Some restaurants are like old friends. You may not have seen them for a while, but when you get together, it's as though no time has passed. Shiao Lan Kung, a bright hole-in-the-wall on Race Street, has patiently outlasted my restaurant whims -- my forays into more trendy dining, my suburban experiences, my forgetting about Chinatown. Yet when I surfaced after a long hiatus, craving its comforting soup on a rainy night, I was pleased to discover almost nothing had changed.
This soup, the mashed beef with egg drop (pictured above), is amazing for the reasons I value truly good food. Simple ingredients that work together, done well. The soup starts with an egg drop base, but not an overly gooey, yellow, but an egg white. It then adds beef, tender and delicious, and fresh cilantro and green onions. The fragrance of the cilantro hovers about each spoonful and the green onions supply the right bite. My faithful dining companion, who actually introduced me to this place many years ago, ordered the Hot and Sour Soup. While too spicy for me, MFDC maintains this version is among the best he's ever had.
Forgetting to order their delicious dumplings, we instead went straight to entrees. Shiao Lan Kung has an impressive list. The more adventurous you are, the better. Known for their seafood, Shiao Lan Kung makes delicious salt baked shrimp. Or at least it has in the past. Usually, the shrimp is done to perfection. You have to order it with the shells on (and you eat the shells) to ensure the perfect mix of crisp and tender, salty and sweet. Unfortunately, our order was overcooked. As a result, the shrimp didn't absorb any of the flavor from the peppers sprinkled on top. Nonetheless, the shrimp were edible. Our other entree, beef with scallion and ginger (pictured below), was delicious. Again, the simple, fresh ingredients are perfectly blended, rendering an otherwise straightforward dish remarkably fragrant and delicious. Chunks of ginger matched the quantity of beef, which was tender without being overpowered by sauce.
We also ordered snow pea leaves with garlic, usually a great dish. And it was pretty tasty, up until the point I found a hair in the dish. Many plates and utensils were cleared. This is not the restaurant, however, that issues apologies and comped meals. The dish was quickly replaced, along with new chopsticks and plates. The term "no frills" would be an understatement here.
So old friends occasionally disappoint. But they're still there for you, even with imperfections. And I would still go back. There's no beating that soup.
Shiao Lan Kung is located at 930 Race Street, Philadelphia, Pa.