By Derrick Schneider | Photos by Melissa Schneider
Most friends consider me a fearless eater and crazy cook. I order offal when it appears on a menu; I render my own lard.
So why have I avoided Oakland’s Chinatown for so long, when it lies a 10-minute walk from my home? Maybe I didn’t venture into the neighborhood around 8th and Webster because I didn’t know where to go, but shouldn’t I have explored on my own, if I were as adventurous as my friends think?
I know the real reason I walked past the restaurant windows, with mahogany-colored duck and pig carcasses hanging upside down. The shops intimidated me. I’ve studied European cuisine until it feels familiar. In Chinatown, I had no interior dictionary to connect the food for sale and the food I know. I had no map for the bright-red symbols and strange words painted across pastel menu pages. I had no guide to get me started.
“It’s not that we have one favorite place,” said Victor Gee, who showed me around the neighborhood one recent Monday morning. “We pick and choose the best dishes from a variety of restaurants.” Victor, a serious semi-retired education consultant with chiseled features and graying hair, isn’t an official tour guide. But he’s explored Chinatown’s food for 40 years or more. His wife, Rhonda Hirata, director of marketing for Jack London Square, pulled bags, napkins and utensils from the stylish black purse slung under her shoulder-length black hair and said with a quick smile, “It’ll be a very casual tour.” With that, Victor strode toward Tao Yuen Pastry (816 Franklin), “one of the better places for dim sum.”
My previous experiences with dim sum included friends flagging down servers and ordering small dishes of bite-size items from rolling carts. Tao Yuen doesn’t have carts, or even tables, but the customers are just as enthusiastic about the takeout dim sum. I stepped into the small shop behind Victor, confused by the trays of unfamiliar food and the large menu on the wall, a hodgepodge of English words (“pork buns”) and Chinese phrases imperfectly mapped to Latin letters,such as “su mi”.
“Su mi is the bellwether of a dim sum restaurant,” explained Victor as he handed me a pork meatball cupped in thin, crinkled dough. “If they can’t do this right, don’t bother with the rest.” I bit into the tender dumpling and focused on the balanced, subtle flavor of the steamed meat. “Try to arrive in the morning,” he continued, “because in the afternoon they start mixing in the leftovers, and the filling isn’t as fresh.”
He handed me the next item he had purchased, yu chi gao. “Shark fin dumpling,” Victor translated. Shark fin provides more of a texture—a firm jelly consistency—than a particular taste, but the yu chi gao has other seasonings to compensate. After I tasted a baked pork bun—a treat I now often enjoy—Victor passed me a fon gor, lightly spiced pork encased in a heavy rice noodle wrapper. The casing gave the dumpling a dense, gelatinous texture that surrounded a small lump of meat.
Ground pork was everywhere, but so were close-to-whole animals at restaurants such as Sun Hing (386 8th Street). Cooked pig carcasses hung in the window, and a tray inside the restaurant held slices of fresh roasted pork and the attached crispy skin. “You really want to come when it’s fresh,” said Victor, and I imagined him camping out across the street, watching for the cooks to bring out a pig and start carving. Then I bit into the tender pork and imagined myself standing next to him. “You can order whole pigs for parties,” he explained, and Rhonda noted that it was a common feature at celebrations. I pictured my friends’ reactions as they walked into my dining room and saw a pig, head and legs and all, splayed out in the center of the table. Perhaps I would order the smoked sausages instead, which reminded us, in taste and texture, of the Polish specialty kielbasa.
“Everyone makes more or less the same dishes,” Victor said when we started the tour. That’s true until you get to Sun Sing Pastry (382 8th Street), next door to Sun Hing’s porcine treats. The shop, small like Tao Yuen, sells rice balls and patties and other unique items: The deep-fried dollops of shrimp paste, wrapped in bacon, had all three of us extolling the virtues of hot oil and pig belly. “They even have vegetarian options,” said Rhonda, though the all-fish dumplings she included in that comment suggest more options for sushitarians than true vegetarians. Victor pointed to the yu chi gao on display and murmured to me, “Look at the edges.” Dried out and yellow, not smooth and creamy. Your senses know when something’s good and when it’s not. Look around in Chinatown and compare the dim sum from one place to the next.
As we finished the shrimp paste, we dug into the white steamed pork bun that Victor had ordered. “You can reheat these in the microwave,” said Rhonda, who often picks up boxes of these and other dumplings to bring to a friend’s house, the way I might bring bagels or doughnuts to a morning brunch. “Just don’t leave them in there too long, or they dry out.” I love steamed pork buns, and I asked what separates the good from the bad. “Not too much sauce,” said Victor, “and a good amount of meat.” In all of Victor’s recommendations, subtlety and balance reigned. A good palate serves as a good guide.
We passed by the aisle of fish tanks at Lucky Seafood Market (“Great prices on Dungeness crab when it’s in season,” they confided) on our way to the Yuen Hop Noodle Company (824 Webster). Our tour had focused on restaurants, but they wanted me to see the fresh, handmade egg noodles in the front of the store, different cuts from different regions of China. Like the fresh pasta you find at a gourmet store, these cook in just minutes. “When I was a kid,” said Victor, “the shop was really small, and they only sold noodles.” Now busy shoppers roam the aisles of a full-size store, selecting produce and 1,000-year eggs, raw eggs cured in an alkaline brine, a parallel to European charcuterie.
“Hungry for lunch?” Rhonda asked as we stopped in front of Ying Kee Restaurant (387 9th Street). “We come here for one dish,” she said as we sat down and she wiped down the plastic chopsticks with a napkin, “xui cao soup— water dogs,” she added as I looked at her blankly, “you can order the soup with other items, but you get fewer water dogs that way,” she continued. “Water dogs?” I asked. Just then the soup arrived and the translucent shrimp dumplings bobbing in the broth answered my question. “Add a bit of hot sauce and just a touch of soy sauce to your portion,” she offered, “You want to add complexity but not overwhelm the taste.” Victor pointed out the signs, taped onto the veneer walls, that advertised the specials. The signs won’t do you much good if you don’t read Chinese, but my hosts ordered a dish that proved to be slices of pumpkin deep-fried in the same batter used for salt-and-pepper shrimp. The spicy, crunchy crust enveloped a tender piece of bright yellow-orange squash. As they explained the components in the dish, I thought about reproducing the dish at home.
We finished our lunch at a communal table in Gum Kuo Restaurant, on the Franklin side of the Pacific Renaissance building at 9th Street. Cooks carted ducks and slabs of ribs from the back kitchen, but my hosts ordered the jook, a piping-hot rice porridge that’s been cooked so long the individual grains are more sensations in the mouth than physical presences in the broth. “They cook it to order,” explained Victor as he dunked fried bread pieces into his bowl and let them sop up the creamy almost-liquid. “Not the jook itself, but when you order chicken jook, they add the raw chicken and cook it in the porridge.” The result is tender bites of chicken mixed into the hot silky porridge. Diners all around us put spoon to jook, but Victor paused to tell me about the soy sauce chicken. “When it’s fresh in the morning,” he told me, “it’s the best there is. The meat has a jelly-like quality, and the soy seasoning is just right.” I made a note to stop in on my way to work someday.
I haven’t quite conquered my fear of Chinatown, but I dip in often, on weekends or whenever I find myself nearby. I look forward to a bowl of silky jook, and I snack on baked pork buns.
Remember to get there when it’s fresh, but you might be fighting Victor and me in line. •