living delicacies) is listed with eight or nine different preparations. We consult the server, who recommended salt and pepper.

When our salt-and-pepper crab arrived, chopped up, and arrayed on a large platter with its hollowed-out top shell at the fore, the East Coaster decided it was too much work. The sections were coated in a salty, crunchy batter, then deep-fried and sprinkled with garlic and diced chiles. The batter made it hard to disassemble the crab and suck out the meat within. Everyone else concurred, so I took nutcracker in hand. Bits of batter, shell, and pepper ended up scattered all over the white tablecloth and my sweater.

Can you call a white-tablecloth restaurant that serves freshly cooked crabs a hole- in-the-wall? The jury is still out. With entrées in the $8 to $10 range, Yuet Foo (which means “happy and rich”) falls under the category of Cheap Chinese, but its fare is prepared in classic Cantonese mode.

After rubbing the belly of a grinning Buddha in the entryway, diners pass a large, fruit-covered shrine, the remains of hundreds of sticks of incense poking out of its sandpots. The large, open dining room inside, slightly tatty in its elegance, is walled with long banks of windows looking out onto scenic San Pablo Avenue. On a Wednesday night, only four or five tables were occupied, a mix of English- and Cantonese-speaking locals.

Menus as huge as Yuet Foo’s often mean a crapshoot. There are probably quite a few excellent dishes like the crab, but on a single visit it’s hard to find them. Looking at the regulars’ tables to see what they came for, I was reassured to see our salt and pepper crab. I also saw a high mound of fried chicken and large platters of simply steamed bok choy or mustard greens (the Cantonese equivalent of the side salad).

We opted for dishes that straddled the border between cheap Chinese and haute cuisine. We started with perfectly adequate potstickers and paper-wrapped chicken. Chunks of chicken thighs were basted with a rich soy glaze and then wrapped in layers of parchment and foil and baked. Those who figured out how to unwrap them were rewarded with a puff of steam succeeded by moist, flavor-infused meat.

Our server got a little befuddled with the appetizer order, bringing out the wrong dish. She sorted out the mix-up gracefully, the sole blip in extremely attentive and pleasant service. My anonymous tipster had mentioned that dishes don’t exactly fly to the table, but we didn’t notice any long delays.

Delays weren’t the only thing I didn’t notice, though. Cheap Chinese, along with pizza and pho, is the comfort food of my adult years. Yan Can Cook was the first cookbook I ever bought, at the age of ten, and in college I waited tables at a hole-in-the-wall run by a chef from Hong Kong. It’s a cuisine that I can never have enough of. In exchange for my blind devotion, I consume it unconsciously. The food has to be extraordinary to catch my attention.

Though tasty, the rest of our food didn’t. The chicken in the chicken with black bean sauce was moist but not velvety, its sauce subtly aromatic, its onions and green peppers crisp-tender. As were the vegetables in the vegetable hot pot , but they were mired down in a mess of cellophane noodles and a lackluster sauce. Lamb with XO sauce had enough heat and meaty flavor to please my tablemates, but I missed the presence of pungent dried scallops in the XO sauce, which amplify its dark spiciness.

If I were to return, I would focus on the restaurant’s specialties. But February is Hole-in-the-Wall month, and there were other holes-in-the-wall nearby. Two days later, a few friends and I went looking for cheaper Chinese.

After stopping by a food stand that seemed too hole-in-the-wall even for me — not only was it tiny and bleakly commercial but the sample we tried wasn’t that good — we followed up on a third recommendation: Shem’s Palace. Now, Shem’s Palace definitely qualifies as a hole-in-the-wall, albeit a clean one. You can only pick out the storefront restaurant, located across from a strip mall on San Pablo and Carlson, by the big block letters above the entrance. The windows are half-masked by thin muslin curtains. Inside, pink walls, wood tables, and a few plants. Nothing more.

The restaurant specializes in Mandarin and Szechuan food, which means richer, sweeter, spicier versions of Chinese-American standards. Lunch specials come with soup, salad, and rice. Neither of the opening courses impressed us. Our vegetarian hot and sour soup had all the appropriate elements, from the egg flowers to the julienned bamboo shoots — but lacked body. We only picked at our glass bowls of iceberg lettuce doused with an unalloyed rice wine vinegar. The wrapping on the plump potstickers — thick, chewy, precisely molded — outshone the filling within. No ginger, no green onions played sharp counterpart to the bland ground pork.

But our entrées — dinner-size portions served attractively on large platters — showed us why my source had sent us to Shem’s. Many of the meats were breaded before being stir-fried, which added a layer of crunchiness to their texture but sometimes made them tough. All were combined with a bright mélange of perfectly cooked vegetables. Fish fillet with black bean sauce had been breaded and then tossed with onions and green peppers in a mild soy-based sauce, little nubbins of fermented black soybeans adding a dark, coffee-like edge.

Crimson-dried chiles poked out of the orange beef, their heat radiating throughout a sweet and spicy sauce tinged with orange rind. A rainbow of vegetables and chiles ornamented the kung po chicken in a less-sugary bean paste sauce. The brawny Szechuan flavors of the two meat dishes contrasted nicely with a vegetable dish whose discretion was more Cantonese. The most translucent of sauces, garlic its only note, coated snap peas, water chestnuts, and fresh shiitake mushrooms. Whole-foods junkies will appreciate the fact that Shem’s Palace offers brown rice as an alternative to white and fried.

Both Yuet Foo and Shem’s Palace serve inexpensive Chinese-American food that’s a step up — sometimes two — from your average cheap Chinese.

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