If you think chicken is restaurant food for losers, you haven't been getting out to enough Chinese restaurants lately. And who could blame you? Going out for Chinese food these days is a little like voting in a presidential primary: there are far too many choices that seem far too much alike, and most of them turn out to be disappointing. But we mustn't let ourselves become discouraged by mediocrity, which after all is the usual state of human affairs and the human beings who conduct them. There are always jewels to be found, glittering in the muck of the mundane, and the task at hand is the pleasant one of discovery.
The chicken-is-for-losers argument was put forth explicitly by Anthony Bourdain in his book Kitchen Confidential. When you don't know what you want, you order chicken. Probably you will forget about the chicken as soon as it's gone, like an episode of bad sex. But maybe you won't forget, if you were lucky or wise enough to have the dry-fried chicken, and to have had it at either of a pair of places on Irving in the Inner Sunset: San Tung or Golden Rice Bowl. As Chinese restaurants in the city go, these places look like strictly neighborhood joints, with not much in the way of décor or other atmospherics, and service that's not exactly coddling, though friendly and competent. But the chicken!
And what is dry-fried chicken, exactly? It could begin with either wings or thigh meat but thigh meat, which is boneless, gives a higher edible yield. The pieces of flesh are dipped in batter or otherwise given some kind of coating, then fried in oil until lightly crisped. The result is a heap of golden chunks and shards, juicy within envelopes of delicate crunch. There might be a discreet flow of spicy sauce. For those who like a certain muscularity in their Chinese cooking, dry-fried chicken could be just the ticket, and the variations between the approaches taken by the respective kitchens at San Tung and Golden Rice Bowl will be a prod to ongoing interest.
We found San Tung's version ($5.50 at lunch, $8 at dinner) to consist of large, flattish chunks of meat, like rocks you could skip across a pond on a summer afternoon. The chunks had been battered and fried to a sturdy gold, with ginger, garlic, and red chile peppers lending an appealingly blunt heat to the proceedings. Across the street, meanwhile, Golden Rice Bowl's edition ($5.50 at lunch, $8.25 at dinner) gave its slightly more cylindrical bits of meat a coating that was less batter looking than some kind of dredging (in cornmeal and pepper); after the hot-oil treatment, the textural effect was similar to that of pepper-fried calamari. The dish also included a slightly sweet sauce, as glossy and dark as molasses and dotted with chunks of red chili pepper for a bit of heat. And the winner is ... a draw.
I don't mean to imply that the two restaurants are identical, or even fraternal, twins. San Tung seems to be, overall, more of a spice-heat palace, as suggested by the little complimentary plate of kimchee that's brought to your table after you're seated. (At Golden Rice Bowl, the nibble consists of daikon and carrot sticks, on the sweet side of pickled.) Perhaps the fire accounts for San Tung's throngs of the young and the trendy; Golden Rice Bowl's demographic appears to be a little older, less noisy, and distinctly Asian this last detail always reassuring, at least to this occidental person.
More San Tung zing can be found in the three deluxe spicy sauce noodles ($7), a quite large bowl filled with linguinelike homemade noodles, shrimp, calamari, and scallops in a reddish, sweet-heat sauce under a rough green cap of cucumber splinters.
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