In a city of Cantonese eateries, a new Sichuan restaurant becomes an event.
Chef Truman Du and dining room manager Jenny Wu recently took over the long-lived Chinatown operation called The Pot Sticker, and breathed life — and a lot of hot pepper — into it. Both partners worked at the refined Z & Y Sichuan Restaurant a few blocks away on Jackson street.
Located in an evocative Chinatown alley amid mahjong and massage parlors and a Chinese opera school, the small, cozy Pot Sticker has just a handful of tables in a room furnished with vintage bamboo print wallpaper, Chinese chairs with red cushions, and a crystal chandelier.
Though namesake pot stickers ($5.95) with tender skins and savory pork filling — a northern Chinese favorite — remain on the menu, incendiary Sichuan dishes from the center of China now prevail.
Believe me, a “mild” level of spiciness delivers plenty of kick from layers of chile oil, dried, pickled and fresh chiles, and fragrant, numbing Sichuan peppercorns. The palate adjusts to capsicum, and I could survive “regular,” but I could never handle “hot.”
Start with cold appetizers shot with chile-fueled heat.
My favorite, “pancake with couple’s delight” ($7.95), encloses thin slices of Sichuan peppercorn blasted brisket and beef tendon, dripping with red chile oil, in a warm, crisp pancake that buffers the fireworks. Shimmery rectangles of cool mung bean gelatin with nutty fried soy beans, shredded cucumber and pungent black beans were submerged in a deep bowl of soupy red chile sauce, less hot than it looks. The contrast of spicy hot and physically cold plays with your sensory intelligence.
Boiled dumplings, with the same filling as the pot stickers, came in a bowl of red chile sauce ($6.95), and I liked them even better this way.
Restore your mouth with rich chicken broth with cucumber and egg flowers ($6.95), and then dive right back into battle with the literally sensational “rural fence basket fish cooked with black bean and chili sauce” ($19.95), a lattice cage of bamboo cradling a boned catfish smothered in sweet and hot chiles studded with black beans and plenty of ginger.
I’m not a fan of catfish, but the fish was clean and sweet, the perfect foil for this luscious relish of a sauce.
Chef Du makes one of the best Dungeness crab dishes in town, a cold cracked crab ($26) with delicate meat scented with chiles, citrusy Sichuan peppercorns and ginger. It must be ordered in advance.
The same kind of manageable referred heat works magic on “shrimp in explosive pepper” ($18.95), succulent shrimp in their shells buried in a basket of wok-toasted red chiles. You smell the chile but don’t feel the heat.
Hunks of fried bitter melon coated in preserved duck egg ($8.95) are a joyride of bitter, salty and sweet, and an antidote for the chile-ravished mouth.
Banquet dishes are garnished with wondrous vegetable carvings like a daikon heron that looked as if it were about to take off, every feather distinct.
A soothing dessert — chewy little mochi balls filled with sesame paste in a gently sweet rice wine soup afloat with red wolfberries and Chinese dates ($5.95) — looks holiday-festive.
In fact, those in search of an exciting Christmas dinner should look no further than Waverly Place.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Pot Sticker
Location: 150 Waverly Place (between Clay and Washington streets, Stockton Street and Grant Avenue), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 397-9985
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily
Price range: $5.95 to $19.95
Recommended dishes: Sichuan mouthwatering chicken; dumplings in spicy sauce; pancake with couple’s delight; rural fence basket fish; cucumber and eggflower soup
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa