Lichee Garden knows family-style cooking

Annie Siu, the dining-room half of the husband-and-wife team that has owned and operated Lichee Garden since 1980, recognized me when I walked in the door. I used to live in North Beach and Lichee was the family canteen for won ton soup and egg foo yung.

Five years later, Lichee’s nimble kitchen, still mostly manned by chef-owner Chak Siu, continues to turn out deeply satisfying family-style dishes that please both Chinese and Western palates. The prices are amazingly cheap.

Yanek Chiu, my Hong Kong-born dining companion, suggested a revisit. He ordered a Cantonese soul-food dinner starting with river-turtle soup ($12.75), a dark brown mixed-meat broth with pieces of chicken feet and pork, hearty but muddy.

No vegetable could have been brighter in flavor or appearance than thick, sinuous ribbons of fresh mustard greens with meaty whole brown mushrooms ($8.75).

A clay pot of tofu with diced chicken and the pure umami of dried fish ($7.50) was completed by rice. I ate bowls.

If you’re a deep-fried taro fan as I am, don’t miss Lichee’s signature pressed duck with taro ($6.75), a thin, crisp layer of duck topped with creamy lavender taro puree all encased in a crisp taro crust. It’s one of those cooking miracles. Eat it all while it is hot and crispy.

Annie Siu recommended a new dish, wok-fried slices of short rib with bone ($8.75). Too chewy for me, especially when you can have similar bone-in slices of house-special pork chop ($5.50) with its addictive, black vinegar and raw sugar glaze, a beloved Lichee classic.

A meal for four with take home — $51.

I revisited with a table of Caucasians, arriving a little early to pre-order the menu with Annie Siu, perennially on the floor. Seven of us feasted on a crisp-skinned half-chicken ($8), cut into pieces through the bone, the most delectable bits, the boniest.

I drank bowls of shredded winter melon and dried scallop soup ($7), adding white pepper and salt to taste. We had house-special pork chops and shrimp egg foo yung ($9.75), which Siu suggested because she remembered how much my husband loved it; and a heaping plate of ong choy ($6.95), long-stemmed Chinese watercress that tastes like tangy spinach.

We spooned minced squab with pine nuts into iceberg lettuce cups smeared with hoisin sauce ($12.50) and ate them like tacos.

We finished with a whole steamed rock cod ($25 per pound), its flesh almost chewy with freshness, scented with ginger, scallions and a pouf of coriander. I advise sucking every morsel of succulent flesh from the head. The meal for seven came to around $100.

The dining room, with its low ceiling, evokes an old-fashioned Hong Kong tea house with wood paneling, dark green carpeting and tables covered in well-worn olive green linen. I’ve always found it commodious, with many tables for parties of two or four.

Two new developments: Dim sum lunch has been replaced by an astoundingly inexpensive menu of noodles and rice plates; and Siu’s son, Jason, whom I knew when he was little, has just graduated from Lowell and is trying to decide between Cornell or Georgetown. Rest assured that his parents will be working at Lichee every day for at least four more years.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.”

Lichee Garden

Location: 1416 Powell St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 397-2290 or www.licheegarden.ypguides.net

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Price range: $5 to $11.75

Recommended dishes: Won ton soup, egg foo yung, pressed duck with taro, crispy roasted chicken, house-special spareribs, mustard greens with brown mushrooms, shredded winter melon soup

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa

Reservations: Accepted

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