Order off the wall at Capital Restaurant, and the meal begins properly: with a bowl of the free house soup. Corn and chicken, hot and sour — those are far too fancy for the place. Instead, the waitress brings over bowls of broth several shades lighter than the tea in my cup. As I dredge my spoon through the bowl, wisps of egg and translucent greens — dried and reconstituted — swirl in the eddies. Up float cubes of tofu that have simmered so long that their edges have begun to disintegrate. It is a soup to drink dutifully, wan but soothing, and the bowl is quickly emptied out, to be refilled with rice.
Capital Restaurant has been around long enough for the lettering on the sign to look of a different time. In fact, owner Samantha Lo, who has run the place for three years, has no idea how long it has been open. (More than a decade, she estimates.) Was the room last redecorated in 1955? 1972? It's hard to tell — the scuffed linoleum is clean but the color of a sunburnt map, and the lunch counter at the front resembles the diners where you can order a slab of ham and a cuppa joe. Scotch tape squares mottle the wood paneling just below the taped-up wall specials in English and Chinese that ring the room. The restaurant has the worn warmth of a Tennessee truck stop, or your best-fitting pair of jeans, bleached around the wallet and ruffly at the hems.
Capital is hardly new, nor is it the peak of gastronomy. But I wasn't there for any of that. Last month I began a series on SFoodie, SF Weekly's food blog, which I've wanted to take on for years: a block-by-block survey of Chinatown restaurants. Before I started, I surveyed Chinese-American and non-Chinese foodistas on where to go in the neighborhood. I'd get one of three responses: a) "R&G Lounge." b) "Oh, it's all for tourists." c) "The Richmond and the Sunset." So I switched tack, and began asking, "Where's a good place to go for solid Cantonese food?" One name kept coming up.
I decided to consider Capital Restaurant as the baseline measure for eating my way around Chinatown's dozens of homestyle Cantonese restaurants. Which is how I found myself stalking the periphery of the room one night, staring up at the ring of paper sheets, reading the restaurant's unofficial menu (there is an official menu, but 80 percent of it is useless — cashew chicken and cream cheese wontons). It's how I ended up with a hotpot of molten braised eggplant ($9.95), fat prawns, and tender slices of fish, braised in a simple sauce flavored with soy and ginger, and crispy rounds of egg tofu ($8.95), the jiggly-centered interior reminiscent of steamed custard, covered in a quick ragout of ground pork, finely minced onions, and bell peppers. Made with no pretense, the dishes were well balanced, a pleasure to eat.
There's a rare parity between residents and tourists at Capital Restaurant, two groups of diners that often self-segregate. On my second visit, the couple to our left was visiting from Brooklyn, and shared a simple shrimp stir-fry and something sticky-looking. On the other side of us sat a family of eight, grandparents and parents gossiping away in Cantonese, children staving off boredom with salt-and-pepper chicken wings. Rumor has it Capital Restaurant is also the place for Chinatown power lunches, though when I had a Cantonese-speaking co-worker ask Lo about that, she laughed. "Well, yes, we get a lot of politicians," she said, "and also doctors and lawyers."
About those wings ($7.25): They're on the front page of the printed menu and OMG'd over in three-fourths of the Yelp reviews of the place. The waitress — the slender one with the brisk frown that barely camouflages the laugh behind it — assumes you're going to get them unless you tell her no, and brings them out before the soup is half sipped. Their skin is gilded, taut, paper-crisp, heavily dusted with salt. The quality of the meat underneath isn't great, but you would be forgiven for making a snack out of the skin alone.
Ordering off the wall, I covered the table in platters on each visit, all made with the same straightforward quality as those first plates. Tangles of pea sprouts ($9.95), verdant and crunchy-stemmed, with browned garlic cloves tucked beneath the leaves. Tender steamed fresh tilapia ($13) smothered in threads of ginger and scallion, with skin melting away and sweet, fresh flesh. A plate-sized oyster omelet ($9.95), crisped around the edges and heavily studded with (slightly overcooked) oysters, which alpha-Chowhounder Melanie Wong has told me is a Chinatown staple that may or may not have preceded the Hangtown fry. Skinny stalks of Vietnamese lettuce ($8.50) stir-fried with just the right amount of preserved tofu to smooth over the prickle of bitterness and give the leaves a mild miso flavor. In proper Cantonese style, the food is rarely oily, or heavily spiced and sauced.
My favorite meal might have been lunch last week, when a friend and I split a plate of Chinese broccoli ($8.50), seasoned with just enough rice wine and sugar to quickly caramelize in the wok and give the biting, meaty green a smoky wok breath, and the pan-fried pork hash with salted fish ($8.50). The smell of anchovies, garlic, and sizzling pork fat rolled off the flat sausage patty and careened over us, all but leaving tire tracks. But the fishy flavor disappeared after the first bite, merging with the pork and giving it a wallop of umami.
Capital Restaurant won't impress the stargivers with ethereal steamed lobster or $50 braised abalone with luxe mushrooms, but the cooking is as sure as the lobster and abalone I've eaten in more ornately decorated restaurants in the hood. It's mom food, Wednesday night food. And there are an awful lot of Wednesdays in a year.