As they always are, Amico del Signore and Femme de Joie were in search of decent Chinese food when they got to San Francisco. There’s no shortage of such restaurants, but weeding out the chaff from the wheat (to mix a metaphor or two) is the challenge. We already know to skip any restaurant being shilled by women on the street corner attempting to press menus into your hand, as well as any place with a sign out front reading “Tour bus parking in the back.”
After that, though, it can be a series of dead-end streets where you barely escape with your life and guts intact, or an endless parade of La Choy-coated fried cubes of chewy packing peanuts served atop Minute Rice. It’s not really surprising, then, that IHOP, Johnny Rocket’s, Rainforest Cafe, and the like are planted firmly around touristy areas like Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach: after a long day of sightseeing, many people aren’t interested in finding great sizzling rice soup. They just want to feed the kids and go to bed.
That’s where the internet comes in. Yeah, Yelp may not always be the go-to place, but neither should it be completely dismissed out of hand. Neither should local websites writing about food. 7 X 7 and SF Weekly are two such reliable sources in the Bay Area, and that’s how we learned about the Capital Restaurant.
We arrived about 7 PM on a Friday night, accompanied by the Ancient Mariner and Sailor Moon, both of whom like Chinese food but don’t love it like we do. Capital Restaurant was packed, but we were invited to sit at the small counter and look at the menu until a table cleared, which it did in just a few minutes. The interior is brightly lit and clean, with mirrors around the room making it look more spacious. There are menus written in Chinese characters on the walls – always a good sign – and photos of some of the dishes.
We started with the usual pots of tea but also ordered Sho Chiku Bai hot sake. M. de Joie has never been a big fan of sake but this was smoother than some she’s tried in the past, and it was the right choice for a Chinese meal. Most wines don’t seem to go well with Chinese food, but sake (and beer) are better suited to the variety of differing heat levels and textures in a Chinese dinner.
Wor Won Ton Soup came topped with squid, Chinese BBQ pork, bok choy, chicken, prawns in a rich mixed pork-and-chicken broth. Squid was particularly tender – A. del Signore is not a squid fancier but he enjoyed this. There was enough soup in one order to serve four people with a little extra.
Sailor Moon chose Honey Walnut Prawns. M de Joie has never been enthused over sweet tastes with seafood (such as coconut shrimp); that combination has always struck her as colliding in a bad way. But this was rich without being goopy. Prawns were plump and not smothered by the sauce; the crisp honeyed walnuts made a nice textural contrast.
BBQ pork egg foo yong was tender and freshly cooked, with abundant pork and vegetables, but the bland gravy was on the oily side and didn’t enhance the eggs so much as provide a slippery sheen to keep them moist.
On the other hand, Szechuan garlic eggplant was good enough that both Ancient Mariner and Sailor Moon – neither of whom are crazy about eggplant – came back for seconds, and then polished off the remaining bits on the plate. Spicy, yes, with whole dried chilis and garlic, but not searing, and not oily as this dish so often is.
Usually chow mein’s ingredients are cut small and mixed in with the noodles so that the diner has to prod through to find a niblet of pork or beef. Here, tomato beef chow mein had generous chunks of tender beef and vegetables on top of the noodles and a few mixed in as well. The noodles, slightly crisp from pan-frying, had a light coating of non-sweet gingery, tomato-y sauce. Ancient Mariner confessed he didn’t really like chow mein but he liked this one, as evidenced by him shoveling it onto his plate.
Roast duck was the star of the show, with a luscious lacquered skin and star anise-flavored meat. Duck is naturally very fatty and sometimes it arrives that way on your plate – making for a greasy meal. This duck, though, was mainly meat with just enough fat to keep it moist and flavorful but not be an unpleasant memory later.
Amico del Signore and Femme de Joie returned to the Capital on a Sunday night, when it was much less crowded. M. de Joie wasn’t on her toes and so missed getting photos of their dinner.
The beef won ton noodle soup was a generous bowl of thick noodles in beef broth with shredded beef and vegetables – more of a stew, really, and a very large portion.
Gai lan (AKA Chinese broccoli) is a slightly bitter and austere green that makes a refreshing contrast to mixed stir-fries. It was also a very generous serving with lots of garlic, still very crunchy and a vibrant green.
However, the almond chicken went on M. de Joie’s do-not-order-again list. It was as though the cook took the name literally: twists of cooked chicken were covered with almonds, and sent out on a plate, desert-dry and tasteless. Never again.
While there were a few dishes that didn’t hit the mark, we liked the Capital Restaurant and would happily return. Portions are fair for the price and service is fast and efficient, and it’s not on the tour bus schedule. Warning: Capital takes cash only.
Capital Restauarnt, 839 Clay Street (between Stockton and Grant), San Francisco, CA. 415-397-6269 or 415-218-3883. Open daily, 8:00 AM – 9:30 PM. Sake, beer, wine. CASH ONLY (ATM at Bank of America on Grant Avenue). Street parking only; good luck. You’ll be better off parking elsewhere and walking, or better yet take Muni. Lines 41-Union, 30-Stockton, 45 Union-Stockton, 8-Express, 10-Townsend, 12-Folsom, 27-Bryant, 1-California, and the Powell Street Cable Car all come within walking distance. Sample menu at http://sanfrancisco.menupages.com/restaurants/capital-restaurant/
Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at email@example.com.
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