“I don’t want to fill you up too much. We’re having lunch in about an hour,” cautions Frank Jang as we near the end of our meal at the cacophonous Imperial Palace in San Francisco. He switches briefly to Chinese to call out one last order (beef noodle) and, seconds later, urges us to “finish it up! Take the whole thing.”
It’s a Wednesday morning, and Jang has just started leading our group of four on Wok Wiz's 3.5 hour “I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown” Tour.
Hanzi characters leap from restaurant marquees and menus. Tantalizing cooking smells waft street-ward from obscure sub-level basements. Poker-faced buns (what’s hiding in there?!) dazzle from behind glass windows. As a monoglot, I’m glad to have a Chinatown native and fellow food lover along to translate the roughly 20-block neighborhood’s culinary scene.
It quickly becomes obvious that Jang’s worries about overstuffing us are superficial. Between bites of savory sauced lotus root, sips of fragrant teas, and mouthfuls of not-too-sweet egg custards, we get glimpses of Chinatown’s industrious (and tumultuous) history, his personal recollections of growing up here, and some key tips for navigating the eateries and markets in the country’s largest Chinatown.
Here’s a taste of what I learned.
Soup for breakfast is (a wonderful) thing. Jang likened a long-boiled rice porridge called jook to the American omelet — not in taste or consistency, but because creamy bowls of the stock-fortified soup are customizable.
“In Chinese restaurants, they ask, ‘What do you want to add to it?’” he said. “Want one with shrimp? Beef? They have big pots and make individual orders.”
Sizing up dim sum is easy. Two strategic bites will tell you if you’re in a good dim sum restaurant.
“There's a few items you've got to have,” Jang said. “If they’re good, everything else on the menu? You can't go wrong.”
The first, shrimp dumplings, shouldn’t stick together and should hold shape when picked up with chopsticks. Inside, shrimp should be in chunks, not whole. And pork buns? If the soft white bread shell is sweet or salty, take a pass.
Don't forget to look up! Some of the first Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco found themselves muscled out of gold mining and instead launched food export empires.
“They said, ‘We’ve got the crabs, the oysters, the clams. All these fish. Wow! Let’s send it back to China,’” said Jang, who’s childhood shortcut to the park was through an alley known for rooftop seafood drying operations until the 1950s. “Those who went into the seafood processing industry — drying and salting it — they made out like bandits.”
Today, many Chinatown residents still cure sausages and fish for personal use on their balconies and fire escapes.
Wield your chopsticks wisely. When you serve from a communal dish, use the butt end of your chopsticks so you’re not swapping spit with your neighbor (because gross).
And don’t leave your chopsticks sticking up in your rice, because “it’s kind of like tombstones,” Jang said. “Everything else is common sense.”
And, finally, here's where to find…
Home cooking: The subterranean Chef Hung, one of only places for Cantonese comfort food outside of someone's kitchen.
Tea: Red Blossom Tea Company offers 60-plus varieties, sit-down tastings, coaching on leaf types and provenances.
Feet: For that killer consommé, get your chicken feet at Man Sung Co.
Cookware: Staff at the aptly named Wok Shop will not only help you choose the right style wok, but give you a quick tutorial on curing and caring for it.
Xia Long Bao: Bund Shanghai has mastered the soup dumpling.
Dessert: Eastern Bakery, the oldest Chinese bakery in the country stocks a stunning variety of savory and sweet goods. (Try the Rice-Krispies-Treat-like squares made with molasses instead of marshmallow, or the rich house specialty: moon cakes.)
Since the death of legendary Chinatown food luminary and Wok Wiz founder Shirley Fong-Torres, the food walks have been less frequent — only a few times a month. (History walks take place daily, however.) Thankfully, Jang leads both kinds, so food fans are also likely to learn what alley was once lined with opium dens, what an erhu sounds like, and who dug the web of tunnels under Chinatown.
Walking shoes, notepads, and elastic waistbands recommended.