Twenty years ago we began to see fusion creep into American cuisine. Chinese chicken salad, a dish on many menus, came from chef Wolfgang Puck, a pioneer in Asian-influenced American cuisine.
But when it comes to Chinese cuisine, there are two trends: authentic-regional and Chinese-American.
In the Bay Area, you can find restaurants serving food from Yunnan, Hunan, Shanghai, Canton, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Hakka people. And of course, there are still neighborhood places with menus designed to appeal to American palates with spicy hot dishes, moo goo gai pan and the ever-present chow mein. One of the biggest proponents of this Americanized Chinese food is the popular chain P. F. Chang’s China Bistro.
Visionary restaurateur Jack Wang has created three restaurants blending Szechuan and Taiwanese food – an amazing fusion. The reason for this creative food is the story of Wang’s life.
His father was born in Sichuan; his mother, Taiwan. They were both in the military, allied with Chiang Kai-shek. When Mao Zedong forces came to power in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang forces fled to Taiwan.
Of course, Wang’s father also relocated. Wang tells me that besides the military, the best chefs left China as well.
One of the most interesting (and to me delicious) items on his menu, is the stinky tofu (Chou dofu). I don’t know another Chinese restaurant with the nerve to offer it.
I ask Wang about how to make it, but he demurs and says its preparation is a secret. The style he makes is Shanghaiese.
Ever the Google fan, I look it up and find it is a popular snack in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. Our Google pals tell us, as expected, it is a form of fermented tofu. The fermentation process differs from region to region. One thing is for sure; it is as smelly as the stinkiest French cheese.
At Spices I, we ate it in a seafood casserole. Yum! We also had a dish of my favorite Spices dish, pork kidney with numbing spices – barely cooked and sliced pork kidney is bathed in an oil made with Szechuan peppercorns (the numbing part).
Because the province of Sichuan is landlocked, one aspect of Wang’s style of fusion incorporates Taiwan’s seafood and Sichuan’s flavors.
Another dish that is indicative of his style and his cooking skill is Kiss of Fire, orange-fried tofu – delicate, silky tofu is deep-fried, then stir-fried and served with a shower of fried garlic and dried red chilies.
Wang explains he was the first to denote on his menu the degree of heat of his food. There is one dot, two dots and three dots.
I love his food, but with my chopsticks, I extract a piece of calamari and shake off some of the chili flakes. Many of the hottest dishes have chili oil, dried red chilies and chili flakes.
“We use over 30 spices – we make Szechaun chili oil, but we also grind the peppercorns as well; we are really serious about our spices,” he explains.
“I didn’t invent many of the dishes on the menu, I tweaked them. I’m like a screenwriter; I’m not the original author of the book, but I know what it takes to make a good film,” he says.
Growing up in Maryland after he came to the United States at 13, he later studied political science and art in college. After coming to San Francisco in 1989, the lure of the restaurant bug soon bit him, and he opened a place in Mountain View on Castro Street.
These days, Wang, 42, who lives in Belmont with his wife and three children, is poised to open yet a fifth restaurant in Foster City, Spices Bar & Restaurant. The business is a family affair with his wife, Lin, sister Amy, and her husband helping in the businesses.
In Foster City, he says he will finally have a real restaurant with white tablecloths, a full bar and patio seating.
The San Francisco Spices I has a large menu and maybe 30 seats; Spices II is more for the younger, late-night set and has a smaller menu and kitschy decor. Spices III is in Oakland and is open late. In Burlingame, the Wangs own Leann’s Cafe, which is open 24 hours and serves American food, including fried chicken.
I ask Jack, “How many more restaurants?”
“We’ll see,” he says.
I tell him I think a Spices restaurant would kill in Vegas. He says, “wow,” probably, as I later discover, because it is his kind of town – he digs Vegas.
As Wang, his sister and I mow through about eight dishes on the Spices I menu, he tells me that he will definitely open in Foster City on Aug. 14. As a longtime writer on the restaurant scene, “I ask him, how can you be sure?”
“Because it is the birthday of my patron saint, Guan Yu,” he says emphatically.
Once again Jack Wang sends me to Google.
Spices I: 294 8th Avenue (at Clement), 415-752-8884
Spices II: 291 6th Avenue (at Clement), 415-752-8885
Spices III: 369 12th Street (near Webster), Oakland, 510-625-8889
Leann’s Cafe: 777 Airport Boulevard, Burlingame, 650-342-8248
Spices Bar & Restaurant: Foster City (opening in August 2009)
GraceAnn Walden leads tours for food lovers of S.F. neighborhoods. For more information, visit www.graceannwalden.net. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org