By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
I read the November-December flyer for the Balboa Theater with mixed emotions, equal parts elation and dread. There are certain kinds of movies that I will willingly -- nay, eagerly -- cross the city for: silents with live musical accompaniment, film noir, French film noir, pre-Code movies of the late '20s and early '30s. If they're uncommon enough, I feel compelled to see them. And here was an entire pre-Code series, called Sin in Soft Focus, three weeks long and with a different double bill every day, drawn from the Paramount archives, featuring Marlene Dietrich (five films), Mae West (three films), and the Marx Brothers (three films), along with Cary Grant as a singing beautician/plastic surgeon (Kiss and Make Up, Nov. 13), Ida Lupino and Buster Crabbe running a health spa/cathouse (Search for Beauty, Nov. 16), and Claudette Colbert taking a milk bath in the nude (The Sign of the Cross, Nov. 19). Even if I just went to the programs containing a movie I'd never seen, I'd be driving out to the Avenues a dozen times. (Full disclosure: I'm graciously thanked on the series' Web site, along with many others, for "tremendous help," which in my case amounted to enthusiastically saying that a pre-Code series would be just swell and mentioning a few titles that I thought should be included. And grudgingly admitting that the primary criterion for inclusion probably shouldn't be that it was a movie I'd never seen.)
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.
3319 Balboa St.
San Francisco, CA 94121
Region: Richmond (Outer)
Boiled chive dumplings 10 for $4.25
Shanghai crispy salt pan cake $4.25
Lion's head meatballs $6.95
Fried pork buns 8 for $4.25
Thread bread $1.95
Braised pork rump $12.95
Open for lunch Monday and Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Wednesday through Monday from 5 to 9 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
Parking: fairly easy
Muni: 2, 31, 38
Noise level: low to moderate
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.