Jac’s Asian Bistro: Kowloon, With Cheese

A miniature Hong Kong in El Cerrito.

At Jac’s Asian Bistro, no one winks or smirks when you order item #HH13, a huge bowl of spaghetti doused with Chinese-style chicken broth, topped with a hot dog and fried egg. It turns out to be luscious and somehow makes perfect sense, the pink frankfurter sliced diagonally, the golden broth a brilliant liquid time machine that takes you back to every hole-in-the-wall that ever blew you away.

From a twelve-page menu that reads as if it was coauthored by a Chinese master chef, a zany party planner, and a child — lobster chow fun, turnip cake, French toast, Spam-and-egg sandwiches, cheese wontons — we pick a fluffy oyster egg foo yong and a mountainous vegetable hotpot stocked with flash-fried doorknob-size tofu cubes, chewy tofu “skins,” rice vermicelli, and bok choy, broccoli, crinkle-cut carrots, and plump peapods steamed just enough to explode with color and flavor.

Maybe the way our server delivers these and other dishes without comment, much less ceremony, shouldn’t fill us with such skin-tingling happiness. Yet it does.

In most restaurants — but not this one — postmodern culinary culture has spawned a new breed of server. Ubiquitous, obsequious, he or she is part psalmist, part thespian, part showoff, part masseur. Pronouncing the names of dishes and ingredients with a rococo reverence that demands a response, these servers fawn. They hover, as if you were their pal and their master. Rapt attention feels real for a while, but then you wish they would just go away.

At Jac’s, they do. Maybe we shouldn’t feel so relieved at our server’s silence, which is not sullen but straightforward, as if to say-without-saying that since we ordered these items, we can surely recognize them on our own. Maybe the way she simply walks away should not fill us with gratitude. It does.

So does the fact that every day between 3 and 6 p.m., 34 different dishes here are priced at less than $3. Thirty more are priced at less than $4. From curried beef puffs to garlic bread to dumpling-noodle soup to smoky, satisfying sautéed soya noodles, some (but not all) of these are a bit less hefty than the family-size regular menu items, but they’re not “small plates.” This bounty alone would be enough to make Jac’s our new favorite restaurant. But it’s not the only reason, by a long shot.

Another reason is the flat-out, unself-conscious expertise with which these dishes are prepared, from cinches such as chicken-cutlet sandwiches to ever-tricker treats such as tender-crisp salt-and-pepper tofu cubes, egg-custard tarts, pea leaves in dried-scallop sauce, and richly savory sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves. The range of noodles alone — thin, thick, flat, round, fried, braised, Western, Eastern, macaroni, yifu, chow fun, chow mein, udon — is all by itself a Marco Polo reverie. Then comes the strip-mall humility that sets Jac’s between Classy Nails II and an adult-video rental shop. But mainly it’s this: With Panda Express standing a potsticker’s-throw away, the taste of authenticity is bliss.

At Jac’s, the taste of authenticity is the taste of Hong Kong. Its owners hail from there, and anyone who has ever loved that urban wonderland whose name ironically means Fragrant Harbor will feel transported instantly. How? It’s the cod filets and rice-sheet rolls prepared with hot-salty-seafoody Hong Kong-created XO Sauce. It’s an obliging beverage list that includes Horlick’s, Ovaltine, red-beans-and-ice, and burst-into-song-strong Hong Kong-style milk tea. It’s an entire menu whose prices end in .88, double-lucky-eight. It’s Chow Yun-Fat and Leung Ka-Fai ducking projectiles in a casino as God of Gamblers 2 airs on the big flatscreen TV, its Cantonese dialogue subtitled in Chinese characters, not in English. Nor are English versions given of the daily specials posted on the walls. So very Hong Kong is a vast array of dishes prepared so well in so many different styles as to make this look easy, which it’s not. What other Chinese restaurant serves Russian borscht? It’s on the menu, along with sizzling-rice soup, Spam-and-egg noodle soup, cream-of-mushroom soup, and — unfortunately — shark-fin soup. And granted, this is cabbage/onion/potato borscht rather than beet borscht, but its sweet-and-sour black-peppery perfection would make Aunt Sadie envious — and besides, it’s not beet season yet.

Hong Kong, too, is the clangor of conversation and of plates being stacked by workers whose first priority is stacking plates, not pampering you.

And then, without fanfare, they refill your teapot and bring your next dish, which might be pork-and-black-egg congee, mogua (hairy gourd) in salted-beancurd sauce, Indian roti, deep-fried plain buns served with dizzyingly thick condensed milk, or crunchy French fries. Heads turn whenever a “sizzling” dish is served: Ours was a fiery sizzling-chicken-and-hot-pepper, but with massive tofu cubes in place of chicken. After the server walked away, it sizzled wildly for a full two minutes, nearly drowning out the actors on the flatscreen, who were striding through Kowloon and blaring into cell phones, “Wei?” then “Wah!” Heaped with green and white onions and not dumbed down one bit, the dish was searingly, silkily hot.

Yellow paneled walls bearing two mildly abstract artworks render this restaurant’s hip-swinging full name, Jac’s Asian Bistro, somewhat hilarious — although, granted, the menu categorizes its 11 a.m.-to-3 p.m. specials as “Dim Sum and Tapas.” Square plates and shiny black soup spoons, chopsticks, and teacups evince a certain élan. Jac’s is what it is with a casual air that could never be faked. This is the kind of funkiness that vanishes into thin air if you hold mirrors to it or discuss it for any longer than this.


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