There’s a pattern you see in most Chinese restaurants, recurring elements that we’ve been accustomed to when eating out at our favorite dimsum spot or that place where the Peking duck is cooked just right. The usual lazy Susan on large circular tables meant for families; an expansive menu of over a dozen versions of dimsum, noodles, fried rice, and roasts; and most, if not all, dishes are large in serving meant to be shared with everyone (hence, the lazy Susans). These are traditions that are mostly assumed to be the standard for Chinese restaurants, which is why it comes as a pleasant surprise when I dined at Moon Rabbit that it went against a lot of these unspoken rules. This modern San Juan spot serves up new age Asian comfort food as well changing up the way we see Chinese food, updating its classic flavors and customs while still remaining grounded in its culture.
What’s in a Name?
Found in a quiet residential district in San Juan, I met with Patrick Sen, Operations Manager, to talk about the story behind Moon Rabbit and how his family came up with the name. Even before entering their doors, you can already see their blending of traditional and modern elements. Built from a renovated house, the exteriors express a homey vibe while its elevated entrance and dining floor give it that modern blend. Once inside, you’re met with their open and spacious interiors showcasing their polished wood flooring, warm lighting fixtures scattered across, and shelves filled with Oriental trinkets.
The entire room is illuminated by tall window panels that let in ample natural light adding to the homey vibe of the place. Although it may not seem like a Chinese restaurant at first sight, with its sleek interiors and rectangular tables, some round tables with lazy Susans can be found further inside the room.
Explaining the story behind Moon Rabbit, Patrick shares that the Moon Rabbit is a mythological tale that is prevalent in many Asian cultures. It is said that if you take a good look at the full moon, you’ll see a rabbit. This rabbit figure is interpreted in various ways in different cultures, and for the Chinese specifically, Patrick explains that, “so us being a Chinese family, of course, we follow the Chinese reason for the rabbit being there which is because the rabbit on the moon is grinding herbs for the elixir of immortality – This elixir is then consumed by the moon goddess. So, in a sense, our cuisine symbolizes long life.”
The meaning of the name even has close connections to their family, “We found out that our grandfather, my mom’s dad, was born in the year of the rabbit. And a lot of the recipes here actually come from my grandma, my mom’s mom. The name honors the family legacy: the restaurant’s name is from my granddad and the food is from my grandma.” Thus, creating the multi-layered meaning behind their unique name.
Modern Chinese Comfort Food
Moon Rabbit’s menu is where their modernity for Chinese cuisine is most explicit. “Currently our menu is about 75% Chinese, because we are a Chinese family, but we try to expand it to other cultures as well,” Patrick shares. Although there’s a lot to try in their menu, Moon Rabbit’s dishes are more streamlined compared to other Chinese spots. Instead of having multiple versions of one kind of dish they try not to overlap with their servings so that each dish stands on its own. Another deviation from usual Chinese-style of food service is their dishes are prepared for just one to two people. Patrick explains that they want their food to be a personal experience so to have the dishes smaller creates a more intimate interaction with the food.
After my chat with Patrick, we were treated to some of their bestselling and unique dishes – first of which is their Salted Egg Shrimps. One of their bestsellers, this is a clear favorite with the ever reliable ingredient, salted egg, that gives its savory depth into any dish you add it to. The shrimps are garnished with crunchy curry leaves that provide some texture from the plump tenderness of the shrimps as well as a slight spice to the flavor.
From deep richness we next go to light brightness with this next dish. Their Shredded Native Chicken is a fresh serving of shredded chicken served with cabbage and cucumber that make this a salad-ish dish, if you’re trying to go healthy. The main flavor component comes from the salted ginger paste that coats the chicken and vegetables. Sharp and refreshing, this would make for a good starter or a light lunch.
Ama’s Homemade Meatballs is another one of their bestsellers as well as Patrick’s favorite as they use the same recipe as their grandmother’s. Made with whole pork chunks, instead of minced, the flavor gives a homemade quality with the juiciness of the meat and a slight herby taste. Personally, the taste gives a nostalgic note, if that makes any sense, its rugged form but flavorful taste is akin to your favorite baon as a kid back in grade school. Aside from pork, I wasn’t given much information on what goes in the meatball as Patrick wants to keep as much detail on the recipe a secret.
For the last meat dish, their Sliced Beef is strong in flavor which it lends from its ginger soy sauce. Pungent and rich, the sauce coats and seeps into the thin beef slices that create an impactful taste in every bite. Shredded ginger is used as garnish with some greens that give a more mellowed sharpness to balance the sauce’s straightforward flavor.
Moon Rabbit’s rice offerings range from plain to the ornate, and with their serving of Crab Rice – this one definitely falls on the ornate end of the spectrum. My dish of choice out of them all, the sight of it is enough to whet your appetite. The bright scarlet hue of the crab claw contrasting with green of the spring onions entice you on the get-go. As to its flavor, the rice dish is a mix of savory elements from the crab, scallops, and pork. The squash adds a touch of sweetness that diversifies the palate of the dish. The rice is cooked in, what I can assume, the broth of its toppings which adds a deeper taste to the overall dish.
After that savory-rich journey we move on to their desserts. Patrick had us try two of their sweet dishes, with the Grass Jelly first out for us to try. This dessert is a mix of textures with the soft red bean carried by the bouncy grass jelly, all coated by the light and creamy milk which acts as the sauce. It’s a creamy dish that gives you a cooling mellow end to your meal.
For the second and more interesting dessert we have the Walnut Soup. A fun fact Patrick shared about this dish is that younger people prefer it served cold while older patrons prefer it warm. He didn’t really know the reason behind it but to stay consistent with the pattern, we had it served cold. An intriguing dessert, the soup has a nutty sweetness which it gets from the walnut. but the highlight of this dessert is the black sesame mochi floating at the center – chewy and with a stronger sweet flavor, it tastes best with the subtler sweetness of the soup.
With eyes set for modernity and the new while keeping their feet grounded in tradition, Moon Rabbit balances classic elements of Chinese flavors with new techniques and cultures that together produced their unique roster of dishes. Ambitious in their approach yet earnest in their craft, Moon Rabbit’s modern comfort food may not be the true elixir of immortality but it’s the closest we’ll ever get to tasting it.
Moon Rabbit is located at 2 Ledesma St. Corner F.Benitez San Juan. For reservations, contact 529-4706.