Smell You Later
It's not easy being cheesy.
It's also not easy to be an original food blogger in a city where everyone's been there, done that.
Many, many times.
Like, before you were ever born, ok?
It's not easy scooping an exotic ice cream shop when this town is crawling with food bloggers and food writers and the thousands who make/have made their living off of selling the city secrets to tourists for decades.
In other words, this is a city that knows itself a little too well; a victim of it's own success, yada, yada, yada. Most who've lived here for some time remember when their friends use to refer to San Francisco as "the bubble". Perhaps some still do. I don't know. I just remember watching John Travolta playing that boy in the bubble on TV and it didn't look very nice. Who knows? Maybe he was eatin' good in that little neighborhood during commercial break?
I'm not mad. I mean, it is one of those "only in San Francisco" quirks where folks treat anyone who attains a modicum of mainstream fame and fortune with disdain, while simultaneously gushing applause over a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese/South Asian dive in the heart of skid row. And while I point this out, I admit that I am also to blame. Perhaps one who lives in an urban bubble shouldn't throw darts?
I write all of this because, where upon gushing mucho applause on a hole-in-the-wall, stank palace in Chinatown, I see someone else has beat me to it. Nevertheless, that doesn't preclude me from telling you what I think, right?
So…my co-worker Gary and I were talking about stinky tofu one day because I had expressed some interest in Taiwanese specialties. When Gary mentioned stinky tofu, I mentioned how Bill, Bruce, and Seth were at Shanghai Restaurant a week ago and were discussing the stinky tofu there. Apparently, stinky tofu is big in Taiwan (and Shanghai).
How big? Well, some would say the phrase "making a big stink" originated in Taipei. Some would say...
So then, Gary tells me that him and his wife occasionally go to this place in Chinatown for stinky tofu called Star Lunch. I asked him where it was and as he was describing it I suddenly realized, "HEY, I've been there before". In fact, I remember walking in, and then running out as quickly as I could.
Excuse me, but shouldn't the smell of stench naturally want to drive anyone away from a place that purports to serve food?
Actually when I initially walked in (without the knowledge of "stinky tofu"), I saw what looked like a Chinese beggar sitting at the counter and then smelled something which I assumed to be him. Having lived in the city and walked behind many, truly, crusty homeless guys, I know the stench of fermented mud-butt when I whiff it.
And while I could care less about the person sitting next to me at a lunch counter, that stink drove me out of that place quicker than the cologne/perfume department at Nordstroms. In hindsight, I realize it wasn't him at all, it was the stinky tofu. I'm sorry dude, wherever you are.
Gary said that, once, he and his wife went to Star Lunch and ordered the stinky tofu. Right after they began to eat, a whole family came in and ordered the same. The whole place reaked!
Afterwards, they decided to stroll around the CT. When Gary's wife, Marie, peaked her head into another restaurant, the host looked at her with that "Shoo! You stink" look, held his nose, and waved his hand in front of his face. Soon after, while they were perusing the jewelry at a local shop, a woman working there gave her a nasty look, which Marie gave back, causing both of them to engage in a deadly Staredown At The CT Corral. Now, according to Gary, Marie doesn't like shopping in Chinatown.
If it were me, I would've looked at those folks, shrugged my shoulders, and simply said "Star Lunch". I'm sure they would've understood.
Another time, Gary was walking down Grant and crossing Jackson when he heard an obviously Midwestern (read: white) tourist complaining to her friend that "they must be burning garbage down there", pointing in the direction of Star Lunch. Apparently the wind must have been just right, because Star Lunch is a full block down the hill from Grant and closer to Kearny.
Truthfully, I was too apprehensive went I visited Star Lunch last Friday to actually try the tofu. I only wanted to dip my toes in the stink pool, not dive head first. Also, I wasn't even sure they would be serving it, especially after hearing rumors that they only serve it "off hours". Of course, this begs the logical question: "why would you subject yourself to the overwhelming aroma of stinky tofu and not eat the stinky tofu?" This would assume you were asking a logical person, not me.
As I walked in, I immediately sat myself at the counter on a stool closest to the door...if you get my drift, or whiff, or, you know! Right away, I knew stinky tofu service was now in session. All preside that horrible smell. Unbeknownst to me, this is also where most of the cooking action goes on. Doh!
Before I get too far, let me describe the place for you. Star Lunch consist only of an old-school lunch counter that fits about 15 diners, and the restaurant size is roughly 9' x 20'. On the counter, at the front, sits an antique cash register (probably original), and behind that is the cooking station consisting of a stove with large cast iron pots full of grease; beside that is the stove with the cast iron wok. Over the wok is a drippy faucet , and to the left of that is another food station on which sits a variety of sauce containers and rice. Sitting near the front, one is literally 3 feet from popping grease, and within arm distance of touching the cook.
Later I learn that, upon arriving at Star Lunch, one should sit in the middle of the counter so that one isn't too close to the cook or too close to the bathrooms in the back. Make a note.
A little bit of history: Star Lunch originally was owned by a Filipino couple named Primo and Ruth who served some of the best Filipino food (especially boiled beef) in what was once a 2 square block area called Manilatown. With the ugly onlslaught of development led by that monster (my opinion) Justin Herman, most of the Filipinos were forced out of the area to make way for expansion of the Financial district, mostly notably culminating in the I-Hotel eviction and riots. Around the same time, in the late 70's/early 80's, Primo and Ruth sold the Star Lunch which was eventually transformed into a Shanghainese restaurant. Leland Wong, who is a treasure trove of information and history, shared some of his memories of Star Lunch with me and graciously allowed me to use his photo (above) of Primo and Ruth. I highly suggest you visit his site and/or contact him for information. (Note: Check out his Photojournalism page for awesome photos!)
Back to the modern-day Star Lunch:
The cook is a skinny old man with a full head of hair that is two-toned black with faded patches of red in the back. He wears a crusty apron around his waist and is constantly speaking in a loud voice (in that loud, going senile/hard of hearing way) to the young woman who is his assistant or daughter or hell, who knows, maybe wife? The young woman is nice and speaks limited English, but her eyes sort of bug out at you like maybe she saw "The Ring" and didn't die after that 7th day. Or perhaps she suffers from a degenerative disease brought on by the mysterious ingredients used to make the tofu stinky. Anything's possible.
As I sat at the counter, I realized that one perk is that you could watch the cook perform and prepare the various dishes. Five seconds later I realized that no, this was not a perk. In fact, a perk would be not to watch – at all. There is a saying that goes "where the eye seeth not, the tender heart is spared." At Star Lunch, this also applies to the stomach. In fact, try not to look at anything. Instead, face the wall, with your eyes forward, and imagine you are somewhere else. Some place exotic, yet oddly, stinky.
Picking up the greasy menu, I ordered the pork chops over rice which, interestingly enough, tasted like the stinky tofu smelled. How it could be possible to eat anything there and not taste the tofu seems incomprehensible to me.
At Star Lunch, the stinky tofu is called Spicy Bean Curd and is served Shanghai-style (in cubes) rather than Taiwanese-style (in triangles, with sauce poured over).
Stinky tofu is also traditionally served with a hot chili sauce.
There were other dishes being served - huge mounds of fried noodles, etc. - but mainly my fascination was watching the cook pull out blocks of tofu and dip them into the hot oil.
Upon entering the deep fryer, the tofu would let off it's bouquet. Yes, the smell is truly bad. Hard to describe, really, because there's nothing I can think of off-hand to compare it to. Since I haven't eaten stinky tofu YET (the day is coming), I can't confirm if the tofu tastes like it smells, and I have heard differing opinions. Something tells me that anything that smells that strong must have some residual stinky flavor, yeah?
Sitting there scooping uneventful rice in my mouth mixed with the Star Lunch mystery sauce and watching the other diners eat, I couldn't help but notice the mannerisms of the other diners. This was not a jovial crowd. In fact, they seemed to sort of shift uneasily in their seats. I got the impression that some were indulging in a guilty pleasure and worried of what others might think. This is not, after all, Chinatown's most popular denizen. In fact, I can imagine Chinese kids playing the dozens and spitting out clever snaps like "yo mama stank so bad, her middle name is Star Lunch".
Passing through Star Lunch's narrow door to the outside world of Jackson and Kearny, I was hit with the most refreshing breath of air I have ever had in Chinatown. It was like drinking from a clear, cool, mountain spring. Perhaps this is the real euphoric phenomenon of stinky tofu; the after-breath. Not that I couldn't shake the essence of stinky tofu from my nostrils for the rest of the day, mind you. Perhaps next time I'll stick my face over a pot of boiling water and eucalyptus oil.
Or maybe I'll just immerse my whole head in it.