So much Chinese food often gets bogged down in grease, cornstarch and cheapo ingredients.
So much so that when you taste a once-mundane dish elevated with primo produce, it can be a revelation.
Such was the case when a friend and I encountered Chef Charles Phan’s distinctive take on the usual run-of-the-mill “Ants Climbing Tree” dish ($11) at his hip Heaven’s Dog restaurant in San Francisco, steps from the Holiday Inn Civic Center.
As a Chinese-American who grew up in San Francisco, I’ve long eaten this homey dish of ground meat (the so-called “ants”) cooked with garlic, soy sauce and ginger, then ladled over slippery cellophane noodles (the “tree”). My Mom would cook it or buy it to-go from an Asian deli. It was a fine dish — just nothing I necessarily ever craved or went out of my way for.
That is, until I tried the one at Heaven’s Dog, which was a most pleasant surprise. This meatless rendition was loaded with fresh black trumpet mushrooms and plenty of leeks. The crowning touch was the toasted pine nuts sprinkled all over the top, giving it unexpected crunch and richness. There was so much flavor and texture that I almost felt like I was tasting this warhorse of a dish for the very first time.
We couldn’t resist the Shanghai dumplings ($10), which burst appropriately with hot broth from the first careful bite.
That was followed by a custardy tofu dish that had a crisp topping of minced scallops; and a side of Asian long beans stir-fried with spicy, pungent Szechuan pickles and red chilies.
Desserts aren’t often the strong point of many Chinese restaurants. Here, you’d be missing out big-time if you didn’t order the fabulously intense Thai basil ice cream. The assertive licorice-cinnamon-herbal flavor comes through delightfully loud and clear in an almost savory way in this none-too-sweet ice cream. It’s garnished with buttery rectangles of orange shortbread dusted with sugar.
The modern orange and black restaurant offers a variety of wines and cocktails. For those who don’t want to imbibe, there’s a refreshing housemade elderflower spritzer that pairs seamlessly with the bold flavors of these dishes.