The specter of linoleum haunts the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Many of us have paid visits to these purgatories, where the food is tasty and cheap but the lighting is harsh and fluorescent and the flooring looks as if it had been laid down, without much love, during the Eisenhower administration. One ponders this trade-off, wondering, in particular, whether it’s inevitable. Then one goes to Kathy’s California Chinese Cuisine and finds an answer.
Rumors of Kathy’s’ culinary excellence had been reaching me for some time. I had seen the place often enough, certainly, in its snug little commercial strip at the dizzying confluence of Dewey and Laguna Honda boulevards and Woodside Avenue, just steps from Muni’s Forest Hill metro station. But I only recently stepped inside for the first time and felt myself transported to … Vienna! Of course, I had only just been to the real Vienna for the first time over the summer, so that wedding-cake city in the heart of Mitteleuropa was on my mind.
Kathy’s isn’t about wedding cakes or Mitteleuropa, but it does offer surprisingly gracious old world atmospherics, if one discounts the burbling aquarium just inside the front door, the scattering of gourds on the floor (in honor of Halloween and the autumn harvest), and the general storefront-spaciness of things. (There is no host’s podium, just the fish tank, while the server’s station is all the way at the rear of the dining room, like the check-in counter for an obscure airline in an obscure country.)
The floor is laid with handsome tiles that look as though they were quarried from a stormy sea, the walls are a discreetly sensuous peach color, and soft light flows from a pair of rather resplendent glass chandeliers, as well as from sconce lamps on the wall. From an unseen sound system I heard playing one evening for our final Viennese touch the final movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major. Also some Bach. The music was present but not obtrusive, which these days seems to be very much the exception to the rule. Considering that Kathy’s does a lively takeout business, the restaurant’s dining room is a startlingly attractive place to sit and have dinner, at least if your idea of having dinner includes conversation.
When "California" is used as a modifier with respect to some traditional cuisine, I immediately think of zucchini. Zucchini grow like weeds in our part of the world, and they turn up in highly unlikely spots, such as hor mak talay, the Thai dish of coconut milk and red curry. And they turn up at Kathy’s, along with eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. Somewhere in the kitchen is a ratatouille crying out to be made.
Kathy’s isn’t that Californianized, or Californicated, but there is a nice plate of stir-fried vegetables, the vegetable deluxe ($7.95), that features plenty of shredded napa cabbage, carrot coins, broccoli florets, and chunks of Japanese eggplant, with plenty of garlic and ginger and the special touch a ring of tissue-thin tomato slices arranged around the edge of a platter, like a link fence. The fence is both visually attractive and the source of a subtle acid zip.
Most of the food has a familiar north-China look, although there is the occasional wrinkle, such as red dumplings ($6.95), an octet of Chiclet-shaped, half-dollar-sized dough packets filled tight with minced, gingery pork and bathed in a thick, glossy reddish-orange sauce that’s both sweet and hot.
Similar dumplings recur in the wonton soup ($6.95 for two), although the real stars here are the chicken stock (intensified through reduction and not too salty) and the wealth of vegetables bobbing alongside the wontons. The roll call here includes more shredded cabbage and broccoli florets, along with quarters of button mushroom and (a non-vegetable) peeled shrimp.
Our intel source, a local, suggested that we would find the walnut prawns ($10.95) exceptional. Since I have never found walnut prawns exceptional, I was prepared to be disappointed. But … Kathy’s walnut prawns are exceptional! The large, plump shrimp are shelled, then stir-fried in a creamy sauce spiked with some sort of liquor (brandy or rum?), and scattered with candied walnuts and raisins. It is very tricky business to introduce this much sweetness into a savory dish; a balance must be struck, lest you end up with some kind of shrimp dessert. Kathy’s version strikes that balance.
Tangerine beef ($10.95), meanwhile, left me secretly chagrined, since the flaps of beef, while tasty, were not coated and deep-fried to heart-stopping crispness before being tossed in a thick and glossy orange sauce. The drill here was more of a conventional stir-fry (with a medley of vegetables) in a soy-based sauce, with the tangerine figuring as an occasional burst of zest. More interesting, or at least unexpected, or unadvertised, were the lithe slices of green apple ringing the platter; their sweet-tartness helped balance both the saltiness of the soy sauce and the richness of the meat.
Other pluses: service is practiced and friendly. You can get brown rice instead of white. Transport logistics are, apart from the terrifying intersection, rather painless, with Muni just steps away and street parking quite easy. The relaxed, well-mannered crowd is easy to take. And, on that happy note, I’m done with Chinese food for a bit. Probably.
Kathy’s California Chinese Cuisine
Dinner: nightly, 510 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.3 p.m.
408 Dewey, SF
Beer and wine