Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
I've been back to New Hollywood Bakery a couple of times since discovering its baked pineapple buns -- there's no pineapple in them, for those of you who don't know, but instead a crumbly golden crust of flour, egg, sugar, and butter or lard laid overtop a soft, white yeasted bun. (Some bakers crosshatch the top so the bun comes out of the oven looking like the skin of a pineapple.) The Hong Kong pastry is ubiquitous in San Francisco, but it's a rare bakery that produces a pineapple bun that's as good -- not too dense, not too squishy -- at room temperature as it is warm.
But it took sitting next to the pastry case for an hour, lunching on a rice plate along with the other 70-year-olds who fill the tables from morning until late afternoon, before I clocked the number of people hauling out big pink boxes with baked pineapple buns, pork buns, and foot-long scallion twists.
The 70-year-olds and I were drinking weak tea, spreading prepackaged pats of butter on our warm dinner rolls, and slowly eroding away the banks of rice that shored up pools of Hong Kong-style braises and stir-fries on the restaurant's list of $5 rice plate. It's a baked-pork-chop kind of menu, but having eaten far too much baked pork chop over the past four months, I ordered the Portuguese chicken instead.
In Hong Kong, Portuguese chicken is braised with milk and coconut milk, then covered in grated coconut and broiled, but here it was stir-fried with red bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions, a little milk and curry powder tossed in at the end to form a pale yellow cream sauce. Take out the curry powder and substitute canned mushrooms for fresh, and the dish could have doubled as my mother's chicken a la king, which she ladled over a nest of La Choy fried noodles. A Portuguese-Cantonese fusion dish rejiggered to resemble an Orientalized American classic: pretty much the culinary equivalent of Disney World's "It's a Small World After All" ride.
New Hollywood Bakery: 652 Pacific (at Columbus), 397-9919.