Gen Lai Sen 1065 Park Blvd., East Village 619-239-5478
In a landscape littered with chain outfits hawking goopy steam-table stir-fry and mom-and-pop shops that abandoned tradition long ago in favor of candied meats, authentic Chinese food is difficult to find-but not impossible.
Among the sprouting condos and homeless encampments of East Village, there's a solid option. Located in a low-slung building at the corner of C Street and Park Boulevard and adjacent to City College, Gen Lai Sen doesn't look very appealing, although, according to the lettering on its yellow roof, the restaurant boasts the best Chinese seafood in San Diego.
Inside, the dining room is about as unpretentious as you can get, attracting a steady crowd of college students and downtown workers throughout the day and mostly neighborhood locals at night. The service is friendly and informal.
During past visits here, I've sampled heaping bowls of low mein noodles and a spicy pork and seaweed dish, all of which were decent, but each time I pull up a chair in Gen Lai Sen's spartan dining room, I inevitably end up watching jealously as a Chinese family gathers around a large round table, where they're served a seemingly endless procession of intriguing and authentic-looking entrées. Never able to vet this restaurant in the manner it deserved, I made a vow that one day I would return to do it right.
Months later, I finally decided to make good on my promise and, lacking a Chinese family of my own, invited a handful of friends to join me around one of those large round tables for a culinary adventure. We'd skip over the à la carte standards and order from the back page of the menu, where a preset selection of entrées I've mostly never heard of are arranged according to the size of a party. We'd be served family-style and eat whatever the kitchen sent our way.
Fresh from gorging myself at San Francisco's famously spectacular House of Nanking the week before, I was fully prepared to be disappointed.
After a few bottles of Tsingtao, a light and crisp Chinese beer, our adventure began with a steaming bowl of West Lake Style Beef Soup. A variant of egg drop soup, the piping-hot broth was clear and thick and contained peas, carrots and tender chunks of beef. About as bland as food can be, the soup was a slow start to our adventure, but entrées followed in quick succession, landing one after another on the lazy Susan at the center of the table.
Unremarkable egg rolls were followed by plump prawns, sautéed in garlic and pepper while still wearing their shells. Juicy but difficult to peel, a few of my companions gave up altogether while others tried eating them whole, which added some crunch but led to a mouthful of shells, ultimately proving unwise.
The salt-baked chicken, on the other hand, was perfect. Traditionally prepared by filling a large wok with salt and burring the chicken therein, the salt conducts heat, slowly cooking the chicken at a high temperature but away from an open flame. The end result is an amazingly tender bird with a nice salty flavor.
Next came a seafood tofu hot pot-a medley of shrimp, fish, calamari, tofu and vegetables in a light broth, served in a metal cauldron over an open flame. Despite the overdone calamari, the fish, scallops and tofu were spot on and the sporadic shitake mushrooms lent the entire mixture an exotic and earthy flavor.
The clams in a black bean sauce weren't a big hit with my friends but were one of the highlights for me. Served in a rich, garlicky sauce, the essence of the clams was bold enough to hold its own while the actual clams were delicate.
Bronzed to perfection, the roast duck was by far the loveliest entrée on the table, but like any duck still in its skin, ours contained a thick portion of fat that was as unappetizing as it was difficult to remove. Although removing fat alone would have been a sufficient price to pay for the bird's succulent meat, the chef managed to shatter several bones when slicing the duck, leaving shards throughout and making it difficult to enjoy.
Although, like the duck, our meal at Gen Lai Sen was far from perfect, the point of the evening was to try something different, which, as far as I'm concerned, means typical expectations no longer apply. With that in mind, there's plenty of room for exploration here and many adventures yet to be had.
Gen Lai Sen is open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Marcie Rothman is on vacation.