After passing several clusters of bellowing tourists on Grant Avenue, it finally struck me that visiting Chinatown is the best thing to do. Why bother finding out about San Francisco, seeing the real sights, talking to locals, when all you have to do is follow a list: go to Chinatown, hike up to Coit Tower, walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, see Fishermans' Wharf, boat over to Alcatraz, and shop for tacky crap.
So easy, so simple, so not requiring thought.
Tourist don't want to think; it's hard.
And it might require research.
The necessity to use their brains makes them stumble when it's time to return from the Golden Gate Bridge. Like anxious chickens, they will flock up to the first bus that hoves into view, and fight to board.
Never mind that several people are getting off.
This is our bus, we saw it first!
Outta the way, bitches!
It's usually the number seventy or eighty out of Marin. The driver will explain several key things, once the honoured foreigners and fat Midwesterners have stopped foaming at the mouth.
This bus does NOT go to Union Square or Fisherman's Wharf. No, he does not know how they can get there from here. Downtown is large; if they don't know where they are going, they should not take this bus.
Those tickets are only good on Muni (the city buses), he has fifty people sitting behind who are being even further delayed by tourists pointlessly yelling in Italian or German, and it costs four dollars and fifty cents to travel on this conveyance, which is a regional bus, rather than the two bucks OR convenient tourist pass on Muni. Which you missed, back there behind you, it's just pulled out, but you could have caught it if you hadn't wasted fifteen minutes arguing.
Sadly, disconsolately, the smelly and fat visitors fade into the frigid mists of the Bridge Toll Plaza, to wait yet another hour for the next Muni bus. Some of them will mob another vehicle from Marin before it is all over.
They're geese. Or sheep.
Albeit quite rabid.
In the same un-thought-out fashion, they go to Chinatown.
NOT THIS CHINATOWN
Part of the problem is that San Francisco always insists that this is the largest neighborhood of its kind outside of Asia. Which it isn't, by a very wide margin. New York, Toronto, and Vancouver have far greater Chinatowns, and our second and third Chinatowns are bigger too.
Another issue is that tourist guides, hotel desk clerks, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce speak glowingly of the food and antiques, lovely brocades, fabulous quaintness, and totally cute omg sights, people, and objects.
The food is either every day Cantonese food for a local population which wants good for cheap and gets it, OR high-priced muck sold primarily to white people who demand stuff that the locals will not touch.
Tablecloths? Who ever heard of such a thing?
There is no Perrier, so sorry.
You must understand that the ONLY reasons why Chinatown still exists are three-fold: It's a commercial nexus for people who need goods and services such as among many other things Chinese ingredients, cheap clothing, translation, and haircuts; it's a half-way house for people who are desperately unable to use English effectively and are struggling to move up and out; and old folks. Please note that NONE of these involves tourists, colourful dances and song, putting on shows for the white people, or anything else that caters to the very important non-Asians temporarily passing through.
Except, of course, for Grant Avenue. Which is in the main a ghastly tourist trap. Cameras, tee-shirts, cheap plastic breakable mementos, tea that mostly only white people drink, and coolie hats. More or less.
Really, Grant Avenue is fairly pointless.
BARBER SHOPS, FOOD, AND GROCERIES
Again, San Francisco Chinatown is by no means the enormous and significant community of "exotics" that tourist brochures say it is.
The largest Chinese population in San Francisco is out in the avenues, many of them speak English, a large number speak English better than any other language, and they're working for and running businesses that are very similar to what you would find in Milan or Iowa. The only thing truly unique is that their children are academically superior.
Unless you desperately need tee-shirts and knick-knacks, what you should do in Chinatown is get a haircut, and have a snack.
Plus buy a condiment or a dried fish.
There are very many hair dressers in Chinatown. My barber has a shop there, and he does a fabulous job on my head. His English is better than my Cantonese. Some of his customers do not speak Cantonese.
Heads are all very similar, they've seen them before.
Chinese know about such things.
Just point. If the place is doing a booming business, it's because they offer decent food and drink at a reasonable price. No, none of the stuff they sell is weird. Most of it consists of fairly common ingredients which are combined in fairly predictable ways. Starch, meat, vegetable stuff, and flavourings. Stop asking questions, and just look at what's available. The appearance will tell you whether it's a main dish, a starch-type substance, a baked product, or contains vegetables. The people who work there might not have the time or the English ability to patiently and thoroughly discuss every tiddly little detail. And you aren't their target audience, who will return often, and whose custom they depend on.
For your assistance: BoBa
is large balls of tapioca added to chilled beverages. Charsiu
is a type of roast pork. Almost all pastries contain animal shortening. Dried shrimp adds a seafood saveur. Joong
(so-called 'Chinese Tamales') are glutinous rice surrounding pork and beans or peanuts, wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed for hours, they keep for days. The lotus leaf packets
contain glutinous rice, chicken, a slice of Chinese sausage, a little black mushroom, and only a few other ingredients, and are a delicious lunch. Dumplings
could be almost anything (but will often contain an animal protein surrounded by or folded into a starchy component which may be made of rice flour, wheat, or tofu skin. If it looks crunchy, it probably is crunchy.
'Vegan' and 'kosher' are not concepts that operate here.
Even 'vegetarian' is very hard to grasp.
Allergies are your problem.
Vegetarian restaurants often have the word 素 ('sou
') in the name (vegetarian is 素食 'sou sik
'; "vegetarian eats"), and another term that crops up in relation to vegetarian food is 齋 ('jai
'), which refers most commonly to Buddhist-type vegetarianismus. Neither are popular.
Veganism, besides being quite utterly ridiculous, is 純素食主義 ('suen sou sik chu yi
'), "purely vegivorous ideology".
Kosher is 符合猶太教教規的食物 ('fu hap yau taai gaau gaau kwai dik sik mat
'), "according with Judaic religious regulation comestibles".
Halal is 符合清真教教規的食物 ('fu hap ching jan gaau gaau kwai dik sik mat
'), "according with Islamic custom food".
Respectively 猶太潔食 ('yau taai git sik
') and 清真食 ('ching jan sik
') for short.
Allergies are called 過敏 ('gwo man
'), allergic reactions are 變態反應 ('pin taai fan ying
'), and a food allergy is 食物過敏 ('sik mat gwo man
Peanuts are 花生 ('faa sang
'); they're nearly everywhere.
Wheat gluten is 麵筋 ('min gan
'). It's good for you.
If you're flying, you shouldn't buy sauces. Rules about what you can't bring onto a plane are strict. Otherwise, please understand that the list of ingredients required by law is very comprehensive, and that many of them contain at least one of the following: sugar, starch, a fermented fish product, salt, wheat derivatives, monosodium glutamate, and chili.
Most of them are meant to be added to food as it is cooking, a few can be added afterwords as you are enjoying the meal. None of them are suitable for massive amounts. Many of them keep very well in your refrigerator after opening.
Shrimp paste is essential, Hoisin sauce less so. Douban sauce is useful, but you may not use it often enough.
Nothing says "I've been to Chinatown" like a handsome dried fish.
If you are Scandinavian, Dutch, or Belgian, you have seen such things before -- though they may not have been utilized in your kitchens in several generations -- and some Italians and Iberians may have used similar products. If you are modern middle class urban, you will likely eschew fish entirely, and if you are English or Midwestern you may not even know how to cook it when it is fresh.
Likely you don't cook anyhow, at most you heat up prepackaged hot-pockets and curry.
Or open a can and mix the contents with mayonnaise.
You rely on celery salt and ketchup.
Dried fish is seldom the mainstay of a meal. But it is a valuable taste-contribution in not particularly large quantities. It will often be soaked and fragmented, and used to flavour simple vegetable dishes.
That's ONE vegetable. Not a mish-mosh of a dozen.
Cooked all dente. Not boiled to death.
Think 'blanch, then saute'.
There are multiple uses for a dried fish, of course, but it's dried; it keeps. That's the whole point of it. Just put it in a large resealable food-storage bag once you get home, if you do not intend to consume it all within weeks.
Below is a selection of places. It is short. It may seem idiosyncratic.
That is deceptive.
I shan't mention the small hole-in-the-wall dimsum counters I favour, as you probably wouldn't like them anyhow. They also do jook and cheap rice plates. Eh, you wouldn't like those either.
For sit-down dimsum of high quality:
城景 CITY VIEW RESTAURANT
662 Commercial Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Between Kearny and Montgomery, very good.
多好茶室 DOL HO
808 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
Just west of Stockton. Good food, a frenetic or eccentric atmosphere. If you're a snob you might have reservations.
Why are you here?
羊城茶室 YANK SING
49 Stevenson Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
Outside of Chinatown, in the financial district. A bit more expensive, but deservedly popular among both Chinese and white folks.
For a complete list of dim sum specialties, see this post:
Dim sum: kinds, names, pronunciation, description
Not all of the items listed will be available.
Not even in Hong Kong.
For bakeries, I recommend these three:
荷里活茶餐廳 NEW HOLLYWOOD BAKERY & RESTAURANT
652 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
人仁西餅麵包 YUMMY BAKERY
607 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
幸福餅家 BLOSSOM BAKERY
133 Waverly Place
San Francisco, CA 94108
All three of these have excellent wife cakes (老婆餅 'lou po beng
') and milk-tea (港式奶茶 'gong sik naai chaa
'), two of them also have wonderful charsiu turnovers (叉烧酥 'chaa siu sou
They also have other offerings worth exploring.
Sit down and take a break.
For egg tarts (蛋撻 'daan taat
'), head to Golden Gate Bakery (金門餅家) at 1029 Grant Avenue, between Jackson Street & Pacific; for coffee crunch cake and mooncakes in season, go to the Eastern Bakery (東亞餅家), 720 Grant Avenue, at the corner of Commercial Street.
If you want to eat at a restaurant, go here:
京都餐館 CAPITAL RESTAURANT
839 Clay Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Great for family dinners and solid Cantonese food, this place can get packed and chaotic during the rush. The clientele is mostly Cantonese speaking, so don't get too fussy and persnickety; they're really trying to keep everyone happy, but that does mean that convoluted questions are better fielded during quieter moments.
上海飯店 BUND SHANGHAI RESTAURANT
640 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Top-notch Shanghainese food, and delightful chive and pork dumplings (韭菜豬肉水餃 'gau choi chü yiuk suei gaau
'). This is a place I would love to take a date sometime.
嶺南小館 R & J LOUNGE
631 Kearny Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Excellent Cantonese food, and very much the place you would bring your elderly out of town relatives. It's a bit fancy, but the quality has remained consistent for years. They can also do larger groups, and cocktails are available.
Condiments of most types are available at any place that looks like a grocery store. Many of them also have dried fish. Prices are all very much in line, as they really want to move the merchandise. They will not be able to answer questions very well, especially if you have a horrible German or French accent; know the subject before you go in, or be willing to take a chance. The worst that can happen is that you might waste one or two dollars.
Do NOT purchase chin cha lok (真加洛醬 'jan kaa lok
'), as it explodes; very unstable!
Dried fish and soy sauce never do that.
AN AFTERWORD, TER VERANTWOORDING
Indeed, I am also white, just like you. And although I speak some Cantonese, I do not fancy myself in any way special or somehow superior. The key difference may be that I tend to obsessively look things up. Which also explains my very minor facility in Cantonese.
That language has proven more useful in the past several years than Dutch, German, and Indonesian. This is primarily the case when I am communicating with people who do not speak Dutch, German, or Indonesian, in addition to lacking fluent and idiomatic English.
I am also an egomaniac; I like to be able to get what I want without struggling, and attract a modicum of favourable attention at the same time. A white person who is at least semi-intelligible in Cantonese is a lusus naturae, though probably not someone you want to know.
I collect cookbooks and foreign dictionaries.
And I eat rather well in consequence.
I also know how to take buses.
These are nice things.
Transit information is available all over San Francisco, as well as in the guide books. Many maps also have valuable clues.
NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.
Labels: Chinese bakeries (餅家), Milk tea, 唐人街 Chinatown