Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
As I leave Pacific behind and start moving down Jackson Street, it becomes clear Rice Plate Journal has entered a restaurant-free zone of markets, butcher shops, and bakeries. The crowds are at there thickest on this stretch of Stockton. Clusters of swollen pink bags hang from the arms of the shoppers like ballast, holding them upright as the swirling currents of bodies push them this way and that. At lunch, the markets are at their most hectic. Hundreds of us file into the stores to pick over frozen tilapia and grapes while workers push through the aisles, shouting out "Lai la! Lai la! Lai la!" as if that'll help speed their way through.
A friend and I duck out of the rain and the bodies into Wing Sing, the first dim sum shop we spy with tables. We join the line pressed up against one another and the glass cases, craning our necks to see what there is to order: rolls of steamed rice noodle flecked with dried shrimp, turnip cakes, steamer trays packed with fat dumplings and fatter steamed buns. When the server gets to us, she and I work out my order through a process of call and response, proposing words we know until the other party recognizes them: leeks vs. chives, turnip vs. tun, jook vs. rice porridge. Slowly, the tray fills up.
With each new order, the server lays another clear plastic sheet down on the tray and arranges the items on it. Finally, I follow her back around the corner, and she dishes out rice porridge into a clear pint cup, handing over plastic spoons anto eat with.
There are a half-dozen round tables at the back of Wing Sing, and we're lucky enough to find two open seats, setting down our trays amid a group of alte kakers eating rice plates smothered in tofu skins and rings of bitter melon stuffed with pork. Memories of high school cafeteria come to mind, but this appears not to be the cool kids' table, and no one pouts when we arrive. I squirt out a blob of hot sauce from a squeeze bottle onto one corner of my tray and dig in.