Sure, it's flu season, but January also is the month when the sighing epidemic hits hardest. You'll be typing away at your computer when the windowpanes begin to thrum with the patter of raindrops. From the next cubicle over arises a deep-throated sigh of weariness and disappointed dreams. An echo sounds in the office across the hall. Or you're driving down the highway, and as you pass under the darkest patch of sky, the horizon disappears, the windshield goes blurry, and your partner slumps in the passenger seat. "Not the rain againnnnhhhggh," he moans, as if the doctor has just told him his right foot is about to fall off.
As a transplanted Midwesterner, I've never understood why the rainy season sucks the joy out of the Bay Area. Is the world slicked over with ice? Do you have to take care so your contacts won't freeze onto your eyeballs? Do any of you even know what the term "wind chill factor" means? It's just rain, you big sissies.
Besides, there's no better time to eat at Little Potato.
Located in one of the strip malls bracketing the corner of Alvarado-Niles and Decoto in Union City, Little Potato may be the first restaurant in the Bay Area to specialize in Dongbei cuisine. Dongbei (literally, "east-north") refers to the northeast region of China once known as Manchuria. Bordered by Mongolia and Russia on the north and North Korea on the southeast, the modern-day provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning are a wild, expansive land of plains and forests. It's long-winter country, wheat and sorghum country, and its cuisine -- which foodies all over China consider great cold-weather fare -- grew out of the challenge of making a pig and a field of cabbage last until April.
One of those ways is Little Potato's Dongbei-style short ribs, amorphous lumps of meat lacquered with a mahogany sauce. They ain't pretty, despite the attempt to dress them up by nestling them on frilly lettuce leaves. But a single chopstick, lightly wielded, slices through the meat, and the spare rib dissolves in the mouth, a salty-sweet rush of pork, soy sauce, and star anise. After a few bites you feel as if you've spent an hour with a down-filled blanket and a hot toddy.
The owners have ordered up the basic Asian-restaurant package from their interior designers -- beige-colored tile floors, blond wood tables, a counter up front displaying cold dishes. Sage-colored walls are striped with colored paper rectangles listing specials in Chinese, interspersed with a couple of anonymous paintings. The owners keep the doors open to set the elements against each other, the damp breeze from the outside fending off the steamy heat flowing out from the kitchen. Otherwise, the no-nonsense restaurant is clean and comfortable, and on a weekday night most of the tables are covered in dishes. On weekends, the room is full of extended families, with children tottering around the aisles and parents keeping watch over the rims of their rice bowls.
Little Potato's menu disregards the normal principles of organization: No sections for different meats and vegetable dishes, or appetizers and entrées. Instead, two-thirds of the restaurant's eightysome dishes fall under one heading -- "$5.50 (three for $15)" -- with separate call-outs for hot pots, sizzling platters, and lotus rice dishes. Most of the dishes specifically labeled "Dongbei-style" cluster near the top of the page, but you'll mostly have to root around the list for Northern Chinese specialties. Pass over generic Chinese-American fare like prawns with walnuts and kung pao chicken in favor of dishes with things like pickled or fresh cabbage, leeks or green onions, and noodles and dumplings. If you can answer yes to the question "Does this dish look like it belongs in a German restaurant?" then you should order it.
Case in point: smoked pork with leeks, stir-fried in a salty brown sauce, as subtle as a Metallica riff. Or the pork liver with garlic sauce: The cooks sauté thin slices of the meat until the edges crisp up, but big shots of vinegar and soy sauce keep the metallic funk of organ meat in check. When we asked the servers for help picking out the chef's best dishes, they pointed us to the short ribs, as well as the Dongbei-style tofu, its squares deep-fried until they developed a pocked, chestnut-colored crust. The cooks ladled a simple, hearty sauce of ground pork and mushrooms -- a Chinese Bolognese -- overtop.
The strong, peasant flavors and the predominance of salty soy-based sauces can bog down the meal. It helps to order one or two lighter vegetable dishes for balance, such as Napa cabbage with salty shrimp, or the shredded potato with green pepper, one of the few dishes that actually reflects the restaurant's name. Chinese cooks like their tubers crunchy, so the plate is heaped with long white threads of barely cooked potato. It's more appetizing than it sounds, though the dish could have used more "wok breath" -- that soft aroma of char and smoke that comes from a thin pan and a high flame -- to fill out the flavor. The lamb with winter melon hotpot was as delicate a dish as the kitchen could produce, with a clear, resonant broth and slices of faintly sweet melon melting in the mouth. Even better was the version with pickled cabbage, the tang from the brine giving the dish high notes as well as lows.
A couple of the waiters' Dongbei-style recommendations didn't fly. Most people will recognize the green onion pancake -- a crisp, browned flatbread composed of silky, transparent layers studded with scallions -- but Little Potato's leaden version drowned in its own oil. The dry-fried string beans, a Northern classic that makes it onto most Chinese-American menus, didn't have the salty pungency of the dish when it's done right.
Most of the diners in the restaurant ordered one of the lotus rice dishes, which arrive in steamers, a bundle of lotus leaves inside. When you unwrap it, the steam rises from a nondescript stir-fry -- we tried black-pepper beef -- spooned over soft, sticky white rice that has been steamed inside the leaf packet. People order the dish for the papery, grassy scent of the lotus leaves infused into the rice, but I suspect its appeal is primarily nostalgic.
But I'm already getting nostalgic for the restaurant's boiled dumplings, stuffed with pork or beef mixed with either pickled cabbage or celery. Plump and ungarnished, they are simply fished from the water and plopped on the plate, with a tiny bowl of soy and vinegar on the side for you to dip them in. In fact, the skins aren't folded into the neatest of pleats, and some people will probably find the dumplings too thick and ungainly, but to me they were as homey as a roast-beef sandwich, as comforting as mac and cheese.
Even at its best, Little Potato's Dongbei cuisine isn't transcendent. It's not meant to be. It's meant to sustain you no matter how low the temperature drops, to stave off the icy winds when your coat isn't thick enough. And in the balmy Northern California, on the rainiest of January days, it may just keep the sighs at bay.