Living Large

Jumbo Seafood Restaurant
1532 Noriega. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Credit cards are accepted; it is wheelchair accessible. Call 681-1800.

As Hong Kong gets the shaft, we get the chefs.
It's San Francisco's dark blessing that, whenever the political streams grow toxically muddy in some other part of the world, we enjoy an upwelling of a new cuisine. Restaurateurs, cooks, even waiters are bailing out of Hong Kong, arriving in Vancouver and San Francisco by the thousands before the big Red squelch descends. The pioneers here (e.g., Hong Kong Flower Lounge and its several offspring) were primarily large, somewhat gaudy establishments that settled either in the Richmond District's New Chinatown, or else on the Peninsula (and I don't mean the Kowloon Peninsula) to pick up the airport's Pacific Rim business trade. Now, with the influx escalating to an inrush, the Sunset (for many decades the city's own private Idaho, whitely bland as any baked potato) is growing exciting, exotic, tantalizing, fed by urban emigres who demand neighborhood food of the same astounding gracefulness, subtlety, and range as the hometown fare.

Food lovers consider Hong Kong equal to Paris as the ultimate culinary paradise. Its local style is Cantonese -- not the gluey chop suey we grew up with, but the light, bright, semitropical maritime cuisine of the South China Sea, based on bringing the best out of a vast range of ingredients, including many that Westerners don't regard as foodstuffs. It may seem like anything that isn't outright poisonous is cooked up one way or another, and those comestibles that have little intrinsic flavor (tree ear fungus, sea cucumber, chicken feet) are prized for their interesting textures. HK also draws (or drew) runaways from all over China, and hence boasts sublime restaurants specializing in every Sino-regional cuisine. A zillion restaurants vie for every pound, dollar, yen, and baht, so that aside from a handful of degenerated tourist meccas, not even a noodle stand can survive the competition unless its noodles are supernal -- or close, very close.

Jumbo Seafood opened last year on Noriega Street at 23rd Avenue, where the parking is easy and the traffic is light (at least until the two Irish bars down the block get rocking). Within days of its opening, it started doing land-office business at both lunch and dinner with the local Chinese community. Jumbo offers food to go as well as sit-down; the fare is distinctive, and the prices (about $20 per person for a big to humongous dinner) are reasonable. With my buddies Robert (a true trencherman) and TJ, I ventured hungrily into Jumbo on a weeknight. "Don't worry if we order too much food," we told the waiter, who didn't worry. Jumbo is a medium-size room with a stacked pair of live tanks at the back, accommodating lobster, crab, rock cod, and catfish on the night we were there. Its decor is pleasantly plain, and the restaurant serves no wine, no cocktails, no serious booze (just beer, including the inevitable Tsingtao).

We quickly discovered a Jumbo advantage in a waitstaff who don't stand on ceremony or at their wait stations; any of them will help you whenever you need anything. It gets better: One of my secret delights in Hong Kong is its New Yorker-ish gruff-droll attitude, and at Jumbo you find it at its most comfortable. The waiters are brusque, accommodating, unself-conscious, self-respecting. The staff seems to assume that if you know enough to eat at Jumbo, you know Cantonese cooking. When we ordered soup, the waiter asked us at what point in the meal we wanted it served (often, the soup course comes near or at the end of a large meal), and didn't mind bringing it immediately while we agonized over the rest of our order. Even in sophisticated Hong Kong, waiters have occasionally flatly refused to serve me the exotica of my choice. At Jumbo, when we ordered conch, nobody pronounced that most dreadful of sentences, "Oh, you don't like that."

We started with a seasonal Eight Precious Winter Melon Soup. Any "Eight Precious" item is supposed to have at least eight distinct ingredients appropriate to the dish -- eight being a lucky number associated with Buddhism's Eightfold Path, the eight directions, the I Ching's eight trigrams, etc. We were not so lucky, and our soup held just three preciouses: chicken, peas, and diced winter melon. The broth, though, was a sturdy poultry stock. Soup stock is key in any Cantonese restaurant. It serves as the basis for many stir-fry sauces and some clay pots. Weak, thin broth presages that the other dishes are liable to be either flavorless or overwhelmed with soy, MSG, or cornstarch. Jumbo's stock merited an "A," a good omen.

Although Jumbo offers spicy Mandarin dishes as well as Cantonese, we cleaved to the latter. (Even Mandarins envy Cantonese cooking.) The two most distinctly HK-style courses are a fish from the tank and a seasonal vegetable. With the fish, you choose the species to be sacrificed to your appetite but can leave it up to the kitchen to decide the optimum treatment for it. With the vegetable, it doesn't matter if the "specials" are listed solely on a sheet of Chinese calligraphy that you can't read: There's always a special veggie, and it'll be one of the night's best dishes because it's whatever's freshest and most enticing to the chef.

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