Slippery When Wet

Finding a hidden gem in a Chinese restaurant

Finding a hidden gem of a dish in a Chinese restaurant is like wading through the phone book for a dentist – the choices seem endless, so you invariably go the safe route and pick the one with the biggest ad, or the nicest-sounding name, or the one your friend said had a cute hygienist (OK, a stretch, but you get my drift).

Bottom line with Chinese food: You always end up ordering the same thing, even if the last time you had the dish it wasn't all that great, and even though the waiter shakes his head when you're not looking as if to say, "Another chickenshit round-eye; roll tape 'Broccoli Beef.'"

But then a funny thing happened on my way to ordering kung pao shrimp. Something in me snapped, and the words of the poet Rilke suddenly echoed in my head: "And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now." Maybe I could help others get past the Chinese restaurant roadblock, and in the process not only discover a don't-miss dish, but also foster fan letters that I might later use as leverage for a raise. I took the plunge.

Of course, I did it in the safe, controlled environs of Jasmine Tea House (3243 Mission, 826-6288), a place where I've never cried foul. Jasmine is located in a cheery room – if it were a dentist's office, it would be the kind that offers gas instead of Novocain – presided over by the benevolent and reassuring Frank Xu, a man you instinctively trust when he says, "Don't worry, it's not fishy." (This, after all, is the chef President Clinton put his faith in not once but twice, and Clinton had the Secret Service screening everything that made it past his lips – or nearly everything.)

"It's like going swimming," says Xu. "The first time you go in the pool, you're scared. Maybe you put your toes in. Each time you go a little deeper, until finally you're ordering the frog's legs or the eel."

It's not like I hadn't waded here before: On one of my first visits, I boldly went past the kiddie pool with the Happy Buddha, a splendid vegetarian entree consisting of meatless chicken (made from gluten), black mushrooms, willow tree fungus, and other odd mushrooms and vegetables. On another outing, I shimmied along the wall to the 5-feet mark with basil ostrich, a dish that turned out to be a wondrously tender and flavorful alternative to beef.

This time, though, I was going for the gold. And as I nervously waited for the braised water eel to arrive, I found myself looking around the room at all the mu shu this and chow mein that and wondering if I should have mentioned that I failed my junior lifesaving test.

As it turned out, I needn't have fretted. The sizzling plate arrived at my table piled high with pencil-thin slips of eel, which are parboiled and then stir-fried in a searing-hot wok with red peppers, grated carrots, chunks of green and white onions, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. The dish is napped in a slightly sweet, garlicky sauce made with sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, and chili flake.

My biggest fear – an overly chewy texture – was immediately laid to rest. These tiny, somewhat springy eels, imported from China, aren't rubbery like calamari, nor are they as tender as the larger Japanese kind you get when you order unagi. In shape they resemble anchovies; in taste they're a little sweet and not overly fishy. All in all, they make a dish worth diving into the deep end for.

 
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