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Walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown

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San Franacisco Chinatown

Click for photos of San Francisco Chinatown

At first glance, San Francisco’s Chinatown appears to be a collection of trinket shops. Only during the Chinese New Year celebration does this place truly come alive and then one has to be prepared to brave the cold winter rains which often afflicts the celebration, and huge crowds.

But Chinatown is an integral part of San Francisco’s history. After the 1906 quake and fire, most of the original Chinatown was gutted. The city planners wanted Chinatown moved to the Hunters point. So, the immigrants, aided by the the Six Chinese Companies, rebuilt Chinatown in a fury and in the process, built a place that was friendlier to western tourists.  It also happens to be the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. The Chinese Cultural Center offers “Heritage Tours” for people with historical inclination.

In Bay Area, Chinese food is fairly popular throughout the peninsula and yet, some of the best dim sum is still to be had in Chinatown. My favorite Chinatown restaurant, the Flying Pan Bistro, closed recently It had a limited menu with distinct items, unlike most Chinese restaurants, but everything on the menu was perfectly cooked – no over cooked noodles or starchy stir fries. After many years of eating at Bay Area’s Chinese restaurants with Chinese American friends, I still find dim sum tricky. I can recognize several items from past experiences but not most. And I still make mistakes between the savory and the sweet. If you are in  large group, you can try unfamiliar plates and come away happy. You can take you chances by choosing one of the Chinatown restaurants from yelp or chowhound reviews. But to be perfectly safe, it may be best to follow a guided eating tour with Wok Wiz.

Grant Avenue, Chinatown

Grant Avenue, Chinatown

Some of the specialized shops on Grant Ave like the one selling kites or tea or spices are worth visiting, at least once, even if you are not shopping. Take for instance the spice shop. It has jars upon jars of artfully arranged shark fins, ginseng, and abalones – definitely not the spice isle of your friendly neighborhood Whole Foods. There are boxes of dried scallops, mushrooms and orange peels and bits that resemble petrified poop. The price tag can read numbers as high as $1000 – presumably for a pound.  The tea shops offer free tea tastes, the only way to shop for teas. They are like wine – different levels of flavor and tannins and acidity. If in Napa, you go wine tasting, then in Chinatown, you should go tea tasting. A friend of mine once got me a milk infused green tea from Ten Ren Tea Co. When brewed, it maintained the clarity of green tea but tasted of the milk infusion – it was one of the best infused teas I ever tasted.

I shop at 99 Ranch market and other Asian grocery shops, so while I am not impressed with the Chinese markets of Chinatown, believe me that for out of town visitors, the sights of all that fresh produce, live catch, and colorful packages of snacks can be inspiring. They may even be inspired to buy a wok from the Wok Shop and China Moon Cookbook and go home to master the art of stir frying.

Cards game at Portsmouth Square

Cards game at Portsmouth Square

Tien Hau temple, one of the few structures that survived the 1906 quake,  is worth a visit if you have never visited an Asian temple. It is dedicated to the Goddess of Heaven and Seas. Built by immigrants in 1850s as mark of their gratitude to the Goddess for allowing them safe journey across the tempestuous sea, it is an active temple still. You have to climb three flights of narrow stairs to get to this temple. Deceptively ordinary looking from outside, inside it is lush red and gold, colors symbolizing vitality and prosperity, with an intense smell of incense. From the balcony you can see Coit Tower. Adjacent to this temple is a single flight of dingy stairs that leads to a set of rooms where the older residents play Mahjong. The sound of the Mahjong tiles and the view of the backside of Waverly Place from this room gives you a sense of pre-quake Chinatown.

While a visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookies company is a very touristy thing to do, it is a must do. Fortune cookies were after all a San Francisco invention. This location is the only location of this famous factory – no more than an average sized living room, dark, and dimly lit. The ancient machines are operated by three equally ancient ladies, each turning out one cookie every few seconds. The fortune cookies are tasty – you will get a taste of the shell that didn’t make into a cookie. Apparently they have a naughty version, called French adult cookies which I have yet to see. The entrance to the narrow Ross Alley, no more than a car width wide, can be easily missed if you are not looking out for it. The signs on the buildings along Ross Alley are tilted so they can be read from the steep  angle when looking up at them.

Baked pork bun from Eastern Bakery

Baked pork bun from Eastern Bakery

Eastern Bakery is probably the most written about shop in Chinatown. Their moon cakes are so much in demand now that they sell for $5 per cake. I prefer to savor their $1 pork buns – the baked ones have soft bread on the outside and  gooey salty pork on the inside. There is no place to sit inside the bakery. Although a couple of benches are placed out on the street, almost as a second thought, they are bang in the middle of traffic and garbage bins. I prefer enjoying the buns at the quiet St. Mary’s square under the watchful stone eyes of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.  An alternate spot to enjoy a snack would be Portsmouth Square. It is a good spot to watch people – elderly residents playing card games, or practicing tai-chi.

For more photos of Chinatown, click here. If you are visiting – reserve at least two hours for a self guided walking tour of Chinatown. View a map of this walk – Walking tour of Chinatown, SFO – that includes other locations of interest such as the Clarion Music Center, old St. Mary’s cathedral and Chinese Six Companies Welfare Association. Also check out a trip to Chinatown’s tradtiional medicine shop with Martin Yan. And, as always, check out San Francisco City Guides for a free walking tours of Chinatown that work with your schedule.

If you are visiting San Francisco, you may want to check out:

  1. Nearby North Beach, the Italian sector (more)
  2. Telegraph Hill, living on stairways (more)
  3. Urban hike along Embarcadero, the best of SFO (more)
  4. Murals, historical Mission Dolores and sex toys at  Mission District (more)
  5. Best chocolates of San Francisco (more)

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