A new branch of Brandy Ho's offers spicy, wood-smoked Hunan treats in the Castro's human aquarium
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At Brandy Ho's newish outpost in the Castro District, the fuchsia-colored paper place settings are embossed with the image of a chili pepper. For spice freaks, this is the equivalent of the famous blinking boob in North Beach the neighborhood that is the home of the original Brandy Ho's, which turns 30 next year. Let us meditate on the complex irony of all this.
People in the vicinity of their 30th birthdays often find themselves with procreation on the brain, so perhaps it isn't so surprising that restaurants sometimes develop a similar fever. It probably isn't too shocking, either, that Brandy Ho's should have chosen to spawn in the heart of the Castro, a heavily foot-trafficked neighborhood with something less than a cornucopia of Chinese restaurants. For years I was a quiet fan of China Court, a block away at the corner of Castro and 19th streets, but that place folded and became something else a few years ago, leaving the field pretty lightly uncontested. It might be more shocking that Brandy Ho's offspring bears so little physical resemblance to its parent.
Brandy Ho's in the Castro isn't just a Chinese restaurant: it's a good Chinese restaurant, and it's a Hunan Chinese restaurant. It's also rather sensationally good-looking: a rosewood-lined cave or mining tunnel, or (since this is the Castro) sauna fronted with enormous, ground-to-ceiling panes of plate glass, which makes it easy to observe those who are observing you as they drift by. You are either inside or outside the human aquarium, and it doesn't matter which. The Castro is a kingdom of darting eyes. If you struggle with chopsticks, you might draw a crowd of gawkers here. Brandy Ho's chopsticks are plastic, and that's not the best news for beginners and the inept. Wood has more grip and is much more forgiving.
Why does Hunan matter? Because Hunan food is spicy food, and while I have high regard for steamed Cantonese or Hakka delicacies for their fineness and subtleties, I prefer some fire on the plate. I love Szechuan food, but there isn't a lot of it to be found in San Francisco. Hunan is just about as appealing and, perhaps, just a wee bit more refined, at least as it's turned out by the kitchen at Brandy Ho's.
And to invert an old saw where there is fire, there must be smoke. At Brandy Ho's, the smoke comes not from tea leaves but from hardwood, and it results in a set of dishes that are exceptionally flavorful and quite unlike any other Chinese food I've eaten. Our server cautioned us that there were those who found the smokiness of smoked duck Hunanese ($12.95) "too strong," but the meat, when it finally floated in as a set of osso buco-like pieces on a carpet of carrot coins and bamboo shoot tabs, was reminiscent of Canadian bacon or some other kind of pork that had been roasted over a campfire. The smoke was smooth, hearty, and gently dominant in the manner of a good dark beer. Modest inconveniences: remnants of bone and dried skin. There was some chili heat too, but it deferred to the smoke.
Many of the dishes aren't spicy at all. Steamed dumplings ($5.50) turned out to be potstickers, a half-dozen of them chubby as well-fed goldfish and filled with a tasty but well-behaved mince of pork, ginger, garlic, and scallion. Hot and sour soup ($3.50) was hot mostly in the hot-weather sense, but mostly it was bitter. The roster of ingredients seemed unremarkable eggs, bean curd, bamboo shoots, and carrots but had some unannounced greens been stirred into the mix, sharpening the soup's edge?
And mo si vegetables ($8.95) mu shu is the more familiar English spelling rely mainly on garlic and ginger, not hot peppers, for their effect. Nonetheless, their effect is quietly potent, abetted by the hoisin sauce you swab on your pancakes before filling them with the actual stir-fry, whose main players are shredded napa cabbage and tree-ear mushrooms, bound together with egg. As much as I've loved mu shu pork over the years, I found this porkless version of the dish to be quite as convincing as its fleshier siblings and did not miss the meat.
Seinfeld's George liked his chicken spicy and in the third person and he would have liked Brandy Ho's gon-pou chicken Hunan ($8.95), a fabulous mélange of boneless chicken cubes, onion slivers, chunks of red bell pepper, garlic, water chestnuts, and most fabulous of all wok-fried peanuts. There was plenty of chili-pepper heat in here somewhere. We mentioned to our server that we wanted the food to be spicy but didn't want to burst into flames, and he'd nodded sagely, as if he heard this sort of thing every day and took it as a precise instruction. We ended up tingling yet unflaming, so the message must have gotten through somehow.
What was more remarkable was the dish's uncanny resemblance to that old Szechuan favorite, kung pao chicken. What could distinguish the two, besides the spelling? The wok-frying of the peanuts? Is that some expression of Hunanese character, or just a flourish from this particular kitchen? Hunan and Szechuan provinces do adjoin each other, so maybe neighborliness accounts for some of the apparent cross-pollination.
Considering the quality and noteworthiness of the food and the restrained high style of the setting, Brandy Ho's is notably inexpensive. Although portions are generous, many of the dishes cost less than $10, and even the pricier ones struggle to reach into the low teens. If you're tired of fretting about the stock-market burn-off but aren't yet ready for the depths of Carl's Jr. or microwaveable burritos, Brandy Ho's could very well be the place.
Continuous service: Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.11 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 11:30 a.m.midnight
4068 18th St., SF