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Line Cooks and Late Night Eats

The Search for After-Hours Local Bounty

"Where're we eating?" It's early into the busy Monday night at A16 and the sous chef already wants to know where we are planning to eat after work. Though there is another four hours of service, he is clearly already hungry. On Mondays, long before the final pizza hits the oven, line cooks at A16 ponder what we'll be eating after work. With ravenous appetites at stake, figuring out where to eat is no easy task.

"How about Spices?"
"That will only work if we're out of here early."
"Then maybe Thai House?"
"Nah, that was last week"
"If enough of us come, we could do Great Eastern."
"That could work."

This was the usual banter in our selection process. Great Eastern, a cavernous restaurant in Chinatown, had to follow up an impressive meal at Thai House on Geary the week before and the stakes were high. At Thai House we had been told by our very polite server that we had ordered in a very "Thai" manner with our crispy tofu green beans, braised pork leg, salted crab papaya salad, and this mysterious special written strictly in Thai on a piece of green construction paper.

Unfortunately, we were not quite able to eat everything in a Thai manner. While we devoured the pork and the green beans, a more ubiquitous green papaya salad without salted crab would have been preferred. The mysterious dish kept its aura of mystery; we weren't sure what to make of the fish balls floating in a Thai answer to bouillabaisse. The verdict: we'll keep coming back for our favorites (can't find pork leg like that anywhere) and for the occasional menu adventure.

Onward to Great Eastern: at midnight the six of us were ushered to a large circular table in an otherwise empty restaurant, the hum of large fish tanks, distant Chinese conversations involving cell phones, and our growling stomachs served as the source of background ambiance. If the spotless tanks were any indication, this was a place for seafood.

We began with thin slices of raw geoduck clam on a bed of crushed ice served with a spicy soy dipping sauce. Parts of the clam deemed less than perfect to eat raw were battered and fried and brought to our table along with "Singapore style" noodles, a whole chicken with insanely crispy skin yet juicy meat (served with the head), bok choy, potstickers, and ribs. The star of the meal, however, may have been the duck soup with dumplings that was ladled for us tableside. The verdict: Great Eastern knows its way around a bird.

The following week we finished early and Spices! II, which closes at midnight, became the destination. The gleaming neon that hit us from the storefront foreshadowed what we were in for inside: Chinese boy band music and Hello Kitty meets Spice Girls décor. The food was equally loud: crunchy beef tendon with an alarming numbing quality, surprisingly good marinated cucumbers, deeply flavored braised Chinese bacon, succulent tofu and the pièce de résistance: crab laden with an incredible amount of fried garlic. Not a restaurant for a first date, folks with a garlic aversion, or anyone who cannot stomach bad music long enough to eat. The verdict: great food, but do they do takeout?