Though Superior Palace, an affordable, family-run Cantonese restaurant in the outer Richmond near the Balboa Theater, has been in business for more than 30 years, I hadn’t heard one word about it.
Then, five years ago, Ken Chen and his family from Taishan village in Guangzhou bought the restaurant. He installed his brother-in-law as chef. His wife manages the books and Mr. Chen works on the floor with an accommodating, and English-speaking, waiter.
The buzz finally reached me and I attended a pre-arranged family banquet. I liked the food so much, I returned a few days later to order straight off the menu. On both visits, the food delighted me and my pocketbook rejoiced.
One Sunday, multigenerational Chinese families sat at big round tables in a freshly painted, red-lantern-bedecked dining room. Nicely framed black and white photos, taken by a photography group that regularly meets there, decorated the walls. “Happy Birthday,” sung first in English and then in Chinese, drifted from a separate dining area near the front door, a place to remember for a semi-private party.
Our round table was set with little saucers of bitter melon pickle, sweet and bitter in balanced proportion (like a well-sugared espresso), and dishes of toasted peanuts, all of which we nibbled until a waiter staggered out of the kitchen with a whole, pale green winter melon, filled with a rich broth studded with bits of frog, shrimp, fresh and dried scallops and salt-cured ham.
The waiter scraped out ribbons of the winter melon’s soft and velvety flesh for each bowl. I had three.
Roasted squab had shiny, burnished skin and moist, dense flesh.
A heaping platter of golden fried nuggets turned out to be pieces of satiny orange squash — kabocha — and geoduck clam belly, dusted with white pepper.
The long neck of the clam was cut into opalescent slices tossed with snap peas, celery and Chinese chives in a delicate ginger-scented stir-fry, a wonderful preparation of this sublime Washington state delicacy.
A dish that married juicy Asian mushrooms with circles of creamy Japanese egg tofu was all about subtlety and texture.
The excitingly chewy flesh of a whole steamed rock fish gently resisted being pulled off the bone, just the way it should. Toothsome fresh noodles swirled in its gingery braising juices, turning a single fish into a feast.
This bounteous banquet with a whole crab, coated in salted duck egg yolk and fried till it formed a gritty crust, cost about $30 a person.
But my favorite dish of all, bright green, tender Chinese chives, wok-tossed with thin slices of sugar-cured Chinese bacon ($8.95), comes straight off the menu. Our waiter suggested it.
Superior’s version of snow pea leaves ($10.50) with preserved eggs is perfect — tender, pea-scented greens bathed in buttery tasting liquid. The chef prepares braised pork belly ($6.95) with a light hand, rendering all the fat but leaving the meat soft and sexy, caressed by a black bean sauce flecked with pickled greens.
I also loved a clay pot of soft tofu made savory with bits of pork and salted fish ($6.95), delicate but soulful.
Superior Palace’s chef, straight from Guangzhou, really knows how to draw out and balance flavors without resorting to the salt default, a skill characteristic of the best Cantonese cooks. Let the buzz grow louder!
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 3546 Balboa St. (at 37th Avenue), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 387-1386
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Price range: $5.50 to $18
Recommended dishes: Chinese chives with bacon; pea leaves with preserved egg; clay pot with tofu, chicken and salted fish; deep-fried pumpkin; roasted squab
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa