Kam Lok, Good Cantonese Hole-in-the-Wall [SF Chinatown]


#1

We were seven for lunch at Kam Lok, a small unassuming Cantonese restaurant in SF Chinatown (843 Washington). Descending the stairs into this basement restaurant one finds a modest decor and a predominately Chinese crowd, with many older men drinking tea and talking or reading Chinese newspapers.

Our choices included:

House Soup
Fresh Crab with Ginger and Onion Sauce
Oxtail Special Sauce Claypot
Sautéed Snow Pea Sprouts in Broth
Sea Snails
Pigeon
Braised Yee Noodles with Mushroom & Scallop
Shrimp Noodles
Fried Rice

The sea snails were the only item I wouldn’t order again, but I’m not a sea snails kind of guy. It was the only dish with any significant left over when we were done.

The Yee noodles were excellent, chewy with a nice bounce, with mushrooms and shreds of scallop, great flavor and texture. The shrimp noodles with onion were also quite good, though not nearly as good as the Yee noodles, my favorite dish of the meal.

I’ve gotten addicted to the salt and pepper oxtails served at Tai Wu in Foster City and the claypot oxtail seemed by companion just an OK prep after my first bite, but later in the meal when the oxtail was gone I greedily cleaned up the sauce, veggies and tofu sheet remnants at the bottom of the pot, disappointed there wasn’t more.

The pigeon was very meaty (not like the scrawny birds often served), full of very flavorful moist meat. It may have been the best I’ve had in the U.S. It was probably not nearly as fine as the pigeon I had at the famed outdoor place near the Sha Tin racetrack in Hong Kong, but that was decades ago and my memory is dim. If the quality of Kam Lok’s birds is consistent I would come back frequently just for this and the Yee noodles.

The crab was small but sweet and flavorful. The snow pea greens were really good, cooked just right.

Despite Yelp reports, the service was quite good—water came quickly after a request, the server was pleasant and efficient, and fresh plates were offered twice. Maybe having our Cantonese speaker ordering made a difference.

Cultural note: Our Cantonese-speaking companion commented that the chef was “very Cantonese” after placing an order for extra to take home. His brief description of the conversation suggested an in-your-face gruffness that was perhaps intended to be playful. in my limited time in Hong Kong I was often reminded of attitudes in NYC, where gruffness/toughness was often worn as a badge of pride.

So along with some very good Cantonese food you get to experience a bit of Cantonese culture, a pleasant vacation for a couple of hours before returning to the U.S. without having to board a plane. We ate very well for $22 per person, tip included.


(Gary Soup) #2

Trivia note here: before it became Kam Lok. it was Yee Jun, a Beatnik and hippie favorite. I personally consider this venue to be the oldest continuously operated Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, even though it technically isn’t because of a change in ownership and name. It has operated in the same subterranean space serving the same type of food with the same attitude since 1885, with the Yee Jun/Kam Lok changeover occurring in 1978. I posted some background on the lovable joint in an earlier thread.


#3

Charlie my boy, Kam Lok is in a location that has serve Cantonese food for a long time and I remember it from my childhood sixty year ago. But I think that another basement Hole in the wall maybe as good if not better and older. New Wuey Loy Guey (sp). I remember go there 60 plus years ago. In the day they serve American food for lunch and Chinese for dinner. I remember the baked BBQ Pork bun on of the earliest (not steamed) which to a 5 year old was a meal in itself. The Roast Pork shoulder was to die for. I still dream of it today.


#4

Bits of Cantonese dining culture specific to Hong Kong:

Old style Cantonese servers often go about their business in an efficient, matter-of-fact, no BS type of way. They may be perceived as rude or curt by people unaccustomed to this type of service, but for the busy, on-the-go Hong Kong people, the speed of service and the to-the-point, no chit-chat BS is appreciated.

Examples:

  1. At Saigon Seafood Harbor in Sunnyvale, I held up the waiter wallet over my shoulder while still heads down eating my food. Within 0.2 second, a server walking by grabbed it, didn’t lose a step and kept on walking as if the whole sequence was choreographed. While this was a bit of an extreme example, Cantonese servers in Hong Kong are quick because they want to turn the tables in the extremely high rent areas where restaurants are located.

  2. At the now shuttered Sun Hong Kong restaurant in downtown Berkeley, a waiter asked at the end of the meal whether we wanted to box up the lamb claypot leftovers. I commented that ‘The whole pot is all bones, what are we boxing them up for.’ I would never make a comment in such a way in an American restaurant, as it would be considered rude and it would certainly be considered a big complaint. But that would be an example of the type of in-your-face no-harm-done gruffness. The very Cantonese server just understood that as a Cantonese no and proceeded to clear the table as usual.

  3. Occupying your servers in unfancy eateries for 5 minutes and asking servers about details of every dish like people do here, is something Hong Kong people never thought to do, and will certainly elicit impatience in Hong Kong unless you are a tourist (and they don’t know how to yell at you in your native tongue). You should have already yelled out your order to the server before your butt is seated, and your food will arrive 2 minutes later while you are still washing your chopsticks in the tea cup and looking at cute selfies of your friends making the victory gesture from your hello kitty iPhone. 30 seconds if its a bowl of congee/ noodles.

Surprised to see grandmas pushing everyone aside to attack the dim sum cart exiting the kitchen? Well, that’s normal. You got your feelings hurt that grandma shoved you aside? That’s why you are still cranking your neck and waiting for the cart to finally come to your table. Grandmas are busy in Hong Kong. After the meal, they got to go to get their hair done, play marathon mahjong with her pals, and catch up on TV soap operas so they most certainly don’t have time to waste on waiting for the food to come.

These observations of course, apply less the higher end the restaurant is.


(Derek Durst ) #5

Lambert we had a major discussion about BWLG…I told everyone you ordered the crispy little fish WITH the eggs inside the last time we were there …still a great memory, and great homey Cantonese food…I would love to go again!


(Derek Durst ) #6

Interesting…I would absolutely agree with your choices…what I also appreciated was that the size of the portions afforded all of us the ability to have more than one serving allowing us to really taste the dishes. Yes, my favorite was the dish I requested…the yee noodles with mushrooms and scallops. Braised beautifully…


(Gary Soup) #7

I remember both the baked pork buns and the roast pork at Woey Loy Goey (which my then GF called “that Huey Louie Dewey place”) from the early 60s. I think the pork buns were 10 cents each and 3 of them would make a meal for a young adult on the shorts. They were similar to those of modern times at Cafe Bakery, with a slightly crispy bun and amply filled with slightly gristly, not too sweet pork.

As for the roast pork, it was known far and wide to cabbies and CHP and SFPD officers. I used to joke that Grant & Jackson was the safest place in town to be in the evening; I went to the newsstand on that corner around 9:00 every night to get the bulldog edition of the next day’s Chronicle, and the street would be packed with double-parked SFPD and CHP vehicles. Officers on the swing shift would be picking up takeout dinners of a veritable mountain of roast pork over rice, with some enjoying it in their cars.

I’ve never determined the exact vintage of Woey Loy Goey (now New Woey Loy Goey) but it dates back at least as far as 1903.

Unless you are a lot younger than I think you are, Kam Lok would have been Yee Jun in your childhood. It changed hands in 1978.


#8

I am about as old as you. I remember both places. I remember when Sun Wah Que served Chinese food too. I remember Chinatown in the Fifties as a kid. I grow up there.


#9

I remember that dish too. Not sure if they still have that on the menu. I will check next time I am there.


(Gary Soup) #10

I remember Sun Wah Kue (about where San Sun is now) but don’t know if I ever ate there. My hangouts were Yee Jun, Universal Cafe and Sam Wo on that block, Jackson Cafe and Sun Tai Sam Yuen on Jackson, and Louie’s on Grant Avenue (also some Filipino places on Kearny). I didn’t get to San Francisco until 1962, and initially took most of my cues from latter-day beatniks and Art Institute types.


#11

It was where San Sun is now. The old hang out places, Uncle H, the Pork Chop house were the place I ate at in my younger day. Sam Wo was a place where I use to yell at the waiter. I was able to give him a bad time since I knew more bad words in Chinese then he did.


(Gary Soup) #12

Our gang used to go to Pork Chop House (we called it “Economic Meal” after the sign on the window). Two pork chops over rice with gravy. I’d go to Uncle’s for the American style breakfasts: two eggs, real bone-in ham steak, greasy hash browns and bitter, bitter coffee from that giant percolator. We need a separate thread for this, methinks.


#13

My grandpa was a counter man at Uncle during the late ‘60s. It’s a kick to think he may have had a few words with you.

He was a gruff old man. Literally every other string out of his mouth was the classic Toishanese “il nek gah ma gah hai”.


(Gary Soup) #14

You can see Kam Lok when it was Yee Jun in this shot from Waverly Place in the 1949 noir film “Impact” when Ella Raines and Charles Coburn go looking for Anna Mae Wong.


#15

There were at least three counter men, I only remember one who last name was Wong. Would the be the last name of your grandfather?