Dining out: House of Nanking

House of Nanking
919 Kearny St. (at Jackson)
San Francisco
(415) 421-1429

Mon through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

By Malcolm Maclachlan

Years ago, the first time I ever went here, our craggy old Chinese waitress expected us to have our orders ready seconds after we sat down. She was visible annoyed when I asked for more time. I guess she had a point-I suppose I could have figured out what I wanted during the 40 minutes we were waiting in line. Not that anyone had offered me a menu to look at. But the people I was with, old House of Nanking veterans all, calmly ordered us a bunch of food without even glancing at the menu.

These days, the secret is out. House of Nanking is still a cramped hole-in-the-wall. The only thing that looks the slightest bit impressive about it is all the filled-up tables and the permanent line outside permanently threatening to wrap around the corner.

All the waitresses were nice this time. Some of them were under 60, and most were dressed in snazzy rainbow-lettered House of Nanking t-shirts. I felt like something has been lost. The restaurant that has often been compared to the Sienfeld "Soup Nazi" episode had discovered customer service. I was even told they could do "light" on the MSG-though they will never promise their food to be free of the dreaded substance.

But the food is the same. Our foursome started with the onion cake ($6.95), a sweet, fried onion bread in peanut sauce. This is an item I've never had anywhere else, and it is amazing. Also really good was the sizzling beef ($10.95) and eggplant with garlic sauce ($9.95)-especially the eggplant, with was perfectly cook to literally melt in your mouth, no chewing necessary.

We were a little disappointed with the "scallop tower" ($11.95) Not that it wasn't good, but they looked more like a series of four little scallop forts-a scallop Maginot Line, as it were. Each was one large scallop on top of a slice of lemon, in a spicy dark sauce. I think my friends were expecting a Bloomin' Scallop, in Outback Steakhouse style.

We finished with the sesame chicken-the food comes so fast here, we felt comfortable ordering another entrée after polishing off a first round of food. This is also a noted HN dish, with hunks of fried chicken in a spicy brown sauce ($9.95). The best part-the thin slices of apple and sweet potato that the dish included.

Another Sacramento friend and I had gone down to the City to visit friends who had come out from Chicago and said they'd been told House of Nanking was the place to go to in San Francisco for good Chinese food. The left happy with the experience-the cramped conditions, the wait (which actually lasted just long enough for them to park the car and walk back while we stood in line), and the food were as they expected. Even my MSG headache didn't last very long.

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