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This being the new year, you'll want to head for a bakery and stock up on moon cakes. The Eastern (720 Grant at Clay, 392-4497; open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) has been the Stafford family favorite for years. I myself tend to skip the lunar variety of cake -- I could never get around the centrally located hard-boiled egg yolk -- but on a recent visit I enjoyed earthy, rich black bean cakes (an aficionado calls Eastern's version "the best in Chinatown"); simply textured, sweetly complex lotus cakes; dense, mouth-filling coconut cakes; and the unquestionably weird-chewy preserved egg- ginger cake, all of them wrapped up in flaky, lard-rich pastry ($2 for three cakes). The crisp, delicate, barely sweetened almond cookies ($2 per sack) are nice too. And if you're in the mood for fortune cookies, head over to Mee Mee (1328 Stockton at Broad- way, 362-3204; open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.), a shadowy little place where you can get multihued, personalized, and/or naughty fortune cookies created on the premises (peek in back, where a half-dozen craftspersons fashion the cookies with the help of apparatuses straight out of Rube Goldberg).
Stressed out from all the eating and jostling? This is a job for the Imperial Tea Court (1411 Powell at Broadway, 788-6080; open daily 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.), a most tranquil locale in which to stop and smell the roses (with Imperial White Peony, of course). In a soothing setting of deep-toned woodwork, lanterns, brush paintings, and birdcages, tea is served with great ceremony: The chosen leaves are presented in a porcelain cup; hot water is splashed over them and then poured out; the moist leaves are offered for inspection, like a wine cork. Finally, hot water is poured over the approved leaves and allowed to steep, the steeping time depending on the tea.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
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674 Broadway (near Stockton), 398-8838. Open daily 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Reservations: not necessary. Muni: 12, 30, 45, 83. Noise level: high.
1416 Powell (between Broadway and Vallejo), 397-2290. Open daily 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reservations: not necessary. Muni: 12, 30, 45, 83. Noise level: moderate.
760 Clay (near Grant), 433-1817. Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations: not necessary. Muni: 1, 15, 42. Noise level: moderate.
641 Jackson (between Kearny and Grant), 398-8383. Open daily 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations: not necessary. Muni: 1, 15, 42. Noise level: high.
Chinatown parking recommendation: Park at the Sutter-Stockton or Union Square garage and catch the Powell Street cable car or the 30 Stockton (or, better yet, stroll the two or three blocks into Chinatown)
You drink your tea by placing the cup in the palm of one hand and scooping the leaves out of lip range with a porcelain saucer held in the other hand; the process forces you to take slow, occasional sips, to relax, to unwind, to let time pass unheeded. The water is kept steaming on a tableside hot plate, allowing you to replenish the cup at your leisure. I enjoyed the subtle, herbaceous Orchid Oolong and, with it, a plate of tiny almond cookies and green tea crackers, the latter all thin, crunchy texture ($1). There are 32 varieties of tea (including Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin) at $3 to $5 per cup; they're also available by the pound at prices ranging from $15 for the Chrysanthemum Blossom to $280 for the Imperial Dragon Well.
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