The story: Hong Kong style cafes, known as cha cha teng, our Western-style cafes in Hong Kong with distinct Chinese dishes. They’re popular for groups of teens gathering for bubble tea and snacks or senior citizens sipping on tea and reading their Chinese newspapers. Smile House Cafe is a fairly new such cha cha teng that popped up along Taraval Street in the Outer Sunset, and the crowds at the door waiting for tables have drawn looks from passers-by wondering what exactly is this place?
Why I went: My sister was in town awhile back and while running errands out in that part of the city, she suggested Smile House for lunch because she was introduced to it by her friend the other day and she enjoyed what she ate. I’m always looking for a new cha cha teng so was gamed to give it a spin.
The vibe: Bustling with a mix of families and groups of teen-agers, with colorful balloon-shaped lighting above giving it a contemporary and almost pop-like atmosphere. Like most cha cha tengs, there’s always a flat-screen TV tuned to the Asian channel.
The menu: The laminated menu with photos of the dishes have many of the classic cha cha teng dishes, such as yu dan fun (fish ball noodle soup), hai nan chicken (poached chicken) and a variety of casseroles (plates of rice or spaghetti cooked with a sauce with some kind of cheese). But Smile House is unique that it also offers up several teppan-yaki type dishes, which are dishes served on a sizzling platter. We saw several tables order a rare-meat sizzling plate. We went with a traditional dish, which is the baked pork chop plate ($8.95). This is usually served with fried rice and topped with a tomato sauce and cheese, but for variety my sister ordered it with a spaghetti base. We also tried a couple of dishes that seemed different, such as the BBQ pork neck and Portuguese Chicken Casserole ($8.75), which is similar to curry.
The booze: Not a lot of alcohol but a variety of bubble tea and sugary drinks. I went with my favorite, the Hong Kong milk tea, which is tea served with condensed milk, served hot or cold (I always get it hot).
My favorite dish: I can’t really say I had a variety dish. What I’ve seen at Smile House is that the dishes look amazing when they come to the table, just bursting in vivid color and arranged perfectly in that comfort-food way. But the taste seem to disappoint, in the way that they seemed one-note or just average. (The Portuguese Chicken Casserole has quality ingredients but the curry seemed watery, and the Smile House Special Baked Pork Chop had tomato sauce that was a tad too sweet.
The last bite: Smile House Cafe didn’t necessarily bring a smile to my face, but the variety and efficient service offer up a fun alternative in the neighborhood. It’s a menu worth exploring as long as you don’t go in with much expectations.
The rating: 2 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Smile House Cafe, 1030 Taraval St., San Francisco. PH: 415.230.0388. Open 11 a.m. to late night (1 a.m. most nights, 2 a.m. Friday/Saturday). No reservations, cash only. www.smilehousecafe.com
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