House of Nanking, San Francisco, CA [Off Topic]

Indulge me over the next few days, since I’m catching up from some time on the road and wanting to use this space to document a few of my experiences that have nothing at all to do with the music business.

Back in January, I enjoyed the chance to visit San Francisco for Macworld Expo. A wonderful, thrilling, fast-paced week. The last time I was in SF, Lori and I visited at the beginning of the end of the dot-com bubble so I could attend a “future of music” conference where everyone fretted about what might happen if MP3 downloads ever reached 64kbps quality. Oh, those were the days. During that visit, we enjoyed some of the best food of our lives, and I knew that I’d be in for just as much of a treat this time around.

Sure enough, I chalked up three of my most memorable dinners during this trip. So, whether you’re a musician on the road, looking for some yummy but inexpensive grub, or you’re a random visitor stumbling across this site for the first time, I present to you:

The House of Nanking

House of NankingMy new friend Antonio from Baltimore rousted up a Citysearch review for House of Nanking that looked promising after Mike and I suggested that we hike up to Chinatown from our hotel on Market. We wanted something inexpensive but fun, and maybe a little off the beaten path. The site suggested making reservations, but it was still early, so we headed uphill.

Set apart from the rest of the restaurants in the neighborhood, House of Nanking looks like a cross between a South Philly diner and a London Chinese takeaway. There’s zero design going on here — just utility. A mishmash of diner chairs and a cramped, goofy layout resulting from half of a wall knocked out between adjacent buildings. We got seats right by the miniscule kitchen. I once owned a microwave oven larger than this kitchen. I’m not even kidding.

A curt waiter grabbed our drink orders, and plopped down three cans of soda with two straws. Not quite the foodie heaven we pictured from the reviews. “Hey, I’ve eaten in way worse places,” I consoled. The stripped-down menu didn’t really hold allure for me, either. I hadn’t been eating red meat for a while, and there was a lot of beef on offer. I suggested to our waitress that I would simply have the chicken fried rice. (I really like chicken fried rice, and I always hated the fact that I couldn’t get any when I lived in Athens. So I seem to constantly try to make up for lost time by ordering it when I see it on the menu.)

The waitress actually crinkled up her nose at me and told me, “No. I really wouldn’t recommend the fried rice. I’ll tell you what — you came all this way for good food, so let us take care of you.” With that, she took our menus.

In hindsight, having read other reviews online, this appears to be a tactic that the staff use here quite often. It could be that the cooks are feisty and love to create tasting menus based on their moods. It could also be an easy way to shift merchandise based on what’s available that morning. Some of the online super-foodies take it as an insult — they don’t want to be told what to eat. We took it as an adventure, and I’m glad we did.

After ten minutes of nervous discussion, our waitress returned with three family-size trays of the most amazing Asian food I have ever experienced.

The sesame chicken made me want to find the nearest Panda Express and kick someone square in the nuts for the crimes they have committed against this cuisine. I never knew that dish could taste so good. Instead of the gloppy chicken nuggets we Americans are used to, we feasted on lean strips of breast meat in a light sauce. We could taste every flavor that went into the dish. I felt like Gordon Ramsay at the end of a Kitchen Nightmares where the chef has finally learned to cook.

Next, a really surprising dish, the Cracklin’ Beef. This was really a chopped salad of Romaine and diced tomatoes — almost like a salsa — with the tiniest strips of stir-fried steak. Think Philly cheese steak, but with a little more snap to the bite. I would probably never order this if I saw it on the menu, yet I consider it one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.

Finally, the spicy fish. I asked the waitress if she could tell me what kind of fish it was, and she replied, “it’s good fish.” Touche. It was a light, white fish simmered in a spicy red sauce. To cut the kick, it came with a side of thinly sliced sweet potatoes, another unexpectedly amazing combination.

As we enjoyed our meal, other diners in the cramped space would lean in and ask us if everything was good — it was fun to be a part of this communal adventure.

With drinks and tip, the three of us got out of there for under $60. More than a typical diner, but far less than the Day Job’s per diem. On our way out, we noticed that a line had formed up the block and someone had to put out velvet ropes in front of this place that would give vintage CBGB a fair shot at winning a cleanliness contest.

It’s probably not for everyone — you might not want your menu dictated to you, you might not want cola in a can, and you might prefer a fawning waitstaff. And I certainly heard folks tell me that the place is not as good as it once was, which is kind of like saying you’d rather not see U2 play live today because they’re not as good as they were when War was released. Contrary to what I’ve read online, there were plenty of Asian folks chowing down in the dining room, so if that’s your barometer of a good Chinese restaurant, there you go. All I know is, I’m probably going to have to visit the place whenever I’m in town, which hopefully won’t take another eight years.

House of Nanking919 Kearny StSan Francisco, CA 94133-5106Phone: (415) 421-1429