Before I moved to San Francisco, I used to go to Chinese restaurants more often. But when I got here and found myself strolling in the largest Chinatown outside Asia, the abundance of options had an opposite effect on me; paralysis by analysis.
Ironically, I work in the heart of Chinatown, where every day at 4pm the air is filled with the unmistakable aroma of steamed grease from the surrounding kitchens. Hordes of tourists empty tour busses and walk in suspiciously large Chinese restaurants sporting German signs at the door–Herzlich Willkommen. The local Chinese seem to opt for the more authentic holes in the walls, where English is barely spoken. Some have the characteristic underground feeling that would bring Anthony Bourdain to his knees. Greasy pans and sticky plates included, food poisoning optional.
When I heard that the talented Charles Phan was opening a Chinese restaurant in the city, I knew I had to try it. Phan’s family is behind one of San Francisco’s most original restaurants, The Slanted Door. Its contemporary Vietnamese cuisine is characterized by the use of fresh ingredients and pronounced flavors; its service and atmosphere rival many fine dining establishments. After years of success and many expansions, the Phans are going back to their roots; China.
Heaven’s Dog occupies the ground floor at the new imposing yet dull condo monolith known as SoMa Grand. The restaurant offers 3 dining spaces; the noodle bar, the lounge and the dining room.
The noodle bar is a bright, long room where diners sit at a black granite counter overlooking the shared kitchen. A more casual space, perfect for a quick meal alone or in small groups.
Inside the actual restaurant, the atmosphere is much different. Dimly lit and more intimate, both lounge and dining room. But despite the faint light, the interior design bears resemblance to a museum cafeteria with unoriginal choices in dinnerware and furniture. Instead of contemporary Chinese, the ambiance comes across as ordinary modern. The only exception is the long bar, cut in its full length by a bright trim light–very Blade Runner.
The noodle bar and the restaurant share the same menu. There are 3 types of dishes; small plates, wok and noodles. The first 2 are served family style and are meant for sharing. They are brought to the table when they are done in the kitchen, in no particular order. Much like at The Slanted Door, the appetizers here are great, probably the best things on the menu. Worth making a full meal of of them. The noodles are individually portioned. Phan also brought in his relationships with high-end purveyors–it’s not everywhere you’ll find Niman Ranch beef called out on a Chinese menu.
Some of the most popular orders are the cocktails. The bar offers an inventive selection of pre-prohibition era drinks made with San Francisco’s own “Small Hand Foods” ingredients. Like the Pan American Clipper. Calvados, lime, Small Hand Foods grenadine and absinthe.
From the Small plate selection, Shanghai dumplings, pork, rice vinegar, scallions. Each dumpling explodes in your mouth letting out its flavorful juices. For this reason, it’s advised to put the whole thing in your mouth. Taking a small bite, although a sign of good manners, can have devastating effects on the surrounding guests.
Another great choice is the Braised pork belly in clamshell bun, scallions. The tender, savory pork is nicely contrasted by the sweet sticky bun.
From the Wok selection, Salt & pepper squid, ginger, red peppers. I still think Betelnut makes the best fried calamari. This one is crispy although it gets somewhat rubbery as it cools down.
From the Noodles list, Rice vermicelli stir fry, Niman Ranch pork shoulder, shrimp, yellow curry. This is a good example of how high-quality ingredients can make all the difference in an otherwise common dish.
Spicy seafood soup, shrimp, squid, cod, scallops, wheat noodles. Here, fresh seafood brings delight to the palate and peace of mind. A mild heat adds a nice punch.
Red braised beef stew, wheat noodles. The rich broth is more colorful than tasty but overall this is a good dish, like the other noodles I tried. But in the end, I was hoping for more pronounced flavors.
There are 5 desserts on the menu but no traditional Chinese options like sesame balls. The best ones I tried were the ice creams.
Pineapple sorbet. A great, refreshing ending to a filling meal. Meringue sticks add a nice, crispy touch.
Thai basil ice cream. Creamy and rich with a subtle herbal flavor. The clementine segments on the other hand were completely out of place. I can’t see how the 2 things can go together.
For a more filling dessert, Chocolate-chestnut torte. Layered Devil’s food cake, chestnut mousse and croquant; finished with chocolate ganache and a candied walnut. A nice contrast of textures in a rich but not too sweet dessert.
Heaven’s Dog is a great alternative to the tourist traps or potentially sketchy restaurants in Chinatown. In addition to a more modern atmosphere, Charles Phan brings fresh flavors and organic ingredients to the traditional Chinese fare. The food is good but it’s almost as if something is lacking. Maybe the kitchen still needs to find its voice; or maybe all they are missing is some extra grease in the pans.
Heaven’s Dog is at 1148 Mission St.