David L. Garcia
I love take-out Chinese food. The Richmond and The Sunset are filled with stores that specialize in it; cramped storefronts, humid with evaporated MSG from boiler dishes that have been holding chow mien for hours, offering various dumplings and stir-fried, syrupy meat-vegetable combos. The food is rarely any good, but the experience, that power you receive leering over piles of food, deciding which to lend your favor to…that is truly rewarding.
Cheung Hing, a Chinese take-out place in the deepest recess of The Sunset, manages to amplify that power using a method employed by Chinese restaurants the world over: they hang the ducks, chickens, and slabs of roast pork in the window. A method that appeals to the deepest, most primal instincts of any carnivore. A bounty displayed; the meat, glistening under ceiling heat lamps, never seemed so appealing, so welcoming. Available by the pound? Hooray!
At Cheung Hing, the meat does you the courtesy of being incredibly delicious. The best format is probably the “two meats over rice.” Don’t ask me for a better name. I don’t have one. I don’t know what it’s listed as on the menu. Half the time I can’t even find it on the menu board, a backlit food list covered in exceptions, rules, and additional items, all scribbled on pieces of paper and taped up next to the formal options. Just ask for “two meats over rice.” The guy behind the counter will get the idea.
Let’s focus on this man. His job, essentially, is to chop meat all day. He stands behind the counter, holding court over an enormous wooden cutting board, one that’s been thoroughly soaked with meat juice and scarred by knife marks. He’ll listen impatiently as you tell him what you want (he may hand you off to another server if you’re taking forever to decide).
With a practiced swing of the arm, he’ll yank a roast duck, a bright red chuck of BBQ pork, a foot-long slice of roast pork off the hanger in the window and toss it down onto the cutting board. His cleaver, a heavy, terrifyingly sharp knife designed specifically for this kind of thing, descends with the angry precision of a guillotine. THWACK THWACK THWACK!! Meat juice flies everywhere, splattering the windows and jumping up onto the counter.
He’ll then lay the meat over the rice, and push the plate over to the lady at the register. The process is repeated all day, often under the pressure of a line half a dozen people deep. The restaurant must go through ducks the way McDonald’s goes through Chicken McNuggets.
When you get home and open up the take-out box (there are tables at Cheung Hing, but they seem to exist primarily as decoration–I’ve never seen anyone eating at them), you’ll find a fairly boring-looking dish: a bed of white rice, the pork and duck, and a small pile of vegetables, which you will probably not eat. It can almost look a little forlorn, lying there in the to-go box.
But then you break out your chopsticks and start eating. Roast duck, cooked until mind-alteringly tender and full of the dark, almost bittersweet gaminess of waterfowl; roast pork, somehow robust and delicate, topped with crisp skin and riddled with thin strips of fat that burst in your mouth into sweet, soy sauce flavored pockets of juice; the BBQ pork (normally a dry, uninteresting cliché) here given new life as deeply smoky, fire truck red slices of porcine delight. Even the rice is divine, as it soaks up the meat juices and becomes one of the richest, most decadent plates of grain you’ve ever drizzled soy sauce over.
That takeout box is not some boring combo platter, or some cheap, filling excuse for Chinese food. It is a work of carnivorous art, a plate of food so warm, so comforting, so appealingly primal that you’re vegetarian friends will look at you with unreserved envy.
2339 Noriega St
San Francisco, CA 94122