Chinatown, San Francisco, California
Frog with Tender Greens (Uncle’s Cafe)
I have long been fascinated with Asian cuisine, a wonderland for the senses – the aromas, the explosion of tastes, the colorful and unusual presentations. San Francisco’s Chinatown is said to be one of the oldest and largest Chinese communities in North America and with an enormous variety of restaurants to choose from I was feeling like a kid in a candy store trying to decide what to get for lunch. To hell with moo goo gai pan, egg rolls and orange chicken – I wanted something they don’t serve at the local Panda Express. Just looking in the windows of some of the markets and restaurants is awe inspiring – strange and exotic vegetables, poultry hanging from hooks, and things even I couldn’t identify.
The heart of Chinatown is accessed by walking up Grant Avenue from Chinatown Gate at the intersection of Bush Street. It seems that no matter where you’re going in San Francisco, it inevitably involves walking up. Take David Lee Roth’s advice and make sure you have sensible shoes. Staying on Grant Avenue doesn’t really offer as many exotic options, as I’m sure they’re trying to entice tourists with American tastes so we walked up Clay Street to a quieter area at Waverly Place and started reading menus. Pausing in front of Uncle’s Cafe, my eyes immediately focused on one menu item – Frog with Tender Greens. Not the wasteful French frog legs, but whole frog. Sorry Kermit, but your cousin is going down! There were some more tradtitional options on the menu that I knew would appeal to my wife, Claudia (she is not as adventurous with food as I am), so I suggested we eat there.
The restaurant had everything I look for in an ethnic restaurant – hand written menus on the wall (in Chinese, of course), a no-frills decor, and packed with Asian patrons (with some of the staff eating at a separate table). It wasn’t the cleanest, brightest of places, but I wasn’t out to woo a business client. The wall at the back featured a large fish tank – not for diners to admire their fine collection of white pompom oranda, but to point to and exclaim, “I want that – does it come with vegetables?” Catfish were playing with tilapia, red fish and some other fish I couldn’t identify, unaware that they would soon become the Number 16 Special. While we sat there, a man walked in with a 30 gallon plastic barrel on a hand cart, went in the back and dumped more live fish in – it doesn’t get much fresher than that.
The waiter brought English menus, and although I knew what I wanted, Claudia needed time to decide and so I took the opportunity to see if there was some other unusual item that would complement the frog. Claudia ordered the beef and broccoli dinner (with soup and rice), while I ordered seaweed soup and the frog with tender greens. The waiter looked at me like I misunderstood the menu; “You want frog?” he asked, to which I replied, “Why? Is it bad?” He assured me that it was very good and one of his favorites, but apparently I squeezed past the racial profiling required to order frog. First came the soup, hot and steaming in a huge bowl (he assumed Claudia would want to share, which wasn’t going to happen until hell froze over). The aroma was appealing – it was like sitting on the rocks at the shore on a warm day. The base was clear and similar to seafood soup, and there were several different varieties of seaweed in it. When I let a mouthful sit on my tounge, I could smell the seaweed and it reminded me of the dulse I had in New Brunswick.
A short while later the frog arrived. The tender greens were braised baby bok choi, and they had been sauteed with the frog parts in a light, clear sauce. The frog was sweet and tender, but required some deft tongue work to get the meat off the tiny bones. There were chunks of ribs, legs, and a variety of other cuts, and the waiter informed me that it was off a single frog. The taste was somewhere between quail and scallops, and the combination of the frog and the bok choi was heavenly.
A cannolo and latte waited for me in North Beach, so we finished our meal and hopped out of there. I’ve got to try to find something a little more exotic on my next trip to San Francisco.
65 Waverly Place
San Francisco, CA
GPS coordinates: 37°47’38.75″N 122°24’24.78″W