Got capsicum?

› paulr@sfbg.com
With time, one finds oneself bidding fond farewells to one’s spicehound friends. Oh, nothing changes too dramatically, except that bit by bit (or bite by bite), onetime fire-eaters lose their taste for the thrill of capsicum. Certain alluring foods of yore — chili, pepperoni pizza, Mongolian beef — start to cause problems, especially if eaten too near bedtime. You still go out with them, your spicehound pack, but when they point at this or that on the menu, wondering which dishes are spicy, they are plotting routes of retreat now, not angles of approach. Everybody is silently hoping to sleep through the night, like babies with dry diapers, not awaken at 2 a.m. with a remorseful jolt and a growing blaze amidships. People sip their green tea, and they do so carefully.
For years I held out against this trend. X and Y might no longer fling themselves into the spiciest dishes they could find, like boys from a Mark Twain novel plunging with a whoop into a water hole of unknown depth, but I still had a taste for flame. Then, recently, I ate at So, a modish Chinese noodle house on that insanely busy stretch of Irving just west of 19th Avenue, and I heard the bell toll. There was no need to ask for whom it was tolling: it tolled for me. It tolled and tolled, in fact, and I ignored it. Later I was sorry, but at the time I was in a bliss of tingling lips and couldn’t be bothered to heed the alarm.
So is an atypical Chinese restaurant in a number of respects. For one thing, its menu consists largely of soup and noodle — and soupy noodle — dishes, as at a Vietnamese pho house. It also has a spare, modernist youthfulness devoid of tired linoleum floors and harsh overhead lighting; the walls are bright yellow and the ceiling a rich gray blue, while a noisy crowd young enough to match the youth of the staff sits at rosewood tables on rosewood chairs. Mainly, though, So is a temple of the incendiary. I cannot recall the last time I found so much chile firepower in one place. It is the gastronomic equivalent of a munitions cache.
So … you have been warned, or summoned. I must also add that portion sizes are simply immense. The noodle soups are served in bowls the size of cantaloupe halves and can easily satisfy two if not three, especially if you open with one of the splendid starters. If you notice that these take a little longer to reach the table than is usual in Chinese restaurants (many of which rush them out in just a few minutes), it’s because they’re made to order and with care. The pot stickers ($5.50) in particular are exceptional; they reach the table nested in a pinwheel pattern, are fragrant with fresh ginger when opened, and — what is most noticeable — are wrapped in homemade dough that has a definite fresh-bread springiness and smell to it. When you eat these pot stickers, you will likely realize that most of the other restaurant pot stickers you’ve ever eaten in your life were prepackaged and reheated items. Mass-market, mass-produced stuff. So’s are revelatory.
Nearly as good are fried shrimp dumplings ($6), also powerfully gingery, and dried sautéed string beans ($5) in a thick garlic sauce. The So chicken wings ($5.25) — really a hodgepodge of wings and drumsticks — are a clever and potent Chinese retort to the American cliché of buffalo wings; So dips its poultry parts into a batter that crisps up nicely, then drizzles them with a molasses-thick sauce of garlic, ginger, and slivered red chiles for some smolder. The sauce accompanying the curry coroque ($4) — three Japanese-style potato croquettes, about the size and shape of Brillo pads — looks similar but has a stronger acid presence: hoisin with some rice wine vinegar?
The starters are tasty but not, as a rule, hot, which makes the arrival of a dish like pork with hot peppers ($6.35) — a platter heaped with a stir-fry of shredded meat, chopped jalapeños, onions, and scallions, with a spicy garlic sauce — rather bracing. Only slightly less forceful is shredded pork with garlic ($6.35), which substitutes serene water chestnuts and willow tree fungus for the raucous hot peppers and adds a splash of vinegar for clearheadedness.
“My nose is running,” said the spicehound emeritus to my left. He found himself confronting the seafood soup noodle ($6.35), a sea of spicy broth clogged with shrimp, calamari, scallops, and napa cabbage — something like an East Asian answer to cioppino. His longing gaze drifted across the table to the seaweed noodle soup ($6.35), a kind of giant egg-drop soup fortified with seaweed and spinach, peas, mushrooms, and shrimp. The flavor of the broth was deep but beatifically mild, like the blue of a lovely sunset at the end of a windless and warm — but not hot — day.
The social experience of So is nearly as intense as the peppery food. We found the place packed early on a Sunday evening; tablefuls of young folk mounted a steady roar of conversation while others waited on the sidewalk, barking into cell phones of many colors until tables opened up. The service at dinnertime is friendly and efficient but forever teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed. During a noontime visit, on the other hand, I found a rather startling calm and was able to notice that a “help wanted” sign was posted on the front door — a clue that business is quite a bit better than so-so. SFBG
SO RESTAURANT
Tues.–Thurs., 5–9:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat., noon–10 p.m., Sun., noon–9:30 p.m.
2240 Irving, SF
(415) 731-3143
Beer and wine
MC/V
Very noisy if crowded
Wheelchair accessible