It's a beautiful thing when strangers come together on the street to devour warm pork buns in a downpour. Last Saturday, I braved the rain with Savor Oakland Food Tours and a few kindred spirits for a three-hour walking tour of Oakland Chinatown. The husband-and-wife team launched about two years ago, and have been charming locals and tourists alike with a winning formula that combines historical narrative and cultural context to explore Oakland and its food.
Here are just a few of the things I learned:
1. A perfect pork bun dough-to-pork ratio can be found at Tao Yuen Pastry.
There was an optional pit stop on the tour for pork buns or sesame balls. (We'd just finished two meals and had two yet to go, but no one turned them down.) The baked cha siu bao were fresh out of the oven and stuffed with sweet, syrupy BBQ pork. Tao Yuen has more than just dim sum, and it's earned a reputation as one of the best grab-your-dumplings-and-go spots in the neighborhood.
2. The fortune-cookie-folding machine was invented in Oakland.
We have Cal graduate Shuck Yee to thank for making widespread fortune cookie consumption possible. You can see a machine in action at Tom's Bakery, but there are a few house rules: no crossing the red line into the production area and no photography. The last thing they need is for someone tip off the technology and make quinoa-blueberry fortune cookies with annoying affirmations in them.
3. Natural Vegetarian Restaurant's veggie sesame chicken really does taste just like chicken.
While the name of the restaurant ain't keeping anyone guessing, the veggie sesame chicken actually might. Meat substitutes like tofu and wheat gluten are produced in-house here, the latter made by washing wheat flour dough until all the starch has been removed. The fried strips of wheat gluten are crispy, citrusy, and might even hold up better than chicken.
4. Banh Cuon Tay Ho sources vegetables from local farms, and uses Oakland roaster Bicycle Coffee for their Vietnamese coffee.
A chalkboard reading "Get Your Drink On," local wine and beer, and a coral fixie hanging on the wall were indicative that this isn't your run-of-the-mill Vietnamese restaurant. Avid cyclist Denise Huynh runs operations while her mother puts out an intriguing range of regional dishes in the kitchen.
5. Guilin Rice Noodles are a rare find stateside.
Guilin noodles have been a Chinese breakfast staple since the Qin dynasty, 2200 years ago, but this regional dish is rarely found outside of China. At Classic Guilin Rice Noodles the thick rice noodles are slippery and come with a cloudy, bland beef broth, but the toppings make up for it. Laminated signs on the wall bear instructions on how to eat your bowl of noodles properly, but I suggest mixing the thin slices of beef and pork, pickled long beans, roasted peanuts, and some spicy table condiments before adding a few spoons of broth into the noodles.
Tours of Chinatown are offered every other Saturday for $59 per person, and the original Savor tour of Jack London Square runs more frequently for $49.