At the Stir-Fry Cafe

Firecracker's Chinese food tastes great and is less oily

Firecracker is — but does not look like — a Chinese restaurant. Notwithstanding the few Fu Manchu-style dolls perched on a stagelike outcropping above the kitchen at the back of the dining room, the overall cosmetic spirit of the place is that of a modestly stylish Mission bistro, and the subdued jazz soundtrack enhances the Occidental feel.

In this sense Firecracker is a descendant of Barbara Tropp's long-running and nationally famous China Moon Cafe downtown, which still offers first-rate Chinese cooking in a distinctively San Francisco, almost brasserie-like space. Firecracker isn't quite that glamorous, but it does capture a bit of the Mission's smoky bohemian funk, and the food, while traditional, is bright, fresh, and not too oily.

The last point is more pleasantly surprising than it might first seem. There are a great many Chinese restaurants in this city, and too many of them serve indifferent food: soggy, murky, flaccid. Recently I had dinner at a well-regarded Chinese restaurant in the Richmond where every dish seemed to reach the table glistening with a final, gratuitous splash of oil. The irony is that stir-frying calls for very little oil, just enough to cover the inner surface of the wok. High heat, not fat, is supposed to be the thing.

Lack of heat is not a problem in Firecracker's kitchen. Between courses recently, on a wet, moody evening, I watched in fascination as a tongue of blue flame from a wok burner danced and shimmered near the chest of the chef, who moved with the careful, professional confidence of a snake trainer. The hot, sinuous flame lent an ideal brown crispness to the chubby potstickers ($3.75), which were otherwise moist from steaming and filled with chopped pork and savory vegetables.

Green onion pancakes ($3.25) resembled scallion fritters. They were tender within a well-formed crust and subtly scented with onion — a fine dish, I thought, though the rest of the table, eager for north Chinese fireworks on the palate, found them a bit bland despite the accompanying sweet-tangy sauce.

I found the crab rangoon ($3.50) bland. The special sweetness of the shellfish got mostly lost in a creamy emollient, and the star-shaped wrap, while appealingly crispy and attractive, was too big and unwieldy to eat with grace. But the glazed baby-back ribs ($4.25) were beautifully meaty and sauced with a blend of plum paste and citrus juices that delivered a real barbecue zing. And the hot-and-sour soup ($2.25 for a substantial bowl; a deal, considering that a cup usually costs that much, if not more, at most restaurants) had been liberally dosed with white pepper and rice vinegar, giving it a real aromatic punch.

The main courses were crisply prepared and boldly flavored, with the exception of the jia jian noodle ($5.50), a large bowl of pastalike noodles topped with pork in a black-bean sauce. We'd dared to order the dish “extra spicy,” but it didn't really come to life until our efficient and friendly server brought a small jar of garlic-chili paste that we ladled in ourselves.

A black-bean sauce also figured in the twice-cooked pork ($7). The thin slices of meat (tasty though surprisingly tough, I thought, considering that they'd been steamed and then braised — plenty of slowly administered moisture there) were tossed with ragged leaves of pale-green napa cabbage. The sauce itself had a distinct fruitiness edged with just the right angle of chili bite.

And string-bean pork ($6.75) was mostly string beans, stir-fried until crisp-tender and flecked with bits of garlicky chopped pork. It's hard to get away from pork in Chinese restaurants; the meat is integral to the cuisine and appears in many delightful guises, and there's really no substitute for it. (For a detailed discussion of pork's importance to the Chinese people and to Chinese cooking, see Barbara Tropp's 1992 book China Moon Cookbook.) Case in point: vegetarian potstickers or spring rolls.

We tried the spring rolls ($2.50) at lunch and found their skins a crisp gold and their stuffing — shredded vegetables, mostly cabbage and carrots — timid and incomplete. (They needed pork! Or at least shrimp.) But again, the garlic-chili sauce, brought to the table at our request, gave life to the rolls.

Lunch dishes included soup — for us, a spicy version of egg drop heavy with slices of mushroom and tofu and, like its hot-and-sour sibling, fragrant with white pepper. The menu described the kung pao chicken ($4.50) as “spicy” and “a signature dish of the Chinese west” — the latter claim an intimation of disaster, I thought. Chefs can become so bored with signature dishes that they no longer pay attention to making them, or they try to tart them up to keep them interesting. But Firecracker's kung pao avoided these perils: It was straightforward — chunks of chicken tossed with peanuts and diced green pepper in a smoldering golden sauce, with an igloo of rice on the side — yet clean and clear-tasting, as if the kitchen still found it enjoyable to prepare despite its familiarity.

The house lau mein ($4.75) was much milder, a mound of noodles resembling fat spaghetti tossed with a primaveralike medley of carrots, scallions, zucchini, and shrimp. We considered enlivening the lau mein with the hot paste, but the dish had one of those flavors that kept building, like a symphony that begins in a quiet conversation between violins and ends in a stirring crescendo, and by the time it was gone we were glad we'd left the paste alone.

The modest genius of Firecracker is to join Mission hipness with a renewed interest in the basics of Chinese cooking. It's a kind of rebirth, a fresh and youthful plunge into the tried and true.

Firecracker, at 1007 1/2 Valencia (at 21st Street), is closed Mondays. Otherwise, it serves lunch daily from noon to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. (until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). Call 642-3470.

Tags: , , ,

Related Stories