Like many small businesses in the so-called “Little Saigon”s throughout the states, Hai Ky Mi Gia is operated by Chinese immigrants. Originally, Hai Ky Mi Gia is a popular noodle soup joint in District 5, Saigon – the Chinatown of Saigon – before 1975, and it remains popular today. When Saigon fell, the Chinese immigrants in Vietnam left the country with the Vietnamese and became associated with Vietnamese political refugees in foreign lands such as America. These Chinese Vietnamese immigrants continue speaking both languages, opening businesses under the established names(*) in Saigon and catering to the homesick Chinese Vietnamese and Vietnamese alike. Whether this Hai Ky Mi Gia is in any way related to the Hai Ky Mi Gia in District 5 or other Hai Ky Mi Gia’s scattering across the US, its patronage doesn’t seem to care either way. To the Chinese Vietnamese and Vietnamese immigrants, it’s a name they’re familiar with, so they feel at home. To the rest of the patronage… well, I can’t speak from their point of view, but I guess the low price and the popularity raved by Yelp, InsideScoop SF, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, etc., do have an effect.
Does its food live up to the expectation that these websites have built for it? I’m afraid not, but then again, I would be very surprised if those reviews are ever different from your online zodiac personality description: nothing bad is described.
Do I feel like a jerk for pointing this out? Yes, especially since this place IS popular, my dining companions enjoyed it, the other customers enjoyed it (to some extent, otherwise they wouldn’t come back), and it’s really not the restaurant’s fault that they get hyped up. Noodle soup is comfort food, so it’s meant to be popular. If it’s any consolation, I think of this type of restaurant as the Asian version of McDonalds, or burgers in general.
Because I believe in saving the best for last, I start with what I don’t like.
Like a McDonald’s burger, the braised duck in Hai Ky Mi Gia’s popular choice “braised duck leg noodle soup” has a distinctive smell. The swampy smell of duck. My mom has told me for as long as I can remember that although ducks bathe often, they have a strong smell, possibly from the preening oil that they spread on their feathers. This smell would go away with enough washing before the duck is cooked. There are several possible reasons that this smell was particularly prominent to me and didn’t seem to bother anyone else:
1. Only my piece of duck happened to be washed less or kept out longer than the other pieces of duck.
2. My olfactory system has become more sensitive as a result of studying tea.
3. Everyone else doctors up their soup with jalapenos, chili paste, soy sauce, hoisin sauce. (The jalapenos at the tables are very green, very fresh, and very strong.) I believe in experiencing the true taste of the soup as the chef makes it.
4. Everyone else is used to this smell because they’re used to eating this noodle soup at this noodle joint.
Whatever the reason, I grade my food based on smell, taste and texture. For this duck leg noodle soup with wonton, 0 for smell, 5/10 for taste, and 7/10 for texture.
But Hai Ky Mi Gia is not all disappointment. They serve big portions. Their warm homemade soymilk ($2.30) tastes of real soy, rich and soothing (better than store-bought cartons, of course). The seafood noodle soup, which we ordered with thin rice noodle, has a light, mildly sweet broth and enough fish balls, fish cake, squid and shrimp to entertain the diner. The dry noodle with broth on the side makes up for its less-than-deal cousin (the duck noodle soup) mainly because of its well-seasoned, tender charsiu pork.
For out-of-town guests, I wouldn’t recommend this place, but the Hua family who opened this Hai Ky Mi Gia did not open it to attract tourists anyway. It’s meant to serve affordable comfort food with no frills, and I found comfort at least in its soymilk, so the restaurant fulfills its purpose.
Address: Hai Ky Mi Gia
707 Ellis Street (in the Tenderloin)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Closed on Wednesdays. Cash only.
(*) If a restaurant/bakery/cafe/any food establishment has “Ky” or “Ki” in its name, it is 100% run by a Chinese immigrant who lived in Vietnam. “Ky” or “Ki” (pronounced |kee|) is the vietnamization of 計 (as in “生計” – |Sheng Kee|, which means “measure”, “plan”, “calculation”, etc).