My mission, if I chose to accept it, was: Find the best Dungeness crab in San Francisco and terminate it without mercy.
With the annual "best of" issue upcoming, my editors dispatched me on a dozen-odd culinary treasure hunts. Best crab? Easier to come up with a top 10 (Yuet Lee, Swann's, Crustacean ...). In the middle of this quest my guy, TJ, made a grocery-gathering foray to his old haunts: For two years he lived in the heart of the Sunset, witnessing the final transition of mid-Irving Street from a one-time dusty backwater of mainly "Chinese-American" eateries to a vibrant multiethnic restaurant row, which we've nicknamed Little Hong Kong. We still shop for the great cheap fish and vegetables in the neighborhood; this time, TJ suddenly came face to face with a gang of militant crabs. They were hunkering in a large live tank in the side window of a middle-size restaurant, Bow Lum Moon. Comparing the number of crabs (about 20) to the number of tables (roughly 30), he drew the obvious conclusion: This must be the place where all those seafood-savvy Little Hong Kongers come for crustaceans. He brought home a winner -- in fact, the winner: a sweet, tender crab in a delicious, gingery black bean sauce. As lagniappe, its cleaned top shell had been briefly baked with a terrifically sensual stuffing of crab foo yung. We terminated the creature with all due speed, and wondered -- if the crab was this good, what would the other dishes be like?
TJ ate there once before, about 18 months ago -- or rather, he didn't eat. He threw out his takeout, and "there" wasn't "here." The meal was so dreadful, he renamed Bow Lum Moon "Bow Wow." Apparently, the rest of the neighborhood joined in his catcalls: Soon afterward Bow Wow closed for remodeling and reopened three months later under the same name, but festooned with giant signs, streamers, and banners proclaiming, "NEW OWNERS -- NEW COOKS -- NOT SAME OLD DIVE -- IT WASN'T US!!!" Or words to that effect. Judging by our crab, the new regime had turned the place from a bow wow to a wow!
So now we come to our third segment of the Mid-Sunset Hong Kong Trilogy, and the final one, unless it should turn into a Tetralogy, Quintology, Sexology, etc. Grabbing our neighbors Mary Ann and Nick, we arrived at Bow Lum Moon at 8 on a Friday night. Waiting patrons filled the small lobby next to the live tanks. As we were hesitating outside, TV anchorwoman Janet Fukuda (or her identical twin) exited, looking radiant. We hoped the food had contributed to her glow. A glance at the tanks revealed a somewhat depleted crab supply, a moderate lobster supply, ample catfish, but only one remaining rock cod -- a big, feisty redhead that attracted TJ's eye, but Mary Ann, alas, was in a crabby mood, not a fishy one, and vetoed the idea.
The wait was brief, and the room smelled sweetly of Dungeness. The crowd was dominated by multigenerational families, plus some dating-age groups and a few gueilos. Like most Hong Kong-style restaurants, the room has white tablecloths, bright lighting, many waiters (serving you interchangeably, and very swiftly) dressed in white shirts and black ties, and a menu dominated by seafood. However, there are also numerous dishes from other regions (Hunan chicken, Peking's mu shu pork, Sichuan's kung pao prawns, et al.). This mixing of regional cuisines seems to be a trend in the new crop of Chinese restaurants, but I have misgivings about it. In Kowloon, when you want Sichuanese or Hunanese food, you go to a restaurant that specializes in it, and you'll get a stunning, coherent meal prepared by cooks who grew up on that cuisine. Of course, good chefs don't have to be native to a region to cook its cuisine, but without some long, thorough immersion they're unlikely to cook it really well.
From the short appetizer list, I ordered shredded duckling with jellyfish ($5.50) and mu shu pork ($5.25). "Are you OK with the jellyfish?" I asked. "Nick's like you, he's a food-adventurer, he eats everything," answered Mary Ann. "And I'm willing to try it." A giant mound of jellyfish arrived, mixed with crisp shredded lettuce and a few duck shreds, prettily topped with sesame seeds. "I like this," said Nick, chomping down. "It's great crunchy noisy food." He got it right: Jellyfish is mainly an adventure in texture, and these were firm and crisp, with no hint of the rubberiness of inferior versions. The dressing, however, was a too-sour vinaigrette that quickly palled. Our second appetizer, mu shu pork, was also a gigantic portion, but undersalted and bland, and the accompanying plum sauce was too mild to contribute much zing.
I was tempted by eight precious winter melon soup ($4.50), but the chance to try bird nest soup with crab for just $7 was irresistible; I've only had it twice before and I'm still trying to puzzle out its exalted status on Chinese menus. Bird nests are very expensive not only because they're considered a delicacy to eat, but also the difficulty of gathering them. "Do they use real bird's nests?" Mary Ann asked. "Yes, they are actually nests, but these nests aren't made out of twigs. They're made out of, uh, dried sea-swallow saliva from birds that live on the cliffs and caves overlooking the South China Sea. When the nests are cooked in broth, they dissolve, swell up, and thicken the liquid. They're supposed to have some kind of medicinal value." (Later, I looked it up: They're considered a tonic for blood and skin.) The soup proved to be simple and subtle, with a glutinous texture, and gentle flavors from ethereal crab shreds and egg blossoms. At first it seemed bland, but Nick and I found it increasingly comforting as we drank it, an odd cereallike flavor slowly emerging. TJ and Mary Ann didn't care for it at all, though, and I wished I'd ordered a more conventional soup -- both for wider enjoyment and for a less rarefied sample of the restaurant's basic broth.
Seafood in a taro basket ($6.95) was superb, plunging me straight back to the eateries of Tsim Sha Tsui, the Kowloon restaurant district. It had perfect shrimp and scallops (but rubbery squid), with lightly cooked snow peas, straw mushrooms, and baby corn in a pale, subtle sauce (based on the same mild stock as the soup), all set in a delicate crackerlike edible basket made from taro dough. "Oooh, this dish is really pure Hong Kong -- all clear and fresh and focused!" I said.
We also got a live Dungeness from the tank, in garlic and onion sauce. (Dungeness -- the name comes from a town in Washington -- is the generic term for the large, heart-shelled crab native to the Pacific coast.) The crab ($11) was great, but there wasn't enough garlic, and in this preparation there was no foo yung in the carapace, merely some bitter-tasting green stuff. (That's tomalley, or the liver.) It didn't live up to the black bean sauce version (from an unseen kitchen crab, rather than the live tank) that we'd had as takeout. On the other hand, the oyster clay pot ($6) was fine. The sauce was dark and heavy, but proved excellent with the salty, perfectly cooked oysters. Shiitake mushrooms mirrored the mollusks' texture, frilly deep-fried tofu cubes lent contrast, and superb char siu shreds (honey-glazed roast pork) added sweet moments. Dark green lettuce, lightly poached in the sauce, was halfway between soft and crunchy, and oodles of scallions lent a little nip. I'd also ordered "spicy Szechwan eggplant" ($4.50) to see how the kitchen handled a so thoroughly non-Cantonese dish. The answer was: not well. The sauce, resembling that of the clay pot, was a thickened dark soy compound, just barely spicy, and the eggplant was mushy. It stood to Sichuanese cooking as a Midwesterner's "curried Waldorf salad" stands to a scorching South Indian vindaloo.
Our meal was very mixed, but the best dishes show the possibilities. Next time I go, I'll tour the room and inspect what other people are eating. Then I'll order according to the aromas I've detected on my travels: one from Table A, two from Table B -- and Cantonese dishes only.
As the meal ended, Mary Ann squealed exultantly: Her fortune cookie contained three fortunes, all of them propitious. Nick's cookie was empty, so TJ, who got two, gave him the enigmatic "Time is valuable but truth is more precious." I had just one: "You have a reputation for straightforwardness and honesty." "Yeah," I said, "they mean, I got a big yap.