Three years ago, there was a spate of openings of a previously obscure regional Chinese cuisine known as Xian or Shaanxi. The capital of Shaanxi Province, a rugged region in western China with a climate similar to that of North Dakota, only with less snow, is Xian (or Xi’an). Rice doesn’t grow there, so noodles — frequently hand-rolled — dominate, and the food tends to be oily, meaty, unsubtle, and heavily spiced.
It’s delicious and it has medicinal properties; Xian food cured the second-worst hangover I’ve ever had. At the time, I thought — naively, as it turned out — that this was the wave of the future, as House of Xian Dumpling opened in Chinatown, Xi An Gourmet popped up on Clement, and Terra Cotta Warrior emerged in the Sunset. (It caught on more strongly in New York, where Xi’An Famous Foods quickly became a chain with 11 locations, plus copycats. Unsurprisingly, there are lots of Xian restaurants in L.A., too.)
And that’s where things pretty much ended. House of Xian Dumpling and the superior Terra Cotta Warrior are still in business, but Xi An Gourmet — where I admittedly stopped going, even though the ma po tofu was really good, after the spurned ex of one of the owners threw me, my boyfriend, and a few other tables out in a fit of pique — is gone, and no other Shaanxi restaurants appear to have opened since.
But different regional Chinese cuisine, Chiu Chow (also known as Chaoshan or Teochew), has emerged. To, at the corner of Mission and Seventh streets in SoMa and underneath Good Hotel, is far fancier than any of its Xian predecessors — there’s a full bar and a tiny sliver of original exposed brick on the rear wall — and it clearly aims to cater to a demographic far beyond its own neighborhood. No images of lamb cumin sandwiches are tacked to the walls, and the lighting is good.
In all, it’s mixed. Although I try to refrain from adjudicating authenticity as much as possible, as far as I can ascertain, To does best when it sticks to its home region. Many of the cocktails are the type you’ll find at Asian-fusion restaurants where people go to party — yes, there’s a lychee martini, and yes, there’s a lemongrass mojito — but a bit down-menu you’ll find something called Shot of Death (Thai chili-infused reposado tequila, egg white, and five-spice syrup, $10). I waited for it to rev up my Freudian death drive, but its constituent parts just buckled apart into nothingness. The 5 Spice Old Fashioned ($9) suffered the opposite problem: I was hoping the fennel and cinnamon might augment the vanilla in the bourbon, but what came through were aggressive notes of Szechuan pepper and clove, warring with the base spirit. It’s very rare that I find a cocktail to be not sweet enough, but this was one (although, for what it’s worth, it arrived three-quarters of the way through the meal when my palate had already moved beyond aperitif territory).
With a couple of exceptions, the food was better. Because Guangdong Province borders the Pacific, Chiu Chow food is known to be heavy on fresh seafood and less reliant on seasoning than other Chinese culinary traditions; in a sense, it’s not fundamentally different from the Cantonese food that forms the bedrock of what most Americans think of when they think of Chinese food, although the technique was more readily apparent than the place in the shopping center in everyone’s hometown.
With the beguiling texture of deep-fried Oreos, the four pieces of taro roll ($10) were among my favorites. Peanut-rich, balanced between sweet and savory, and wrapped in tofu skins, they felt like the equivalent of elaborate Basque pintxos: two-bite comfort foods that take a long time to make. The table went a little overboard on animal flesh, ordering both the in-house marinated goose ($14) and the assorted meat plate ($12). The former was lovely: a dozen slices of rich meat like you might find on a fancy picnic in Dordogne, only with a small dish of mignonette-like vinegar sauce that made it come alive. The latter was a bit odder, although the menu explicitly states it’s for the adventurous. There were pig ears, the satisfying chew of which I liked very much, a few more slices of goose, and some cartilage-filled, hard-to-identify chunks of offal. Tucked beneath everything were two pieces of firm tofu, greatly enhanced by riding along with their meaty brethren.
Less tasty was a bowl of cream of rice with fish soup ($8), which, although the broth was silkier than any New England chowder, contained a rock cod that was virtually flavorless, like the bastardized moo goo gai pan I remember from growing up. The To fried rice ($12) was a packed vessel dumped upside down, and while there was corn in there and the bits of sausage were nice, it felt more like glorified takeout than an emblem of a hard-to-find region. It’s not the fairest comparison, maybe, but I couldn’t help but think of Mission Chinese Food’s fattier equivalent, cooked in a mackerel confit and only a dollar more. But the very best item was arguably the humblest: sea cucumber braised with the biggest stumps of green onion I’ve ever seen ($20). The menu called it “crispy,” and although the consistency couldn’t have been farther away, that’s to its credit. Slathered in enough sauce to put Kansas City ribs to shame, it had the gelatinous feel of the very best shrimp har gow dumpling, and although the vinegar was not meant to go with it, it came out the stronger for a tiny spoonful sprinkled on top.
At 80 seats, with room for 40 more in the lounge, and on an off-putting block, To has unfortunate echoes of some other nearby restaurants of its size that flamed out this year. But in the best-case scenario, it could inspire a boomlet of Chiu Chow restaurants in the area that then go on to strengthen one another. As of right now, though, it stands alone at the threshold of novelty.
Téo Restaurant and Bar 1111 Mission St. 415-626-8366 or teosf.com Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m.; Sat-Sun, 5-9:30 p.m.