Following a twenty minute search for a free taxi, we jumped in a cab with a Chinese driver named Edward, who was confused at first by our request to take us to his favorite restaurant.
After steering us clear of his preferred Daly City diner by the casino (“I don’t want to take all your money.”), he tried to drop us off at a fancy Thai place in the financial district where he’d never eaten.
Finally, after a bit of tug-of-war and good-natured convincing, he delivered us to Yuet Lee in Chinatown.
“I always order the salt and pepper shrimp and the clams in black bean sauce,” he said.
We tipped Edward generously and traipsed past the restaurant’s neon-green threshold, eyeing an aquarium full of live crab and a wall of intriguing specials that included sea cucumber with duck feet and braised catfish in a clay pot.
A mix of Asian and non-Asian faces filled the compact dining room. We grabbed a spot next to a Chinese family of 15 crowded around two round tables. Their Lazy Susan overflowed with dishes I couldn’t identify.
Yuet Lee’s menu dizzied us. Finally, we settled on the taxi driver’s shrimp and clams, along with chicken chow mein.
My vegan co-adventurer ordered rice noodles with tofu, pleading with the waitress to hold the MSG. His dish, unfortunately, tasted as sad as it sounds.
But the chicken chow mein was as dazzling as the rice noodles were drab. Pliant but crispy, the angel hair-thin chow mein noodles had obviously enjoyed their bath in soy and sugar. We had to stop ourselves from demolishing the entire platter.
Next came Edward’s salt and pepper shrimp, which arrived whole, fried in their shells with their heads (and eyes) attached. We asked the waitress the best way to eat them.
“Just rip the head and the tail off. And eat the shells.”
We began decapitating our dinner. Once I realized how much of their flavor was in the shell, I got over the funky crunch of the shrimp. They were sweet, spicy and obviously very fresh. By the time the clams arrived, my hands were drenched in salt and pepper and cooking oil.
Plump, firm and still tasting faintly of the sea, the clams had also been cooked in their shells. Unfortunately, the black bean sauce they were resting in was too heavy on cornstarch to pack a real punch, but the clams themselves were so exceptional that the sauce was almost an afterthought.
At Yuet Lee, they revere their seafood as Italians venerate their pasta, enabling the quality of their star ingredient to shine – and letting no sauce overshadow it.
Score one for San Francisco cabbies.
1300 Stockton St. – San Francisco
Tel: 15 982-6020
Open: Open 11am-3am, closed Tuesday