A coupla 15 years ago, when I was young and impressionable, a group of friends and I formed a loosely defined alliance known as the Chinese Food Club, which met on a more or less weekly basis to sample the aforementioned in mass quantities, drink (also in mass quantities), and kibitz into the wee hours. Entry requirements into this exclusive culinary circle were: 1) You had to like pot stickers and be receptive to ordering them each time we met; and 2) You had to not care about atmosphere.
Over the course of a year or more, we ate Chinese food in some of the dingiest, tackiest, and most aesthetically unsettling places in town, and discovered along the way several hole-in-the-wall delights that blew us out of the lobster tank. We also developed a deep and profound relationship with the pot sticker – one that has endured over time.
While I like to think that my palate has expanded since those days, especially in the realm of dim sum (I consider overcoming the chicken feet barrier a defining moment in my career), I cannot break the pot sticker habit, and like many, I suspect, I roam the streets of San Francisco ever in search of the perfect little steamed/fried dumpling.
Several restaurants have come close: the old Ton Kiang on Spruce, Wing Lee Bakery on Clement, Jasmine Tea House on a good day, Yank Sing on a rare, slow day. A recommendation from the Chron sent me out to So on Irving for what I found to be the zingiest, new-wave-iest pot-sticker-and-dipping-sauce combo I've ever tried. But to my mind, the most delicious all-around traditional dumpling in recent memory, and in fact the most awesomely fresh and tantalizing dim sum I've had in years, comes from Mayflower (6255 Geary, 387-8338).
I know, I know – here come the e-mails: “They're not big enough.” “They're not crunchy enough.” “Have you tried Koi Palace?” “Can't you people ever get more adventurous than pot stickers?”
My responses: “Yes, they are” (x 2); “No, I'm perpetually foiled by the endless lines”; and “Yes, we can, but we choose not to.”
In fact, I didn't come to Mayflower with pot stickers in mind. This Hong Kong-style restaurant, also known for seafood and clay pot dishes, offers a list of nearly 80 dim sum items, many of which had me simultaneously drooling and dreading: I confess I couldn't pull the trigger on marinated duck tongue or goose webs, but I did try the steamed shark's fin and meat dumpling in broth (delicate, soothing, yummy). And the roasted duck, with its crispy, salty skin and succulent meat, nearly had me in tears. Then the waiter whisked by with a platter of pot stickers and my No. 2 pencil involuntarily found its way to the check box.
What seemed like decades later, after we had plowed through a half-dozen amazing steamer baskets, the plump, crescent-shaped dumplings arrived – still sizzling – at our table. Sizewise they were just about perfect (a 6 on a scale of 10), with nicely golden-brown bottoms, the steam that rose from inside wafting waves of ginger, pork, and garlic our way. Showing uncharacteristic forbearance (and because a seared tongue isn't conducive to food tasting), I waited a good five minutes before chomping into one. When I finally did, I was rewarded with a slightly crunchy, not overly chewy dough wrapper that held up just long enough to reveal its innermost secrets: drippy, juicy meat mixed with Chinese cabbage, scallions, chives, and the exact right amount of soy/ginger/rice wine flavoring. A healthy dip in a chile oil-vinegar bath and I had reached pot sticker nirvana – at least until I get into Koi Palace.