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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lessons For How to Eat in Chinatown, From a Pro at Wok Wiz

Posted By on Wed, Jul 29, 2015 at 11:00 AM

With so many delicious things to eat in Chinatown, it's tough to know where to start. - PHOTO BY JESSICA FENDER
  • Photo by Jessica Fender
  • With so many delicious things to eat in Chinatown, it's tough to know where to start.

“I don’t want to fill you up too much. We’re having lunch in about an hour,” cautions Frank Jang as we near the end of our meal at the cacophonous Imperial Palace in San Francisco. He switches briefly to Chinese to call out one last order (beef noodle) and, seconds later, urges us to “finish it up! Take the whole thing.”

It’s a Wednesday morning, and Jang has just started leading our group of four on Wok Wiz's 3.5 hour “I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown” Tour.

Hanzi characters leap from restaurant marquees and menus. Tantalizing cooking smells waft street-ward from obscure sub-level basements. Poker-faced buns (what’s hiding in there?!) dazzle from behind glass windows. As a monoglot, I’m glad to have a Chinatown native and fellow food lover along to translate the roughly 20-block neighborhood’s culinary scene. 

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Drink of the Week: Sipping Like Our Forefathers at the Hancock Room

Posted By on Fri, Mar 8, 2013 at 10:05 AM

LOU BUSTAMANTE
  • Lou Bustamante
The rabid nature of modern politics, with its zealous "with us or against us" rhetoric, and increasing complexity that requires studious investments simply to decipher any true agendas, has sadly made patriotism a divisive political sentiment. Perhaps this is the reason for the recent popularity of American history movies referencing past political heroes like Lincoln (ironically pivotal to the most politically divided time in our nation's history)--as repositories of our national pride. Those political heroes, no matter our voting preferences, are the union points where we can agree to feel patriotic.

In some ways, that is part of the appeal of the Hancock Room, a bar themed with decorations, drinks, and images of the founding fathers; it offers a sanctuary to celebrate that collective pride with cocktails and, at least a few moments, asks you to check your politics at the door and agree on one thing: cocktails are delicious.

See also: Drink of the Week: The Viceroy at Cantina

Drink of the Week: Seduced by the Moroccan Cosmopolitan at OneUp

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Drink of the Week: Sutton & Celery at Cotogna

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 12:15 PM

LOU BUSTAMANTE
  • Lou Bustamante

The idea for creating a new cocktail can come from some unlikely places. For Cotogna bar manager Jason "Buffalo" LoGrasso, it was the classic peanut butter on celery stick afterschool snack that inspired a new aperitivo cocktail, the Sutton & Celery ($10, Sutton Cellars Brown Label Vermouth, Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray celery soda, Small Hand Foods Orgeat).

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Drink of the Week: Chinese Mai Tai at Li Po Lounge

Posted By on Fri, May 11, 2012 at 12:00 PM

LOU BUSTAMANTE
  • Lou Bustamante
"Feel pretty good. I'm not, uh, I'm not scared at all. I just feel kind of ... feel kind of invincible." -- Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China

The infinite mulitverses concept was developed to mathematically reconcile both quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of relativity, but I like to think it may help solve other baffling mysteries. Like why silver and turquoise jewelry looks so good only in the high desert state of New Mexico, why it feels right to wear loud floral shirts in Hawaii, or why spontaneously marrying someone random in Las Vegas is apparently a fun and compelling thing to do.

The answer is that all these locations are simply little portals to alternate multiverses, indistinguishable from ours save for a few small rules.

Add the Li Po Cocktail Lounge and their Chinese Mai Tai ($9, Whaler's Rum, Castillo Light Rum, Bacardi 151 Rum, "Chinese liqueur," pineapple juice) to that list of mysterious portal locations and "up is down" situations.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Utopia Cafe Is Where You Go for Clay Pots

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 2:55 PM

Clay pot rice from Utopia. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Clay pot rice from Utopia.

​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

There is a particular shade of teal that I'm beginning to associate with Rice Plate Journal food shots. It's the color of the tables at Utopia Cafe, Lucky Creation, and a couple of other places I've visited. And at Utopia Cafe, just a few doors off Washington on Waverly Place, the blue-green tables stand out against lemon-yellow walls decorated with pink menus -- an Easter basket of a room.



On every one of the teal tables, from the square two-tops along the sides of the room to the large round tables at its center, there is at least one brown stoneware pot, set on a cork trivet blackened from its heat. Utopia Cafe's patrons may have ordered any number of Cantonese stir-fried dishes and stews, but they're eating them with the restaurant's specialty: clay pot rice.

There are 15 varieties, all of which take 20 minutes to cook. Cuttlefish and minced pork. Spare ribs and black beans. Chinese sausage and preserved duck. All served with a few stems of baby bok choy draped over the top and a bowl of soy sauce, which you drizzle onto the rice, tinting the white grains beige and baking onto the sides of the pot, forming a dark brown crust.

On my first trip, I try the Chinese sausage and preserved duck, their salt and fat seeping down into the rice. There are two shades of sausage covering the rice: a sweeter pink lap cheong that leaves a faint taste of anise and spice on the lips, and a darker, muskier sausage with liver's metallic edge.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sam Wo Is Closing? The Heartbreak.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 11:55 AM

sam_wo_exterior.jpg

Inside Scoop just broke the news that the beloved, ancient, and wretchedly constructed Sam Wo, subject of this week's Rice Plate Journal, is closing after tomorrow night. Permanently.


What are all the late-night drinkers going to do? SFoodie was just talking to a friend who once set himself on fire during a flaming-Everclear incident up on the third floor. You'll just have to stumble farther up the street to Yuet Lee, where the food is much better; the serviceable My Canh; and the newly renamed Man Kee Cafe (last Broadway Cafe), which has a $20-for-three-dish deal. In memoriam, we present Conan O'Brien's tribute to Sam Wo:

4/25 UPDATE: According to Inside Scoop, the health, fire, and building departments have given Sam Wo's owners one more chance to remedy the problems that caused the restaurant to shut down. Will Sam Wo reopen? We can hope.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Sam Wo: Still The Most Charming Dive in Chinatown

Posted By on Mon, Apr 16, 2012 at 3:05 PM

Sam Wo's rice-noodle roll with barbecued pork. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Sam Wo's rice-noodle roll with barbecued pork.

​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

It seems strange to visit Sam Wo before midnight. In my 20s, Sam Wo was just the place you went when you had been drinking downtown and needed late-night chow fun. It's still "that place with the dumbwaiter" to tens of thousands of San Franciscans, many of whom never venture farther up the hill from Washington and Grant.

Look closely, and you get the sense that the narrow, three-story building is squashed between two other buildings, propped up between their exterior walls. You enter into the kitchen, gawk at the cooks for a few seconds, then take the steps up to the first dining room, paneled in what looks like formica, each of the tables built out of the walls and surrounded by stools. In short: dirty and adorable.

Some say Sam Wo was founded a decade before the 1906 earthquake. The place has been a magnet for non-Chinese diners since the 1950s, many of them searching out its most famous attraction, Edsel Ford Fong. As Shirley Fong-Torres wrote in The Woman Who Ate Chinatown:

Edsel ... had command of the second and third floors of the restaurant, while his brother Henry Ford Fong worked the first floor. Sam Wo's food was not its main attraction -- customers came to see and be verbally abused by Edsel. He instructed customers where to sit and what to order. He did not necessarily bring you what you ordered, which he sometimes scribbled down while smoking a cigarette. ... He was notorious for flirting with girls, rudely criticizing customers, and reminding people about tipping him.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Imperial Palace: Great People, Lousy Dim Sum

Posted By on Mon, Apr 9, 2012 at 4:00 PM

Imperial Palace's stuffed eggplant. - IMPERIAL PALACE
  • Imperial Palace
  • Imperial Palace's stuffed eggplant.

​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

All due respect to the woman who greeted us at the host podium at Imperial Palace. With her thick eyeliner, rhinestone-spangled jacket from the Michael Jackson collection, blindingly flashy rings, and multi-zippered, body-hugging pants, she belonged with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at yesterday's Hunky Jesus contest in Dolores Park. As a gay man, I was contractually obligated to be impressed.

Several seconds after she assigned us a number in line, though, she disappeared, and a man in a much less reflective suit gathered my friend and me together with three women and ushered us all to a large round table in the main dining room.

Outside the Chinese American community, Imperial Palace is better known for hosting performances of Assisted Living: The Musical and Tony & Tina's Wedding in the upstairs ballroom. The downstairs is known for budget dim sum and fading glamour: swagged curtains around the perimeter, wooden parquet aisles laid over tattered burgundy carpet, tables whose oil-spotted pink tablecloths are freshened up with white paper place mats between meals.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Number 30: Custard Buns from City View

Posted By on Tue, Apr 3, 2012 at 4:40 PM

City View's custard buns. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • City View's custard buns.

SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition


sfoodie_50_2012_logo_thumb_200x200.jpg

Regulars at City View know that there is a reason to make it there before the rush: The dim sum restaurant bakes a limited number of custard buns every day and runs out of them long before service is over. After noon, in fact, your chances of spotting a plate of them are iffy. But there's an upside to the restaurant's stinginess: The buns almost always come out to the table warm.

Because of its location, on the edge of Chinatown in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid, City View attracts more non-Chinese diners than New Asia or Great Eastern, and its selection is poorer because of it. But compared to the fare from Chinatown's other dim sum restaurants, City View's dumplings have more delicate skins, its vegetables a more defined crispness. And the custard buns, which look like a rare species of amanita -- well, SFoodie has been marveling over them for more than a decade.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

San Sun Is the Busiest Restaurant in Chinatown (And We're Not Talking People)

Posted By on Mon, Apr 2, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Pho ga from San Sun. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Pho ga from San Sun.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

San Sun moved to Las Vegas its Washington Street

location last fall after the city claimed the Chinese-Vietnamese

restaurant's former Stockton site for the new subway station. It is hard to document the awesomeness of the new location in less than 3,000 words. So many mirrors and digital displays are mounted on the walls that I didn't know how to photograph the space. Any picture I took would turn out out looking like the funhouse scene from The Lady of Shanghai or a miniature Times Square. There are several different slide shows of menu items, and one, possibly two, basketball games.

I spent the first five minutes of my meal mesmerized by the two 36-inch digital clocks, one of which depicts the time plunging repeatedly into a clear pool of water. Then I practiced seeing how far I had to crane my neck around to spy on every other person in the restaurant (answer: less than 30 degrees). Add to that Chinese New Year cutouts, glittery granite-topped tables, gaudily painted trim, and a 200-item picture menu -- simply awe-inspiring.

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