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Chowdown Report: Bow Hon in San Francisco

Eleven Chowhounds met at Bow Hon in San Francisco's Chinatown for a lunch featuring some very special dishes and, as always, great Chowtalk. I missed the first 40 minutes or so because of an earlier appointment that took up far more time than expected, but Melanie has very graciously done my job for me and told me what dishes we ordered.

Here's the rundown in Melanie's words:

House soup (complimentary): bok choi and chicken bone “old fire” soup

Raw fish salad (full-size), $38.80

Dry-style beef chow fun
Water spinach (ong choi) with fermented bean curd (fu yee)

Salted fish and sliced pork rice in claypot (for two) and rice crust “water”
Preserved duck and sausage rice in claypot (for two)

Pig feet and ginger in black vinegar claypot
Braised brisket of beef and Chinese turnips claypot (with braised lettuce on the side)

Altogether, it was $10.25 per person with tax and 13 dollars per person with tip. For the incredible bounty of dishes we received, this was a huge value. My experience was very different from the others', so I'm hoping to get an update on the favorites of the night.

Unfortunately, I couldn't talk to the others as much as I liked, but about half of the group was able to take a walk through Chinatown, which was truly wonderful. Here are the places we went and for what, again in Melanie’s words:

Grant Avenue -
Eastern Bakery: almond cookies, lotus and egg yolk moon cake, black bean moon cake, fruit and nut cookie, coconut macaroon, Chinese “tamale” (joong)
Ten Ren: complimentary tasting of oolong and king teas
Ming Kee Game Birds: window-shopping
Yee’s Restaurant: $2.30 tea time specials – fried chicken drumsticks, roast goose, stir-fried veggies

Jackson Street -
Yong Kee: closed on Monday
Delicious Dim Sum: sold out

Stockton Street -
Gourmet Delight: mostly sold out
New Moon: salt and pepper chicken wings, roast pig

Broadway –
Mon Kiang: window-shopping
VIP Bakery: lychee gelato and VIP milk tea gelato ($2.50 per single scoop)

We first went to Eastern Bakery where two pictures of Bill Clinton at the bakery were hung behind the counter. I thought the almond cookies were good, though I prefer a stronger almond taste. We all agreed that the lotus and egg yolk moon cake was great, with the salty egg yolk combining well with the sweet lotus. Really one of the best preparations I’ve ever had it. The black bean cake was also good, if not as layered in flavors the lotus cake. The coconut macaroons were very sweet but also quite addictive. It didn’t have the crunchy texture of toasted coconuts inside and it might very well have been made of a mix, but having a bag of those in my hands meant I was popping bits of macaroons in my mouth often as we took our walk. I didn’t have the fruit and nut cookies, and I had the Chinese “tamale” the next day after boiling it at home. The tamale was a bit underseasoned for me, but it had been sitting out for a while, so that could be the reason.

Ten Ren’s teas were all too strong and too bitter for me. Ming Kee’s Game Birds was just about the most interesting store I have ever been too, and I was absolutely floored looking at cage after cage of birds. Yee’s Restaurant was also a sight to behold, with about four tables filled with plates of food for only $2.30. A crowd of people came to look around and inspect the plates. It looked great, and if I lived anywhere close to San Francisco, I would have bought some. At New Moon, we got to try a roast pig that my mouth is watering for right now. Though a bit dry, it was incredibly meaty with an incredibly crispy skin. Not as heavily seasoned as the chicken wings, which very well might have been my favorite savory item of the day. It was deliciously crispy and strongly spiced, enhancing the natural chicken flavor.

We spent the most time at VIP Bakery, where we tried a variety of Chinese gelatos, deciding on the lychee and VIP milk tea gelato’s. The milk tea tasted just like an ice cream version of Thai iced tea and the lychee had a wonderfully fresh lychee flavor. We all enjoyed how light and milky the gelato was, and it was nice to be able to sit down and talk after all the hustle and bustle. So a very successful, fun, engaging Chowdown all around! I had such a great time, and I thank everyone for coming. I was glad to be able to speak with some of you and to the others, I hope I can share another meal with you as soon as possible.

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  1. I was sad I had to get back to the office, missing the after lunch walk. The milk tea gelato sounds wonderful. I really enjoyed the food at Bow Hon.

    The raw fish salad was excellent - I could have eaten a big plate of it and been happy. Beef chow fun is something I almost never order 'cause its usually so mucky but their version was very tasty - I was a little sad they didn't bring with XO sauce like Melanie ordered. I also really enjoyed the spinach, the fermented bean curd gave it an extra dimension that was quite tasty.

    I did not have a favorite amoung the claypot dishes, they were all good - in some ways the lovely crust and rich borth "dessert" are really what I look forward to.

    1 Reply
    1. re: larochelle

      My experience of the meal was very similar to Larochelles'...Fish salad was great..sort of a combo of Burmese ginger salad and fresh sushi, with nuts, vinegar ..tart and sweet with "crunchies" all through it...The clay pots were also good...and the table had me try the "Chowfun" first (great taste of the wok)..thinking it was somehow appropriate!..the service was exemplary..and the company... fun as usual...the Chinatown Tour afterward was the culmination of a gorgeous ..perfect Bay Area day.....great food...great fun(!)

    2. Really liked the raw fish salad -- nice balance of sweet, sour, and salty, with a contrast of slippery fish and crispy fried noodles throughout. Gingery, too.

      Among the claypots, I liked the salted fish and pork best. The fish was presented in large pieces, which intensified the salty wallop. The rice at the bottom of the pots got crunchy toward the end, and I could have kept nibbling on hard rice bits mixed up with the salted fish for a while.

      Beef chow fun had just the right texture: no clumps; each noodle thinly coated with sauce; beef cooked just enough.

      We sat upstairs and had the room to ourselves. The service was exceedingly thoughtful and gracious, with multiple changes of plates and bowls before we had to ask.

      Thanks to the organizers!

      1. Sounds like a great meal, sorry I missed it. Hopefully there can be more SF lunches soon!

        1. yes, the raw fish salad was very special. will definitely be back for that. the ongchoy w/ fermented tofu was quite good. the pork and salted fish claypot was not what i thought it would be. i found the fish too salty even though i grew up eating this stuff. the stuck-on-the-bottom-of-the-claypot rice for this dish was marvelous. my family fights over that but there was enough for everyone monday. the beef chowfun was a good rendition but i generally prefer the "wet" preparation of this dish which has a gravy. all in all a wonderful lunch to start the week! nice meeting the group.

          1 Reply
          1. re: lilou

            So nice to meet you too! And thanks a bunch for helping with the ordering and coordinating with our waitress.

            The portion of salt fish was very generous, haven't seen that much in one dish for a while, but it wasn't softened/steamed long enough and was too hard for my taste. OTOH, the lop mei clay pot with the preserved meats seemed a little stingy to me. However, I did appreciate with both of them that the meats on top of the rice were served on a separate plate and the rice was seasoned in the kitchen. Also this was the first time I've had the rice crust water (hot water added to the stuck-on-the-bottom-of-the-claypot rice) in a restaurant. Adding the green onions to the boiling pot was a nice touch. We didn't eat this at home, but I've had it at relatives and it was a very homey touch.

          2. The fish salad was the star of the meal for me! What a wonderful combination of contrasting flavors and textures. it was so light I could eat a half order all by myself. My second fave was the ong choi with fermented tofu. This was the first time I had this version of ong choi and loved it. Maybe I would like stinky tofu too...but not here. I enjoyed the pigs feet clay pot. The meat was black from the black vinegar and included big chunks of ginger which I relish. The meal was a terrific value at $13 a piece and the service was exemplary. I am sorry I could not participate in the post meal Chinatown tour. Obligations at home precluded that, but it sounds like I really would have enjoyed that too.

            1. i'd heard so much about bow hon's fish salad that i had somehow convinced myself that i'd already tried it. wrong. now that i have, i'm so glad i can say with confidence that it is as good as the buzz.

              i, too, liked the ong choy. the way the fermented tofu behaved in that dish put me in mind of gorgonzola cheese.

              thanks to melanie and andrew for organizing the lunch!

              1 Reply
              1. re: shocker

                Yes, the fu yee is definitely an umami bomb! I'm glad to read the positive responses to it, as it was one of two items where I got a little pushback from our server who didn't think our group would like it or the salted fish. The chowhounds strike again, paving the way for Chinese food-loving gringos everywhere!

              2. I attended the first Chinatown lunch series meal at Bow Hon three years ago and fell in love with the fish salad. This one was just as good as I remember. Actually, I've been back for it several times, but they only had it available about half the time. So, anyone who decides to go for the fish salad, call ahead. My other favorites were the pig's feet in the clay pot, especially the carmelized chunks of ginger that remained on the bottom of the pot, and the greens with fermented tofu. On my first visit I also loved the clay pot brisket with turnips, but this time I didn't think it was as good as in the past. Service was terrific, company was great, and the tab miniscule for the quality and quantity of food.

                1 Reply
                1. re: fairviewgal

                  Staring into the clay pot brisket when it first spun around the lazy susan, I was surprised to see that it had so many of the translucent pieces of tendon in it. The serving was too small for everyone at the table to try, and I missed tasting any of the meaty brisket. But I did love the soft and fully infused strip of tendon and the sweet turnips. I especially liked the braised lettuce, conveniently served on the side that had been steeped in the juices. That's often my favorite part of this dish.

                  The pig's feet could have used another 30 minutes to an hour on the fire to soften it up a little more. But the flavor was very good with the sweet black vinegar and fiery ginger. I'll be sure to ask if it's cooked soft next time.

                2. Andrew, thanks for being my co-host and I'm glad you enjoyed your send-off to Paris!

                  Our lunch at Bow Hon was better than I expected. The fish salad was its usual crowd-pleasing self, and it was fun to get the full size, banquet table order as I've only ordered a half before. i hope we'll see some of the photos others took.

                  What had improved since my last visit three years ago were the other dishes. Previously, ordering other than the one famous dish here has been pretty hit and miss. Sure, we made this a claypot marathon, which is the other specialty. Yet, I was still impressed by the sure hand with the seasonal ong choi and the quality of the beef chow fun. It's nice to post an uphill report for once. And, the service upstairs was very good and appreciated as shown in our generous tip.

                  The silver lining of a late-ish lunch is that by the time we reached Yee's Restaurant on our northbound stroll through Chinatown, we hit the tea time discount, which runs from around 3pm to 5pm or so. Julie and I each scored a plate of the roast goose. And, i'm sorry I forgot to tell her that it needs to be sliced very thin once you get it home, as those big pieces are pretty chewy. Good flavor though and there's just something about the taste and texture of goose fat!

                  I very much enjoyed trying the gelatos at VIP, mostly because it was uncharted waters and luckily they turned out to be quite good. The longan that I sampled first was on the stale side, and I'm not quite sure what the expression on Julie's face meant when she tasted the durian. However, the VIP milk tea and the lychee flavors were lovely. I'll be back to try more.

                  New Moon Restaurant
                  1247 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  Bow Hon
                  850 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108

                  VIP Coffee & Cake Shop
                  Broadway St, San Francisco, CA, USA

                  Mon Kiang
                  683 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  Eastern Bakery
                  720 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108

                  Ming Kee Game Birds
                  1136 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  Yee's Restaurant
                  1131 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  Ten Ren Tea Co of SF
                  949 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108

                  Yong Kee
                  732 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  Delicious Dim Sum
                  752 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  Gourmet Delight
                  1045 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94108

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    Sounds like I should revisit Bow Hon again. This restaurant really stands out in Chinatown, because it opens late and looks cleaner or more upscale than the others. I've known for a long time its signature fish salad dish, but I've never gotten the courage to order raw fish from a Chinese restaurant, especially in Chinatown! =) I can't remember anything about the dinner I had there last year, which meant it was neither excellent nor horrible.


                    1. re: vincentlo

                      Considering that at Bow Hun the fish is swimming in the tank until you order it, I don't see any issues with it being raw. It couldn't be any fresher, although I guess there could be problems with cross-contamination in the kitchen or parasites.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        Is the raw fish really coming from the tanks?! In Japanese restaurants (in the US at least), raw fish is (supposed to be) frozen and then thawed for consumption, so as to kill the parasites inside (if any).


                        1. re: vincentlo

                          When we ordered it at a previous chowdown, we saw them fish a fish out of the tank. I suppose that could have been a coincidence: that fish could have been for something else, but at the time we remarked on it ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/28292 ), and I don't remember seeing a fish on any other table while we were there. Perhaps the type of fish they use isn't prone to parasites. Or perhaps not.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            So what kind(s) of fish do they use in this salad that everyone's raving about? If the fish is indeed live from the tanks, I hope at least it's from the ocean and it's not some freshwater species.


                              1. re: vincentlo

                                It is a fresh water fish in Cantonese song yee, in English I have heard both steelhead (not the trout/salmon) or hard head.

                                Not shad

                                1. re: yimster

                                  Here's a link to our previous discussion of the non-trout "steelhead",
                                  Did you take a photo of an example?

                    2. Here are my notes from that day:

                      Raw fish salad - the highlight of the lunch. Crispy fresh fried rice noodles. The fish quality itself was tender and there was a natural sweetness to it. The salad had nice spikes of fresh ginger that burst in flavor from time to time. The dressing was a tad too sweet. Despite this, I would definitely order this again.

                      Dry-style beef chow fun - very well spiced with a nice smokiness.

                      Water spinach (ong choi) with fermented bean curd (fu yee) - For me, this dish was delightful. The water spinach has a very nice texture and flavor and the fermented bean curd added a special flavor that brought this dish to a whole different level.
                      Salted fish and sliced pork rice in claypot (for two) and rice crust “water” - The salted fish dish was a little too salty for me
                      Pig feet and ginger in black vinegar claypot - pig feet needed some more cooking so that the mean would fall off the bone. Spices were good though -a sweet stew base.

                      After gorging ourselves on delicious dishes, Melanie took us on a guide through Chinatown. We stopped at Eastern Bakery and the lotus moon cake here was really amazing. I've never been a fan but I'm actually craving it now. Then we trudged to Ten Ren to have tea with our cakes.
                      Yee’s Restaurant. specials from 2pm to 4pm – roast goose, stir-fried veggies

                      New Moon: salt and pepper chicken wings, roast pig. The roast pic was FANTASTIC. The meat itself was very well sated and the crisp outer layer of fat - well it just crunched as the fats melted into ones mouth. An utter delight. As Melanie predicted, the roast did not have the same flavor/texture when I got home. I think the best thing is to have it right there and then. The pepper chicken wings were delish. Moist with good salt and pepper.

                      We headed to have gelato next at VIP Bakery. We tried the Hong Kong milk tea flavor and the lychee. These were not as dense as Italian gelatos and proved to be a light desert. While the flavors were satisfactory, I'm not sure I would go back there for them.

                      It was a great time. I enjoyed my 1st chowhound event. Thanks to Melanie for organizing it!

                      1. The raw fish salad was worth the whole trip. The smoothness and sweet saltiness of the fish provided a nice contrast to the crunchiness of freshly fried rice noodles and thin pieces of what I think were fried wonton skins. All this mixed with the tanginess of salad greens, and the squeeze of lemon added an overall citrus zest.

                        A particular favorite of mine was the "fan jiao tang" (fan jiew) or rice crust soup. As children, my cousins and I used to argue over who would get the most of this at the dinner table.

                        Just my opinion, but I thought the ong choi (water spinach), though delicious, was a tad overcooked? Ong choi is such a delicate vegetable, and may be at its best stir-fried for only 3-4 minutes. At the table, its bright green color and its still-crunchy hollow stems infused with garlic and the tanginess of fu yu are unbeatable.

                        Thanks to Melanie and Andrew for arranging this marvelous meal!