San Francisco is a foreign country, for God's sake. I mean, half the French and Italian restaurants in this town don't even bother to post translations on their menus. Parts of the Richmond make me feel like I accidentally took a wrong turn at the Iron Curtain. It's virtually impossible to walk into a bakery at 24th and Bryant streets and not attempt a few words of garbled high-school Spanish. And even the most xenophobic Iowan tourist somehow finds a way to communicate with a combination of hand gestures, pointing, and head nodding to get what he wants at a Chinese restaurant.
I have never been particularly nervous about bridging the language barrier -- maybe because I'm not easily humiliated, but more likely because when there's something I really want or need I always find a way to make myself clear. The luggage handler at the train station in Budapest, for instance, had no trouble understanding that my gesticulations and repeated references to goulash were a query as to the location of the nearest restroom. Necessity, my friends, is the mother of communication.
This trait (the not easily humiliated one, not the ability to find bathrooms in foreign train stations) came in handy the other day at the Shanghai Dumpling Shop out in the nether regions of the Richmond District (3319 Balboa, 387-2088). The tidy, bright little restaurant, like many in the Sunset and Richmond, caters to a non-Western crowd of neighborhood regulars. In other words, no one speaks English.
Stepping in, I felt a little like a pasty-white Q-tip in a box of lacquered chopsticks, but the cook/owner/waiter managed to get past the first awkward hurdle by smiling, pointing, and ushering me to a small table.
Then it got tricky. While I'm sure all the entries on the English menu were accurate and complete, I got the sense that the handwritten paper signs in Chinese taped to the walls were where I'd find the real goods.
I attempted to ask the owner for recommendations, only to end up playing a short-lived game of "Who's on First":
"Yes, yes ... soup."
"No, soup dumplings."
"Sure, yes, dim sum things."
This was getting me nowhere. I swiveled around to the table behind me and asked the young man to translate. A few minutes later, I was having what he was having. Shanghai soup dumplings and Beijing-style boiled chive dumplings -- 10 pieces each for $4.25. Plus, a bowl of rice-noodle soup with pork and pickled Chinese greens.
The dumplings arrived at my table piping hot, their house-made rice-flour skins glistening and plump with filling, and even though I knew better, in my eagerness I made the rookie mistake of biting hard into one of the Shanghais and scorching the roof of my mouth with a shot of boiling-hot broth. (For future reference, soup dumplings are best eaten with a ladle-style soupspoon; nibble a hole in the top, let a little of the broth out, blow on it, and then take a bite.)
I wisely let the Beijings cool a minute before dipping one into the soy vinegar and ginger dipping sauce and delicately nipping the end off. Bursts of gently seasoned pork and bright chive swirled around in the warm, subtly flavored soup before slipping down my throat. Heavenly. I looked up and saw the owner watching me. I grinned. He nodded. Nothing lost in translation.