For me, rediscovering a wonderful restaurant is just as satisfying as discovering a new one. That’s what happened recently when during an interview about his new restaurant, Txoko, chef Ian Begg reminded me of The House. Because Begg makes one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten (artisan foie gras torchon and duck prosciutto) at his popular North Beach lunch spot, Naked Lunch, I asked him to name his favorite sandwich at someone else’s restaurant. Without missing a beat, Begg said, “The unagi sandwich at The House.” I realized as Begg waxed poetic about the perfect sandwich that I hadn’t been to The House, chef Larry’s Tse’s Asian fusion offering in the heart of North Beach, since shortly after it opened nearly two decades ago. At the time North Beach was made up almost exclusively of Italian restaurants (while it’s still heavy on Italian, there are other cuisines represented in the neighborhood these days, including Begg’s two places and Mexican hot spot Don Pisto’s). The House stood out not only because it was different but because the food was excellent. After multiple visits for lunch and dinner over the last few months, I’m happy to report Tse hasn’t missed a beat, and his food – a holdout from the fizzled fusion heyday – remains remarkably fresh.
THE ASIAN FUSION TREND
There is much debate over the origins of Asian fusion (a marriage of different Asian cuisines and/or the combination of Asian and French cooking techniques) in America, but Richard Wing of the five-star Imperial Dynasty restaurant in Hanford, Calif., is definitely considered one of its pioneers. The Imperial Dynasty, founded as a noodle shop in Hanford’s Chinese Alley by Wing’s grandfather in 1883 and run by the family for five generations, became the unlikely center of Asian fusion in the 1960s when Wing introduced French techniques he’d learned abroad to the classic Chinese menu (the restaurant closed in 2006 due to Wing’s ailing health; he passed away in 2010). Wing described his style, termed “chinois,” as “French cooking with a Chinese accent.” His signature dish, which brought gastronomists and dignitaries worldwide to the small San Joaquin Valley town, was a classic version of escargots de Bourgogne (snails with butter, shallots, parsley, white wine, and garlic) to which he added ginger root and cashew butter. Famed restaurateur Wolfgang Puck subtly honored Wing when he opened his ode to fusion, Chinois (located on Santa Monica’s tony Main Street), in 1983. Puck took fusion a step further adding California’s fresh bounty of seasonal ingredients to the mix. At its finest, fusion is inventive and startling; at its worst it is silly and startlingly bad. It was the silly and startlingly bad part that made fusion a dirty word in the early 1990s. I remember dining at the Flying Saucer, Albert Tordjman’s trendy Mission eatery, and having dishes come to the table with crazy garnishes spiraling beyond the waiter’s head. Tordjman helped start the vertical food trend and he did it well, but in lesser hands vertical fusion became nothing short of ridiculous – and boring.
When Tse and his wife, Angela, opened The House in 1993, San Francisco’s vertical fusion craze was winding down. Angela is a native San Franciscan; Larry emigrated from Hong Kong when he was 5 years old. Though he has no formal culinary training, Tse started working as a kid in the kitchen of his parents’ Pacifica restaurant and his uncle’s restaurant in San Jose. The couple first pursued corporate careers (he at Chevron, she at The Gap) but decided to follow their passion and open a restaurant serving a menu based on the dishes they ate at home.
INSIDE THE MENU
The diminutive space doesn’t look much different than it did in 1993 when the couple had little budget for extravagance, but the sleekness and slightly funky feel – slate floors, Art Deco light fixtures, blonde wood tables tightly arranged, photographs displayed in recessed frames on lime green and pickled oak walls – still hold up.
For that matter the menu hasn’t changed a lot, but in this case the old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” definitely applies. Tse still uses quality products from local markets and artisan purveyors (for an Asian-inspired restaurant he was ahead of his time), and that attention to culinary detail still serves him well despite the fact that SLO (seasonal, local, organic) is now commonplace across the country.
OYSTERS, CHIVE DUMPLINGS AND SQUID ARE WINNERS
With the first dish on our first lunch visit, the kitchen displayed its deftness for combining local ingredients and checking cultural boundaries at the door – big, meaty oysters grilled and served on the half-shell in a straight-up All-American barbecue sauce with a spicy kick and a drizzle of zesty cilantro mignonette ($11).
I grew up eating chicken livers and still make them at home quite often, so I was eager to try the deep-fried chicken livers with baby greens ($8). The dish was nothing special (the livers were a tad overcooked and therefore dry), but the crunchy crust and mineral overtones of the liver played well against the sweetness and tartness of grapes, cherry tomatoes, and the balsamic and rice vinegar dressing.
The white shrimp and Chinese chive dumplings ($9) were visually appealing, set atop paper-thin rounds of golden beets and a scattering of golden beet and daikon radish matchsticks. The wrappers were translucent yet still chewy, and the shrimp were plump and juicy. On another visit the dumplings rested against slices of watermelon radish for an equally attractive presentation. A special of grilled Monterey squid ($9) under a pile of pillow-soft bonito (fish) flakes and spicy bonito broth was also a winner, as were the Lego-like, tempura-fried Blue Lake green beans ($8) stacked over a pickled ginger soy dipping sauce.
While the deep-fried salmon roll ($9) sounded fantastic, I found it underwhelming and bland. Ditto for the classic fried calamari ($9). These were, however, the only two dishes – after eating my way through nearly the entire menu – I would not order again.
DON’T MISS THESE SANDWICHES
The unagi and avocado sandwich ($11), chef Begg’s favorite, is now one of mine – amazingly simple yet so completely satisfying with warm, grilled eel and soft, cool avocado between slices of bread (from the nearby Italian French Baking Company) slathered in parsley, butter and garlic and then grilled. The crispness of the bread’s exterior is a nice contrast to the delicate, smooth ingredients it holds.
I am not a seared tuna lover but my friend Kevin is, so he ordered the tuna BLT with wasabi mayo ($11). I reluctantly traded him half of my unagi sandwich for half of his tuna sandwich, and I’m so glad I did. The mild, rare tuna was pushed to another level with the addition of crackling bacon and a little heat from the wasabi.
On another visit we ordered the special soft shell crab sandwich ($11), which, like the unagi and tuna BLT, arrived on that wonderful grilled bread and was a completely satisfying blend of taste and texture.
BIG FLAVORS AND FAVORITES
The signature dish at The House in my opinion is the garlic-ginger, soy-glazed sea bass ($26). The caramelized fish is so rich and unctuous I couldn’t stop eating it, and I had my guests order it on every other visit so I could get my fix. If I wound up on a desert island with only Tse’s sea bass, I would be a happy castaway.
A special seared yellowtail ($29) arrived flashily dressed with a California roll draped over it that was cut on the bias to expose the crab salad and avocado within, topped with a dollop of bright orange tobiko (flying fish roe) and two taro root chip antennae spiraling upward in an example of vertical plating as it was intended. It tasted as good as it looked.
The polar opposite, a rib-eye steak simply served under a blanket of creamy truffle sauce ($25), was tasty though the sauce was very rich. A slab of roasted unagi laid on a bed of avocado sushi rice ($10) is also minimalist in style but big on flavor.
For dessert it’s all about the mango tapioca ($6) with a layer of fresh cream featuring espresso-like swirls of mango sauce covering a not-too-sweet pudding with that wonderful burst of tapioca pearls. Several of my dining companions weren’t tapioca fans or didn’t like the “soupy” quality around the pudding, but that just left more for me.
Though the fruit changes seasonally, my dining companions universally loved the berry crisp with house-made strawberry ice cream ($8.50).
Service at The House is courteous and efficient. During lunch the wait staff is a bit more personable, while at dinner they are a little less friendly but retain their precision. The kitchen is a well-oiled machine with food coming at a snappy pace, and quality never wavers no matter how crowded the restaurant becomes.
After nearly two decades I have rediscovered what has now become one of my go-to restaurants both on and off the job. If you haven’t been to The House, get there. If you haven’t been in a while, get there again.
The House: 1230 Grant Avenue (at Columbus); lunch Monday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.; dinner Sunday–Thursday 5:30–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday until 11 p.m.; 415-986-8612, www.thehse.com
TWO AND A HALF DIAMONDS
Diminutive and sleek with a slightly funky feel.
Courteous and efficient even during busy times.
Nonpeak lunchtime you can hold a conversation without screaming – this is a good place for a date, a business meeting, or to hear yourself think. Peak lunchtime and dinner are far too loud to hold a conversation, never mind hear yourself think.
It’s bright and airy during lunch, but bring your Mini Maglite to dinner.
NOT TO MISS DISHES
Grilled sea bass with garlic-ginger soy glaze; unagi and avocado sandwich (lunch only); tuna BLT (lunch only); white shrimp and Chinese chive dumplings.
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Northside San Francisco ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and style of the restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.