Hearty, heartfelt fare served authentically at Hakka 

The Hakka people moved from central to south China a thousand years ago. According to E. N. Anderson in his indispensable “The Food of China,” they settled in the mountainous areas of Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces where they probably intermarried with minorities.

If the language is closer to Mandarin than to the southern languages, Hakka cooking is similar to Cantonese, though simpler, humbler and even more focused on the freshness of ingredients.

The brand new Hakka Restaurant, within sniffing distance of the ocean, gives us an opportunity to taste some of the most famous Hakka dishes authentically prepared by chef Li Jin Hiu, who cooked at Koi Palace. 

His wife runs the small dining room, already packed at night with diners at big round tables plus a few rectangles.

At both lunch and dinner, platters of  deep-fried pumpkin strips coated with salted egg ($6.95) appeared on every table. Li told me that it is a dish from his village. We’re lucky it traveled here. Small tender slices of kabocha squash get a crisp, salty, gritty crust that whispers of anchovy — it’s the salted egg.

Salt-baked chicken ($23 for a whole chicken) is another Hakka specialty. Cut into small pieces through the bone, the meat is moist, chewy and essentially chickeny. Li uses “yellow feathered chickens” — wilder in flavor, costlier and smaller than the more common free-range chicken.

Usually I don’t even bother eating breast meat, but the breast pieces of this chicken had exceptional character. The skin, though golden brown, isn’t crisp but adds unctuousness, the way butter does on bread. 

Chicken with preserved green ($28/whole)  must be ordered one day in advance. Do it. This voluptuous dish can be the centerpiece of a great meal at Hakka Restaurant. A flavorful yellow feathered chicken is stuffed with cabbage, mushrooms, pork and preserved vegetable, and long roasted to moist tenderness. The salty brown stuffing seasons each bite of chicken in a way that reminds me of the Thanksgiving bird.

Green vegetables are a highlight of southern Chinese cooking, and  Li’s sautéed Chinese broccoli with rice wine ($6.95) is one of the best vegetable dishes in town, period. Emerald green gai lan, young and tender now, has never tasted better nor looked so bright in his sheer sauce,  sweetened with sherry-like rice wine, gently aromatic with garlic and ginger.

At the brown end of the spectrum, Hakka’s soulful bean curd spareribs in clay pot ($8.95) look like a meaty stew, but mostly consist of tofu skin in dark gravy with a few bits of bony pork for seasoning. “Golden needles,” dried tea leaves from Yunnan, add earthiness.

In another typical Hakka dish, thick slices of pork belly, greaseless, are draped over preserved vegetable ($8.95).

In an effort to please anyone who walks in the door, Li makes a big, thick, crispy version of shrimp egg fu yung ($6.95), full of bean sprouts, small shrimp and onions moistened by an elegant, barely thickened sauce.

Every meal begins with complimentary soup of the day — a strong, tasty broth of chicken and pork, sometimes with greens, sometimes with lotus root.

The freshness of the food matches the freshly painted dining room where a spirit of generosity pervades. Deep in the Richmond district, the homey, friendly Hakka Restaurant distinguishes itself with heartfelt cooking.

Hakka Restaurant

Location: 4401-A Cabrillo St. (at 45th Avenue), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 876-6898
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays
Price range: $4.95 to $23
Recommended dishes: Pumpkin strips with salted egg; chicken with preserved green; Chinese broccoli with rice wine; salt-baked chicken
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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