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Bon Hon Restaurant (San Francisco CA)
||850 Grant Avenue,|
San Francisco, CA 94108
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page: 24 25
Sand pot dishes in restaurants are rare, one that serves dozens of them rarer still. Asking around for suggestions of a special kind of restaurant can be as difficult as finding a good Chinese restaurant where few Chinese live. New Yorkers enjoyed their Say Eng Luk in Chatham Square just outside of Chinatown, but that restaurant is ancient history. Their Ningpo cuisine and what they called 'casserole dishes' are things of the past, faded except in memory where some of us can still taste the Fish Head and the Bean Curd Casseroles. Those were my two favorite sand pots. Must have eaten either or both dozens of times. So I was thrilled when the owner of The Wok Shop, Tane Chan, told me to hunt no more in San Francisco. Sandy Pot dishes were just down the block from her store.
Toyed with never telling because a fortune cookie I got the night before at a different Chinese restaurant said 'keep things secret for now.' As you know from the previous issue. i>Flavor and Fortune's Volume 7(3) on pages 7 and 8, sand pot cookery has a long history in China. That article did mention this place and promised a review, but did not explain the technique when going to a Chinese restaurant in a large Chinatown and how one manages not to be served American-Chinese food. The owner here spoke little English, perhaps he had little time to learn because he was too busy. When pressed, he did respond to the sentence: Heard you had the most authentic Chinese food in town, that is, authentic Chinese sand pot food. Flattery always works in a Chinese restaurant, if evoked long before you are ready to order. Here we discussed what were the most popular Chinese sand pots, which ones had the longest history of use in China, how he learned to cook them, and which ones were those he’d like me to tell all my Chinese fiends about.
Though every seat was full, and there were two tables of large parties upstairs and a group of very elderly Chinese men invited to enjoy a free Chinese New Year dinner, also upstairs, there was no trouble getting answers and great food. Bon Hon, from the outside, may appear to be a tired local spot, but when management wants to show you their best, the once pink table tops almost shine along with the food.
We were served classic Cantonese sand pots, the kind an all-Chinese audiences love. They were made with excellent ingredients, all cut properly, and every one of them cooked to a turn. The four-person kitchen staff serving the thirty-two seats on the main floor and two dozen more than that upstairs were eager to please. The elderly owner waited on everyone, though halfway through dinner a young lady did arrive to take cash and orders, too. No one was rushed though the line outside kept growing. Clearly, people in San Francisco know that good sand pot cookery can be had here.
On a first visit, we had three sand pots (they come small or large) with gorgeous steamed gai lan seasoned with oyster sauce. These pots are featured twice on the menu, once in rice cookery and the second time as soup dishes. The ones we tasted that night and on the next day at lunch came hot–-really scalding hot. Some were beef based with lotus root slices, some chicken, shrimp, or vegetable based; all were so tasty it was pure pleasure to savor every mouthful.
The Bon Hon Special one day was thick yet soupy, the solids that were loaded within were ham, black mushrooms, bai cai (bok choy), and what the owner called fish balls. He served us ours with Pot Stickers, something he said went well with this particular dish. The fish balls were flat, not round, and they were almost white. The other contents were not brown, either. Though disappointing in looks, this dish sparkled with the rice vinegar served on the side. One of our guests rated them ‘fantastic.’ We like ours with a mite of soy sauce and hesitated about adding any until we noticed an elderly lady and her young charge were doing just that; mixing theirs with the clear tangy rice vinegar.
The clay or sand pot with rice, shrimp, and chicken feet was wonderful. The rice under these ingredients tasted like a mixture of them, sauce soaked up and ever so savory. When we asked if a House Soup was provided, we were served a lotus root soup that was thin yet rich. Only the tea disappointed. We asked the owner about this and he told us that he keeps prices low and quality high and that his elder customers do not seem to mind, and that his younger clientele partakes of the soda available in a cooler in the kitchen.
On our second visit, when we were waiting on a line outside, we chatted a lot with others. Inside we chatted with the owner and he never rushed us. He was pleased to tell us about the history of the clay pot, discuss each recipe, also how he started in business. We left more than two hours later and the line was with folks still willing to wait for a clay pot or two.
The Chinese do believe that nothing is more important than eating. If you desire the best that a restaurant has to offer, start by flattering the owner and staff. Participate with both in lots of discussion. Wait staff sometimes, but owners almost always, seem to take the time to tell you about their food and then serve the best they have to offer.