The staff at Chef Liu likes to shout at one another in the kitchen. Athletically. Not knowing Mandarin or Cantonese (a deficit I intend to remedy one of these days so I can read the non-English menu items in Chinese restaurants), I must assume the shouting is about food orders being fulfilled too slowly. The regulars who sit near the kitchen don't even seem to hear it. Other Asian diners exchange blinking, startled glances when another round of ruckus starts, but so far no one I've witnessed has been so offended that they've stormed out of the place, covering their children's ears.
Some ethnic spots on Buford Highway gauge the experience of their restaurants to appeal to both members of their ethnicity as well as those outside it. Chef Liu bypasses that philosophy. Yes, the menu is written in both Chinese and English, but the clientele is all but strictly Asian. Which just makes us non-Asians who venture through its doors feel like we have indeed chanced upon something worth some culinary reconnaissance.
Chef Liu is literally an island onto itself. The rectangular structure that houses the restaurant squats independently in the center of the Pine Tree Plaza parking lot. Sitting in the tiny, two-room eatery elicits the odd sensation of being adrift in a black sea of asphalt, particularly at night.
But those in the know don't come here for dinner anyway. The selection of inexpensive dumplings and buns typical to Northern China's cities appeals most strongly for breakfast and lunch. That's when the crowds show up.
And they all order crullers.
It's the very first thing listed on the one-page menu: twisted crullers, known in some English-speaking circles as "Chinese donuts." Long, puffy and brutally hot right out of the fryer, they taste like salty beignets, or street fair funnel cake before it's snowed in by a blizzard of powder sugar. You take a few steaming bites, or pluck off a few chunks to munch on. Then you leave the rest for dunking.
So most everyone has a bowl in front of them as well. In the morning you see customers sipping from vessels of warm, freshly made soy milk. Both sweet and salty versions are offered, though to my taste the sweet is a friendlier wake-up for the palate than the salty.
At lunch, the crullers are often sopped into beef noodle soup. I've watched more than one table remove the bite-size pieces of roasty meat from the top of the bowl onto a separate plate. Then they alternate between fishing out toothy, homemade noodles and the slurping beefy, aromatic broth. I'm much more drawn to the beef soup than the lamb counterpart, which has gnarly pieces of attached-to-the-bone lamb in a thin broth with big, bobbing croutons.
It takes me a couple visits to catch on to the fact that not a lot of folks seem to be ordering from the large variety of crescent-shaped dumplings.
Servers scurry out of the war-zone kitchen carrying copious steamer baskets full of larger, circular buns, though. Steaming makes the dough fluffy, and it may take a couple nibbles to reach the modest nugget of savory, pork-based filling (a word of warning: even the "fresh shrimp" fillings are mostly minced pork).
On my first jaunt to Chef Liu, the kitchen was serving "Shanghai juicy steamed pork buns," which turn out to be the famous round dumplings that contain a swallow of soup. These were less delicate than others I've had in San Francisco, and a soy-vinegar sauce was served instead of the more common red vinegar with julienned ginger that provides the correct left-hook of flavor.
Nonetheless, Chef Liu's version still proffered that "yeeeah" moment when the dumpling releases its juicy contents in your mouth. (Hmm. Ever actually stop to count the myriad ways that food mirrors sex?)
For whatever reason, the restaurant has stopped serving the soup dumplings. The price has been crossed off the menu. Two times I ask what happened and am merely told, "We ran out." I suspect some hot-tempered soul ran of patience in the kitchen ...
So my full attention turns to the dumpling selection. They are clearly made in-house: I have glimpsed a woman in the kitchen rolling out circles of dough, plopping a tablespoon of filling in the center and crimping the small packages by hand.
Yet after two or three doughy mouthfuls, I find myself cracking the dumplings open and eating the contents sans the overwhelming casing. The exception to this are the lamb dumplings, the only non-porcine morsels I can find. The filling is more pleasurably loose, and the whole ensemble tastes more vibrant.
Be sure to order the scallion pancake-like leek pie to round out the meal texturally. The pocket of dough seems to contain more scallions, glass noodles, scrambled egg and dried shrimp than leek, but I'll not argue. The ingredients tango in funky, crunchy ways.
Beware the cold dishes, lest you know what you're getting into. The "garlic-spiced bacon meat" is most a big glob of cold, spectral fat. Likewise, the Nan Jing saltwater duck is cooked with its skin on. Cold, it looks raw. The meat underneath has appealingly musky depth, but it ain't pretty by Western standards.
Actually, scratch that. Go ahead and ask for a cold dish or two. Everything's so cheap that two people could spend $25 for a ridiculous feast. Finding a plate of "spicy ox tripe strips" in front of you is what dining at places like Chef Liu is all about.