Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area astound me with their range and depth. Even small places like KL Restaurant, hidden away on a residential corner in the outer Richmond, can produce both refined banquet dishes and homey Cantonese soul food on the turn of a dime. How do they do it?
Cecilia Chiang, the legendary cook and restaurateur who lives in Belvedere but plays mahjong in the avenues, introduced me to this cheerful cafe. The cozy dining room has salmon pink walls and green tile wainscoting and is full of Chinese families at big round tables.
We joined them one night. Chiang arranged a banquet, starting with an elegant turtle soup ($54 for 8), brought steaming hot to the table in ceramic bowls with lids. The beautiful clear broth infused with Chinese herbs and roots, full of bony meat and bits of rich fat from the shell, was a restorative on a cold night.
Despite her admonitions, the rest of the meal poured out of the kitchen before she could slow it. The juices from succulent frog legs, flat Chinese chives and sweet Chinese bacon dripped into moist rice with crunchy edges at the bottom of a clay pot ($40 for 8).
We dipped slices of barely poached geoduck clam ($50), warm, nutty, still crunchy, into soy sauce with fresh ginger and sucked on small whole shrimp, wok fried in their shells with scallions and green chiles ($7.95).
A small black sea bass ($24) had the thrillingly firm, chewy flesh characteristic of fish pulled from the tank a minute before landing in the steamer.
We nibbled crispy slices of pork ribs in a sweet, dark, vinegary sauce ($7.95), extracted clams from shells lubricated with a thick, dark, fermented black bean sauce ($8.95) and slurped fat, fluorescent mustard greens dressed with bits of crisp pork ($6.75).
For me, the destination dish was a bubbling clay pot of creamy tofu in gravy seasoned with mild salted fish and bits of chicken ($6.95) that was deep and savory.
On the way out I noticed that a whole section of the menu was devoted to egg fu yung, adored by my long suffering dining companion who never, ever gets to order it.
The two of us returned and we practically inhaled the big, soft, fried omelets bristling with bean sprouts and nuggets of shrimp, slathered in thickened brown sauce ($6.95). I, too, thought the whole thing was ridiculously tasty.
His second favorite, sweet and sour pork, ($5.25) turned out to be shrimp — the waiter mistook “pork” for “prawn.” No matter. Big, battered, deep-fried balls glistened in a piquant sauce built on vinegar and sugar.
I, on the other hand, happily gnawed my way through a plate of velvety steamed chicken ($6.95), cut into bite-size pieces through the bones — a house special. I spooned deliciously soupy braised spinach enriched with fresh egg, salted egg and preserved egg and seasoned with browned cloves of garlic ($6.75), over rice.
The owner recognized us from the our first meal and came over to say hello, asking if we lived nearby. He was disconsolate when we said no.
Both he and I knew that KL exists to serve the neighborhood. His customers take pension there. I would too, if I lived within a stone’s throw from the Pacific and this little place on its edge.
Location: 4401 Balboa St. (at 45th Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 666-9928
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day
Price range: Most dishes $4.50 to $8.50; live seafood and special dishes at market price
Recommended dishes: House special steamed chicken; turtle soup; shrimp egg fu yung; spinach with three kinds of egg; tofu, chicken and salted fish clay pot; clay pot of rice, frogs legs and Chinese sausage
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa