So if I were on death row and asked to pick my last meal, my first choice would be a bowl of my momma’s seafood gumbo, my second her divine oyster spaghetti with her otherworldly spicy tomato sauce. Alas, my mom passed away many years ago.
My backup choice might surprise you: the spicy harvest pork from Brandy Ho’s Hunan Food restaurant on the apron of San Francisco’s historic Chinatown.
Cajun and Creole will always be my chief comfort foods and New Orleans my favorite foodie city. But I’m an Asian food hound. The nine eventful years I lived in San Francisco between 1982 and 1990 did that to me. The 22 years I lived in and around New York City from 1993 to 2015 (the last six in Manhattan itself) sealed the deal. (The interim years I spent in London.)
As a bonus, in 2001 I was thrilled to snag a three-week trip to Hong Kong and Singapore to teach a feature-writing course to new hires on the Asian Wall Street Journal. There, with in-the-know locals as my food shepherds, I ate joyously from one end of those food-mad cities to the other. One interpretation of Hong Kong food is an upscale, gourmet take on traditional Cantonese. As for Singapore cuisine, that’s a story in itself. Singapore cooking, owing to its variegated immigrant population, takes its influences from China, Malaysia, India and Indonesia, and much of the best food is found in the stalls of street hawkers who dish out beloved gems like chili crab and Hainanese chicken rice.
But back to America. Both San Francisco and New York are blessed with the two oldest and most established Chinatowns in all of the U.S., and in my time in those cities I worked in walking proximity to each. They are populated by Chinese and other Asian immigrants who came with no intention of leaving their tasty traditional food behind. And given the relative sophistication of the dining scenes there, restaurants — even, maybe especially, casual Asian eateries — that aren’t at the top of their game don’t last long. Thus, both of these Chinatowns are Asian food paradises.
Of course, I had dined on Asian food — well, Chinese food — long before I arrived in San Francisco. Most of it, in retrospect, was not great (and some of it awful.) Surely some of my Louisiana friends recall their parents — as mine did — opening cans of watery La Choy Chop Suey, heating it up and dumping it over white rice for supper on those days Mom didn’t feel like cooking. Pass the soy sauce, please, and lots of it.
I know one or two Chinese restaurants (Cantonese, most certainly) operated in Houma by the time I left for graduate school at the University of Missouri in 1975. It was a novelty then, and I recall being thrilled to dine on something as exotic as egg foo young (not realizing that the dish is actually an American pancake-omelet fusion creation with roots in Shanghai but with a Cantonese name.)
Until I arrived in San Francisco, however, all the Chinese food I’d ever had was of the ubiquitous Cantonese variety, a style of cooking that encompasses everything from egg foo young, pork fried rice and chicken chow mein to barbecue pork buns, beef chow fun and soup dumplings. Cantonese restaurants dedicated to dim sum, the popular steamed buns and dumplings typically filled with vegetables or pork, form a tasty subset of the Cantonese spectrum.
By some estimates, there are more than 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., and the Cantonese style heavily dominates. There are two reasons for that. First, most early Chinese immigrants to America came from what was known as Canton Province (Guangdong in modern China), which borders the South China Sea just above Hong Kong. Second, the style of cooking, while savory, isn’t particularly spicy, therefore suiting the average American palate. Cantonese cooks typically employ ingredients such as soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, vinegar, sesame oil and garlic but use few herbs and go light on the chili peppers.
But like many people who grew up in the Gumbo Belt, I’m a hot sauce guy, and I gravitate toward spicy foods. I love my sauce piquante, some extra cayenne in my jambalaya and an extra dash of Tabasco in my gumbo. So I was thrilled, when I arrived in San Francisco, to find its legendary Chinatown packed with Asian restaurants that could accommodate my envie for peppery dishes.
My initial introduction was to Hunan food, which takes its name from the sprawling, agriculturally rich province in central China. Hunan cooking has a reputation for being “dry and spicy,” an effect achieved by its liberal use of chili peppers, chili oil, shallots, herbs and garlic. More than 80 Asian restaurants crowd San Francisco’s compact Chinatown which, at a half-mile long and a quarter-mile wide, is roughly the size of New Orleans’ French Quarter. While most of these restaurants cook some style of Chinese cuisine, you can find Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and Indian food there as well.
I was a roving correspondent in The Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau, and our downtown office building was an easy 15-minute stroll to Chinatown’s heart. One colleague who had been there for years and learned of my spicy food cravings said, “We’re eating Hunan for lunch.”
Off we went to Brandy Ho’s Hunan Food on Columbus Avenue, strolling by the iconic Transamerica Pyramid building, which is a mere three blocks from the restaurant’s front door. It was and is an unassuming place with a red, white and blue awning emblazoned with its name on its storefront. But I immediately knew I was in the right place when I saw that a long, fanciful red chili pepper replaced the apostrophe in Ho’s.
Inside, the restaurant was and is as unpretentious as on the outside. A giant “NO MSG” sign dominates one wall. A bar fronts an elongated cooking station where you can sit and watch your food being prepared in giant sizzling woks over superhot fires. The main dining area is on two levels, and the tables range from two tops to some that can accommodate a dozen people. Big glass-door coolers hold the perfect pairings for the spicy food offerings: frosty cold Tsingtao beer, a perfectly fine Chinese lager, and — it being San Francisco — a good selection of craft beer, including local favorite, Anchor Steam.
When you walk in you will be tempted to say what South Louisiana people say when they walk into Maw-Maw’s kitchen on red beans and rice day: “It sure smells good in here.”
As a novice, I had no idea what to order other than the leanings of my palate toward pork, chicken and beef, in that order, particularly combined with chilis, chili oil and garlic. And I love my noodles. But with a little help from my colleagues who were pretty much regulars and the inexpensive lunch special combinations on Brandy Ho’s lunch menu, it was easy.
The harvest pork, which would become my go-to dish, consists of tender slices of pork with diced onion and Chinese cabbage, hot-wokked in a wine and “hot bean sauce.” The only critical question from the server is “How hot? Mild, medium or hot?” — with a cautionary declaration that hot here means what it implies. I recall looking around the table at my more experienced colleagues for guidance but they just laughed. “C’mon, Tabasco Man. You gotta go for the hot!”
I took this as a dare, which it was — and the server wasn’t lying. You have to pick through the mounds of red chili peppers to get to the food. As a person who used to drink Tabasco sauce from the bottle, I didn’t suffer third-degree tongue burn but, boy, those two (or was it three?) cold Tsingtaos really helped. From that point to this day, I’ve almost always stuck to medium, because the succulent pork melded with the savory vegetables is just too delicious to let the peppers overwhelm the flavors.
Anyway, I was hooked. As a showcase of the range of Hunan dishes, the harvest pork comes with two starters — an extremely tangy hot-and-sour soup and a cold noodle salad with sliced cucumbers in a divine peanut sauce that is the perfect counterpoint to the spicy main course. If I didn’t order the harvest pork, I ordered the house smoked ham with fresh cloves of garlic, green onions and bamboo shoots. When the dish arrives, it’s reminiscent of home; think the wafting aromas of a South Louisiana smokehouse suffused with the Asian aromatics of a great stir-fry. The starters for that dish include a triangular, deep-fried, melt-in-your-mouth green onion cake and spicy pickled veggies, typically cucumber, bell pepper and cabbage marinated in a hot-chili vinegar.
Brandy Ho’s had two or three Hunan rivals and we tried them all, occasionally veering off for Vietnamese, Thai and sushi. But it became the regular go-to lunch place on Fridays for at least half of the news staff during the entire nine years I served in the San Francisco bureau. I would eventually learn that the restaurant had been opened by first-generation Chinese immigrants only two years before I arrived.
Flash forward: I visited San Francisco this past April, and Brandy Ho’s is not simply still going strong. I went to lunch there with several former Journal colleagues and ordered — what else — the harvest pork. I can declare that it tasted exactly the same as the dish I first fell in love with in 1982. That kind of consistency explains why Brandy Ho is still cooking 37 years after it opened.
There’s a delicious rival to spicy Hunan — the cuisine of the northern Chinese province of Sichuan (formerly spelled Szechuan.) But San Francisco, for all the variety of its Chinese food, isn’t the capital of American Sichuan cooking. New York is.
I learned that from a great mentor, a New Yorker by the name of Glynn Mapes who was the Page One editor of the Journal when I joined the paper in San Francisco. Glynn later became the London bureau chief and was my direct boss when I served in that bureau from 1990 to 1993. We more or less transferred to positions in the New York office, which was downtown, around the same time.
If I’ve become an Asian food hound, Glynn has long been the Big Dog of Asian food. Pretty much every workday at lunch time, he would leave the office and walk to Chinatown, where I think it’s possible that over the course of many years he ate in every single New York Chinatown restaurant. (His list of Chinatown restaurant recommendations still circulates in the Journal’s New York office to this very day, despite the fact that he left the paper about two decades ago.)
Everybody wanted to tag along and I often did (but not five days a week.) We had some extremely memorable meals at places like Joe’s Shanghai, famed for its soup dumplings and scallion pancakes. (Shanghai cuisine is its own interesting niche, sometimes called “red cooking” for its reliance on pickled ingredients, which give the dishes a shiny look, and thick sauces crafted from soy sauce and sugar.)
We also dined frequently at a Cantonese joint called Great New York Noodletown that — despite its tourist-trap name — offers the best Cantonese food I’ve ever eaten. In season, we’d go there to gorge on a dish that I know would go down well in the Gumbo Belt: salt-baked softshell crabs. The sautéed flowering chives side dish was emblematic of the exotic and utterly tasty take on Cantonese that Noodletown offers. (Both Joe’s and Noodletown are still in business.)
New York’s Chinatown had a couple of decent Sichuan restaurants but Glynn — a Sichuan snob in the best sense of the word — knew where the good stuff was. The first was Wu Liang Ye, an old-line midtown eatery tucked into a brownstone and famous for perhaps my personal favorite Sichuan dish: dan dan noodles. This is an interpretation (or perhaps a forerunner of) pasta served up with a meat sauce spiced up with chili oil. The other place Glynn would invite Sichuan acolytes to gather is Land of Plenty, also in mid-town.
I asked Glynn what it is about Sichuan that makes him call it the “king” of spicy Chinese food.
He explained: “Two key ingredients distinguish Sichuan cooking from everywhere else in China: Sichuan peppercorns and Yibin preserved veggie buds. Surprisingly, Sichuan peppercorns are unrelated to chili peppers or black pepper. They are the roasted seed-husks of the prickly-ash tree. And they don’t taste ‘hot’ at all. Instead, they produce a pleasant numbing sensation in your mouth, which allows the delicious taste of chilis — ever-present in Sichuan cuisine — to shine through without murdering your taste buds.
“The veggie buds, named after Yibin City, home of the best quality buds, are chopped-up bits of mustard green, which then are fermented and mixed with star anise. Sichuan stir-fry green beans, if they are authentic, must have veggie buds. Ask the waiter if the beans contain ‘ya cai.’ If the answer is no, find another restaurant. (The dish is also sometimes served with minced pork.)
“So my favorite Sichuan meal would start with dumplings in hot chili oil (flat, rice-flour dumplings — slippery to eat with chopsticks but very tasty). Then, any meat or shrimp stir-fried with peppercorns. And green beans with ya cai and minced pork as the vegetable.”
Glynn has another rule of thumb about picking a good Sichuan (or Hunan or Cantonese restaurant) if you’re in an unfamiliar city, or if you’re one of those tourists who just doesn’t want to bother with guidebooks even as you cruise through a fabled Chinatown like New York’s. Look in the restaurant window; if it’s full of locals, try to get a seat and ask the waiter what everyone is eating.
I offer a caveat to that. Like Cajuns who make a fetish over poule d’eau (pool doo) gumbo, which is an acquired taste for most of the rest of the world, Sichuan cuisine has a wild and exotic side. I recently dined in Chicago’s modest Chinatown and, perusing the dishes pasted on the window of one such restaurant, I discovered among the offerings pork intestines with fresh garlic and pork brain in spicy sauce.
I decided to keep moving. Even I have limits.