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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Chow Fun, or Not

On Tuesday, I was to meet Bruce and our out-of-town guests, Mark and Rodger, at the Ferry Building around noon. They had just been to Sears Fine Food for pancakes, so the timing wasn't really great for me, since I assumed we would be eating lunch around that time. In hindsight, I probably should've eaten something before I met them.

Ikea Stampede II: The Emeryville Horror

We decided to go to Chinatown (CT) to look for honey ginger tea, and we figured that while we were there I could stop at a place to eat and they could have a drink or maybe an appetizer. It's always funny that things that sound good in theory only are until you actually try to do it. For one, it was very busy in CT, specifically Grant Avenue. Normally this doesn't faze me, since I'm usually by myself when I'm in the hood, and I've become very agile at dodging little old ladies with plastic bags full of groceries. But when you have three other large guys with you, and when you don't have an idea of where you're going, and you have half a dozen aggressive hawkers with restaurant menus running up to you, it makes casually finding a place not very casual.

The other part of this story is that they had been walking all over town, so they didn't have the energy (and I don't blame them) to walk up and down the streets until my finicky taste buds found a decent place. And by the time we got up to the corner of Grant and Washington, I realized that I had to go with what was in the vicinity. Ruling out the Golden Dragon (as I didn't want to eat at the site of a massacre), the first place I wanted to check out was the Empress of China, since I had heard of its kitchy photos in the lobby and its spectacular views of the city. When we got to the 6th floor, my heart said "no" more than my stomach said "yes". My immediate impression was that it is a very generic, extremely overpriced restaurant for...ok, white people and other tourists. (Although! For drinks, it could be worth while.)

You know, maybe I'm not there yet, but as a semi-sophisticated ala wannabe, multicultural-loving, white almost bread, San Franciscan transplant, I still like to think that I could do better, try as I must, at a restaurant that isn't dumbed down for the rest of "my people", take 'em and definitely leave 'em. I'm open minded, my taste buds are open minded, so no, not the Empress of China. And especially not $17 for General Tsao Chicken. And it may be a stupid, narrow-minded way to find good food, but my first instinct when looking into the windows of a Chinatown restaurant (CTR) and seeing mostly non-Chinese people eating is to stay away from it. Am I a bigot? Am I self-hating? Am I a snob? I hope not. I don't want to be. It's true that there are a few CTR with mostly non-Chinese clientele, such as House of Nanking and Chef Gias, that are very good, but looking at all of the white tourists sitting on the balcony of the Chinatown Restaurant screams "CTR Disneyland With Mediocre Food" to me. Am I aware of the irony that as a white guy avoiding the CTR with white people that my very presence in any CTR makes it theoretically ineligible for me to eat in? Am I aware of the possibility that some CTR with all-Chinese clientele suck? Yes, I am aware of this. Maybe I'm making a big deal out of nothing. Maybe what I mean to say is that I want good authentic Chinese food and that's hard to find in restaurants frequented by tourists who tend to be white.

Since the Empress of China was out, the other option was Sam Wo's. Remember all of that stuff I said above? Here's where I stab myself in the back, needlessly, and really, I try not to be a masochist. I, especially after that speech I just gave, should've been more skeptical about this selection since my only experience was years ago, long after the novelty had worn out, and the food then wasn't that good, even with my limited experience of Chinese food. I also didn't realize that Sam Wo's is listed in all of the tourist guides until it was too late. But since none of us had been there for years, we decided to check it out. Besides, it was cheap. To make a long story short, I had the chow fun with bbq pork, they had the spring rolls, the deep fried shrimp (mistake), and the sweet and sour pork (big mistake). Not only was it a wretched place, cramped and dirty, to take visitors from out of town (to call it a "dive" is being kind), but we had mentioned the place to folks standing next to us as we were leaving the Empress of China. Now, with them sitting silently at a table behind us, we had ruined the lunch of total strangers. It probably didn't help that in between "this is awful" and "no, please, you have the rest", the rest of the gang managed to silently listen to my chopstick-lightening shoveling down of chow fun, while they, the tourists, sat in a catatonic stupor over the realization that $150/night hotel costs didn't equal the off Grant Avenue grease-trap they were lured into. In fact, they would've LOVED the Empress of China!

A place that always was good to be at at 2 AM, with booze you brought in yourself, and cheap hot Chinese food, was not a place to be at with no alcohol in the middle of the day. What use to be a place famous for the crotchety old man who would make you add up your own checks and insult your taste in food was now just filled with a bunch of rude, disorganized, bitchy women screaming "where's my tip" before we even had a chance to pay.

My dining experience in CT, while still limited, has been mixed. I've had cases of entering a CTR where I was the only non-Asian there, and waiting for a menu while other people who arrived after me were seated and already dining. I've had cases of being offered the more expensive dinner menu at lunch time, instead of the lunch menu everyone else was eating from. It's very much the status quo in CT that some restaurants are catered specifically for non-Chinese while others are all Chinese. This, however, doesn't stop me from trying. And I must give a disclaimer: while I have encountered racism from a few buttheads, I have also encountered kindness from many CT denizens, despite the language and cultural barriers.

One lesson I've learned when entering a new (for me) CTR is to look at what everyone else is eating, then look at the menu, then order. And for God's sake, don't order anything generic unless that's what the restaurant specializes in. For example if you walk into a CTR and everyone is eating out of bowls, don't order the broccoli beef! If the menu is dominated by noodle dishes, order the noodle dish. Some restaurants help you by listing their specials, so go with these if in doubt. When entering a new restaurant in CT, you have to be flexible, and if you have to have Hunan pork, go to a place you already know serves good Hunan pork. Other than that, you are on your own.

CT is filled with many interesting and good places to eat, as well as a few pits. Going there once or twice is not enough to find all of the real treasures (CT has the best toy stores), and as I'm still learning, not even going there once or twice a week is enough. As a neighborhood, I love it. I love the bustle of it. I love that it's a working neighborhood (I get my hair cut there). I love that it is insular as it can be. It's one of my favorite places to be on a sunny afternoon, and one day I will have hopefuly mastered my CT dining skills.



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