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Yuet Lee 

The Late Shift

Wednesday, Aug 15 2001
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Let's all take a moment to bow our heads in silent tribute to one of San Francisco's most irreplaceable civic treasures. It's not a bridge, a building, a fountain, or a crooked street, but rather the big table at Chinatown's Yuet Lee. If you've been to Yuet Lee, you may know which table I'm talking about: It's round, with the standard Lazy Susan and smooth, Formica surface. It hadn't struck me as being any different from other big tables until about a year and a half ago. My friend Michelle and I had arrived at Yuet Lee around 2 a.m. after a night of barhopping. The place was packed, and we ended up sharing the BT with a couple of guys we'd never met. We were drunk and ordered three dishes, while the two guys -- probably also drunk -- had also ordered three dishes. Their choices looked pretty good from where we were sitting.

Within minutes, we'd all introduced ourselves and set our orders on the Lazy Susan, turning a pair of three-course meals into a sumptuous, six-course feast. More strangers took the empty seats, and as they realized the benefits of family-style dining added their orders to the banquet. All told, it was one of the best nights of my life. I remember two women lauding the deliciousness of our seaweed soup, the sharp, poignant crunch of someone else's salt and pepper prawns, and a foreign guy so overcome with camaraderie he told everyone to stop by his nightclub for as many free cocktails as we could down. Most important, I recall a buoyant feeling that occurs when people realize an essential truth: Life is better when you stop caring about boundaries and property and share your essential goodness (and your Chinese food) with the world.

That meal was probably my 20th at Yuet Lee, the 25-year-old, late-night, Hong Kong-style seafood joint with the luminous Coca-Cola sign and lucky green facade. I've seen all types here: tourists in nylon parkas, Chinatown restaurant workers in rumpled white shirts, plain Janes, regular Joes, lonely, hungry souls, and, after the bars close at 2 a.m., sly-eyed scenesters, bleary-eyed late-shifters, and the occasional skanky miscreant. I prefer eating at the big table (even if you don't meet your tablemates, you can pretend they're a part of your life), but have also dined well at most of the small tables -- even one in the basement. Yuet Lee isn't the biggest, most elegant Chinese place in town, but it's as consistent as the ocean is deep. The two head waiters (I think of them as the handsome guy and the guy with glasses) never change, the food is always righteously delectable, and the bare, fluorescent lights are bright enough to wake you up like a slap in the face.

There's something for everyone on Yuet Lee's 200-plus-item menu. Among the options: kung pao prawns, cashew chicken, curries, clay pot dishes, at least 30 kinds of noodles, and more exotic choices like duck feet with sea cucumber and steamed frogs with ham. The challenge is not to order the same thing again and again. I spent a good part of 1999 revisiting three of the affordable rice plates -- abalone with chicken over rice, squid with tender greens over rice, and flounder with tender greens over rice, all served with a light, savory gravy. I can recommend the roasted duck wonton soup, the preserved duck egg rice porridge, the sliced pork with Chinese greens, and the above-mentioned seaweed soup and salt and pepper prawns (the latter once referred to as "the godhead version" by LA Weekly/Gourmet magazine food critic Jonathan Gold). Everyone should try the salt and pepper squid -- tender, slightly chewy, deep-fried calamari imbued with a salty, pungent smack and a hint of earthy, sweet five-spice. Add a squeeze of lemon and a few sprigs of tangy cilantro and you've got an impeccably balanced interplay of flavors.

Though I've never had a bad meal at Yuet Lee, I decided to push the envelope on my latest visit by trying some new things. To help out, I brought my friends Michelle, Corinne, Dan, and Elsbeth, my cousin Jeff, my sister-in-law Leslie, and my brother John (celebrating his birthday). We arrived just after midnight and got the big table all to ourselves. Our waiter was the guy with glasses, who may lack the smooth panache of the handsome guy but who makes up for it via a certain theatrical flair. He announced each dish in a booming voice as he delivered it to our table. After we ordered steamed catfish from the "Seasonal Specialties" section of the menu, he stepped over to the small fish tanks near the door and netted a live, writhing, utterly doomed creature, which he carried past us with obvious pride -- "Your fish!" -- before disappearing into the kitchen.

It took about three minutes for the first soup (a "small" portion that would be sold as a large at most places) to hit the table -- firm, tender fish balls set in a delicate chicken broth with cubes of tofu and succulent spinach leaves. A large General Li's mixed ingredients soup arrived in a bowl so huge you could bathe a baby in it, and combined the same delicate broth with prawns, chicken, pork, calamari, and watercress. Abalone with chicken rice porridge was a satisfying mix of luscious abalone, chicken, and green onion in a creamy pool of semiliquefied rice; it proved so irresistible that I went back for seconds and thirds. In fact, I could eat the stuff five times a week for the rest of my life.

Next came a clay pot dish, which arrived sputtering and bubbling and contained firm roasted pork, plump oysters that exploded with a clean, salty gush, and a rich, nuanced ginger-onion gravy. We had chow mein two ways -- tender, toothsome noodles braised with a zesty blend of ginger and onion, followed by crisp, pan-fried noodles with bean sprouts and mild, crunchy yellow chives. An order of "Chinese long greens" (aka ong choy, or water spinach) was a definite big-table favorite: Picture noodlelike strands of thin, tender greens braised in a dark, garlicky gravy, a dish so magnificent in its simplicity that no reasonable human being could consider it anything less than perfect. A whole roasted duck chopped into bite-size pieces looked like two ducks, the serving was so big. It wasn't the crispest bird in town, but it may have been the greasiest, resulting in an eminently addictive Chinese junk food that paired sweet, fatty skin with dark, savory flesh.

Then came a gap in the meal, which allowed everyone to enjoy seconds of favorite dishes before digging in to the pièce de résistance. The same catfish we'd met earlier now came bathed in black bean sauce and laid open under a tangle of cilantro, green onion, and chilies, the flesh so buttery and melting I think even the fish would have approved.

Had we paid our bill and walked out the door right then, our meal would have been my all-time favorite at Yuet Lee. But Jeff had secretly informed our waiter that we were celebrating John's birthday. Heads turned as the guy with glasses paraded through the restaurant with a plate of juicy, pale-fleshed longan fruits over ice, topped with a saucer bearing a single birthday candle. The staff, our table, and most of the other customers joined in a rousing, boisterous chorus of "Happy Birthday" (and if you think the guy with glasses shows flair during his regular duties, you really need to hear the man sing). Whether you call it VIP service Yuet Lee- style or a big-table moment, that generosity helps make Yuet Lee one of those rare restaurants where it's nearly impossible to walk away unfulfilled.

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Greg Hugunin

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