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Dreaming of a Rice Christmas

[whitespace] mango prawns Holiday Eats: Eric's tangy mango prawns on a bed of purple cabbage looks surprisingly festive.

David Fortin

The tradition of Chinese food during the holidays

By Michael Stabile

Whereas the thanksgiving celebration forces its traditional rituals and habits upon America's increasingly urban lifestyle, with tables in city flats wobbling under the weight of huge free-range turkeys and an irreplaceable roll call of side dishes, Christmas has adapted to modernity untethered. Stocking contents include Palm Pilots and DVD movies instead of nuts and peanut brittle.

Despite all the history and religion, the centerpiece of the 20th-century Christmas has always been metropolitan window displays at Macy's or Bendel's. Those in the countryside or outlying suburbs must settle for pine-scented malls and catalogs stacked as high as firewood. Sugarplums and figgy pudding have become culinary flotsam and jetsam. The Christmas goose has gone the way of the dodo. Fruitcake is a national joke.

San Francisco may not be an entirely rootless city, but its population must admit a certain addiction to transience. Whether post-grad or post-op, Mary Anne Singleton or Anna Madrigal, many of us have little or no desire to go home for the holiday. Which is where Chinese restaurants come in. Though A Christmas Story dared to make dining out on Christmas acceptable for gentiles, I've always felt a twinge of envy about the Jewish dinner-and-a-movie tradition. It's so much more chic than gorging on chocolate cordials and store-bought eggnog. And though our modern age offers us Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Indian as alternatives, I feel indebted (and a bit touched by tradition) to the seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year Chinese food ethic.

There are hundreds of Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, and I wouldn't dare to rank them all. However, for those of us who are lonely and cold, treeless and rootless, on the days between Christmas and New Year's, certain restaurants may be better suited to our needs than others. Firecracker, tucked into an unobtrusive nook on Valencia Street, throbs with a powerful red glow that, like its name, suggests heat. I started with crab-meat Rangoon because it's my favorite West Coast Chinese appetizer, and because it's at its best from Firecracker's kitchen. The buttery, delicate crab, blended with cream cheese and fried in a gyoza wrapper, sparkles at Firecracker. Unlike those of other restaurants, which proffer little more than hot balls of housewife-ish party dip, this Rangoon is awash with flavor. Crab-meat Rangoon is the only Chinese dish I've ever had with cheese in it and thus is my favorite example of fusion cuisine. A pork and apple dumplings starter was savory and piquant and served with a crisp cabbage slaw to add textured zest.

The entrees may betray a compositional debt to Californian cuisine, but Firecracker's kitchen refuses to surrender traditional Chinese firepower. A best-quality filet of salmon mitigated the heat with sweeter spices, like cardamom. It was almost surprising to have the gentle chicken and mushroom chow mein produce such a slow and tantalizing burn.

Eric's Chinese Restaurant, conveniently located right off the J line on Church Street, might--for those feeling wistful for tradition--suffice for a horse-drawn sleigh. The interior is homey and light, with quilt-pattern tablecloths embroidered with turkeys and other familiar animals. I got crab-meat Rangoon again, for reasons already explained, but the real stars were the vegetarian egg rolls. I swallowed two of them before I realized that there was no pork involved. Luckily for me, there was still half left, so I was able to slowly appreciate the crisp flaky shell, the firm and smoky mushrooms and the crunchy cooked bok choy. Eric's prides itself on its tangy mango prawns, which, lying demurely on a bed of purple cabbage, do look surprisingly festive. But even though the dish had one of those indicative chiles next to it on the menu, it wasn't particularly hot or spicy. Without extra spice (which I learned needs to be clearly indicated to your server), the sauce tends to be a little too sweet, but otherwise it's a terrific dish.

Eric's Hunan lamb was spicier than the mango prawns but still nothing compared with the intensity of Firecracker's dishes. The meat was tender and gamy, like the lamb used in Middle Eastern schwerma; its texture nicely balanced the crisp red and green bell peppers (making the presentation again festive). The only disappointment at Eric's was the fried rice, which went limp when paired with the more challenging entrees.

Eliza's, which has been a staple of Potrero Hill dining since it opened four years ago, has recently opened a second restaurant in Hayes Valley. Lit up with neon and somewhat racy art, it has become terribly popular with the off-ramp gentry who have revitalized the neighborhood. A bottle of Tsing Tao revitalized me as I settled in, and soon I was intrigued enough by the mysterious Ocean Party Soup to have it accompany my crab-meat Rangoon. A robust seafood broth swirled around scallops, prawns and mussels with hints of citrus, it was comparable to the Thai soup Tom Ka Gai, but lighter and fresher.

I'm obsessed with lamb, and since it was never available to me growing up on the East Coast, I tend to overdo it now that I can. I ordered the Hunan lamb at both Eric's and Eliza's, not out of any loyalty to comparative reviews but merely out of Rangoon-like gluttony. The Hunan lamb at Eliza's has a cleaner, shorter taste than the lingering woody perfume of Eric's but is spicier and more garlicky. It's a perfect match for the earthy brown rice on which it's nestled.

Firecracker and Eric's are open for Christmas dinner, and all three are open on the nights between Dec. 25 and New Year's Day. One should call a day ahead if one would like to order the ever-elusive and never-ordered (at least not by me) Peking Duck for Christmas dinner. For under $50, it may be the best present you can give yourself.

Firecracker, 1007 1/2 Valencia St.; 415/642-3470; Eric's Chinese Restaurant, 1500 Church St.; 415/282-0919; Eliza's, 205 Oak St. (at Gough); 415/621-4819 and 1457 18th St.; 415/648-9999.

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From the December 21, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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