At the back of the hill

Warning: May contain traces of soy, wheat, lecithin and tree nuts. That you are here
strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton.
And that you might like cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


Over the years several of the old-fashioned coffee shops and bakeries in Chinatown have disappeared. Largely they have given way to a different and more modern style of business, the key characteristics of which are fancier pastries, and a marked lack of seating. In those bakeries where people congregate for a bite and a beverage, the coffee is still pretty bad (but very cheap, that's why), the style of baked goods is an echo of the seventies and eighties, and the clientele often has silver hair.
Some modern places have cheesecake and no tables.

Old-school lunchcounter bakeries, with simple Chinese pastries, apple pie, strawberry cake, and a variety of hot savoury items, are a thing of the past. Along with banana cream pie, Boston cream, and daily specials: ox tail, patty over rice, chops, fried chicken, chicken fried steak.

That generation retired.


Years ago I went to the Eastern Bakery, which had a lunch counter where you could read the newspaper while swilling endless refills. Alan Gin and Mr. Fong would often be there, Ted came by occasionally, and Auntie Jenny kept us wired to the eyebrows. The steamed chicken bun (雞包) was totally excellent, the dow sa bing ditto, and their pie and coffee crunch cake were famous. Many years ago they ripped out the lunch counter, I moved out of the neighborhood, and Auntie Jenny retired.
Their moon cakes are iconic.
They still exist.

At Ping Yuen on Jackson, the cream pies were extremely nice, the counter was very long, and the ladies who worked there often got me whacked to the gills by endlessly refilling my cup. I read three newspapers while sitting there, did all the puzzles, frequently studied Chinese poetry or Tang-Sung essays from books I had recently bought at Louie Bros or Jung Mei, and when they closed in the evening I would go to the Great Star Theater to watch Chow Yun-fat or Lau Tak Wah shoot em up in Hong Kong gangster flicks till midnight. Ping Yuen no longer exists, the cinema closed years ago.

Sun Wah Kue was a long-time fixture, with a main entrance on Washington and a door on 舊呂宋 alley. Fabulous oxtail and fried chicken, famous among old-timers for chops, steaks, and orange chiffon pie. The lighting was not good enough to read by, but if you sat in the right place you could observe the people passing by in the alleyway while enjoying some stellar apple pie a la mode. You had to signal for refills; they weren't quite as 'stimulating' as the other two places mentioned. But they had booths, yellowing walls, and their lunches were truly special.
Long gone, long long gone.


The other day I was at a well-known bakery on Stockton around tea-time, listening in on three conversations at once. The spry bird-like woman who is often there, talking animatedly with the silver-haired Burma uncle, a table behind me with a pretty middle-aged woman and three other people, and at the table directly across from me an old gentleman possessed of a lively wit and one of the most intelligent expressive faces I have ever seen.
I hope the woman with the very beautiful hair next to him is his wife.
Or mistress, girlfriend, inamorata, squeeze, or whatever.
But she's probably a daughter.
Shan't ask.

One cup of milk tea (奶茶 'naai cha'), a fresh warm meat floss bun (肉鬆飽 'yiuk sung baau'), and three lively talky-talks around me to hold my interest. One peculiarity of Cantonese folks in conversation is that there are numbers for everything, food will always be mentioned, and everybody has a term. Older siblings, younger maternal aunties, uncles who are father's younger brother, ah sang ("mister dude"), pretty miss ('leng neui'), young female cousin ('piu mui'), previously born person ('sin saang') .......
Lo sai (younger brother), taai lou (older brother).
Taai go taai, ah sou.
Heng jeung.

I had a blast.

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