A new door opens

Josh Sens | January 13, 2012 | Food & Drink Story Restaurants Eat and Drink

Restaurateurs are like punk rock bands. As their Q rating rises, their street cred plummets. Food snobs, like punk fans, are wary of success. A rare exception to this rule is Charles Phan, an art-house performer turned platinum seller whose embrace of the mainstream hasn’t strained the loyalty of his base. Since 1995, when he first announced himself with the Slanted Door on a then-scruffy stretch of the Mission district, Phan has brought his act to ever-larger stages, relocating his flagship Vietnamese restaurant to the Ferry Building and introducing sideshows in such quaint locations as the Academy of Sciences and the basement of the Westfield shopping mall. You might expect that locals in the crowd would grumble. But Phan remains a San Francisco favorite, his restaurants recommended on insider short lists, not to mention earmarked by every tourist with a Zagat guide.
It helps, of course, that Phan has kept his quality consistent: His curry is good curry, even when you find it in a food court. Nor does it hurt that he isn’t always stamping out the same old thing. Witness Wo Hing General Store, the latest (and best) of Phan’s satellite projects, which finds him back in the venue where he started, breaking out material he hasn’t done before.
Diners who remember the original Slanted Door will recognize the split-level space, with its narrow downstairs dining room and snug mezzanine seating, as well as some of the trippy artwork (I think I saw a warrior battling a dragon, but maybe it was just a hot sauce hallucination) that hung on the walls more than a decade ago. What won’t ring familiar is the cooking, which swaps out the likes of Vietnamese shrimp rolls and shaking beef for Shanghai dumplings and rice porridge with salted pork and preserved duck egg.
The focus here is Chinese street food made with pedigree ingredients and priced for a neighborhood that has shed its shabbiness for chic. The culinary theme is a departure for the Mission, which has few other jook joints, upscale or otherwise, but not for Phan, whose father (Hing) and uncle (Wo) were born in China and later fled to Vietnam. Named in their honor, the restaurant specializes in the satisfying staples of the street corners and home kitchens of their native country:
economical dishes, intended to last and to feed many, like braised pork trotter, slow-cooked until silken in a red star-anise broth, and chilled ginger-and-scallion poached chicken, shocked in an ice bath to seal its juices, then served, in rough-hacked pieces, with a lively ginger sauce.
Phan has put the kitchen in the hands of Michelle Mah, who has never set foot on mainland China but manages to fake it very well. Though her Shanghai dumplings are not the best you’ll have (their pouches are too chewy, and their pork soup cargo too watered down), her oyster crepes are textbook: pliant, folded curtains of egg and rice flour, studded with plump oysters, green garlic, and chives—and spared the all-too-frequent surface slick of grease. Her grilled lamb skewers are juicy little lessons in migratory patterns; they’re heated with harissa, one of the Silk Road spices that made its way to China through the Middle East.
The street food of China is famously receptive to all parts of most creatures, but this is the Mission, so check your hankering for chicken feet at the door. In lieu of unsung cuts, you get some exotic flavors. In one compelling side dish, the bite of bitter melon cuts against the richness of preserved duck egg. In an entrée of steamed pork, hand-chopped and loosely formed into a patty with shiitake mushrooms, the meat pits its fatty sweetness against bits of salted fish that are intense enough to bully any anchovy from its school.
Cooking of this kind cries out for good draft beer or bright white wine, both of which are available (the latter at a stiff markup), as are balanced cocktails from Brooke Arthur, who used to work just down the block at Range and more recently at Prospect Restaurant, and here shows off a nifty mix of classics and moderns. A grapefruit daiquiri with a bowl of boiled peanuts (soy and Chinese five-spice powder are among the seasonings they carry), and you’re properly limbered for a meal.
The setting isn’t quite the echo chamber that it once was. A textured ceiling now dampens the acoustics. And the decor has a more distinctive urban sheen, with kaleidoscopic prints, repurposed material from local bus stops, and inverted orange woks that double as light fixtures. It’s a glimpse of the East through Western eyes.
The same could be said of the desserts, like tangerine sorbet and Meyer lemon custard with clove shortbread (the absence of red bean desserts is a punishable offense), which are treated like the afterthought that they are. If you show up convinced that sweet things aren’t a hallmark of Chinese cooking, Wo Hing will do little to persuade you otherwise.
A mild white tea makes a better evening bookend, a soothing digestive after all the spice, with a calming effect against the bustling atmosphere. On my final
visit, ours was steeping on the table when the dining room went dark from a block-wide power outage that stalled the kitchen for the next two days.
It was a moment meant for chaos, but the restaurant remained orderly. Candles were lit, conversation hummed, and the entire space, with tiny flames flickering on every table, took on the look of a festive street scene. Or, more to the point, a theater packed with cheerful fans, calling for the show to go on.
Wo Hing General store: 584 Valencia St. (bet. 16th and 17th sts.), S.F., 415-552-2510, $$, reservations recommended, wheelchair accessible, HH½


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