By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
When faced with an extraordinary multi-page menu like the one you're handed at Koi Palace, the famed Cantonese restaurant in Daly City, you can be a trifle overwhelmed. The menu runs 18 pages: a page each for tea, appetizers, barbecue specials, soup, shark's fin soup (10 different versions, plus two "double-boiled" soups that must be ordered in advance), dried seafood (with four imported abalone dishes, also necessitating advance ordering), vegetables, clay pots, live seafood, deluxe set dinners, desserts, and noodles, rice, and buns, with two pages each for chef's specials and family dinners.
There was so much reading to do that it was only later that I realized the color photos of an additional 15 dishes on the front and back of the cover (including the intriguing sour-prunes-stewed duck, braised sea cucumber and duck web, and boneless chicken wings in coffee glaze) were of specials that didn't appear elsewhere inside the menu.
I'd heard of Koi Palace long before I moved to San Francisco. In Los Angeles, where freeway jaunts to the San Gabriel Valley suburbs of Monterey Park and Rowland Heights for Chinese food were common, foodies spoke of going straight from SFO to Koi Palace for multi-course feasts.
Daly City, CA 94015
Region: Daly City
Peking duck $24 with minced meat in lettuce cups $36
Drunken chicken $12 small $24 big
Suckling pig $15, $35, $50, $65
Ginger-scallion crab $26
Chinese broccoli $12
Shanghai steamed dumpling $3.50 for four, $6.90 for 10
Shrimp har gow $4.20 for four
But there were so many other Chinese restaurants to explore in San Francisco and the East Bay that it took a while before I stuffed five of us in a car and headed to Daly City. We loved the suburban ease of parking in the huge shopping-mall lot right in front of the green-tile-topped restaurant (you can't miss it, it's right next to the Outback Steakhouse). Inside, the lobby features a waterfall sandwiched between glass etched with koi fish, and 1,500-gallon fish tanks displaying abalone, lobsters both small and patriarchal, crabs of varying sizes, tiny bright-red shrimp, and other piscine temptations.
The restaurant boasts seating capacity for 400, but that figure includes the several private and semi-private party rooms off the large high-ceilinged main room, which appears to hold a couple of hundred, in fairly densely packed tables. We're led to a big round table by the koi pond, which contains a colorful fountain topped by a tea pot with a constantly pouring spout, which fascinates 5-year-old Ben (there are lots of big parties, with lots of children). My mother is instantly drawn to the Live Seafood page, from which we order steamed lobster in garlic vermicelli and ginger-scallion crab. Beautiful glossy ducks are hanging up in an adjacent kitchen window, so we order Peking duck, and we spring an extra $12 for an accompaniment of minced duck meat in lettuce cups. Also from the barbecue page, we order drunken chicken, suckling pig, and a squab dish. And from among the 14 different vegetables, Chinese broccoli (aka gailan) in ginger wine sauce. I try to interest the group in a soup, a clay pot, coffee spareribs, or crispy golden frog, but the consensus is that we have plenty of food coming.
It's apparent from the enormous platter containing dozens of pieces of the crackling, lacquered crispy Peking duck skin, plus the duck legs and head, accompanied by a woven basket containing steamed buns, and a dish of dark, sweet, thick Hoisin sauce surrounded by sliced scallions, that we're not going to be hungry. We slick the buns with sauce, install the skin (still bearing a thin layer of succulent fatty meat) inside with a ruff of the green onions, and savor our delightful little sandwiches. This is followed by an equally large platter bearing sautéed shredded duck meat heaped atop crispy rice noodles, with a stack of iceberg lettuce cups alongside. We pile the duck and noodles into the lettuce, anoint it with hoisin, soy, sesame oil, or hot mustard, according to our taste, and roll them up into tasty little bundles with a pleasing contrast of textures.
When the drunken chicken arrives, it doesn't look like anything that should appear on the barbecue page: The yellow skin of the sliced bird looks like it came straight out of a Jewish grandmother's soup kettle. But the equally pale meat underneath is moist, firm, and imbued with a lovely intense wine flavor it's the most fragrant drunken chicken I've ever had. The suckling pig (we've ordered the most modest of four different-sized dishes there's also whole suckling pig, for $190) looks like a lacquer box set on a white plate, a perfect rectangle, cut into even chunks. I want to use the word "succulent" yet again, as I did with the duck (and the chicken brought it to mind, too). The skin is crunchy, the meat tender.
The ginger-and-scallion sautéed crab is also delicious, but I've had equally good versions elsewhere it's outclassed by the more unusual, amazing drunken chicken and suckling pig. And we're somewhat distressed by the dry, flavorless, sadly overcooked lobster. Servers have stopped by after every course to ask if everything is OK, but when I tell one that we are disappointed in the lobster, he tells me that the piece I'm holding with my chopsticks is part of the meatless head, ignoring the several other denuded pieces of shell on my plate, and offers neither to take the dish away or replace it with something more to our liking.