Dol Ho Redeems Itself

Dol Ho shrimp balls

Dol Ho's shrimp balls (photo: Jonathan Kauffman)

Chinatown Diaries chronicles one man’s effort to eat at every restaurant and food shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, surveying the neighborhood block by block, rice plate by rice plate. Maximum entrée price permitted: $10. Search an interactive map of restaurants visited here.

I had given up on Dol Ho.

A few years back, if you’d have asked me where to eat lunch in Chinatown, I would have sent you to Dol Ho, where the linoleum wainscoting is the most ornate piece of the decor and dozens of old men and women spend their morning with a newspaper and a bowl of black-bean spareribs. The restaurant moves at an old man’s pace, too. You might wait five minutes before ever seeing a cart come around the room, and any English-speaker who wants to order something from the kitchen has to engage in a choppy, switchback-laden conversation with the servers just to find out what the kitchen might have to give them. There may be a menu at Dol Ho. I have never seen it.

But when I brought a friend on official, Chinatown Diaries, business last year, the dim sum was execrable: Har gow with gummy, torn skins. Shrimp-leek dumplings saturated with oil. Even the restaurant’s famous spare ribs were salt-smacked and gristly. The crowd had thinned out since my last visits, and my tablemate, who had never been to Dol Hol, said, “This must be one of those places that’s popular just because it’s cheap.” Did I remember it wrong, or was the restaurant dying? To date, that meal ranks as the greatest disappointment of the entire series.

As I was compiling my Google map of places I’d written about, though, it seemed ridiculous to pretend Dol Ho no longer existed. And when Billy and Bruce from Polaroid SF asked me if I’d be willing to do a photo shoot with them for the blog’s Chinatown Week, I asked them if we could go back, warning them that the last meal had been horrible.

Half-empty on my last visit, Dol Ho was packed this time, and the servers pointed us to the last few empty spots at a big table in the back corner. We joined an older man reading a book and a woman in a brown Muni uniform, who set up a gate around her spare ribs with the Chinese-language newspaper.

Was it me, or were the skinny towers of steamers circulating around the room more quickly than before? We picked out some spare ribs, of course, and some peppers stuffed with shrimp, and shrimp balls with a lion’s mane of fried pastry strips. What was meant to crunch, crunched; what was supposed to spurt, spurted. Slow, wet heat had transformed just enough of the collagen in the spare ribs into gelatin that the meat turned pliable and succulent, punctuated by the flaring salt of the fermented black beans. This was the Dol Ho I remembered.

When we took the bill up to the cash register, she rang up the sale and charged us $21 for three people. We began leaving, and she called us back. “Oh, I charged you the wrong amount!” She flipped over the check to show the another side, whose servers’ marks were untallied. A quick calculation, and she handed us $7 back.

So yes, Dol Ho is still popular because it is cheap, but — to my relief — the restaurant’s merit is worth more than its prices.

Dol Ho: 808 Pacific Ave. (at Stockton), 392-2828.