Chinatown is the oldest urban area in San Francisco, and like New York's Battery and New Orleans' French Quarter, its touristed excesses can be overlooked for the rich vein of germinative, cobblestoned history that informs it. Back in the pre-Gold Rush days, when the city was known as Yerba Buena and its population hovered below a thousand, Portsmouth Square was the center of the settlement and Grant Avenue (then Dupont) was the only game in town.
As the city grew north, south, and west, Chinese immigrants remained in the old section, quarantined by racism and the fears of labor leader Dennis Kearny. The immigrants' native foodstuffs were another matter, though. In 1849, the annus mirabilis itself, adventurer Bayard Taylor came to San Francisco and reported that “there are three Chinese houses, denoted by their long three-cornered flags of yellow silk … where the grave Celestials serve up their chow-chow and curry.” Massachusetts journalist Samuel Bowles wasn't so impressed: After a banquet of fried shark's fins, bird's nest soup, stewed pigeons, and other delicacies, he headed for a more Anglicized restaurant to “get something to eat.” But the more broad-minded Mark Twain enjoyed “various kinds of colored and colorless wines and brandies, with unpronounceable names, imported from China in little crockery jugs” as well as bird's nests, tiny sausages, and preserved eggs.
Sampling one of those oblique liqueurs is a fine way to begin a foray through Chinatown, especially as we head into the fertile, vigorous Year of the Dragon, which began Feb. 5 and will be celebrated through the 20th. (Much of this report was researched to the beat of drums, cymbals, and exploding firecrackers; recommended.) Where to imbibe? The Buddha Lounge (901 Grant at Washington, 362-1792; open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.), where the bartender has been known to offer tastes of Asian libations as well as a fine and potent martini ($4). The Buddha's been remodeled since my previous visits — it's sharper and shinier now — but it's still evocatively dark and friendly, with the best jukebox in Chinatown and a matchlessly retro Buddha-shaped vestibule.
After you've sampled your fair share of colorless wines you'll want to wrap your lips around a big bowl of steaming juk, the restorative rice porridge known to prevent hangovers in imbibers from here to Hong Kong. The place to get it is Hing Lung, a high-ceilinged barn of a juk joint where a team of chefs prepares 19 varieties of the thick, soul-nourishing brew. I got two of them: the fresh sliced fish ($5.50), in which long, slender fillets of moist whitefish absorbed the bowl's sweet-hot ginger and bracing cilantro, and fresh pork liver ($4), big (even intimidating) slabs of silky liver spiked with fresh scallions. I couldn't finish the latter bowl, but I happily slurped down the fishy variety, particularly good with a big platter of crisp, light fried bread ($1) for dunking.
Thus fortified, greet the new day with dim sum, the savory tidbits traditionally enjoyed at lunchtime. Dol Ho is a cheerfully ramshackle setting in which to sample these treats — all Formica, high decibel levels, and regulars vying for superb dumplings from occasionally sighted yet well-laden carts: fresh, delicate shrimp turnovers ($3); pork dumplings with carrots, cilantro, and a half-dozen aromatic herbs ($2.50); a parfait of tofu, chicken meat, and fish cake wrapped in egg noodles ($3). I was impressed with the chopstick wizardry of my neighbor (seating at Dol Ho is family style), who attacked her chicken feet ($2.50) by placing one in her mouth, nibbling awhile, and daintily removing one bone after another with her chopsticks until a tiny pile of clean bones resided on her plate. After one foot I decided the fatty, gristly delicacy wasn't worth the trouble, but that's just me.
Another good dim sum bet is Pearl City. It's a little more upscale, with tux-clad waiters and a big banquet room in back, but the contents of the tiny plates are just as earthy and delicious: big juicy meatballs studded with scallions ($2); a mousselike fish cake draped across a wedge of green pepper ($2); good, spiky dumplings stuffed with mussels, mushrooms, cilantro, and corn ($2); and, best of all, sticky rice wrapped in tea leaves, ribboned with chicken and giblets and dripping with grease ($2.50). Gelatinous balls studded with sesame seeds and filled with puréed, barely sweetened lotus ($1.50) made for an interesting dessert.
The classier, pink-and-white dinner palaces we sampled weren't as impressive as their juk-and-dim-sum cousins. At Lichee Garden we were rushed through our meal — we were served the check along with our food, and the vacuuming began shortly there- after — and the only really good dish was the very verdant spinach with tiny slivers of ginger and garlic ($5.25). The others — an overly complicated, nearly tasteless wonton soup with squid and ham ($5); fishy-tasting shrimp with greasy fried noodles ($6.25); juicy yet flavorless crispy-skinned chicken ($7.50); and heavy, oily, deep-fried spareribs with vinegar ($5.25) — were, at best, perfunctory.
Service was even worse at Oriental Pearl, where we waited an hour for our appetizer (if, as the owner explained, the first attempt at preparing the starter wasn't up to snuff, we should have gotten some other nibble in the meantime). When it did arrive it was mighty good, though — the venue's famous chicken meatball ($3.50), a production number of a starter involving chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, and Virginia ham wrapped in egg white, and nice and juicy for all of that. Also good: the spicy braised prawns ($11), deep-fried, hot, and crisp from the wok and redolent of fresh chilies; the slimy-but-good braised black mushrooms with baby bok choy ($8.75); and the delicate, al dente chicken chow mein ($6.50), a cut above the ordinary.
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.
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.