Sometimes a restaurant isn't all it appears to be. You may think you know what you're getting only to discover you're missing out on the very thing that makes it unique. Take Temescal's Happy Family Restaurant. In August 2000, Charlie Han, who has owned a restaurant by the same name in San Francisco for twenty years, left that business in his daughter's hands and opened up an Oakland branch. He chose the dining strip emerging along Telegraph Avenue -- a location that reserves its charms for the initiated.
Look for the smiley face on the sign above the front door. Near the entrance, schools of goldfish swim in a two-tiered bubbling fountain. It's the lone ornament in a large, open room with lemon-yellow walls, bright pink molding, and blond wood wainscoting. Big enough to host a score of happy families, the restaurant has not yet filled to capacity. Two- and four-person tables take up the front half of the room, with the back ready for larger groups. The base of one monumental glass-topped table is hewn out of a tree trunk.
On my first visit, my friend and I noticed that all the tables around us were occupied by Korean-speaking families and groups of friends. Curious, I thought, and opened the menu. All the menu items were written in Chinese, English, and Korean. Then the owner approached the table next to me and took the order in Korean. What was going on?
That was the first question I asked the owner when I called after my review visits. Han, whose family background is Northern Chinese, moved here from Korea. Much of Happy Family's customer base is Korean-American, with the restaurant an informal extension of the Korya shopping center. Korean-Chinese food resembles basic Chinese-American food: a regional hodgepodge. Most of the names of the dishes will be familiar to anyone who has ordered takeout. You've got your egg flower soup, your moo shoo pork, your General Tsu's chicken. More intrepid diners will find sliced pig's ear, jellyfish salad, and sea cucumber with five-spiced pork. Happy Family also offers a number of multicourse prix fixe dinners for $10 or so a person.
Though most of the dishes don't transcend the canonical approach to American-Korean Chinese fare, they don't make any major missteps, either. All have good, solid flavors and are executed with skill. For example, Happy Family's rendition of Szechuan beef swerved into sweet-and-sour territory. Tender strips of beef were swallowed up in a thick batter that melted under a sweet and lightly spicy sauce glossy with cornstarch. Boiled broccoli gave the red-brown heap a needed jolt of green. The dish appeased the Midwesterner in me but scared the food critic.
But I didn't go to Happy Family for Szechuan beef. I was excited when I learned about the Oakland branch because I've made a culinary expedition to the original to try the Hans' specialty: "hand-pull" noodles. The Hans are among a scant few in the Bay Area who make hand-pull noodles, a traditional Northern Chinese specialty now taken over by machines. The process is spectacular as well as exacting. According to Charlie Han's daughter Anlie, the noodles start out as a single ball of elastic dough made with a high-gluten wheat flour and water. "First you stretch it until it's a long snake," she said. "Then you put the two ends together and stretch. You bring your arms up and out, and then you put the two ends together again. You keep stretching and putting the ends together until you have 120 strands." Each strand is five feet long.
Hand-pulled noodles are distinguished by rounded edges and a lightly chewy texture -- udon with a bite. Our order of vegetable and chicken hand-pull noodles made the trip worthwhile. Tender chicken, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, and baby bok choy had been stir-fried with a simple chicken-stock sauce, ginger peeking through. The noodles were long enough to slurp for hours, long enough to trail across the table en route to our plates.
If you want to cut the noodles, the servers will provide you with a pair of scissors. They'll also answer questions about the food and will come around often to answer questions and check on drinks. We didn't expect four-star service, and we didn't get it, but the staff's low-key friendliness made their presence appreciated more than noticed.
On my second visit, on Christmas Eve, I brought a crew along to celebrate a Jewish Christmas. We started out with another Northern Chinese specialty: boiled shrimp ravioli, green and pungent with chopped leeks, wrapped in a chewy flour dough. (It was a decidedly un-kosher meal, needless to say, which I understand doesn't depart from tradition.) I preferred the shrimp from the overly soft, bland pork ravioli I tried on my first visit.
"Many of the vegetable dishes on this menu contain meat," noted one of my vegetarian companions. He settled on the sautéed spinach -- bright green, silky to the tongue, and mildly garlicky. Han approached the table and offered to make anything on the menu vegetarian. So we ordered the braised tofu with vegetables and beef without the beef, and the black-bean sauce hand-pull noodles with zucchini rather than our choice of meat. We didn't feel the lack. Large triangles of fried-then-braised tofu were stir-fried with broccoli, carrot, cabbage, and black mushrooms in your standard garlic-inflected sauce. I recognized the noodles from my Korean ramen college days -- noodles, onions, and zucchini were covered in a thick, black, slightly bitter sauce with the deep flavor of toasted sesame oil and fermented soybeans.
Our second bowl of hand-pull noodles, this time served in seafood soup, should have been a light one-person meal, not part of a larger group dinner. A swarm of thick noodles floated in a clear sea-scented broth topped with rose-hued prawns and lavender baby octopus sections.
Three-Delicacy Delight was listed under the substantial seafood section. The three delicacies -- chicken, prawns, and scallops -- were so plump and moist they squirted juice as I bit down on them. They were combined with black mushrooms and snap peas in a slightly gloopy Cantonese stock-and-sesame-oil sauce whose flavor was as transparent as its color, letting the flavors of the mild, sweet meats mingle.
My friend Joe suggested the cherry pork because it sounded the most Christmas-like. Large chunks of pork, toothsome but not tough, had been covered in a cracklingly crisp batter shell and coated in a sweet red glaze flavored with cherries. It was sweet and sour pork for adults, an all-in-one main course and dessert. Not much remained on the platter at the end of the meal.
But the noodles aren't the only secret at Happy Family. A sign above the cash register advertises a private karaoke room in the back. Anlie told me that it seats forty but can be reserved -- free -- for parties of ten or more, with full dinner service and beer: "A couple times a year I get a lot of my friends together to do a Happy Family karaoke night. There aren't a whole lot of American songs, but there's a lot of stuff from the 1980s." Is it possible to sing "Material Girl" while slurping five-foot-long noodles? Try and see.
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