Charles Phan's Vietenamese Restaurant, The Slanted Door, is one of Christian's favorite restaurants in the city. So back in 2009 when we heard Phan was opening a new Chinese restaurant, Heaven's Dog, we knew we had to go check it out. Three years later and we're finally going! What can I say, there are a lot of restaurants to try and keep us busy in the Bay Area, so we're not what you would call "on trend" with this one. But it's my birthday and we're heading downtown to go dancing and wanted something relatively inexpensive and easy so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally give it a try.
To be honest, after reading many of the diner reviews I didn't have super high hopes...I know, I know, so then why am I risking my birthday dinner here? Well, to be honest we have faith in Charles Phan and have heard amazing things about the cocktail program by bar manager Trevor Easter (who was recently named a SFGate Bar Star). So off we go! Is Heaven's Dog Best in Show or a Pound Puppy? Read on to find out...
First things first...the cocktails! I got the Pimm's Cup Rangoon and Christian ordered the "Freedom from Choice" where you simply tell the bartender your spirit of choice and if you prefer citrus or spiritous cocktails. My drink was delightful, not to sweet but with enough gin that you knew you had a drink...light and refreshing so it didn't overpower or compete with my food too much. Christian's adventure led him to a Kentucky Mule with candied ginger. This is what I call a manly cocktail...puts a little hair on your chest with that first sip but sweetened up just enough to make it fun. Quite delicious...they make some top notch cocktails here and for $10 that's about as good as it gets in this city!
First up for food, the Scallion Pancake. I actually wasn't expecting much from this but was pleasantly surprised. Nice and crunchy with a strong scallion flavor. It could have used a tad less salt (and seriously, I never say that!) and some kind of a dipping sauce or spread to go alongside but all in all it was pretty good.
Next, Shumai Dumplings. To be fair, I'm not a dumpling connoisseur but the texture of the filling of these really put me off at first. The flavors were quite nice (as were the flavors in the horseradish mustard and chili dipping sauces) but the texture felt fatty and sinewy at first. By my second dumpling the texture didn't bother me quite so much and by my third I was fully enjoying it and over the initial mouth-feel issue. That being said, I think I would go with the Shanghai Dumplings next time and skip these. The Shanghai Dumplings are soup dumplings which is a fun experience in of itself if you've never had a soup dumpling before...they kind of explode a little soup-like goodness inside your mouth so you have to eat the whole dumpling in one bite. Kind of like those chocolate covered cherry candies we all loved when we were kids!
Then we moved onto the main dishes...Ma Po Tofu which is one of our absolute favorites at Mission Chinese Food. At MCF it is almost intolerably spicy, but that kind of spice that keeps your fork going back in for more even though it's slightly painful. The flavors are just that good, particularly the fun little numbing sensation the Szechuan Peppers provide. This dish, in comparison, isn't really spicy at all. There's a little spice that sneaks up at the end after a few bites but the flavors in the sauce just aren't as dynamic as I had hoped for and the ground beef doesn't really add much. The tofu, however is soft, silky and delicious. My fork did keep going back in to scoop out more tofu...I thought the quality of the tofu was actually better than that at MCF. So while I likely won't find myself literally craving this dish as I do with MCF's Ma Po Tofu if I didn't have that comparison point (and if I didn't love super spicy food) I likely would have been quite happy with this dish.
Our other entree was Duck Fried Rice. This was actually quite good, and when you got a bite of duck on it's own you could really taste the Chinese Five Spice, which I love. The rice texture was just perfect and the ratio of rice to trimmings was right on. I hate when there's too much or too little rice and this was just right. Throw this in a little take-out container with some chopsticks and a good movie and I have a happy Friday night on my couch!
We actually decided to pass on dessert since we were heading to Local Edition for drinks and then out dancing, but I did get a Mr. Espresso French Press coffee that was silky smooth and delicious.
So, overall, would we come back? Probably not. It's good, but not great so it just doesn't make sense to trek all the way over from the Marina when we have Betelnut right up in Cow Hollow or Mission Chinese Food just a bit further away than Heaven's Dog. I know, not completely fair since we've only eaten here once but to be honest I was pretty underwhelmed with the ambiance as well. It felt a bit cafeteria-like and just didn't really have a fun vibe. The location is pretty tough, which may help explain the lack of energy but I just wasn't blown away and in a city with as many amazing spots as we have here in San Francisco you kind of have to blow me away to warrant a return trip. Now, if I was going to a show downtown and wanted a drink and a snack beforehand I might pop by their lounge area but otherwise I likely won't be back any time soon.
So the good 'ole birthday dinner was a bit underwhelming. Luckily cocktails at Local Edition and dancing with friends at Slide more than made up for it...better luck with the dinner next year!