Egg Foo Young -- which can be spelled almost as many ways as it can be made -- is the kind of dumbed-down but delicious Americanized Chinese food most of us grew up on. It's basically a nicely browned omelet shaped like a patty, or sometimes a pancake, which usually has a bit of meat and veggies (often, just one or the other) inside. Now here's the good part: the whole thing comes ladled with soy sauce-based brown "gravy" and a sprinkle of green onion. It's comfort food, no matter how you spell it or where it came from.
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Some food historians contend that a much more elegant variation of egg foo young originated in Shanghai; others suggest it was a specialty of Canton. Either way, it probably evolved here in the States in the hands of Chinese railroad workers who cooked for themselves and each other, opening the first Chinese restaurants in San Francisco during the Gold Rush.
Let's take a look at two popular Chinese restaurants -- Gourmet House of Hong Kong and Desert Jade -- and see whose egg foo young is more egg-cellent.
In this corner: Gourmet House of Hong Kong
The Setup: When it opened in 1984, Gourmet House was as no-frills as it gets -- pink walls, formica tables, the kind of diner-dive ambiance Guy Fieri eats with a spoon. But nobody cared. The menu's length and scope were impressive, and the Hong Kong-style, Cantonese food was first-rate, earning a slew of awards. The place has been spruced up a bit over the years (a landscaped patio is currently in the works) but the food and menu -- which also includes Americanized dishes such as egg foo young -- remain the same, and that's a good thing.
The Good: Gourmet House's pork egg foo young caught me by surprise. It's a flat, plate-size pancake of a thing, sporting a light brown egg crust. I'm accustomed to fatter patties, but I have to admit: This is delicious. Drizzled with light brown sauce and strewn with chopped green onion, it's delicate and definitely eggy, with a thin but faintly fluffy interior containing moist squares of pork.
The Bad: Nothing bad. Just different from the expected style. I find myself missing the crunch of mung bean sprouts and water chestnuts. What I love best about egg foo young is getting a veggie omelet that manages to seem meaty and satisfying. After studying the menu closer, I find veggie egg foo young listed under the vegetarian dishes. Hmm. Shouldn't all the egg foo youngs be organized together?
The price: $7.49 (for chicken, pork or BBQ pork)
In the other corner: Desert Jade
The Setup: Like Gourmet House of Hong Kong, Desert Jade -- which opened in 1987 -- is a multi-award-winning local favorite. The extensive menu is much more mainstream, however, never venturing into squid or congee or even spicy eggplant. On the other hand, the decor is far more elegant looking, featuring a foyer with fancy wooden chairs. It's the kind of place that suits people who want a pleasant setting and a far more predictable meal.
The Good: Okay, this looks more like the egg foo young I know and love -- three plump patties ladled with a darker, richer gravy containing green onion and white sesame seeds. I've ordered pork for the sake of comparing apples to apples, but I'm given barbecued pork, which really isn't the same thing. Nobody's fault, really. I'm happy to find crispy bits of bean sprout inside the patties.
The Bad: Although I like the barbecued pork well enough, it's a bit drier than the regular pork. Desert Jade's gravy is darker and more flavorful, but it's also saltier, which I suspect is the result of MSG -- not that I'm fanatical about that sort of thing. And not that Gourmet House doesn't use it, too. They probably do.
The price: $8.50.
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The Verdict: Man, this is a tough one. Desert Jade's egg foo young looks more like the egg foo young I'm used to, but there's something really lovely about Gourmet House's delicate touch with egg. This dish feels as if its roots are truly in China. And I have a feeling that if I'd ordered vegetarian egg foo young at both places, I'd be over the moon for Gourmet House's version. But that's conjecture. I'm calling this one a Chinese Stand-off.