I love the streets of Chinatown. The smells, the ornamentation, and the energy are some of my favorite in the city. It feels ancient and littered with relics from a time long past and yet continues at a bustling pace. Visitors drift up Grant Street from their hotels, locals play stringed instruments, and lanky cooks wearing grease-stained aprons take long pulls from their cigarettes. Speckled amid dive bars and chachki shops are small restaurants, but it’s hard to know which are worth your time. Luckily, upon moving to the Bay Area and visiting Chinatown for the first time, I chose one that just happened to become one of my favorite restaurants in the whole neighborhood.
Sandwiched between a souvenir store and a mini knock-off warehouse, between Jackson and Washington streets, is a red awning with a staircase that leads straight up. Once upstairs, the second floor opens up to a giant dining room dotted with lazy susans. The room provides a sprawling voyeur view of the city streets below.
Hong Kong Clay Pot’s menu consists of usual Cantonese/American suspects from fried noodle dishes to all sorts of seafood. True to their namesake, many come for the 20 different varieties of traditional claypots, all as saucy, salty and tangy as the next. The massive menu also include favorites like scrambled eggs with shrimp, hot and sour soup, and beef chow fun. I say go for a couple small plates that they do particularly well.
First, start with the spicy jellyfish. This is a common dish served at many Cantonese restaurants that often gets overlooked. Served cold, the jellyfish is springy and bouncy with a vegetal crunch. It’s spicy and fresh and served with carrots, radish, and sprigs of cilantro. The slivers of jellyfish slurp like noodles and are dressed in white wine vinegar. It’s one of the most clear and satisfying textures I’ve ever had, reminiscent of nothing before or since. If you enjoy new exciting flavors, it’s a must try.
Next, I always go for the salt and pepper quail. The three glistening birds are halved and served with green onion and cilantro. The meat of the tiny fowl is sweeter than their larger cousins, with crispy skin that peels right off the miniature bodies. The texture and mouthfeel of the quails is similar to white breast meat but with oily tenderness of the dark thigh meat of a chicken. The bones are tiny and brittle and crunch between my jaw until there is no trace of there ever being meat on my plate at all.
After my go-to appetizers, I’ll usually finish the meal with something new that I haven’t tried yet or I’ll keep it safe with an old favorite like wonton soup or sauteed mustard greens with garlic. Look, Hong Kong Clay Pot isn’t a restaurant for someone seeking out a life changing dining experience. It’s for the wanderer, meandering around Chinatown working up an appetite and in need of a solid meal at a good price. Hong Kong Clay Pot is for city romantics who find love in dark restaurants that have woven themselves into the fabric of the streets.
Hong Kong Clay Pot
960 Grant Avenue, San Francisco