Passing through SFO on her way to New York, former San Francisco chowhound, chibi, joined me for dinner last week. Initially wed planned to try Shalizaar in San Mateo, but my tardiness limited us to something closer to the airport.
We had no particular place in mind and just headed to Millbrae, Northern Californias epicenter of fine Cantonese cuisine, to see what would appeal to her. We cruised slowly past HKFL2, Kwongs Seafood, Fook Yuen, Cheung Hing, and Seafood Harbor on El Camino Real. Seafood Harbor had been her favorite of the Millbrae triumvirate, but because Id been there the previous week, we pushed ahead. Since she had not tried Jumbo Seafood before, we thought wed try that except that it was closed on Tuesday night. She started to eye some of the other Chinese restaurants on Broadway, wondering what they might be like, but I suggested that we not use up this dinner on chow-scouting and go with a known dinner house.
The original Hong Kong Flower Lounge, now renamed Hong Kong Pavilion, was new territory for her. I was surprised to find it full of families at 7:30 pm, whereas Seafood Harbor was nearly empty the week before. We had a few minutes wait for a table giving us a chance to drool over the menu. The week day draw seemed to be the Monday-Friday discounted dishes and two special sets of abalone with either sharks fin or birds nest soup. These were posted on an easel near the entrance and on table top placards.
My worries about getting her to the plane on time vanished once our waiter appeared. He was very brisk in taking our order and sprinted it back to the kitchen. I commented that this was the fastest Ive ever placed an order, and she nodded that he was very efficient and so Cantonese in manner. Maybe it was too fast a transaction, as it soon dawned on us that wed loaded up on salty things and had not ordered any vegetables. (g)
First up was roasted squab with garlic soya sauce. Normally $15, this is $10.99 weekdays. Lord-y, it was good! Glassy dark brown crackly skin and seasoned to a turn so that it was delicious by itself. Yet the slightly sweetened thick soy dipping sauce amplified it even more. Chibi felt this bird was juicier than usual and I thought it was a larger size too. Our one complaint would be that the squab had been cut into quarters instead of six pieces, making it hard to manage. We didnt stand on ceremony and chewed on them out of hand.
The next dish was the queens clam, served in the large single half-shell. A new bivalve for chibi, she pounced on it immediately. Then she hissed, put everything down, drop the squab, you have to taste this now! Clear steamed with a sheer lightly seasoned soy sauce and a blanket of shredded pale scallions, every bit of goodness in the pristinely fresh and sweet clam was highlighted. It had been cut expertly along each muscle type scallop, body, belly and fringe causing chibi to comment that she had a new appreciation for the different textures and flavors of each clam part. This was the best rendition of this dish so far of the five or so times Ive tried this from other restaurants.
Sauteed frog with minced pork and salted duck egg was a preparation Id not run across before. The meaty frog legs had been dusted with salt and pepper seasoned flour, oil-blanched or deep-fried, and then sauteed with the pork, scallions, garlic, and chopped duck egg. At first, it didnt look right and we thought our order might have gotten mixed up. Then we noticed the bits of pork on the bottom of the plate, the tiny flecks of egg white stuck to the breading, and the sensation of the powdery duck egg yolk on our lips. Really interesting flavor combination yet, initially, I wasnt sure whether I actually liked it. As we nibbled on the tiny bones, chibi asked, shouldnt we be drinking beer in front of a big screen TV in a sports bar? It was exactly the type of oily-rich, garlicky and salty snack that would be so good when watching the game. It grew on both of us, and we decided that it was a good dish but so intense it should be shared by more than two people.
When the chicken and salted fish fried rice came out, we were on saline overload and couldnt handle much of this. It wasnt a very good version anyway. Rice was too soft and moist, the chicken was cut into big chunks, and there was too much shredded lettuce. I wouldnt order this again.
We lucked out on the complimentary house dessert - flower tofu with ginger sauce this time. Not the softest weve had, but very smooth and flavorful with a strong gingery bite in the syrup.
$55 including tax and tip. And there was enough leftover for a nice lunch for me.
Hong Kong Pavilion
(formerly Hong Kong Flower Lounge)
1671 El Camino Real