Okay, I'll admit it: I was a bit skeptical about ~POLENG LOUNGE~ when I initially heard about it. Let's just say the transformation from the 1751 Social Club (o' troublemakers) into a tea lounge and Asian street food hotspot made me arch at least one of my eyebrows. And tea is just popping up everywhere, from the second Samovar location, to Modern Tea, to Fierro en Guerra. Tea tea tea. It sounded like T for trendy.
I didn't exactly harbor the highest hopes for the food. But I am here to testify: the food here is quite good, and certainly unique when compared to what's out there. Just wait until you see the über-affordable price point most dishes hover at (like $8)—for about the same price you could be eating some greasy Chinese food loaded with MSG or oil slick Indian from a buffet. You choose.
So let's just dive into the food first, because that's primarily why we go out, right? (Oh, and to drink to forget, but that's another matter.) The menu is full of small plates to share, like 20 in all, plus some killer sides, like sweet potato fries ($3) with banana catsup (a first for me, and definitely not my last). The fries were thinly cut (not quite regulation McDonalds size, but whatever), but definitely weren't the usual fat spears you see elsewhere that end up feeling soggy or mealy. These came out piping hot, crispy, and perfectly salty. Bring it on.
The deep-fried adobo chicken wings ($7) were just plain sick. You could tell this recipe took some work to perfect it, and the talented chef confirmed my hunch. (Sidebar: Chef Timothy Luym, formerly of Fifth Floor, is totally Mr. Nice Guy—and he grew up in the Philippines, so you'll see all kinds of Filipino touches on the menu.) So, where were we? Oh yes, the crack wings. They are sticky, sweet, juicy, and totally scrumptious, with a blistered crust that does justice to their deep-fried provenance. Just writing about them makes me crave another hit. GIVE ME ANOTHER HIT, MAN! I also liked the accompanying pile of achara, thin shreds of lightly pickled papaya seasoned with ginger, and a slight kick of heat. Yup, we're two for two on fried items.
Now, let's segue to pan-fried: had to try the Buddha's treasures ($6.50) that seem to have their own publicist there's so much buzz about them. They were almost like pot stickers that are folded more artistically (they looked like food flowers!), and instead of pork have minced veggies inside; you dunk them into a bowl of black sesame and ponzu sauce. So, how were they? They were totally fine—I mean, what's not to love about dumplings? Well, true, sometimes dumplings can get a little greasy, but these were just right. Okay, tried the dumplings, check. Next.
The garlic and crab pan-fried egg noodles ($10) come with chunks of Dungeness crab mixed in and scattered on top—of course I wanted more crab, but for $10, I can't ask for too much. The noodles packed a little spice, which I liked, and weren't so garlicky that you come out of there smelling like an Italian. (Trust me, I finally got used to it.) It's a good substantial dish to mix in with the other small plates, but I think there are definitely other dishes that are more interesting on the menu.
How about four skewers of braised pork belly and pineapple ($7.50)? Uh, yeah! The grilling added a unique dimension to the dish, which struck a delectable balance of salty and sweet and yes, fatty. (A few bites were just fat, which is a little indulgent, or just plain nasty for some. I'm totally down with fat. I better be, because I seem to have some of my own.) This dish also came with a little side of tender bean sprouts with sesame—I could eat an entire bowl of 'em.
The stir-fried snake beans ($6) are probably not for everyone because of the tangy shrimp paste that lends a deep, fermented undertone to the dish. If you are down with fish sauce, then you are good to go. If you're even remotely squeamish about "fishy" then order it vegetarian. I couldn't eat enough of these tender little buggers. The tomatoes were a bit out of season, however. Whatever, this dish was totally tasty.
One aesthetic detail that is really pleasing: most of the food arrives thoughtfully presented on wooden plates and bowls. Many have a nice grain, undulating edges, and other little ethnic touches, and the dipping sauces arrive in small celadon ceramic bowls. It's nice to see small plates that are artfully handled, and not just dumped on a plate. I also found the flavors of most dishes quite balanced: just enough of everything good (spicy, sweet, tangy, salty) without one aspect dominating an entire dish. Bravo.
Finish the Southeast Asian feast with desserts like a rich coconut bread pudding ($6.50) drizzled with hazelnut caramel and topped with ribbons of coconut, or my fave, the vanilla bean coconut tapioca ($5), a smooth soup-like tapioca with soy and coconut milk, and Thai basil seeds and toasted coconut sprinkled on top. We also ordered up a pot of the velvet rooibos tea ($5.50) which comes with the grooviest tea steeping timer I've ever seen: it's a little contraption with three hourglasses holding different colored pastel sands in each—your server tells you which ones to watch to insure the perfect timing for your tea. Pay attention, you.
So, boozehounds, take your pick from a variety of shochus (also available by the bottle), whiskies, sakes, or do one of the three sake flights offered ($14 each). The wine list felt a bit lean to me (I wanted a riesling in there), but most folks are drinking cocktails, many infused with tea. I didn't really care for my drinks: the mint julep ($8) was too thick with mint, like a mint salad, and I could have done without the tea in it—it watered it down. Just give me my bourbon. Hic. I also thought the $9 price point on the "Po' my leng" was really spendy considering the paltry amount that was served. But they do make a number of dranks with fresh-squeezed juices, so that's notable.
Walking in, the first thing I noticed was the very tropical vibe, read: serious humidity, and the club in the far back wasn't even going yet. Let's just say there are some ventilation challenges. The space is dimly lit and has an island exotica feel, like poles that are covered in batik, a "weeping water wall" made of hand-broken limestone, exposed wood beams overhead, dark wood tables plus loungey seating with driftwood tables and a very long piece of driftwood (the mack driftwood daddy) suspended over the bar, Balinese doors as decoration, and even a fireplace. There are some elements that reveal a high-end restaurant designer didn't design the space, but it is charming nonetheless, and the owners did a good job transforming it, that's for sure.
The vibe is casual, easygoing, and has a nice buzz. Good for groups. The three-star review in the Chronicle definitely ended up skewing the demographic of their initial clientele—on a recent night there were tables of middle-aged folks that I imagine wouldn't otherwise be dining there, but they certainly were digging the food. The rest of the crowd was a mix of 20-something neighborhoodied hipsters, 30-something fashionista fillies, plus some b-boys and b-girls.
And at 10pm, WHAM!, the hip-hop bomb went OFF. The light in the dining room was suddenly dialed way down, so they seriously need some candles or ambient lighting in the restaurant area—it was too dramatically dark. Wait, where's my purse? (Kidding.) The separate club area in the back fills up quickly with hedz there to enjoy good lineup of dub, hip-hop, or whatever beats are on tap that night (which includes Pabst). Check out the calendar for the 411 on who's on the 1s and 2s. Word.
1751 Fulton St.
Cross: Masonic St.
San Francisco, CA 94117
Open Tue-Sun 4pm-2am
Small plates $6-$12