Home | Restaurant | Gallery | Archive | Search | Contact

Great Food with Soul

by Kathy Nguyen

Like any artistic creation, great cuisine comes from the heart and is fueled by passion. At its best, it offers a feast for the senses that thrills and delights.

Deep-fried salmon rolls with Chinese hot mustard. Grilled Chilean sea bass with garlic ginger soy. Tender, oven-roasted chicken in a creamy shiitake mushroom sauce. Australian rack of lamb with fiery Korean spices. And flourless chocolate cake topped with rich red raspberry sauce. These are just some of the inventive dishes that have people raving about Larry and Angela Tse's restaurant House in San Francisco's Inner Sunset District and its sister establishment in North Beach.

The Tses, both in their 30s, have reinvented traditional Asian cuisine, using local ingredients and streamlined American techniques. They've mastered the art of creating a harmonious palette of flavors that has brought the restaurant to the forefront of evolving Asian American fare. The menu at The House reflects a thoughtful marriage of ingredients, rather than the slapdash mixture of seasonings typical of much fusion cooking today.

These days, it's not unusual to find tuna tartare on a menu next to grilled hamburgers, but less-inspired fusion cooking often leaves diners feeling more confused than delighted. At The House, you won't find any fancy renditions of sweet-and-sour pork or hamburgers with wasabi mayo. The emphasis is on reinterpreting dishes that an Asian American family might prepare at home, using top-quality ingredients from specialty food purveyors, local markets and produce stores.

"Eighty percent of the items on our menu are things that we make at home, such as crispy garlic chicken wings or pork loin with cilantro sauce," says Angela Tse, a native San Franciscan of Chinese descent.

Her husband, Larry, who also grew up in San Francisco, came to the United States from Hong Kong when he was five. He got his start in the kitchen helping out at his parents' restaurant in Pacifica and at his uncle's restaurant in San Jose.

After pursuing careers in the corporate world -- Larry was an accountant for Chevron and Angela worked at the headquarters of The Gap -- the couple decided to start their own business. Larry had no formal culinary training, but he did have a passion for cooking and a vision of evolving Asian cuisine. Angela managed the restaurant and learned to become a pastry chef while on the job. The Tses attribute their entrepreneurial spirit and strong work ethic to their parents.

"In a way, we've come full circle," says Angela Tse, whose parents run a travel agency in Chinatown. Although Larry Tse's parents no longer have their restaurant in Pacifica, they help out at The House in North Beach.

The Tses opened The House on Grant Street in 1993. Operating on a shoestring budget, they transformed the tiny space into a stylish 40-seat restaurant with marbleized walls, slate floors, light-wood tables and funky Art Deco lights. But Asian fusion cuisine was still a new concept, and their first year, in an area known for its Italian restaurants, proved extremely difficult.

"We were going against the grain in North Beach, and it was a real struggle to validate ourselves," says Larry Tse.

But once customers tried Tse's creations -- fried calamari with creamy miso, tender baby greens with passion fruit vinaigrette and wok-seared ahi tuna with red wine reduction and mustard oil -- they were hooked. Emerging from a rich culinary heritage, the young chef had come into his own with his unique interpretation of East-West cuisines.

In 1996, encouraged by their success, the Tses decided to open a second, larger restaurant on Ninth Avenue with the same cool, contemporary feel as the restaurant in North Beach but grander in scale. The light, airy space has high ceilings with intertwining pendant lights. Gray marbleized walls display framed black-and-white photos of the sleek staff serving up artfully crafted dishes.

In conversation, the Tses come across as urban intellectuals with their own brand of philosophy who happen to know a thing or two about great cooking. They are well-attuned to the cultural evolution taking place around them, as reflected in their constantly evolving menu.

"The restaurant is our creative outlet, and in many ways, it represents our emerging identity as Asian Americans," says Angela. "We were a bit fearful when we first opened, because this was our culture that we were presenting, and we wanted to do it right."

For Larry Tse, the creative process is mostly mental. He comes up with new tastes and flavors and turns them into his signature dishes: simple, fresh and unfussy.

"I'm very open-minded in how I approach food," he says. "The trick is to not have any barriers and to be willing to experience different tastes."

The Tses' resourcefulness has served them well. When their pastry chef left in 1997, Angela Tse took charge of the restaurant's dessert menu. Having had no prior experience, she apprenticed with a friend, Elizabeth Faulkner of Citizen Cake, and soon became an accomplished pastry chef in her own right. "You have to rely on yourself and not be willing to compromise," she says.

That philosophy seems to be the key to the Tses' success.

"Chef-owners have a lot at stake. They have to ensure a high level of consistency, and that's why they tend to be more discriminating and critical," says Larry, who works six days a week and divides his time between the two locations. He adds, "The foodies are a tough crowd and very knowledgeable, so you really have to stay on top of things."

The Tses' hard work and dedication have paid off. The House has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, and Larry Tse was picked as one of the Bay Area's 10 best chefs. Local organizations have also benefited from the restaurant's success. Now that their business is viable, the Tses are able to give back to the community. They have contributed to the Chinatown Community Development Center, Chinese Culture Center, the Asian American Film Festival sponsored by NAATA, Asian Law Caucus and San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Yet the Tses will be the first to tell you that their customers' satisfaction is the best reward of all. What could be more rewarding than great food with soul?

The House: 1230 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133 (415) 986-8612

House: 1269 Ninth Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122 (415) 682-3898

email: thehse@best.com web site:www.thehse.com

Prime rib-eye and Sonoma foie gras yakiniku with mango and hicama salad (appetizer)
Ahi tuna tartare with fried nori chips (appetizer)
Sesame crusted seared ahi with Chinese hot mustard cream sauce, pepper oil and salmon roe (entree)