The shock of the new can involve dazzlement, yes, but that’s not inevitable. Sometimes the new doesn’t seem all that different from the old, and the shock mainly has to do with how little things have actually changed. In our hyperaccelerated culture of progress, new means better, so the word gets deployed a lot, like bait on a fisherman’s hook, without necessarily signifying much. I never saw an old Tsing Tao restaurant and don’t even know if there was one, but the four-year-old New Tsing Tao in West Portal has the lived-in look of one’s favorite pair of weekend shoes old Wallabies, maybe, or maybe duck boots, since West Portal can be damp, drizzly, and drippy, and certainly has been this summer.
New Tsing Tao does have its newish qualities, mostly the line of bulbous, science-fiction-red halogen lamps that dangle on long cords from the ceiling. Their racy glow suggests a bordello, starship, or hipster club. Pretty much everything else suggests a friendly neighborhood Chinese restaurant, including the rather worn-looking burgundy-colored carpeting on the floor and a long mural depicting (presumably Chinese) mountains in winter along one of the walls. Carpeting isn’t much favored these days by edgy restaurant designers, who seem to have given their love to various hard and glossy surfaces, but it remains useful as a damper of noise. You can hear yourself think inside New Tsing Tao, and you can hear what the person across the table is saying, too. Maybe ordering another Tsing Tao.
The food is rather classic San Francisco neighborhood Chinese food, the kind we tend to take for granted unless something goes wrong: a delivery gets messed up or the place goes out of business. Servings are large, prices are modest, and service is well-practiced and cheery in its way. The location on a bendy stretch of Ulloa Street off the main drag also offers a subtle charm; it’s a village within a village, without the drama of streetcars pacing back and forth like caged animals.
If drama you nonetheless must have, you might like the sizzling rice soup ($5.95 for the smallest size), which features a brick of toasted rice that resembles a Rice Krispie bar and hisses and sizzles fabulously when tossed into the broth. The rice is a diva, simultaneously giving value for money (including entertainment value) while overwhelming the rest of the soup’s players, a troupe of worthy character actors including chicken, prawns, peas, water chestnuts, and straw mushrooms.
The menu includes many standards, including potstickers ($5.95 for a clutch) they are chubby and mu-shi pork ($8.50), bits of meat and shredded napa cabbage ready to be spooned into rice pancakes with some hoisin sauce. If I’ve ever had bad versions of either of these dishes, I can’t remember them, and New Tsing Tao’s are just what one expects. In restaurants, we tend to like what we expect. The menu is vegetarian-friendly; the potstickers can be had in meatless guise, as can hot and sour soup ($5.50), which is rich in tofu splinters to make up the flesh deficit. (The meat version costs a little more, $5.95.)
Twice-cooked pork ($6.75 at lunch), although alluringly described as "hot," did leave me slightly disappointed. The meat was a little tough, the sauce tasted mostly of soy, and the promised heat was little in evidence. Some of the better stir-fry dishes are to be found under the aegis of "chef’s specialties." These include a preparation called Phoenix Dragon ($10.50), an everything-under-the-sun cornucopia of shrimp and shredded chicken breast tossed with snow peas, baby corn, straw mushrooms, and water chestnuts. If you could only have one dish from the menu, you would probably be pleased with this one.
I also admired the orange beef ($8.95), in part because it was spicy enough to satisfy the menu card’s "hot" claim, and more important because the meat was not crisp-fried or deep-fried, just quickly turned in a hot wok so that it remained supple and juicy. Deep-frying has its charms, crispiness being one of them, but it can seem perversely out of place in Chinese cooking, which places so much emphasis on gently handled vegetables. Fresh vegetables are crisp the way nature intended.
The main dishes are generally served with a sizable ration of white rice. You are asked if you want it, which means it’s possible in theory to opt out, but it has a tendency to turn up anyway, and accumulates like piles of snow left by plows, massive and indistinct. The casual wastefulness of this bothers me not at New Tsing Tao in particular but as a wider phenomenon in Chinese restaurants. In a straitened era when even the flow of junk mail has diminished, this might be a moment to revisit the white rice glut in Chinese restaurants a time (as Lincoln put it in quite a different context) to think anew. *
NEW TSING TAO
Sun.Mon, Wed.Thurs., 11 a.m.9:30 p.m.;
Fri.Sat., 11 a.m.10 p.m.
811 Ulloa, SF
Beer and wine