Don't worry. This is not going to be another one of those ethnic-food-from-my-childhood-makes-me-wax-on-about-my- heritage-and-my-grandma-from-the-Old-Country kinds of essays. Please. Other than a few vague memories of being shoved in a bicycle basket and carted to a roadside noodle stand in Hsin-chu, Taiwan, the hallowed category of Foods From My Past has more to do with Swanson's, Del Monte, Hostess, and the El Dorado's p.m. buffet in Reno, Nevada, than with ancient Chinese secrets.

But I'm not unsentimental about Chinese food--in fact, I rely on it heavily for emotional fortitude. I turn to it when I have a cold, or when I'm flat broke; it steadies me when I am hung over. I eat it late at night, when I'm anxious and insomniac and craving hot, salty rice porridge. I only eat Chinese food with people I trust: It's such intimate food, with plates that are meant to be shared and picked at, with totally un-American rules that encourage you to double-dip, openly gnaw and scrape at bones, spit gristle out on your plate, or use a toothpick at the table. But sometimes I'll go to a Chinese restaurant just so I can speak Chinese to somebody, anybody. I was feeling this way on my most recent visit to Tai Tung, when I sat at the counter and shot the shit in Mandarin with my waiter.

This popular Chinese diner, a fixture in the I.D. since 1935 and serving dependable Cantonese and Szechuan classics (along with fresh seasonal seafood and shellfish, dim sum items, and American-style sandwiches) seven days a week, is staffed with older, quiet Chinese waiters who have gentle dignity and even gentler smiles. You'll notice them right away, working behind the counter or calmly busy in the back. The waiters are as much a part of Tai Tung as the place's food, local history, and atmosphere, which at times can feel like it's from another era (and not in that annoying "retro" kind of way).

Be sure to sit on a stool at the counter, where credit-card machines are placed reluctantly next to the old-fashioned cash register, which sits under a cabinet of cigarettes for sale. Sitting at the back tables can be a bit dusty and depressing, and blocks you off from the rest of the customers. And trust me, you'll want to eat with the counter regulars.

Sometimes the best thing you can get there is an enormous bowl of soup (about 20 varieties, $4.75-$8, enough for two). The hot and sour ($6.75) is pungent, delicious, restorative: Cloudy egg drops swirl around in a rich, dark broth with bits of pork and silky strands of bamboo and enoki mushrooms. Hot pots ($7.95-$9.75, enough for two) have the same cozy effect, with tofu and meats (or oysters) and thick onion quarters, all snugly stewed together in gravies and stocks. (Next time, I'm getting the braised cod pot, $9.75.)

Another reason to sit at the counter is so you can read all the specials, handwritten on sheets of white paper in both Chinese and English (no words wasted: "duck meat noodle," $6.75; "snap peas with beef," $7.25; "pork chop pepper salt," $8.75) and then taped up in rows on the mirrored wall behind the counter. Comfort-food standbys such as sautéed string beans with shredded pork ($6.75) or fried salt-and-pepper squid ($8.75) are consistently tasty, but try modest luxuries like fresh, flavorful, wok-seared crab or lobster with ginger and scallions (market price), or the flawless Peking duck ($14.50 half, $26.50 whole)--crisp, paper-thin skin, slow-roasted, tender meat, delicately smoky and seasoned, moist but ungreasy--with hoisin sauce, pancakes, and scallion slivers. Half a regular roast duck (greasier, saltier, totally satisfying) is only $7.50, perfect over sticky white rice.

Just the other night, some friends and I tried the black cod ($14.75) and loved it--eating small pieces slowly, taking turns, making it last. Steamed with garlic, scallions, soy sauce, and aromatic black beans, all in a soupy golden bath, the fish was so fresh and flaky, we ended up needing to use our spoons.

Tai Tung
655 S King St (International District), 622-7372.
Open daily 10 am-11:30 pm (Fri-Sat until 2 am).

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