Monday, January 18, 2010

The hot and the sour

This morning our house was power-washed by the most intense rainstorm of the season. First vertical, then horizontal, the downpour came at our sunspace windows with enough roar and force to send us running to see how much damage was being done. Everything was intact, and soon after the worst of the storm the skies cleared for a few minutes before storm two (of three in the forecast) came barreling in.

With a window of an hour at best, Ira and I layered up and charged down the front stairs to embark on day two of our hot and sour soup taste test competition.

Hot and sour soup is, in Asian homes, the catch-all for leftovers.  It's chicken soup with vinegar for sour and white pepper for hot.  Straw mushrooms and tofu are often added, along with soy sauce, tiger lily buds and thinly sliced pork.  Fresh cilantro and pineapple chunks are a bonus.  This combination is the perfect cure for the rainy season, a cold, or a generic case of the blues.

If the hot and sour soup in a Chinese restaurant is wonderful, it's a sure thing that the rest of the meal will be even better.  With that in mind we've made 2010 the Year of the Soup, a time to review all the eateries in our hood, and to answer the question once and for all:  where can perfection be found?

Melisa's (that's with one s) restaurant on Balboa has been named by friends as the best soup in the hood and we began our quest there last week.  We were underwhelmed.  Melisa's was charming, but the hot and sour we brought home was flat in color and low on ingredients.  What was there (tofu, sprouts, mushrooms) was fine but the broth was missing the luscious translucent red-brown color of soy sauce and hot chili sauce. The egg-drop component was a bit heavy for soup. Like scrambled eggs Kentucky-style.

Today's taste test at Tom Kiang on Geary was more successful.  We're getting organized and now we have a mental scorecard in place.  First, the visuals.  Tom Kiang's hot and sour was beautiful, a deep, transparent red-brown.  The aroma was perfect.  The taste test?  TK's soup was full of all the standard ingredients except pork slivers, which we didn't miss.  The broth was just the right consistency, not too much cornstarch.  But  hot overpowered sour by just a bit, adding up to a little white pepper overkill.

We didn't find perfection today, but Tom Kiang did give us a terrific floor show.  A Dim Sum restaurant, Tom Kiang specializes in small plates. (You might say Dim Sum is to Chinese as tapas is to Spanish.) So a big meal at Tom Kiang is made of many small appetizers.

We stuck to the plan of having hot and sour soup only, except for one digression--we couldn't resist a plate of four small dumplings stuffed with shrimp and greens.  Otherwise our eyes got the feast as waiters and waitresses tempted diners with  a non-stop parade of puffy brown pork rolls, glistening pot stickers with sauce,  stir-fried greens, shumai (steamed dumplings), and crispy tempura shrimp with beady black eyes and fins intact.

Next week we may try Golden Chopstick on Balboa, or one of the restaurants on Clement.  As rough as it is, our search must go on.  The perfect hot and sour is hiding out there somewhere, and we'll just have to find it.