When In Roam

Carl Chu's Food & Travel Blog

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Brandy Ho's, San Francisco

San Francisco has some really unique Chinese restaurants, but don't look for them smack in the middle of Chinatown. Rather, consider looking "outside the box."

Start with Brandy Ho’s, located next to North Beach where the Italian restaurants are. It proclaims itself as a “peasant” Hunan restaurant, but at first glance the menu seems like another tourist trap. There are the predictable standbys of Sweet And Sour Pork and Beef And Broccoli, and it occasionally tries to lead you on with a fancy name like “Hunan Gon-Pou Chicken.” However, if you bother to read the description of that dish, you get the quick sense that it is just another iteration of Kungpao Chicken.

But deeper inside the menu exists an altogether different adventure: “smoked meats” made in-house. Meat-smoking is a Hunan specialty. In Chinese it is called “larou” (waxed meats), which is a method of preserving whole cuts of meat by drying and smoking them thoroughly so that they end up looking like blocks of wax. Almost any kind of meat can be “waxed”: pork, fish, chicken.

I order the "Smoked Ham" lunch special. The meat is sliced thin, and stir-fried with carrots, green peppers, and bamboo shoots. You can choose to have it prepared mild, medium, or extra spicy. I ask for medium, and the dish arrives suitably hot by adding a few dollops of fermented chili paste. The execution of the dish, by using carrots, green peppers, and bamboo shoots, is purely Americanized form. Even the fermented chili paste lacks true authenticity because Hunan peasants would have used fresh or whole chilies instead.

But my Smoked Ham dish also shows unmistakable Chinese characteristics. It is not draped under a heavily sauce, so that the flavors of the ingredients have a chance to stand out. The smoked ham itself is moist and tender, exuding a delightful aroma more pungent than American ham but less cloying than Cantonese charsui pork. Overall, it is a well-balanced, excellent Chinese-American fusion dish.

The lunch special also comes with hot and sour soup, onion pancakes, and pickled Napa cabbage.

Brandy Ho’s is at 217 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, California.

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