Sunday, February 06, 2011


It seems like everybody who visits Chinatown has only ONE thing on their mind: charsiu buns.
Which is a bit odd, perverse even. There is so much more there to stuff your face with, why do they only go for this one thing?

My guess is that they don't really know anything else. Most Americans judge an entire cuisine by one signature dish, which in their limited view outranks all others.

[Gross generalization here, and yes I do know that YOU are different - feel free to tell me precisely how much so in the comments.]

Whether it's Thai, Italian, Indian, or Mexican, people almost always order their favourite. They had the same thing last time (actually the last ten times), they don't want anything else, and experimentation might force them to eat stuff they don't like.
If they really wanted something else, they'd go to a different ethnic restaurant.

Fortunately, with Chinese food, there are several things they KNOW they like: Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken Chowmein, Chop Suey, Fried Rice, Mongolian Beef, Kung Pao Shrimp...............

[Sweet and Sour Pork: 咕嚕肉 ('gu lou yiuk'). Chicken Chowmein: 雞丁炒麵 ('kai ding chou min'). Chop Suey: 雜碎 ('jaap suei'). Fried Rice: 炒飯 ('chau fan'). Mongolian Beef: 蒙古牛肉 ('mang gu ngau yiuk'). Kung Pao Shrimp: 宮保蝦球 ('gong bou haa kau').]

......... and charsiu bao!



I often wander around the neighborhood looking for something different to eat, or a new place to try.
But this afternoon I went to one of my favourite tried-and-true places, because with a mild hang-over I wasn't feeling very adventurous.

園林點心735 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94133.

The two nicest things here are the fresh shrimp rice-sheet noodle and the charsiu (!) flaky turnovers, especially when they're piping hot, fresh out of the kitchen.

[Fresh shrimp rice-sheet noodle: 鮮蝦腸粉 ('sin haa cheung fan'). Charsiu flaky turnover: 叉燒酥餅 ('cha siu so peng').]

That's not what I had this time - chose a few things I hadn't eaten there before. Thoroughly enjoyed my meal.
But the best part of teatime was the constant stream of people coming in and asking worriedly whether they had charsiu buns. An entire white family, seven fat people. Several Chinese-Americans from the avenues with chunky offspring. A disapproving white couple. One hungry Swedish girl. A Philippino family with two chubbalicious teenage daughters. Some more white people. Plus a pudgy hippy.

"Do... do... do... you have... CHAR SIU BUNS?!?"
[Catch in the throat, anxious whimper, fevered quiver.]

I have never tried their charsiu buns. If I do, I will probably order a bun in a whisper, then scurry furtively back to my den on the other side of the hill.
I may even try to sound like a Southerner and drawl, in the hope that I will not be recognized.

Yes, they have charsiu buns. They're not crazy, they know those things sell like hot cakes.
The tourists get them bronzed for Aunt Mabel back in Poughkeepsie.
A perfect memento!

If you want to eat them with a semblance of secretive privacy, please note: 雅坐上樓 ('elegant seating upstairs'). No one will watch you, and you can do with your buns whatever you wish. There are bottles of sweet and sour sauce on the tables for your convenience.

But you are much better off downstairs at one of the sticky communal tables, seeing the fresh stuff that comes out of the kitchen.
Wait for the charsiu turnovers, then snatch-buy several. They're covered with sesame seeds, and just pure flaky goodness.

I'm going to have to go there earlier to snag the 煎堆 when they're fresh out of the hot fat. They're probably excellent.


Watching the aunties behind the counter facing the customers was rather bittersweet.
One plaintively tried to interest the outsiders in other offerings - "you try wutaogok, lobogau, siumai.... very GOOD!!!". The other one, with equal optimism, attempted to figure out what they might want - "noodle, potsticker, springroll?"
Upon seeing blank looks of incomprehension they would patiently start explaining what these things were, only to be cut off by "charsiu buns charsiu buns charsiu buns, you got charsiu buns yes charsiu buns we want charsiu buns!"

I hear the charsiu buns are quite good. They also have wonton noodle soup, various hot dishes, and fruity milk-tea with tapioca balls. Their cheung fan is excellent.
Locals seem to like the place.

One other thing - they used to serve everything from the take-out counter on flimsy paper plates.
Now they have sturdy Hello Kitty plastic ware.
I'm totally cool with that.

Table condiments: Soy sauce. Chili paste. And something labeled 'sweet and sour sauce'.
食咗飽了, six bucks only. Very affordable.

HOUSE OF DIM SUM: 735 Jackson Street, San Francisco.Many non-Asians on Yelp hate the House of Dim Sum, but given that they say crappy things about every other joint in Chinatown and wouldn't know decent food if it came up and bit them, you might as well ignore what they say. It's called 'yelp' for a reason.

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