Kam’s Restaurant, an unnoticeable Hong Kong-style coffee shop on the same block as the Balboa Theater, has been open there since 1974, but three months ago owner Kathy Wong hired a new chef, Yip Fung, formerly of the R & G Lounge.
Wong herself is a Chinese tea and Italian coffee expert, and her partner Sarah Chu specializes in Asian-style desserts. With a daily menu of specials, and another of chef’s recommendations, both written in Chinese and English, the experience at Kam’s evokes Hong Kong’s worldly embrace of South Chinese and Western culinary customs.
I recommend sitting in the first of Kam’s two connected dining rooms, out of the draft of a ventilation system that whistles through the second room into the kitchen.
In true coffee shop fashion, tables are bare, napkins are paper, and an espresso machine and tea paraphernalia grace the counter at the back of the first room. A huge backlit photograph of Hong Kong at night casts an urbane glow.
The most exciting dishes come from the specials menus, such as a kabocha squash seafood soup ($12), a silky orange puree that hints of the sea, studded with tender scallops, shrimp and squid. It delivers all the pleasure of a chowder without one drop of cream.
House special dried ginger chicken ($12) is not dry at all. Rather, this velvety, moist steamed chicken comes with ginger paste on the side.
Pan-fried salted fish with minced pork ($7.95) are actually thick, fried pork patties seasoned with dried fish, each nesting in a lettuce cup — another succulent, sauceless dish.
Chef Fung has a way with glass noodles. One night we each got a 6-inch-long surf clam shell piled with steamed clam and glass noodles, in a clam-infused broth ($6.95 each), one of the most dramatic looking dishes at Kam’s.
Crab with cellophane noodle pot ($28) brings more glass noodles infused with red chile, ginger, soy and tons of scallion, pieces of a whole, cracked, fried crab buried in them. The crab is moist, sweet and perfectly cooked.
To start, consider shredded chicken with jellyfish ($14), a vivacious Chinese salad with ribbons of jellyfish and chicken that soak up sesame-scented dressing.
Thick, crunchy stems of gai lan ($8.95), Chinese broccoli, is sprinkled with pulverized dried fish, a toasty, salty seasoning I find addictive.
Those who are homesick for Hong Kong can order big tureens of mild, fruity, soupy curry with soft duck and hunks of potato-like taro, and use steamed, then fried, buns to sop up the gravy.
Dinner seamlessly moves into dessert, with chef Chu’s whole young coconuts filled with delicate, creamy coconut pudding ($5.95), each bite enhanced by a scraping of soft, young coconut from the interior.
Triple layer squares of espresso-strength coffee and cream gelatin ($3.25), and a fantastic honey-jasmine gelatin dotted with lychees and set with a Taiwanese root called conjac ($2.75), all end a meal on a high note, along with excellent macchiato ($2.45) made with Central American beans, or a pot of Wong’s fragrant, house-blend tea ($10).
Combine these treats with chef Fung’s South Chinese cooking and its eclectic Hong Kong overtones, and Kam’s is just the kind of coffee shop where you’ll find me hanging out — without an iPad.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 3620-24 Balboa St. (at 37th Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 752-6355, www.kamsrestaurant.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Price range: $5.99 to $28
Recommended dishes: Kabocha squash seafood soup, shredded chicken with jellyfish, crab with cellophane noodle pot, house special dried ginger chicken, young coconut pudding
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express