Hearts and Dragons

Sam Lok
655 Jackson (at Kearny), 981-8988. Open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight. The restaurant is not wheelchair accessible. Reservations advised for the New Year's weekend. Parking difficult; there's a garage at Kearny and Washington. Muni via the 15 Third, 30 Stockton, and 45 Greenwich.

On Valentine's Day, while romantics sip champagne and slurp oysters in hushed temples of luxe, calme, et volupte, TJ and I will be fleeing paper tigers and dodging explosions, engulfed in aromas of gunpowder, hot peanuts, wet people. Unless it's rained out or we are, we'll be going to the Chinese New Year's parade again, falling on Feb. 14 this year. And when the last hip-shakin' dragon heads for the celestial-being barn, we know where to go for a good chill-chasing dinner. The tip came from Won Ton Lust, a juicy new book that I wish I'd written, but local writer John Krich did it instead: With his bride Mei Qian, he circumnavigated the globe "in search of the world's best Chinese restaurant." Among the select few San Francisco eateries he recommends is Sam Lok, which he characterizes as "authentically greasy Sichuan."

Since a majority of local Chinese families have roots in coastal southeast China, most of the good Hong Kong-style restaurants are jammed for the holiday season. But Sichuan, a long fertile valley butted up against arid mountains, is in central China, the westernmost stop before Tibet, and a Sichuanese eatery is likely to be less crowded. Its cuisine -- shaped by a short growing season, hence the need to preserve foods for the harsh inland winters -- features spicy, salty, and (in fact) sometimes deliciously fatty flavors. Cantonese generally don't go for it, but Beijing honchos (including those visiting S.F.) favor Sichuan food the way Americans go for good Cajun/Creole or Southwestern. So the evening after the gala kickoff of the New Year's holiday, we headed to Chinatown with travelin' Dave and Joey the skinny pastry-cook and Joey's colleague Melba, another cooking-school grad who's temporarily shelved her catering business until her kids get older.

Rain-washed melancholy Chinatown was quiet that night, its one-time crowds demolished along with the Embarcadero Freeway and the westward move of the Asian middle class. Sam Lok was bright with very white walls, strong lighting, red hanging lanterns, and red cloth napkins on the well-spaced tables, including three big round ones with the traditional lazy susans in the center. The bathroom is down so steep a set of stairs that none of us dared approach it, especially after spotting the broken doorknob. The crowd consisted of several cuddly salt 'n' soy couples and an immigrant family with two little girls (one of whom used a fork to turn her food into lollipops). While we were working on appetizers, eight young Sichuanese men came roaring in, sat down, and managed to order, eat, talk nonstop, and pay their bill in the space of half an hour.

The tea was so exotic, more a potpourri than a beverage, that we never thought of beer or wine. Each cup had dried chrysanthemum flowers, large and small red dates, and small nuts, into which a busboy periodically poured hot water. As the dates steeped, the liquid grew sweeter. Since eight is a lucky number (the eight directions, eight I Ching trigrams, Buddhism's eightfold path, etc.), we began with eight appetizers ($1.50-4.50). Our unanimous favorite was the luscious little sweet potato "pancake," sliced into eighths. Like certain dim sum, it had a browned, crisp-gooey taro-flour coating and a sesame seed garnish. "The consistency of the filling is like another of our holiday pastries, yellow bean cake," noted Melba. "I have a sweet tooth, I love this," she added. She wasn't alone.

Deep-fried squares of tofu had wrinkled skins sprinkled with sesame seeds and imbued with a marinade of fierce hot pepper oil; we'd intuitively matched them with their traditional accompaniment, cool fresh-slivered cucumber salad. "I hate bean curd," said TJ, "but spicing it up like this makes it enjoyable." The dish demonstrated the piquancy of Sam Lok's kitchen operating normally, rather than easing up for soft-palated customers. Had we been a table of guei-lo only, our cosmopolitan waiter (speaking English in the smooth baritone accents of central China that I love to listen to) would probably have asked us how hot to make the spicy dishes, with the tofu-level the default -- but seeing two Cantonese faces at our table, he automatically had our dishes gentled to southern Chinese tastes. Another intuitive pairing matched sliced pork tongue with chile oil against sweet-sour jellyfish, "both part of the usual appetizer plate for a banquet," Melba noted. The meat, cut in tongue-shape thin slices and lightly glazed with just a touch of hot pepper oil, was still crunchy, rather than spongy, with a hint of that rubber-band texture (like that of black fungus) so beloved in China. The jellyfish were OK but unmemorable.

Wontons were also billed with chile oil, but that didn't mean it was the same sauce as the tongue: "Chile oil" turned out to be a generic term for a multitude of flavors. Tiny and tender wontons had a sweet-hot complex sauce, easy-spicy fun like a Tilt-A-Whirl in the shadow of a roller coaster. None of us much took to the potstickers; the filling was the usual gingery pork mince, but the dough was unpleasantly thick. Joey and Dave both pointed out that the red chile sauce on the table was fresh and excellent. "It's not rancid!" said Dave. "It's not separating!" exulted Joey. It was for eating, not for show. Long beans minced finely with ground pork and hot and sweet fresh peppers were tasty, unique, and somewhat scary: Would cutting the long beans shorten our lives? "This is hard to eat with chopsticks," murmured Dave. "You have to mix it with rice," said the waiter, overhearing as he served the soup. "Whoops!" we collectively muttered, hastening to order the missing reagent.

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