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Crazy Cheap, Crazy Good 

First-rate Cantonese food and cut-rate prices at Best Panda

Wednesday, Apr 12 2006
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Every food-loving bargain hunter learns tricks for finding great meals in unfamiliar places. Strike up a conversation with a well-fed grandmotherly type on the street and ask her for recommendations. Watch for restaurants packed with happy locals, not tourists or day-trippers. And for the cuisines of other countries, seek out the places frequented by their natives.

Best Panda scores on all three counts. At mealtimes, Chinese families from the neighborhood pack the two large dining rooms of this outer Richmond joint. Nobody's drawn by the decor (bare-bones and utilitarian), service (efficient but minimal), or drinks (white, red, or beer). They're all there for one thing: big helpings of high-quality fresh seafood and other Cantonese favorites at some of the lowest prices in town.

The extensive menu comes in three parts. The printed list is devoted mostly to set menus for groups of three to 10, the most expensive of which require a day's notice. On one wall, handwritten fliers list the day's fresh fish, priced by the pound; on another, more fliers list specials priced by the plate. Almost everything is written in both Chinese and English.

Given the restaurant's focus on and popularity with large groups, on our first visit we chose the cheapest of several menus for eight. The meal started with a tureen of special dried scallop soup, an earthy but delicate broth of precious ($30-plus a pound) dried scallops fallen to shreds, along with pork, crunchy reddish seaweed, daikon, fresh shrimp, bamboo shoot, and a hint of cilantro. The soup was surprisingly light, a good thing given what was coming.

Next up were a big plate of spicy salted prawns and a huge platter of spicy salted spareribs, both cooked the same way: lightly breaded, deep fried, and tossed with chopped jalapeños. The prawns were large, two or three bites each, and super-crunchy, so you could eat the whole thing, shell and all — even the head, if you like the funky taste of brains. The spareribs had the flavor of a really good bone-in pork chop. Both held up well when reheated the next day, which is rarely the case with this preparation (more often translated as "salt-and-pepper ______").

The next course was deep-fried sand dabs with soy sauce. Two sand dabs may not sound like enough for eight people, but these were jumbo-sized, at least a pound each, draping over the edge of the plate, with just a little soy sauce and scallion greens underneath, so the fish stayed crispy.

We were supposed to get fried chicken as well, but on this evening the kitchen was out of the dish. Feeling a bit over-fried, we substituted a special of pea greens stir-fried with garlic, a smoky, fresh, green taste of spring. If you check out what Chinese families in this sort of restaurant order, they usually have a plate of simple seasonal greens on the table: It makes a nice pause from the mostly rich and meaty meal.

The rest of the repast was comparatively light. The innocuously named seafood with vegetable was the hit, a sophisticated combination of fresh scallops, prawns, squid, broccoli, ginger, and garlic. The ideal contrast of tender seafood and crisp broccoli makes this the kind of dish regulars might eat twice a week. Double mushroom and vegetable played the same simple tune in a vegetarian key: shiitake and straw mushrooms with bok choy, oil, and a little broth, not thickened, for a nice contrast of soft, chewy, and crunchy textures.

Crab and lobster with ginger and green onion was a whole Dungeness crab and a whole lobster, cut up, lightly battered in the shell so that the seasoning would stick, and stir-fried with lots of ginger, both minced and in big slices. The black bean sauce clams were also quite gingery, with only a mild black bean flavor, unless you got a whole bean in your bite. Yang Chow fried rice was nothing like your average steam-table stuff: Dotted with ham, shrimp, onion, cabbage, peas, and egg, it was sweet, delicate, and delicious. You can get plain steamed rice, too — just ask.

The total cost for 10 dishes, including several luxury items, plus oranges for dessert? A mere $108. And it really is enough food for eight diners; in fact, unless you're all big eaters, you'll have leftovers.

The second time around, we went a la carte. Spicy salted squid was the most addictive of the three salt-and-pepper appetizers. For the steamed live cod, the waiter first brought the fish to the table in a bucket for our approval, then a few minutes later brought him back filleted and perfectly cooked, succulent in a simple dressing of soy, long slivers of ginger, and scallion greens.

Lamb with dry bean curd was a braise of chopstick-challenging, bone-in chunks of lamb, sheets of fresh bean curd skin, and wilted lettuce. It tasted almost Indonesian, with a complex sataylike sauce including what might have been five-spice powder and sesame oil. Whatever it was, we'd all order it again. For our green vegetable we picked watercress, a standard item in New York Chinese restaurants seldom seen here, done in the same style as the more flavorful pea leaves. Sliced pork with preserved mustard green was a creditable version of this unctuous pork belly classic, but Ton Kiang's is better, albeit almost twice as expensive.

On our final visit, we tried a couple of specials for which the kitchen makes multiple dishes out of one animal. For the live rock fish three ways, the head and backbone came first, in a rich broth (made ahead, obviously) augmented by pork, tofu, straw mushrooms, and spinach. Next came the filleted meat, muted by comparison, in a bland stir-fry with carrots, scallions, ginger, lots of bok choy, and more straw mushrooms. The remainder of the fish — fatty skin, meaty larger bones, organs — got stir-fried with dried mushrooms and dried bean curd skin. While it was a pain to work around the bones, the intense flavor of the meat made it worth the effort. Eating this way demonstrates that the American habit of ingesting only the boneless bits isn't merely wasteful: We're also throwing out the best part.

The first act of king crab two ways featured the claws — steamed, split open lengthwise, and delicately sauced with minced garlic and scallion, salt, and oil. Skip the overpoweringly vinegary dipping sauce: This minimalist presentation highlights the flavor of the succulent flesh so well you couldn't do better at Chez Panisse. As we were eating that the cook chopped the rest of the crab into chunks, battered and deep-fried it, and ladled over it a thick, gingery sauce, a more suitable style for the inferior but still tasty body meat.

A few caveats and suggestions for having a good time at Best Panda: Don't be afraid to ask your server about appealing dishes you see on other tables, or to ask if you can order dishes from the set menus a la carte. Some of the seafood specials are more than $25 a pound, so to be sure you know exactly what you're ordering and to avoid unpleasant surprises (a whole king crab could cost over $150), ask the weight and total price. Finally, Best Panda is officially open until 9:30 p.m., but at that time the cooks are making the staff dinner and getting ready to sit down and eat themselves, so it's best not to arrive much past 9. And grandma, if you read this — thanks for the tip.

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Robert Lauriston

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