Jul
17

On a quest to try every S.F. Chinese restaurant - San Francisco Chronicle

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Craig Stowe // Founding Director of Chinese Restaurant Awards

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Paolo Lucchesi, Chronicle Staff Writer

This is the story of William Eichinger, better known around town as Chili Bill. It's the story of one of the great characters of the local bar scene, a heavily tattooed Jack Nicholson-like presence whose tales of the city range from Jerry Garcia to drunken mail carriers.

But it's also the story of the man who decided, on a whim one day, to eat at every Chinese restaurant in San Francisco

The quest started a little over a decade ago, when Eichinger - a consummate barman with a penchant for writing, crossword puzzles and, yes, dining - was holding court at Rat and Raven, a now-closed bar on 24th Street.

"I said, 'I think I'm going to try to eat at all the Chinese restaurants in San Francisco,' " Eichinger recalled. "I later learned I had probably bitten off more than I could chew."

Why undertake such a task?

"It was something to do."

Eleven years later, Eichinger, now 65, has crossed 402 Chinese restaurants off his list. His working number is 415 places, though that is constantly changing with newcomers and ownership shuffles.

He didn't always have so many options. Eichinger grew up in Kansas City, at a time when there was only one "bland" Chinese restaurant in town. When he was 21, he decided to visit San Francisco, driving west on $26 worth of gasoline.

It just so happened to be the Summer of Love, and well, that will have an impression on a 21-year-old. As soon as he finished school, he relocated to the city by the bay, moved in with two drag queens and "a flighty little secretary" and never looked back.

Since then, he's worked in San Francisco as a newspaper tosser, chef, postman (hence the aforementioned drunken-mail-carrier stories) and as a cabdriver - a job that allowed him to discover off-the-grid Chinese spots. For the past 20-plus years, he's worked as a bartender at Finnegans Wake.

His love affair with Chinese food began as a thing of necessity: It was one of the few cuisines he could afford. In the 1970s, a 75-cent bowl of fried rice was a way to get by.

Over time, he discovered more dishes, and his own rising interest mirrored the proliferation of various regional styles. He traveled to China, collected Chinese cookbooks and covered his arms with Chinese tattoos.

He's well educated on the cuisine, too. Ask him his favorite Chinese restaurant - many people have - and you'll probably get a systematic breakdown of the myriad regional styles.

For fiery Sichuan cuisine, his favorite place is Z&Y in Chinatown; for dumpling-centric Shanghai fare, he likes Bund across the street; for northern regions, Old Mandarin Islamic in the Outer Sunset. For hand-pulled noodles in the Shantung style, his pick is San Dong. The list goes on.

His quest also includes dim sum spots, bakeries, upscale fusion spots and the "inedible" doughnut-teriyaki-Chinese food shops in the Mission District. And yes, he's been to every San Francisco location of Panda Express. ("Just another steam table joint," he says.)

Each genre has its own measuring stick. For example, ma po tofu is his gauge for Sichuan places.

It's a hobby with some ups and downs, to be sure, and not just of the Panda Express variety. Eichinger has found a cooked salamander in his plate, and more than once been saddened by the closing of a favorite restaurant.

Typically, he eats at a Chinese restaurant once a week, though he's been known to hit three in one day. Nowadays, with limited new options - especially quality ones - he's in no hurry to complete the mission.

In the meantime, he's been revisiting his favorites, with the goal of trying every item on the extensive menus. (He hates repeating dishes and ordering uninteresting things; don't even try to order egg rolls with him.)

So yes, the quest is something to do. It's a search for knowledge and culture. It's a manifestation of intellectual and culinary curiosity. And it's an exercise in list-making, a proclivity evidenced by Eichinger's new habit of taking a scale to Mexican restaurants to see which one has the heaviest torta. (The leading contender is Los Picudos, whose version weighs in at 1 1/2 pounds, although Eichinger says "it wasn't very good.")

With the challenge nearly complete, Eichinger has also begun flirting with a whole new fascination: Vietnamese restaurants. But for now, he's content with finding some undiscovered Chinese gems.

"It's such a vast cuisine," he said. "It'll take ya a lifetime."

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