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Mar 19, 2007 02:56 PM

Flying Pan Bistro again: getting more excited

Just had my second lunch at Flying Pan Bistro on Clay near Kearny. Had a $4 bowl of hot and sour soup that is by far the best I have had in SF. It was actually both hot and sour, and chock full of preserved vegetables, tofu, other veggies, and delicious chuncks of pork. The spicing was perfect and I kept having great bursts of fresh pepper flavor.

Stupidly, I also ordered Zha Zhiang Mien (sp????). Stupid because I was full, not because of how it was. In fact, this dish was really good too, but I only had about 5 bites of it because the soup was so filling. A huge bowl of noodles came out topped with a very flavorful mixture of pork, peanuts (I think) and a bunch of other stuff. All for $7. I can report more after I eat my leftovers.

There is only one problem: no one was eathing there again. I think this might be a great new addition to Chinatown but it needs to stay in business. Hopefully the crowds will start coming.

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  1. Their online menu doesn't mention Zha Zhiang Mien, so I suspect their online menu isn't accurate. Can you say more about what else is on offer? I'm hoping to try it Wednesday.

    8 Replies
    1. re: david kaplan

      The real menu is a bit different. They have a bunch of sichuan specialties and then a bunch of items that seem more like an American Chinese place, which is a bit odd because it seems like the cooking is very traditional. Looking forward to hear your thoughts on the place.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          In the past week I've had four lunches at Flying Pan, trying a range of dishes:

          * zha zhiang mien
          * ma po tofu
          * shanghai spicy chicken ("our version of kung pao chicken")
          * preserved pork, leek, and green bean sheets (actually, mung bean cellophane sheets)

          As part of the lunch specials, I also had bite-size appetizer portions of the five-spice beef and shanghai smoked fish.

          In all, I'm mixed. I think the quality of ingredients and preparation are generally very high, but I think many of the dishes are poorly conceptualized.

          Zha Zhiang Mien: Unlike Korean-Chinese preparations, which I've had as fresh noodles with a thick brown oniony, molassesy black bean sauce, theirs is made with dried noodles and topped with a spicy stew of tofu, ground pork, and vegetables. The stew topping wasn't that different, actually, from the ma po tofu. I liked the spicing, and the pork in particular was in larger pieces with a bouncy texture rather than being indistinguishable ground meat. But the vegetables were tiny cubed carrots and peas! They seemed as out of place as peas in carbonara. The dried noodles were too soft and tasteless. But the topping gave me hope for the ma po tofu.

          Ma Po Tofu: Cubed carrots and peas again! I don't know if those are traditional vegetable ingredients in the dish (I've never seen them, but then again I've only had a handful of renditions), but I just didn't like them. They interfered with the silky tofu and bouncy (sorry, it's the only adjective that fits) pork pieces. I liked the spicing, though I prefer the killer Szechuan style of ma po tofu at Sam Lok when I'm willing to ingest that much oil.

          Shanghai Spicy Chicken: High quality chicken, excellent texture, and spicy without losing complexity. But, again, the vegetables made the dish incoherent. It was a few days ago, but I remember it having asparagus, celery, zucchini, tomatoes, green peppers, and onions -- and I might be forgetting some. I will admit that my food pet peeve is throwing in every vegetable imaginable instead of choosing the one or two vegetables that best suit the dish. Had the dish been called "chicken with mixed vegetables" I would have steered clear. The vegetables were perfectly cooked, but again it just felt wrong.

          Preserved pork, leek, and "green bean sheet" (mung bean, actually): As another poster also thought, this was my favorite. Although mine was also dry and clumpy, I really liked the various tastes and textures. But again it broke my few-vegetables rule: even though they told me there were no other ingredients other than the three on the menu -- I wised up to their vegetable antics and asked in advance -- my dish had a bit of tomato, some green pepper, and mushroom slices. Unnecessary! Distracting! I was so ready for the perfect combination of pork, leeks, and starchy bean sheets, and those extra veggies got in the way.

          On the appetizers: Five spice beef was nice -- chilled, tasty, though a little gristly. The smoked fish was soggy, not so god.

          I really want to like this place. They put a lot of care into the technique, and I imagine that with enough experimentation I'll be able to find dishes that don't try too hard with inappropriate vegetables. If I keep going, I'll start asking them to hold the peas and carrots; already they were very willing to honor my request for ma po tofu "extra ma la." Their giggle suggested I didn't say it quite right, but it worked, and it suggests they're happy to take special requests.

          I have not, however, yet found a dish I would add to my regular lunchtime rotation. For noodles, I'd pick Sam Lok's dan dan mien or Golden Flower's bun with pork; for meat with vegetables, I'd take Henry Hunan's harvest pork or smoked ham.

          A few logistics: Their website now has the full menu for viewing. Their phone number, 399-1938, is forwarded to an employee's cell phone. When I call from my office phone (a traditional PBX set-up), I get a message that the number is disconnected, but when I call from my cell phone the call goes through. They're happy to take orders called in advance. It's damn cheap, too: lunch specials are 5.25 + tax and they come in a really sturdy 3-comparment heavy plastic dish (main course, rice, and choice of appetizer).

          1. re: david kaplan

            David, it sounds like they perhaps decided to go a bit more heavy handed with the spicing in your dishes. And, overall, it sounds like your meal was a bit more successful. Perhaps Flying Pan Bistro has some hope. haha

            RE: the random usage of veggies. The preserved pork, et al was only served to us with the addition of fresh snap peas. While not part of the "described" dish, they actually went well with the rest of the textures already present: they weren't overcooked and did have a nice "snap."

            Also, just FYI for the others: if you eat in and order the lunch special, you have a choice of chosing either one of the appetizers or the soup of the day (which, since we were offered hot and sour *see above* and considering your luck, doesn't sound too promising either way).

            1. re: jrhsfcm

              Interesting that the veggies were different for your preserved pork dish. Sounds like the option is either vegetable roulette or making special requests. I can imagine snap peas going well with the preserved pork dish.

              1. re: david kaplan

                I don't know about you, but I'm not much of a gambling man. haha :)

            2. re: david kaplan

              Gawd I hate those frozen peas and carrots in "chinese" food! Sounds like these cooks have been making Americanized chinese food for too long, or at least that's where this dump in extraneous vegetables thing seems to flourish.

              1. re: david kaplan

                Good reporting. The Chronicle squib suggested that the Nei Jia/Shanghainese imprint hasn't taken hold yet, and the Cantonese chefs he is training are doing their own thing menu-wise. Your report suggests that they are doing their own thing ingredients-wise, even with what might be intended to be Jiangnan dishes. The use of a "happy family" of vegetables is about 180 degrees from the minimalist approach of Shanghainese cuisine, but seems to be often found in Cantonese (at least American Cantonese) cuisine.

          2. I went for dinner last night. This is a great value because of their happy hour meal specials--many of their items are available in small portions for $2-$3, which allows you to mix and match different flavors and textures. I tried the lotus root in honey, thinly sliced cold beef, smoked cold fish, and an entree of ma po tofu, all for around $16.

            I loved the tofu and cold beef. The waitress told me that their fish was the best in San Francisco--I've never had this dish before, so I can't judge its relative quality, but the thick skin was unappealing to me. I'm glad I tried the lotus root, which was refreshing alongside the more robust flavors of the fish, beef, and spicy tofu, though I'd probably try something else when I return again. The waitress recommended their cucumber salad as another option.

            1 Reply
            1. re: pane

              I want to put in my recommendation too. I really hope this place survives. I've been walking up from Montgomery and Sutter and it's definitely worth it. I've tried two of the lunch specials so far, the Shanghai Spicy Chicken and the Ma Po Tofu. Both had a light freshness to them that was very nice and perfectly cooked vegetables. All very balanced and well done. The Chicken Corn Soup and Five Spice Beef were also very good. This is also a really pleasant place, clean and new with tables spaced well apart and the staff is charming and friendly. It's a real find. Unfortunately, when I was in there today there were only a couple of other tables with people at them. If that doesn't change soon, they'll be gone and that would really be too bad.

            2. The Chron reported yesterday that Flying Pan is owned by the chef-owner of Jai Yun, that he's not cooking there but he plans to train the cooks to make his recipes.


              1 Reply
              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Interesting that the article says that the Chinese name for Flying Pan Bistro is Man Yuan, which was the name of the restaurant that preceded Jai Yun at 923 Pacific back a decade ago. Maybe this means that the Jai Yun chef has been plying his wares in Chinatown for longer than we realized.

              2. I'll have to disagree with the accolades: I was there yesterday with coworkers, and frankly, I was quite disappointed.

                I had a small bowl of hot and sour soup, which was neither hot nor sour. The soup had a particular sweetness to it. More disturbing was the prominent flavor of slurry. Probably one of the worst hot and sours I've had in the city, frankly.

                I then split two dishes with another coworker. I didn't pay too much attention to the first dish's actual name - it was a preserved pork, leek, and some type of bean sheet dish. This was actually my favorite dish of the outting; although it was very dry, the flavor was actually quite good. I liked the use of the "sheets," which acted as a gelatinized noodle: added a nice texture. We then split the Zha Zhiang Mein. This had potential; however, just as with the hot and sour soup, this dish suffered from under-seasoning.

                The restaurant seems quite interested in attempting to appeal to a non-Asian clientele. The "modern" designed flatware, in particular the spoons, made eating the soup a bit of a chore. In the same right, I'd rather have to ask for a fork if I needed it (which I've never asked for), but I find it odd that I had to ask for chopsticks. The interior also felt rather sterile to me. The service, however, was friendly and attentive. (Edit: Three menus were available. We ordered from the "Specialties" menu. The lunch menu was INCREDIBLY Americanized.)

                I can't say that I'll be patronizing this restaurant again nor will I be recommending it to others. Many better options for Chinese in this city.

                1. I tried Flying Pan for lunch based on the recommendations of other hounds and this is what I think. It's okay but I wouldn't rave about it. The best thing I had was the 5 spiced beef. It was soft, tender and had a mouthful of flavor that delights. Fish with black bean sauce tasted savory and the fish wasn't fishy. Lots of crispy green peppers. I liked it better than the Shanghai Chicken which wasn't very spicy despite being the house's version of Kung Pao Chicken. It did have plenty of zuccini and carrots as well as something else, I think maybe bamboo. Other chowhounds who've had that dish know what it is? The only thing I didn't like at all was the vegetable spring roll. It was one of the greasiest rolls I've ever had.