Maybe one of the best things about moving away from San Francisco has been the opportunity to become a visitor there again, with license and plenty of background knowledge. Work – and play – have already taken me back several times in the 10 months since we left the Bay and so I haven’t had to say goodbye to my favorite places, parts, people or things about the City. In fact, if anything, I’ve had the opportunity to visit them all the more often. The more I go back, the less like a “tourist” I feel, and the more I feel that San Francisco as a City is becoming my long-time friend. I learn more about this place on each visit, and I see – and appreciate – each neighborhood in a different light when I’m not thinking about its relative proximity to my neighborhood, just what a hassle parking may be in those specific blocks.
I didn’t spend much time in Chinatown while I was living in the Bay, but I spent several days on my trip last week puttering through its streets at the request of a friend whom insisted that I do some “pastry research” there. There is really no better way to explore a city or spend a day than doing “pastry research and so I took his good suggestions and disappeared into the folds of this largest Chinatown outside of Asia. I tasted sweet pancakes and steamed buns, moon cakes, coconut cakes, egg custards and mochi creams. I watched majong games, witnessed tai chi, listened to conversations, and shared smiles with passers-by. I played pointy-talky with market merchants selling all manners of dried mushrooms, berries, and shellfish, emerging at the end of those days a well-fed, enlightened chef excited to play with rice flour. And, and ex-Californian whom felt a bit bad about not taking more time to explore this gem of San Francisco before.
As I unpacked my suitcase, I found a few great souvenirs. The pictures you see here, a new book on dim sum , a handful of fortunes from crumbled cookies in the bottom of my new tote bag, a lot of pastries to nibble on back at home, and this little list of pastry shops and eateries to recommend to you all when you next want an adventure in San Francisco. I should mention, of course, that pastry in Chinatown isn’t the same as other pastries you might enjoy in other parts of the city. First off, a steamed bun will cost you $1.25, not $4.00 like all that fancy toast that I also went gaga over. Most of the pastries in Chinatown are traditionally made, by hand, many made from rice flour. The fillings are less sweet, and sometimes downright savory. The textures will surprise you. The flavors will too. And those that sell them will be most proud, and never snooty when passing a warm, sesame-seed-speckled-something over the counter.
If I could plan out a perfect Chinatown adventure for you, I’d tell you to find yourself arriving at the Chinatown Gate on Grant + Bush Streets around 10am on a weekday, when things start to open. You’d spend a couple of hours wandering aimlessly, before big market + tourism hours kick in, and maybe in time to have lunch at one of the more modern spots along Clay Street. (This looked particularly good, actually!) You’d spend those hours wandering, checking things out. Maybe tasting some tea, scooping up pastries before going to eat + people watch in Portsmouth Square. Here are the best bakeries in Chinatown:
- Eastern Bakery: if you enter Chinatown from the main gate, this will be one of the first bakeries you pass, and one of the oldest as well. I was completely lured in by the photographs of family in the windows, and captivated by the offering in the pastry case. Their moon cakes, lotus buns, and sesame doughnuts are particularly good. 720 Grant Avenue
- Golden Gate Bakery: better known than Eastern, but with a less impressive offering, this little spot is so small, the line forms out the door so you’ll see it’s the place to be as you’re walking down the street. Their egg and coconut custards are particularly good. Be sure to know what you want when you get to the counter and bring cash. 1029 Grant Avenue
- Ana Bakery: this was the last bakery I visited, and my favorite. They have several traditional pastries (sticky steamed rice cakes w/coconut, and steamed rice buns) that the other bakeries didn’t have. They also offer lunch, and are happy to speak with you about how they make anything on their menu in rather good, enthusiastic English. 715 Clay Street
- Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory: this little stop, merely a tuck into Ross Alley, is truly a must see. Here, tucked inside a storefront on tiny Ross Alley, some 20,000 fortune cookies a day are handmade by two women, each manning a conveyor belt of what look like miniature waffle irons. The factory opened in August 1962, and though there are other fortune cookie bakeries in the city, this is the only one where the cookies are still made by hand, the old-fashioned way. Take a picture, buy a little bag of fortune cookies with your pocket change, and give them a smile. 56 Ross Alley
Do you have any special favorite places to visit in Chinatown? I’d love to hear them — I won’t wait for an excuse to wander the streets lined with 1920’s lanterns, listening to the twang of guzheng strings!