More on Chinese in Millbrae (was Pisces/Kwong's)
- Melanie Wong
Cousin Tida, Kwong's is a much different experience than HK Flower Lounge. But I think it's equally satisfying when you take price into account, and no one makes better fried oysters than Kwong's. I mean, just look at the two buildings. HK Flower Lounge is a gilded temple to Cantonese dining and Kwong's is just another neighborhood place from the outside. But the trouble is, the service at HKFL has gotten stiffer and more impersonal, the more creative dishes can sing but are inconsistent, the tables are crammed tighter together, garage and valet parking are a hassle, reservations are needed most times, and prices are higher than the value received, all things considered.
For special family gatherings, we've abandoned HKFL in favor of Fook Yuen and Seafood Harbor. For dim sum, I think we end up at Seafood Harbor more than the others because we love the fried taro root ball and the soup dumplings so much. When my brother's car was stolen with his checkbook and credit card bills in it (which suspended his ATM and credit cards when he reported it), I had to take him to pick-up a rental car on one of my cards. With no lunch money, he was pretty hungry when I arrived and I told him I'd take him anywhere he wanted for lunch. He picked dim sum at Seafood Harbor.
Kwong's is the place for a solid Cantonese dinner at an every day price that performs above its price point. As I mentioned before, I haven't had much luck with the specials. I'm always curious about the items in Chinese characters (with prices in $XX.OO indicated clearly) and have the waiter read them to me. They sound good, we order them, and usually we prefer our old reliables over the specials.
R&G Lounge in SF is the opposite. They don't do a consistent job on the standards and you need to know their strengths to get a satisfactory meal. Link to favorites below, and if you click up the thread a couple messages, you'll see that I'd had a similar impression to yours initially.
Kwong's sounds like what we're looking for. When we passed HK Flower Lounge I was surprised by the gilded ornate pagoda-ness of it all. Places like that seem to be excellent for banquets but may not be the everyday type of thing we're looking for.
One of the things we loved about our Chinese stand-by, Phoenix Garden, was the owners of the place. The patriarch of the family was always there when we went and was the person who would ask you what you would like. I believe many people would be put off by his response to the question, "What do you recommend?" He would reply something to the effect of " I don't know your tastes so it's hard for me to say." He would recommend some dishes however that would be pretty standard and likeable to those who asked.
Since we were introduced to the restaurant by regulars and soon became regulars ourselves, we came to develop the relationship where we could ask him, "What's good today?" We always let him order for us and he brought us what he thought was the best. However, he also knew what we liked and our tastes and made recommendations accordingly.
On a surface level, there wasn't anything immediate that resonated about Phoenix Garden. The room was spare, the tables were not jammed together but they were close, and the proprietor seemed gruff. However we came to love it because the food was not overly complicated but excellent, fresh, and we enjoyed our relationship with the owners. I'm hoping Kwong's will at the least provide simple quality food which it sounds like it will.
I've been meaning to go to Seafood Harbor for ages, given that it's one of Jim's must-eat-at places. One of these days...
I have a burning question. One of the dishes I had ordered at R&G was the salt and pepper dungeness crab. It may be because I'm originally from Maryland and I grew up attending numerous crab feasts. I know how to actually pick a crab using nothing but a nutcracker for the claws. I was at a loss the first time I had a crab dish in NY's Chinatown that was in a thick sauce and have remained curious about how to eat things like salt and pepper crab or crabs in a thick sauce. Crabs I grew up eating were steamed and had a thick coating of spicy seasonings on it, like Old Bay but I have no idea how to eat a crab that comes in a thick sauce. Any advice?
The key to good Cantonese food is fresh, seasonal ingredients. It's good to keep an open mind when making ordering decisions and, as you have, allow yourself to go with what the proprietor says is good today. Yes, you look at the menu for a few standards, but the important choices come through negotiation with the server. If you know the standard protocol, you don't need to develop a personal relationship and can order at any Cantonese restaurant the first time you walk in. Rather than solicit general recommendations, ask three basic questions: 1) what's the freshest vegetable today?; 2) what's the special soup today?; and 3) what's the freshest fish today?
Depending on the time of year, the special vegetables (not on the menu) tend to be pea shoots, white-flowered chinese broccoli, water spinach, water cress, mustard greens, sugar snap peas, fresh shitake, long beans or asparagus. While some of these may be available all year-round now, they have a peak flavor season and will be recommended by the server at those times. E.g., the best time for pea shoots has just started. Once you decide which of the vegetables appeals to you, you then ask for suggestions for preparation - stir-fried, blanched, with garlic, oyster sauce, cream sauce, foo yee, etc. Same drill with the fish selection - the server will guide you to the best combinations for the type of seafood.
It is a continuing mystery to me how customers will be satisfied with indifferent hot & sour soup when there are so much better options. I've spotted some beautiful chinese mustard greens with thick fleshy stems in the Chinatown green grocers, think I'll have to order mustard green soup with slivers of Virginia ham the next chance I get.
Do try Seafood Harbor. I've been with Jim on two of his visits there.
Not sure I understand the differences between eating Maryland crab and dungeness but let me take a stab at it. First off, I generally avoid ordering crab at restaurants because my favorite preparation is steamed with garlic butter (if hot) or louie dressing (cold). I make this at home where I can really get into picking at every morsel of the crab and then completely cleaning myself up afterwards. If I have crustaceans in a thick sauce, it will usually be lobster which is much easier to get at. Or prawns in the shell which are a different kind of exercise. But preparations like R&Gs salt & pepper crab will draw me in.
If the crab has a thick sauce, dab the pieces on the rice in your rice bowl to catch the excess sauce. Lick the remaining sauce off the shells, then crack the shells to get at the meat, put that on top of your rice, then add more sauce from the serving dish and eat it together. For salt & pepper crab, nibble the fried batter from the shell, then follow with a mouthful of crab meat.