Southeastern China inspires Fang’s flavors 

Irrepressible, self-taught chef Peter Fang started a phenomenon 22 years ago with his tiny House of Nanking.

A hole in the wall on a transitional block of Kearny Street between Chinatown and North Beach, the restaurant was so small, Fang had to shop for ingredients in Chinatown throughout the day to feed the perpetual line of hungry customers waiting on the sidewalk. He had no walk-in refrigerator.

A few months ago, he opened a new, comparatively upscale place next to the W Hotel on Howard and Third streets. This location, smartly decorated, comfortably furnished and close to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Gardens, gives Fang a wider audience.

Neither traditionally Chinese nor western, his cooking draws on the flavors and culinary style of his beloved southeastern China — Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou — but it is not like anything you would find there.

If you visit Fang expecting the restraint and balance of the region’s traditional cooking, you will be disappointed. But if you are open to lively, very personal creations that riff on the flavors and techniques from this area, you will discover many addictive dishes.

Fang is an original.

On the printed menu, plump, steamed, crescent-shaped pork dumplings  ($8.95) are served with a spicy, in-your-face, black bean sauce full of ginger and garlic. Delicious.

Fang’s version of xiao long bao ($9), those tricky-to-make soup dumplings, successfully contain flavorful broth as well as sweet, fresh pork. The waiter places each one in a tiny bowl and spoons on a sweet, gingery and vinegary sauce. If you puncture the dumpling, the juices run out into the little bowl, enriching the sauce, which you will want to drink at the end. This is xiao long bao for beginners.

Tender, wide strips of calamari steak, loosely battered, deep-fried and dusted with black pepper ($13.95), come with a milky, tart, dipping sauce with chile oil floating on top.

House of Nanking’s famous sesame chicken strips and sweet potato ribbons ($10.95) are fried but not battered, glistening in an extreme  tart/sweet sauce, topped with slices of pale green pickled chayote. The dish still has a hold over me.

So does Fang’s hot and sour tofu soup ($6.95), uncharacteristically full- bodied and well-balanced with chile and vinegar.

From the Chinese menu — Fang himself will translate and explain — comes a seasonal delicacy, a luxurious heap of fresh favas cooked with bits of Smithfield ham and topped wth slivers of scallion ($14), a pastel vision in pale green and pink. This dish alone is worth a special trip.

The excitement of a super-crisp fried whole rock cod ($24) with chewy flesh ramps up with an apple ginger slaw and caramelized vinegar sauce, a spectacular combination.

Flavors are so much bigger in Fang’s cooking than in traditional Shanghai cooking that it shocked some Shanghai ladies at my table one day.

An estimable Parsi home cook however, was intrigued. She loved a dessert soup with tiny sticky rice dumplings filled with black sesame paste ($4 a person). It was sweeter, boozier and more gingery than anything I’d ever tasted in China, but we drank every drop.

Some dishes may seem over the top, but I guarantee that there will be others that will haunt your culinary imagination. And now you can eat these Peter Fang creations in comfort with a nice glass of wine.

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

 

Fang

Location: 660 Howard St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 777-8568; www.fangrestaurant.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon to 10 p.m Saturday-Sunday
Price range: English menu, $5.95 to $14.95; Chinese menu, $5.95 to $24
Recommended dishes: Xiao long bao; steamed pork dumplings; hot and sour soup; crispy fried rock cod; favas with ham; sesame chicken
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Reservations: Accepted

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Patricia Unterman

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