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Royal High 

Koi Palace

Wednesday, Oct 3 2001
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Sometimes it's nice to get away from the urban grind, to spend a few weeks in the Greek islands, a few days on the coast, or even a few hours in Daly City. When I first moved to San Francisco, I'd bop down to our southern neighbor every now and again to lose myself among the vastness of the Super-Ultra-Mega Sportmart (not the real name, but it should be). Last year, some friends and I temporarily relocated our weekly football game to Daly City, since the place has playing fields like Napa has grapes. More recently, I've been making trips south to visit 99 Ranch, a sort of Asian Safeway, where I stock up on ong choy, red bean mochi, fresh rice noodles, and, if I'm in the mood to make dim sum, the same pot sticker and siu mai wrappers you find at Clement Street's New May Wah but without the endless search for parking.

Though anyone with a few recipes and a lot of free time can make dim sum, being a lone white man with a pair of bamboo steamers means that my efforts could never rival those of a professional kitchen. Fortunately, there are plenty of fine dim sum houses here in the city. If you've been to the more popular ones, you know the lines can be horrendous on weekends. You may get jostled and elbowed. Your toes may get stepped on. You may even question the essential goodness of human beings. But people, you ain't seen nothing until you've driven to Daly City and entered the Sunday fray at Koi Palace.

I've done it twice, and the drill is always the same. There will be a crowd of at least 100 in the lobby -- parents, grandparents, and children peering nervously at the galaxy of strange faces. You'll receive a number, then stand by as hostesses call out digits ("Four thirty-one, party of seven! Eighty-eight, party of two!") in what seems like entirely random order. To kill time, some patrons bring newspapers or Game Boys. Others gaze into tremendous fish tanks stocked with grass cod, shrimp, dozens of crabs, and Australian lobsters so huge they could wrestle a flyweight boxer into submission. Customers throng around the hostess like groupies at a rock concert. But who can blame them? Once your number is called, you've got about 10 seconds to claim your table. I've seen parties of 12 charge the dining room with the fury of GIs storming the beach at Normandy.

A few weeks ago, my friend Alexandra and I spent an hour in that sea of humanity, and Lord help me if the wait wasn't worth it. The dim sum is as good as any I've had, and the dishes number well over 100.

Koi Palace seats 450 with an elegant grandiosity. A main, atriumlike dining room with high ceilings and a stone-rimmed koi pond leads to a smaller dining room that leads to still more dining rooms (there are five in all, if you count the VIP room). We ended up in the bar room, where a low ceiling magnified the standard dim sum-house din so that we had to shout at one another to be heard. As we took our seats, a man delivered jasmine tea and splashed soy sauce into tiny dipping bowls. Within minutes, our table was piled high with delicacies procured from an infinite parade of friendly waitpersons.

Though the menu's main focus is Cantonese, the offerings also include northern and Shanghai-style fare as well as Mongolian hot pots (raw meat, seafood, and vegetables cooked in broth at your table). The hot pots looked tempting, but we focused on the dim sum, an infinitely varied succession of small plates that may represent my favorite way to dine. Koi Palace has dumplings, of course -- crisp, pan-fried pork dumplings in a leavened, airy wrapper and chewy rice-flour skins stuffed with scallops and shrimp, the tops tied with bits of chive so that each one resembles Santa's Christmas sack. I could eat a dozen of the spongy beef balls wrapped in bean curd skin and served with a sharp dip that tastes of Worcestershire sauce. Steamed bean curd rolls are stuffed with dried shiitakes and bathed in a dark, savory gravy.

Rice noodle rolls come in many forms. We chose two -- a heap of tender tubes sautéed with enough chilies to produce a pleasant burn and rolls stuffed with the freshest, most succulent shrimp imaginable. Mushrooms filled with a shrimp purée explode with juice (you can get the same purée over green bell peppers or wedged between slices of eggplant). Thick, chewy pancakes encase julienned cucumber and roasted duck, accompanied by bittersweet duck sauce for dipping and a fresh orchid to please the eye. Soothing, creamy jook contains bits of chicken and green onions; chilled barbecued pork over white beans is touched with earthy, sweet five spice. Bowls of sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves contain bits of pork, Chinese sausage, duck egg, and shiitakes, putting most other versions of the dish to shame.

Be sure to grab a few pastries, which run the gamut from gooey black sesame balls to impossibly flaky cylinders filled with barbecued pork. The mango pudding won't catapult you into the next dimension the way the same concoction will at Geary Boulevard's Mayflower -- the Koi Palace version is a bit sugary, but it's still worthwhile, with its slivers of fresh mango and drizzle of condensed milk. Delicate pastry surrounds warm, rich egg custard tarts. For a final treat, we had the same tart filled with coconut custard, then topped with translucent shreds of bird's nest.

Dinner was more relaxed, at least on a Tuesday. (Translation: The place was almost full, but we ran no risk of being trampled.) Choices range from geoduck sashimi and dozens of other fresh-from-the-tank seafood dishes to prix fixe banquets for 10 that top out at a whopping $668 (highlights of which include suckling pig, shark's fin soup, abalone in oyster essence, and a whole jumbo lobster). We opted for simpler fare, which was still a bit pricey compared to most Chinese places, but as skillfully prepared and brilliantly harmonized as anything you'll find at high-end American restaurants.

Salted egg mustard green soup combined thick, peppery greens, pungent duck egg, and silken tofu in a clean, robust stock. Tender squid and thin-sliced chicken were sautéed with yellow chives and crisp pea pods in a subtle XO sauce (a house-made blend of dried scallops, ham, and chilies). The only dish I wouldn't order again was fresh shiitakes and mustard greens in a thin, savory gravy; though it was delectable, it paled when compared to our final two masterpieces.

A clay pot dish showed a Thai sensibility without the characteristically sharp flavors. Here, juicy slices of beef and luscious taro root were simmered in a ginger-tinged coconut sauce to produce an entree of soft, subtle contrasts that have haunted me at least twice a day ever since I ate it. I'd never spent $18 on a plate of Chinese-style noodles before, but when I tasted Koi Palace's luxurious, buttery flat noodles braised with sweet, fresh lobster, I vowed to do so again at my soonest convenience.

Dessert consisted of free slices of watermelon and a dish we spied at the next table -- a double-boiled young coconut filled with coconut juice and hashima (delicate morsels that we thought might be diced yam noodles, but which I later learned are a prized frog product). Frog or no frog, it was a fine way to end. The coconut juice and hashima were ladled into bowls, like soup, and the coconut meat was so tender that we scraped it from the inside of the shell with our spoons.

Everyone's had Chinese food dozens -- if not hundreds -- of times. But if you want to explore the full range of this grand old cuisine, I advise spending an afternoon, an evening, or (better yet) an entire week feasting like an emperor at Koi Palace.

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Greg Hugunin

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