With the recent arrival of Macao Friends Restaurant on Irving, a street already dense with inexpensive ethnic eateries, San Francisco now has a second place in which to sample the street food of Macau (the first one being T 28 Bakery-Cafe on Taraval at 28th Ave., hence its name.) Aficionados of Hong Kong coffeeshops, which feature vast menus where Sino-ized versions of American diner classics such as barely recognizable club sandwiches and such oddities as hamburgers atop spaghetti jostle with stir-fries, noodles, and snacks, will recognize the familiar and similarly lengthy menus at both places. You can duck in for a snack or command a multicourse feast. But the special geographical and political history of Macau is demonstrated in a number of dishes specifically Macanese: dishes called Portuguese-style you'd never find in Portugal, often drenched in curry sauce.
Macau is now, like its neighbor Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. It is the oldest European outpost in China, colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century and returned to Chinese rule in 1999. Cooking in Macau is not just a blend of Cantonese and Portuguese cuisines: It was a free port, so spices flowed through from India, Southeast Asia, Africa, and even South America. Its proximity to Hong Kong, long a British stronghold, also led to the popularity of certain foodstuffs. The raffish reputation of the six-and-a-half-square-mile area, the most densely populated region in the world, has increased since legalized gambling began driving the economy, with ever-bigger casinos making Macau richer in gambling revenues than Las Vegas.
Ordering at Macao Friends and T 28 is itself a bit of a gamble. Over two meals at each, my opinions of the places reversed. An initial foray at Macao Friends was largely disappointing, when only two dishes of the half-dozen sampled really pleased. My first lunch at T 28 was more satisfying; every one of the four dishes we tried was pleasant, with a couple very good indeed. But a second dinner at Macao Friends knocked it out of the park, with every choice a winner, while a late supper at T 28 was uneven but fun. (Note: Both are cash only.) Both places feature menus so vast that it would take weeks for armies to work their way through them.
My three-man army settled into a window table at Macao Friends, whose freshly painted burnt-orange walls are hung with an oddly charming assortment of fleur-de-lis plaques and rock posters, along with the occasional special-of-the-day sign in Chinese. The numbered menu runs to 246 dishes in two dozen categories. Almost 50 of these, it must be said, are drinks. Anglophiles will be cheered to see Ribena, blackcurrant juice, and Horlicks malted milk. Ovaltine, America's chocolate malted milk, is also available, and both are available hot or cold. But I digress, though I still must mention that Macao Friends also offers hot Lemon Coke, which I now wish I'd ordered.
However, I wish I hadn't ordered the Portuguese-style baked pork chop ($6.50), which turned out to be two razor-thin chops of indifferent quality plopped atop a mass of overcooked spaghetti and drowned in a thick one-note, bright-yellow curry sauce. We were similarly disaffected by the bone-marrow soup. Used as we are to beef marrow, the pork marrow herein was decidedly less succulent and the thin broth not very interesting.
The garlic porky bun ($3.50) was an education. It turns out that "porky bun" has nothing to do with pork (unless you order the pork chop porky bun), but is the name of the bland sandwich roll itself. It seemed pricy for what was essentially two small, dry pieces of garlic toast. The roast duck porridge ($6.95) was a nicely flavored but rather bland and one-note version of Chinese jook, with minced bits of duck and a few scatterings of green onion. Mindful of the thick curry sauce, we asked for the bean curd sauce mentioned on the crispy chicken wings ($4.95) to be served on the side, but were told it was a marinade. The plump wings arrived, crunchy, delicious, and sauceless. The Chinese broccoli (gailan), served atop dark, sweet oyster sauce ($5.50), was similarly delightful.
When neither the almond Jell-O nor the mango pudding was available from the three-item dessert list, our server, who had kept tea glasses perpetually topped up, brought us a free serving of the bland but refreshing agar Jell-O (normally $3.50).
A table at the back of T 28 miraculously opened up within minutes of our arrival for a late Sunday brunch. Every other seat and booth in the white-walled place, hung with a few photographs of Macau, was full. Those tables were covered with platters of noodles and rice dishes often covered in pearly, corn-starch-thickened sauces, chosen from the 200-item menu. Everything we tried was simple, homey, and satisfying. Beef brisket tossed noodle ($6.25) was a heap of thin noodles topped with chunks of star-anise-scented fatty brisket, oddly sided with limp leaves of steamed iceberg lettuce. A massive portion of pineapple and chicken fried rice ($5.95) didn't seem fried at all — the steamed rice had probably been briefly wokked with its smoky chicken and fruit — but was easy to eat. The most sophisticated dish was the braised tofu hot pot ($7.95), filled with baby bok choy and fat mushrooms. The peanut butter toast ($2.75), actually a sandwich, was a delicate surprise: crustless, fine-textured white bread spread with smooth peanut butter.
I returned to Macao Friends with some trepidation to find that some similarly random ordering resulted in a fabulous meal. From the appetizers, Portuguese-style mackerel fish balls (a half-dozen for $5.50) turned out to be much like the famed Portuguese bacalhau, minced fish blended with mashed potatoes and fried. Short ribs ($5.95) were sliced thin, and their translucent garlic sauce was perfect for sopping up steamed rice. The ginger and green onion beef hot pot ($8) was tender and redolent of fresh hot ginger. Both the Macau-style fried shrimp ($8.50) and the Macau-style fried crab (normally call-ahead and $18.95, but that night on special for $16.95) were salty, peppery, and drenched in chopped chiles.
Our return to T 28 for another round of comfort food was less comforting. The ginger and green onion beef hot pot ($7.95) paled almost literally in comparison with Macao Friends' version: generous in serving size, but the beef was not as tasty, there were fewer onions, and the ginger was far less prominent. Steamed greenlip mussels ($4.25) suffered from a coating of acrid garlic from a jar. The deep-fried samosas stuffed with curried mashed potatoes ($3.75) were merely okay, and the rice noodle rolls with combination sauce ($3.50), suggested as an alternate when I tried to order crispy fried milk dumpling ($5.25) were kind of dull. They were silky, bland rolls of noodles, dabbed at one end with red hot sauce, black oyster sauce, and a beige sauce that turned out to be hot peanut butter. Surprisingly, that made me yearn for a rerun of the peanut butter toast. That had been a lucky choice. I'm sure many more await at both Macao Friends and T 28 for those willing to take a gamble.