New Life

  • By Greg Hugunin
  • Wed Aug 21st, 2002 4:00am
  • DiningEat
After the Fire: Compared to its old look

I cursed whoever firebombed Tong Palace back in January 2001. I'd just discovered the place a week earlier and decided it would make a fabulous addition to my dining repertoire. The old Tong Palace was a few cuts above the grab-and-go dumpling shops that dot Clement Street, but it didn't draw the crowds of the city's most popular dim sum houses. You could stroll right in at noon on a Sunday and begin feasting at Tong Palace in the time it takes to elbow your way to the hostess stand and claim a number at Mayflower, over on Geary. Sadly, Mayflower was firebombed the same night as Tong Palace: Both restaurants had reportedly cooperated with extortion investigations. Mayflower reopened the next day, but Tong Palace was closed for almost a year.

Still, there's a silver lining to the story, which is that Tong Palace is back and better than ever. Compared to the old décor (a bit dingy), the new digs gleam like the Taj Mahal. A tremendous chandelier anchors a dining room with sweeping mirrors and tables of inlaid marble. Near the cash register, a sparkling new Buddha of Wealth grins next to a bushel of lucky bamboo. The former appears to be doing a fine job — business is brisk — but you can still find a few free tables on weekends. Take a seat, then watch servers make the rounds bearing dumplings, sweets, and small plates, stepping over to a bank of fish tanks every so often to net the latest victim.

As with the décor, the food has improved in this latest incarnation. An impressive array of Hong Kong-style fare runs from the standard pork dumplings to funkier, more exotic stuff (duck tongue, chicken feet, “tortoise plastron with herbals jelly”). An order of roast suckling pig is an excellent way to start. Cool, flavorful pork with skin as crunchy as hard candy is served over white beans kissed with a whiff of five-spice. At $4.95, the dim sum portion of shark's fin soup is a bargain, and a tasty one at that. Here, a cabbage-wrapped dumpling of minced pork sits in a rich, gelatinous stock that takes on a delightful tang when you add the side of red vinegar. I simply had to order the intriguingly named “bee's nest taro puff” (most of the bees I've met are more prone to building hives). It's a superb little nosh: Super-fine filaments surround a barely sweet, purplish center packed with nubbins of minced pork in gravy.

Dumplings include the classic har gow — a beautifully textured rice-flour wrapper filled with minced shrimp touched with sesame oil — as well as crispy, irresistible shrimp and chive pot stickers. Spongy beef balls laced with diced scallions are steamed in bean curd skin, then served with a robust dipping sauce that tastes of Worcestershire. One of my favorite dumplings was an open-topped, pan-fried version filled with shrimp, egg, and mustard greens, the latter adding a sharp, spicy smack. Be sure to order the whole prawns folded into sheets of rice noodle, whose texture is gooey, tacky, and slippery all at once — which is to say, sublime.

Other dishes can be hit or miss. Salt-and-pepper squid is as bland and airy as Styrofoam. Better to choose the golden salt-and-pepper prawns tossed with garlic and chilies. During one visit, the offerings also included deep-fried, salt-and-pepper asparagus — tender stalks encased in a light, well-seasoned batter, like a Cantonese take on tempura'd green beans. Steamed spareribs in black bean sauce were scrumptious, if a bit difficult to eat with chopsticks. Wedges of eggplant stuffed with minced shrimp needed more oomph, and the filling in the barbecued pork buns was too sweet. But if you don't see leafy, succulent pea shoots sautéed with cloves of garlic pass by on a cart, ask for an order; they form a simple, perfect contrast to the savory meat dishes.

Desserts range from familiar egg custard tarts to sweeter, lighter coconut tarts, both surrounded by a rich, flaky crust. Mango pudding topped with condensed milk made for a refreshing finish. On one visit, the waitstaff appeared to be serving gigantic, wedge-shaped sponges, so I nabbed one — it was cake, with a mere suggestion of sweetness and a texture so fluffy I could have squeezed the entire slab into a teacup. We happened upon my favorite dessert by accident (some servers speak little English — you point, they provide). We figured a trio of snow-white steamed buns would contain a savory filling; instead, it held a yolklike center of creamy egg custard.

Tong Palace also serves a fine dinner, though I prefer the dim sum. A whopping 150 a la carte items supplement the daily specials and affordable, family-style prix fixe banquets. The minced chicken in lettuce appetizer seemed pricey at $10, but the portion was large enough for eight people. A smoky mélange of poultry, rice, chives, and ginger came with cool leaves of iceberg lettuce and a side of sweet hoisin sauce. Mustard greens soup was served with style. A waiter brought a tureen, then used chopsticks to dole out greens, shredded pork, silken tofu, and straw mushrooms into individual bowls before finishing each with broth. Though the stock was a bit thin (a splash of soy sauce helped), shreds of salted egg added a delicate savor livened by the occasion flash of ginger.

Clay pot rice (a specialty — the menu offers nine versions) was the only true disappointment. We expected curried rice, or at least sauced rice. Instead, the pot contained plain jasmine rice topped with tough, overly salty cured duck, Chinese sausage, and a few greens. We fared better with the buttery crystal scallops sautéed with asparagus, sugar snap peas, and celery (the last a jarring note that overwhelmed the other ingredients). Braised tofu, meanwhile, was simply awesome. Golden cubes of deep-fried bean curd were simmered until they exploded with a molten gush, then served with crisp yet tender greens and slices of intensely meaty shiitake mushrooms, whose flavor permeated the luxurious brown sauce. We definitely got our money's worth here. A few spoonfuls of the sauce rescued the otherwise dry clay pot rice, and the free slices of coconut custard for dessert were equally cost-effective.

Though I still curse whoever attacked Tong Palace, it's good to see that the story has a happy — and delicious — end.

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