It started, as many good restaurant recommendations do, with advice from a taxi driver.
“If you want something good in Chinatown, try Nanking. It’s where the locals go.”
Well, believe him on the “good,” but I’m not so sure about the local part. While standing in line to get into House of Nanking, everyone appeared to be a visitor, and all of them had heard about it from a touristy-source—a cab driver, hotel concierge, online recommendation. The locals know better than to stand in line, or at least know enough not to stand outside in the January chill.
However, the restaurant is, without questions, a San Francisco experience. It’s one of those restaurants that once-a-year visitors look forward to, reveling in the sometimes abrupt treatment received from the wait staff. Turns out some of those online reviews are true. They really do tell you what to order.
After I perused a menu (hard to do in the dimly lit room), I asked for hot tea and sesame chicken, and received a strongly affirmative head nod from my server. I also asked to add the garlic noodles, which had been highly recommended by a person in line. My server fiercely shook her head no and said, “Too much.”
Thankfully, the restaurant seats you family style; the other group at my table had been successful in ordering their noodles, and, with amusement, offered to share. The noodles were, indeed, worth ordering, with full garlic flavor and just the right texture. The sesame chicken was fine, with lightly breaded pieces of white and dark meat, and the sweet potatoes that accompanied them were definitely the hit of the evening for all of us. They were beautifully caramelized from the sesame sauce, and there were plenty for me to take a turn and share.
The food is Hunan style, with a little heat and a nice presentation. The hot tea was a flowering jasmine variety complete with the bloom left in the bottom of the large, glass cup, ready to remind you of all its herbal and antioxidant health benefits. Steamed rice was available on the side, but, interestingly, chop sticks were not readily available—lending credence to the idea of this being a place more suited to the tourists than to the authentic locals in the heart of Chinatown.
They don’t take reservations, but if you want to avoid waiting in line you might try their second restaurant, called Fang, opened by chef/owner Peter Fang. Here, too, they say be prepared for them to make recommendations so why fight it? Just put yourself it their hands and let them order for you.