Do you know the way to San Jose?
Travelers on Interstate 280, northbound across the south face of the city, may well have had occasion to use the San Jose Avenue exit, a two-lane ramp that curves through a tunnel and onto another multilane road scarcely different from the freeway itself, except for the Muni trains running along the median and the lower speed limit, which is generally ignored, as is the case on the freeway proper. But, like a wadi fading in some desert, San Jose Avenue soon becomes a ghost. Traffic curves onto Guerrero and speeds north, and San Jose itself seems to end even before reaching Cesar Chavez.
It doesn't end, though. It's just interrupted, and a block north of Cesar Chavez it resumes its languid progress as a kind of village lane all but inaccessible to the automotive furies on nearby thoroughfares and lined with quaint old houses and a small slice of park, beatifically calm. At the foot of this segment of street, in a building that could easily be mistaken for a Laundromat, we find Wild Pepper, a recently relocated Chinese restaurant (ne Long Island, on Church) notable not only for its isolation — for restaurants, like wolves (and humans!), tend to operate on a pack model, clustering together — but also for its offer of evidence that two people can indeed eat quite royally in this town and still get out the door for less than $40, maybe nearer $30. Those numbers include tax and tip, yes — the latter covering table service at tables covered with proper white linens and set with handsomely lacquered rosewood chairs.
None of this is to suggest that Wild Pepper is the lap of luxury. The setting, intimate to the city yet remote from it, has its charms, of course; I would not have been surprised to find a hitching post for horses outside the front door. The interior design too, while not without its flourishes, including an aquarium full of bubbles and decorative tropical fish, is Spartan in the manner of one of those semilegal in-law apartments in which the dehumidifier is always running. But all this means is that there is less sensory clutter to distract one's attention from the excellent food.
As Wild Pepper's menu reminds us, excellent Chinese food need not be imperial nor be prepared with a banquet table and 14 courses in mind. Earthiness helps, pepperiness too, along with an attention to freshness of ingredients and continence in the use of cooking oil. As an introduction to these admirable qualities, Wild Pepper offers a deceptively boring-sounding cucumber salad ($3.95); the crisp, cooling cuke is cut into coins and dressed with a simple but lively oil flecked by chili flakes and minced garlic. If you thought the cucumber was a dark green torpedo fit only to be made into effete little white-bread sandwiches for the high teas beloved of the garlic-fearing English, you will be pleased to think again.
Many of the menu's more attractive offerings are to be found under the heading "chef's specials." Here we find such treats as minced-chicken lettuce cup ($6.95), basically a variant of mu shu pork (including a small dish of hoisin sauce), with chicken substituted for the pork and immaculate leaves of iceberg lettuce for the pancakes. Also good, if on the richer side, is Szechuan crispy beef ($8.95), cords of shredded meat hot-wokked to a certain snappiness in the company of slivers of onion and an unassumingly brown but potent sweet-sour sauce laced with Szechuan peppercorns. For a Thai spin, try basil eggplant with prawns and scallops ($10.95) — the classic Siamese combination of sweet and spicy, with the eggplant neither tough nor mushy, those disastrous termini of many a home cook's ministrations.
If there is a weakness on the menu, it lies in the hot appetizers and can be recognized by the alluring but somehow repulsive scent of the deep-fryer. The pork pot stickers ($4.50 for six) are an exception, being just pan-seared instead of dunked in a vat of hot oil. But they are an exception; also a bit floury. The combination plate ($6.25) gives the full oily effect; here we have egg roll and fried chicken wings (which consist of little more than deep-fried batter and some slender bones — but are tasty!), along with a pair of pot stickers and a couple of disks of crab Rangoon: crab meat mixed with cream cheese and, yes, deep-fried. Good, but positively Homer Simpson–esque.
A better hot first course might be one of the soups. Hot and sour ($2.75 for a cup) is fine in a mainstream way, but a more enriching choice might be the ocean party ($6.95 for a large, and that means at least six cups' worth), an egg drop soup fortified almost beyond recognition. Emendations include seafood, of course (mainly scallops and chunks of white fish), along with shreds of bok choy, rounds of baby corn, panels of carrot, and slivers of shiitake mushroom. There is no obviously dominant ingredient in this soup, and its flavor is delicate — easily obscured, say, by the bite and fire of the preceding cuke salad, if you had eaten that first, as we made the mistake of doing. But we found that once the cuke fireworks had ended, the soup quietly asserted itself until its mild flavor filled our mouths and we could not get enough of it. Pepper, you see, is nice, whether red, black, white, or Szechuan, but it is not the only way to go.
11 a.m.–<\d>10 p.m.
3601 26th St., SF
Beer and wine