Paul Kwan, my Clement Street insider, turned me on to Chili House, a new Sichuan/northern Chinese restaurant in the inner Richmond, and a relative of Z & Y, a Sichuan place in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The chef at Chili House worked at Z & Y, and apparently the ownership is the same. However, Chili House does not aspire to the dramatic presentations and banquet service of the mother ship, nor are its dishes as layered and complex. It does turn out unusual and compelling items not previously available on Clement Street. Judicious ordering from the long Chili House menu will net an excellent neighborhood meal, casual and affordable, in a comfortable dining room.
I always start with Pancake w/ beef ($6.95), listed under the Mandarin Style Dim Sum heading. The pancake is really a thin flatbread with a crisp, if pliable, texture, layered with cucumber, cilantro, scallions and thin slices of star anise infused beef, and then rolled up. When the roll is hot–and this is the only way to eat it, don’t let it cool down–it has buttery crunchiness which contrasts with the raw vegetables and the bresaola-like meat.
An incendiary Cold Appetizer called Couple’s Delight ($7.95) pairs thin slices of white beef tendon with cold, red-cooked braised beef brisket, kind of a Jack Sprat concept. It gets heat from a dousing in red chili oil, mitigated by juicy bean sprouts, a sensory roller coaster.
Don’t be scared off by the description of another Cold Appetizer, Wasabi with Chicken and Pork Intestine ($9.50), because it turns out to be an exciting chicken salad with lots of sliced sweet onion and cilantro in a perky wasabi dressing. The slightly gelatinous pork intestine, quite innocuous, could be mistaken for chicken. I like its texture.
An Appetizer of tender Boiled Dumplings ($5.95) filled with pungent Chinese leeks and chopped pork, calms the chili heat down, besides being irresistible, as all dumplings tend to be. Steamed Chicken Soup with Chinese Herb ($8.95) is the real soother, a dish I never fail to order. It’s a homey chicken broth perfumed with Chinese celery, served in a clay pot. The purity of the broth and the herbal intensity of the celery, embraces the dual aims of Chinese cooking–sustenance and health.
Under the Vegetable and Tofu heading, look for the luxurious Steamed Chinese Cabbage with Garlic ($10.95), a whole napa cabbage smothered in brothy sauce rife with red wolfberries and ginger threads. Eaten with rice, it extinguishes any lingering hunger and feels rich and meaty in your mouth, light and clean in your stomach.
My favorite dish here hides under the unassuming title of Grilled Whole Fish ($12.95), though it is neither grilled nor whole. Rather, it is a basa filet, probably frozen and imported from Thailand or Vietnam, with a firm, fatty, silky texture and a clean, not muddy, white flesh flavor that takes to spicing. A member of the catfish family, the basa lives in rivers, only eats plants and happens to be the best of the catfish species I’ve ever tasted. Chili House serves a big filet concealed under a hillock of wok fried dried red chiles which you push away to get to the salt and pepper crusted flesh beneath. Paul Kwan orders the dish without the red chilies and I can attest that on two occasions, the basa comes out absolutely luscious this way, moist inside, coated with moderate spice outside, reminiscent of the spectacular blackened red fish invented way back there by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme.
For dessert, look to a dish from the appetizer section, Pumpkin Cake ($5.95), pounded sticky rice (mochi) dumplings filled with pureed kabocha, pan fried on each side till golden. Delicately sweet and teasingly resistant to the teeth, they belong in the floating world of Chinese cooking, delightful entertainment.
I appreciate the variety of the Sichuan and northern Chinese dishes at Chili House, as well as their sound preparation. By reading between the lines of the menu and taking some risks with some weird sounding dishes, you’ll get some tasty rewards.
725 Clement (between 8th and 9th avenues) San Francisco 415 387-2658; www.chilihousesf.com