Well, anyway, I knew I wouldn't be going hungry. This was my chance to try some of the two dozen or so eateries listed on the Balboa's user-friendly Web site (www.balboamovies.com) that I hadn't yet frequented, as well as return to old favorites. I'd grabbed steaming bowls of pho at Kim Son (3614 Balboa, 387-0874), cheesy pepperoni slices at Victoria's New York Pizza (3605 Balboa, 221-3811), old-fashioned meatball subs at Little Henry's (3600 Balboa, 387-8761), flaky Chinese pastries at the Golden Chariot (3308 Balboa, 751-3318), fat carnitas burritos at Chino's Taqueria (3416 Balboa, 668-9956), and chocolate and banana ice cream cones at Sweet House, which features Mitchell's ice cream (3512 Balboa, 876-1388). On a few occasions, I admit, I've even smuggled one or another of these edibles into the theater to enjoy along with the movies, though such divided attention renders the pleasure of each a little blighted. Better to concentrate on one thing at a time.
Recently I'd had a good dinner at Thai Nation (3619 Balboa, 752-8657). The Balboa's Gary Meyer and I were the only customers at an early hour, and I heard the chopping start in the kitchen as soon as our server delivered our order. We started with a special appetizer of crab dumplings, eight piping-hot spheres of spongy, almost quenelle-like filling in thin, crisp wrappers, served with shredded carrots and cabbage and a sweet dipping sauce; and a plate of pla goong, a spicy cool salad of charbroiled prawns, tails on, with lemon grass, mint, chopped onions and chilies, and lime dressing. Our small plates were removed, and larger ones brought out for the pad khing song, chewy sliced beef sautéed with onions, mushrooms, slivered red pepper, and lots of ginger; and praram long song gai, an unusual dish of chicken and fresh boiled spinach in a soothing, creamy peanut sauce.
As the theater's Web site says, these are neighborhood eateries: useful, nice to have around, but not, as the Michelin Guide would have it, Worth a Special Journey. (For that very reason I've never attempted to pull off both a movie and a dinner at the more upscale and glamorous restaurants a few blocks away: Traktir, a lively Russian spot, or Al-Masri, which combines Egyptian food with belly dancing. These deserve an entire relaxed evening.)
But there is a place I've often visited in combination with a movie at the Balboa that's worth a special journey from anywhere you happen to be: the Shanghai Dumpling Shop. It doesn't look any fancier than the other local spots -- it's a rather bare-bones establishment, two rooms with well-worn Formica tables and simple wooden chairs, but the magic for me is right there in the place's name (and on the menu, in a dozen different variations). I'm a dumpling kind of girl (my other favorite Balboa restaurant, on the other end of the avenue, is the Cinderella Bakery and Restaurant for its numerous varieties of vareniki and pelmeny), and at the Shanghai Dumpling Shop you must at the very least have the famous soup dumplings, here called Shanghai steamed dumplings. They come 10 to an order in their own steamer, from which you carefully remove each one with your soup spoon (if the silky rice-flour wrapper tears, you lose the hot broth that is the chopped-meat-stuffed dumpling's little surprise), dipping it if you wish in the bowl of soy and vinegar full of julienned ginger that comes alongside. (I like to alternate plain dumplings with gingered ones.) When I was a kid, I had some nutty idea that the soup was added to the wontonlike dumplings with a syringe. Now I know that a spoonful of gelled soup, aka aspic, is plopped alongside the stuffing when the dumplings are made, and it becomes liquid when they're steamed.
I also love the Beijing-style boiled chive dumplings -- well, I have a weakness for chives, and these are garlic chives, even better, combined with minced pork. And the Shanghai-style crispy salt pan cake, stuffed with shredded cabbage and yellow onions, which you can compare and contrast with its version of the more familiar green-onion pancakes: both slightly greasy and utterly delicious. In addition to dumplings, the menu offers an array of more familiar Chinese items, as well as a number of claypot braises, but they aren't the reason to come here. The only dish I've tried that I like as much as the signature dumplings is the lion's head meatballs, three big, fat pork meatballs in a slightly sticky sauce, a fluffier, crunchier (with diced celery and water chestnuts) version of the minced pork stuffing used in many other preparations here. (I had big, fat pork polpette much like these a few weeks ago in Friuli, on a visit to Italy; another borrowing by Marco Polo? Only kidding.)
It seems that the restaurant has recently changed hands and is now owned by one of its former cooks. On my last visit, the soup dumplings were as supple and tasty as ever, as were an order of round, pan-fried pork buns topped with sesame seeds and green onions, and crescent-shaped pot stickers, whose stuffing contained aromatic greens. I tried a couple of Shanghainese specialties that I used to drive out to Southern California's famous Lake Spring restaurant for: deep-fried thread bread, a crusty, many-layered, faintly sweet roll, which is perfect with the soy-braised pork rump, a massive hunk of meat topped with melting fat. You lift the cap of fat off and underneath find what seems like several pounds of moist, star anise-scented pig ready to fall into shreds at your touch.
I noted with sadness that the place now shuts down for a few hours between lunch and dinner, when it used to be open straight through. I'm sorry to hear it, because the late afternoon was my favorite time for a dumpling orgy. But right now I'm looking forward to frequenting the Shanghai Dumpling Shop, one of San Francisco's great dives, before (or after) Torch Singer (Claudette Colbert as an unwed mother and unrepentant wild girl -- almost to the end) and Kick In (the incandescent Clara Bow in a noirish movie long thought lost) on Nov. 14. Or perhaps with White Woman (Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton and S/M in the jungle) on Nov. 17.
In fact, there may be many more opportunities for dumplings in my future. I hear the Balboa is thinking of doing a French film noir series.