Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Chinese restaurants are literally a dime a dozen in San Francisco. On most every block in the city they appear like wild flowers, eateries touting the best in Asian delicacies. However, the truth of the matter is that only a few of these places actually realize the lofty plateaus of their own hype. Given these facts, a Chinese restaurant has to be exceptional for it to catch a diner’s attention.
Tai Chi, hidden between the north Van Ness corridor and the Broadway Tunnel, is a truly special place – a three-decade-old establishment featuring an array of Hunan and Mandarin dishes that are both economical and wholesome.
Tai Chi opened its doors and served up its first meal under the direction of founder Min Wang in 1977. The eatery instantly became famous in the neighborhood for the General Tsuo’s Chicken – an irresistible platter of spicy boneless chicken glazed with the chef’s special sauce, countless flavors juxtaposed, this smoky taste of red chilies cut with a thick honey sweetness. Immediately, the General’s Chicken became Tai Chi’s unique signature.
Wang guided the restaurant through its up and down early years, slowly adding to the menu in order to keep current with the ever-changing tastes of a city that demands the absolute best in food and drink. As the menu grew, so did the line at the door and the buzz in town; under Wang’s direction, Tai Chi would become a four-star stop (and rated as one of the Bay’s 100 best restaurants by the Examiner).
After over 20 years at the helm, Wang retired, turning over the keys to Tai Chi to his nephew, Chris Tang. Tang, a native of Hong Kong, immigrated to the United States in 1982, first working the Miami food scene before finally arriving in San Francisco in 1991.
Tang took command of Tai Chi in 1998 and, like his uncle, kept adding new items to the menu so as to keep pace with the evolving culture. Under Tang’s management, Tai Chi bolstered its vegetarian and lamb offerings, fueling these more health-conscious dishes with sharp bursts of flavor.
More than anything, Tai Chi is known among neighborhood regulars as a place to get an honest portion of food at a bargain price. Everything from the service to the originality of the menu makes this a once-a-week stop for so many who live between the Polk Gulch and Mid-town San Francisco.
Tai Chi offers a big menu with consistency its biggest selling point. The head chef has been in place since 1980, and his 26-year run bears testament to the fact that this menu can be depended on time and again. In addition to the General’s Chicken, the Salt-Pepper Ribs are magnificent; these mostly boneless shards of fried pork are covered in a thin crust of salt and pepper and spices (served on sliced jalapeños). There’s simply no other fired pork like this in the city. I think what makes it so special is the fact that it is relatively light – not greasy or belly-heavy. Also notable are both the garlic and walnut prawns (which use a combination of dipping sauce, herbs, spices and nuts to create taste through texture). The appetizers are also worthy of mention: the onion pancakes, Shanghai Spring Rolls and steamed dumplings make for great starter plates, with each being addictive n their own way.
BAR: Beer and wine only.
STAFF: Quick service, with a courteous wait staff. Tang himself often pops from table to table, filling water glasses and checking on customers.
ATMOSPHERE: Clean. With ample table space. The place can sometimes get loud on weekends when the crowds file in.
OVER-ALL: Can’t miss pick for real Hunan food that won’t break the bank. The large menu will meet a variety of tastes, with good veggie choices for those non-meat eaters.
COST: Inexpensive to moderate; two can dine elegantly for $25-$30 including tip.
HOURS: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 AM to 10 PM; Sundays 4 to 10 PM only (no lunch on Sundays).