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R&G Lounge on the decline? [San Francisco]

My niece was in town and she was craving Chinese food. Whenever I'm in the Union Square area, R&G Lounge is my go-to spot for decent Cantonese food.

But during this last visit, I just felt everything was off. Kitchen seemed heavy-handed with the cornstarch, given the thickness of the sauces.

We ordered some basic non-fussy dishes that were my niece favorites: West Lake beef soup, mapo tofu, green beans and Peking spareribs.

West Lake beef soup should just be ground beef and minced cilantro, but instead it came with very little cilantro and a lot of imitation crab meat along with the beef. The inclusion of the imitation crab meat was what threw me off, even though the taste was fine, it just seemed weird and I don't like the idea of eating imitation crab meat.

The Peking spareribs should be more like a dry rub with light sauce but instead it was almost like sweet-and-sour pork with the bones still in. The sauce was just so typical sweet-sour tangy, and so much of it.

The mapo tofu was ok although my niece wanted more ground pork but I think they just used a few shreds of pork (or maybe it was beef), and the green beans were OK as well but not great.

Like I said, I've been here before in past years with out-of-town guests and they were always fine, but now just seems to be mediocre. Still, the wait on a Saturday was 45 minutes for the two of us around 7 p.m. There were crowds of people still trying to get in, which I don't get because it's so average now.

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  1. Are those dishes you've had good versions of there before?

    They're not things I'd order at a Hong Kong place specializing in seafood.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      that's an excellent point. that being said, i've been going for about 5 years to r&g, and i've always thought it to be very good, but never anything too special - probably the best cantonese restaurant in chinatown, but i still much prefer z&y overall

    2. I had a dinner there about 6 months ago that was pretty average, and definitely tasted of corn starch and gloopy sauce.
      The dishes going to other tables looked much better, and we concluded it was partly what we ordered. Still, for the price, and quality of the protein ingredients, there are far better options in the city unless you're going specifically for the salt and pepper crab.

      1. I've never ordered any of those dishes at R & G Lounge so couldn't say. It's kind of a waste of a meal (and money) to not stick with the signature dishes there. That's not to say that anything else is necessarily bad, just that you don't need to go to R&G and pay those elevated prices for common dishes. We've had a number of discussions about the best things to order there over the years, if you're interested.

        I'll mention that Peking spareribs are often made in the style you describe with a wetter sauce though I prefer the dry-fried style myself. West Lake soup and mapo tofu at Cantonese restaurants are all over the board since they're from other regions so subject to lots of interpretation.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Melanie Wong

          My niece were craving some of her favorites growing up, so that's why we ordered those dishes. Otherwise, I would have stuck more with the seafood.

          Yes, I like the dry-fried style of Peking spareribs as well. Do you have a rec of a San Francisco restaurant that does it well that way?

          1. re: singleguychef

            Completely understandable, a favorite niece cannot be denied.

            You know, it's been quite a while since I've had the dry fried style. That's the way they were presented the first time I had Peking spareribs and I guess you always love your first. Wish I had a rec for you --- we need to track this down.

            1. re: singleguychef

              I liked the salt-and-pepper ribs at Hunan Home's (which despite the name does not particularly specialize in Hunan cuisine).

              There's a place called Big Daddy's in Oakland that specializes in dry-fried ribs, seemed like pretty much the same dish to me.

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/483904

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Salt & pepper ribs and perhaps what you had at Big Daddy's are a different thing. Dry-fried Peking spareribs are marinated and have a reddish color.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Ok, that cured and ham-like. And a little sweet?

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Maybe slightly, could be a salt and sugar cure? It was definitely somewhat ham-like.

          2. singleguychef - out of curiousity, did the Westlake beef soup look anything like the one pictured in Charles Yu's recent post on the China/SE-Asia board below?
            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8957...

            I'd not been back to SF for quite a while, but R&G Lounge and Great Eastern on Jackson St were the only two restaurants I always frequent if I'm in Chinatown.

            1 Reply
            1. re: klyeoh

              Klyeoh, R&G's version looked like it had less green, not as much cilantro, and more beef and imitation crab, so didn't look exactly like Charles Yu's photo.

            2. I agree with everyone above about sticking to the classics and wondering whether the dishes you had were ever good before. I live and work near R&G so I go there a lot and, with one exception, it is pretty consistent when it comes to the classics.

              Full disclosure, the manager/owner and his son know me, but all the staff have always been very clear upfront about what is good and what is just on the menu because tourists demand it.

              1. I don't think the heavy handedness with the cornstarchy saucing is a recent phenom at R&G. It's been several years, but I haven't been back since the time we ordered a HK style seafood chow mein and got a gloppy pile of heavily sauced thickish noodles that they tried to push on us as what we had ordered. We actually returned the food to the kitchen and left. That kind of saucing is always a sign of poor kitchen skills to me. I've eaten there a handful of times over the years and never have been wowed.

                14 Replies
                1. re: rubadubgdub

                  I think maybe people from Hong Kong like gloppy noodles? Every once in a while I forget and order them at Daimo, which makes pretty good HK seafood dishes. They're always gross, but I look around and the Chinese customers are gobbling them up.

                  It's very common here for Chinese restaurants that excel at certain specialties to make other dishes in a standard gloppy Chinese-American way. There are innumerable discussions on this board of what dishes to order and not to order at places like that.

                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/512466

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    We didn't eat any food like that in HK on our recent visit. I think it's an Americanized Chinese cooking fallback. The thick cornstarch sauces are used to mask lack of cooking skill or subpar ingredients or to cater to customers who have come to associate it with Chinese cooking. I'm fine with a light sauce that is filled with natural juices but that's not what we got. I'm not sure I buy that a kitchen that can make decent S&P crab can't make a plate of noodles.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      the whole gloppy / oily thing you see in the US isn't not prevalent in HK at all. Food is much lighter and not gloppy at all in HK

                      1. re: Lau

                        Interesting that I see so many Chinese apparent regular customers at Daimo happily eating glop, but maybe they're not from HK.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          there is a big difference between food here vs in HK even if there are customers who may originally be from HK, but most cantonese people in the US aren't actually from HK. Originally most are from a place called taishan (toison) in guangdong

                          have you been to HK? if you like cantonese food its an absolute paradise

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I'm from Singapore but have also lived in HK for quite a while.

                            I liked having Chow Mein and Mushu Pork every now & then at R&G Lounge whenever I'm in SF because, to me, it's Chinese-American food and pretty exotic since we can't find those in Singapore and HK. But, like Lau mentioned, most Chinese-Americans in SF are Toishanese (from a very poor district of Guangdong province) and their cooking style is *very* rustic.

                            1. re: klyeoh

                              I think we're beginning to talk in broad generalizations now and maybe we shouldn't. My parents are Toisanese, and they don't cook or eat like that. Plus most Toisanese emigrated in the 50s-60s so the more recent cooks are likely from elsewhere. However, it does make sense to me that because Chinese cooks in US are immigrants and probably were not cooks in their former lives that they may fall back on simpler techniques.

                              1. re: rubadubgdub

                                its not that food from toisan is gloppy or something, its that the original immigrants happened to be from toison, were very poor, trying to make a living selling cheap food and alot of them weren't even chefs, but this was a way to make a living and they tried to create something like they used to eat, which eventually became take-out americanized chinese food, which became a reasonable way to make a living and started this thing of super cheap gloppy "chinese" food

                                no chinese person cooks like that at home, at least no one household ive ever eaten at

                                it's actually how my grandfather made a living, he never had any intention on coming to america or being a chef, but situation in china forced him to bring our family here and he became a chef bc it was one of the only things he could do in america and i mean it worked out very well for us eventually

                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                              these happily glop eating chinese are probably from mainland china or mainland USA.

                              1. re: shanghaikid

                                food isn't gloppy in china either

                                the whole super starchy sauce thing is generally an american-chinese creation

                          2. re: Robert Lauriston

                            We may be talking about two different kinds of gloppy. About 20+ years ago, the gravy style of noodles and fried rice, especially for seafood dishes, came on strong in HK and then came over here. We also saw wet styles of chow fun.

                            I'm referring to a saute of seafood in a reduced and thickened shellfish sauce laid over a bed of rice, for example, thickened just enough so that it would stay on top and not just flow to the bottom of the dish. I don't have any photos from HK from that time, but here are a couple renditions locally,
                            http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...
                            http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

                            This is also done with HK style jin mian, with the gravy over the top or sometimes in a pool on the bottom of the dish. The gravy is thickened so that it doesn't immediately saturate and sog down the crispy thin noodle cake. However, I noted that rubadubgdub described the noodles as thick, so don't know if it's the same dish.

                            I don't think of either of these dishes as Americanized. But bear in mind that there's a fine line in use of cornstarch and getting something that's just thick enough vs. stiff or gloppy. Too many gloppy dishes out there that don't need to be.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              "There are innumerable discussions on this board of what dishes to order and not to order at places like that."

                              I don't recall R & G recommendations coming with a qualifier to stick to a list of dishes, like some places.

                              It's been listed as a top destination for Chinese, and even mislabeled as upscale Chinese (due to pricing, I'd guess). If it's on their menu, they should be able to prepare it competently even if it's not a specialty.

                              1. re: sugartoof

                                There's lots of discussion of what to order and not order at R&G:

                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/590955

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  The post is all over the place.

                                  If sauces are starchy, or the meats are poor, it really doesn't matter if you're ordering Americanized dishes, Catonese, or what.

                          3. I ate at R&G about 6-7 weeks ago and had a fantastic meal... The only downside being the chaotic service (4 or 5 different waiters!) but that's to be expected at a busy touristy destination in Chinatown. We had the Salt & Pepper Crab, Steamed Clams with Eggs, Prawn with Honey Walnuts, and Fried Rice with Scallop and Egg White. My wife ordered a vegetable side which I can't remember; perhaps some stir-fried Bok Choy with garlic or something similar. In any event, it was all deliciously heavy Szechuan comfort food and as consistent as ever. The price was high, but the portions lasted into the following day. Service was sloppy with plates arriving out of order (rice came 20 mins. before crab) no water refills, different waiters rushing in and out of the kitchen, confusing requests amongst each other, but the restaurant was packed (we sat downstairs with a res) and it's what I've come to expect. I don't feel the food is average at all however. It's not particularly refined, but then it never was... I had a fantastic dinner!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: OliverB

                              The steamed clams with eggs and prawn with honey walnuts are among my favorites at R & G.

                            2. One bad meal does not make a trend. So when you say "on the decline" you need to have several data points. The last time we went was last year and it was excellent.

                              2 Replies
                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                  The last two times were both invited to birthday parties and host ordered a banquet.

                              1. Went 6 months ago with a large party (20 at one table in a side room) and everything was fine but also it was pre-ordered and mostly seafood.

                                I agree you need to separate the HK seafood from old school non-Canto stuff. Yes, Chinese restaurants can have menus that carry 200-300 items but they can only do so many decently and those would be their core - HK seafood. (If there's on gripe about Chinese restaurants in general, it's this...they should cut the menu down to things they do well, not because someone might want it.)

                                re: the Westlake soup, if I saw imitation crab in it I'd say something at those prices, esp. during crab season, just to let them know. Seriously, imitation crab in a decent HK restaurant? They should know better.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: ML8000

                                  On R&G's online menu, West Lake Minced Beef Soup is $12 and it says that there's imitation crab.

                                  http://www.rnglounge.com/menu.pdf

                                    1. re: ML8000

                                      R&G should do better, but it's not expensive, nobody who orders it should be surprised by the imitation crab, and why order a Zhejiang dish in a Cantonese restaurant anyway?

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        west lake soup is zhejiang in origin, but a long time ago it became somewhat of a ubiquitous cantonese dish that is very common in cantonese restaurants.

                                2. Some of my all time favorites at R&G:

                                  R&G Beef - has a very interesting taste to it that somewhat resembles Singaporean style pork or beef jerky. It seems a bit westernized but is actually quite tasty.

                                  salt and pepper scallops - not sure if this is on the menu but it is another way to enjoy the use of the signature batter on something else

                                  pan fried minced pork and salted fish patties - this is not "HK seafood" but is tasty comfort food. I think they can do a steamed version which is slightly healthier. The salted fish does add an important element to it, and the pan frying brings out a much more robust flavor. This dish is designed for you to chomp down more rice.

                                  clear broth beef brisket with turnip in claypot - not bad of a rendition here. Or get the traditional stewed beef brisket claypot, that's also good with rice.

                                  steamed beancurd with shrimp - this is a very simple homey dish most Cantonese folks can make at home, but at R&G it's plated nicer, and the soy sauce they use tastes a little better.

                                  vegetarian abalone with greens - texture wise this tastes like the real thing, although very pricey for something that has no seafood no meat.

                                  steamed oysters on the shell with black beans and soy sauce - I recall this being quite good too. They can probably also do a fried version with a flakey puff pastry like exterior, like those honeycomb fried taro dumplings at dim sum.

                                  soy sauce chicken - it's very good although on the sweet side.

                                  steamed egg custard with clams

                                  other claypot dishes were great, like sacha beef with vermicelli bean thread noodles and onions in claypot...salted fish chicken tofu claypot, or salted fish eggplant with chicken in claypot...all wonderful with rice.

                                  But it is possible there are consistency issues with this restaurant, which is to be expected.

                                  1. I went last Saturday with a group of 7. We had 2 orders of the salt and pepper crab, geoduck sashimi, beef brisket, yau choy, prawns with honey walnuts, salt fish chicken fried rice, and peking duck. All were delicious. I was in the tiny ground floor space and everyone around us seemed to be getting the crab. Lots of people also ordered the steamed eggs and clams which Melanie and KK mentioned.

                                    I have not had a bad dish at R and G Lounge but perhaps because each time I've gone, I've had the benefit of others ordering for me.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: sumimao

                                      Ooh, the geoduck sashimi! Expensive but delicious.

                                      Here's the photo of the steamed egg custard with clams and honey glazed spareribs.
                                      http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...