(Here's part two of travelin' woman Kristy Yang's Walk the Really Long Wok from the Bay Area. Coming up shortly, something about Asian food closer to home. Check out last week's California Wok here.)
San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia; established in the mid-1800s, it's also the oldest one of its kind in North America. Its earliest settlers were from Guangdong, a southern province in China, and many ended up working on building our railroads. "Officially," the city of San Francisco granted a part of the land to these early Chinese in order for them to establish a neighborhood; however, the truth is that this was only the beginning of years of enforced segregation and racial tension to come.
Drought, backbreaking factory labor, overcrowding and the Cultural Revolution would result in an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong in the 1960's. The irony is they would be entering an even more crowded situation in San Francisco's Chinatown, as it was fast becoming one of the densest neighborhoods in the region.
Today, about two-thirds of the city's Chinese population is crowded into its two major streets, Grant and Stockton, and all their little alleyways. It's crammed, but this is why I've always loved San Francisco's Chinatown. The neighborhood may be overcrowded and it may be considered one of the lowest socio-economic areas of the city, but it's both impeccably clean and safe. Granted, like in any major metropolis, I wouldn't go roaming around at night, but getting lost through one of the myriads of alleys and discovering all the hidden culture during the daylight is one of the most fulfilling things to do in the city.
On my recent visit, however, there was no time for Arcadian drifting. When the boyfriend and I set out to San Francisco last week, we had two absolute "musts" on our list: crab and Chinese. We decided to knock both off from our list in one fell swoop at R&G Lounge.
Sitting on the outer-Chinatown corner of Kearny and Commercial, the restaurant is a mere few blocks from the business district. This should have been a tip-off that I was about to spend the most bucks I've ever paid for a meal in Chinatown. Though the restaurant seemed small and serene on the outside, we entered to a din of hungry, waiting parties; speed-walking waiters; and busy, multitasking hostesses.
It was only 4 p.m., so we considered that a good sign. Since our party was small, we were quickly ushered into the already-packed basement dining room.
R&G specializes in Cantonese and is famous for its huge salt and pepper crab. The crustacean is a simple, yet debauched, platter of riches. A live Dungeness crab is battered, deep fried, then seasoned with salt and pepper to hot and greasy decadence. Outside of dim sum, it's the most distinctive signature dish associated with SF's Chinatown.
After our dinner of crab, Peking duck, steamed tofu in soy sauce, Cantonese fried noodles, and server-recommended stir fried dandelion leaves (trend alert!), we took the touristy route to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Co.
The famed cookie factory is deceivingly inconspicuous despite its grand tradition. Tucked away in Ross Alley, the three or four workers in the one-roomed small and tight space were still hard at work on a Sunday evening. When they saw us curiously looking into the open front door, they all simultaneously greeted us and invited us in for a peek. I'm both surprised and not so surprised at this place. The company has been in operation since the 1960s, providing fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants across the country. Yet, there's only one machine rolling out the cookies, one person at a time sitting at the machine, removing the flattened cookie from the hot metal roller and quickly forming the cookies into its signature shape before it cools and hardens. This is how it's been done for 50 years. It's an incredible exemplification of the Chinese work ethic.
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Everyone at the Golden Gate Cookie Co. is friendly and gracious, doling out free cookies and allowing photographs to be taken, but they will kick you out (politely, of course) after a while because they've got some cookies to make. On the way out, one can buy souvenirs ranging from bags of regular and chocolate-flavored fortune cookie to sesame biscuits. They may be an American invention, but what's more appropriate than ending a day in our country's most historic Chinatown with a fortune cookie?
R&G Lounge 631 Kearny St., San Francisco
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory 56 Ross Alley, San Francisco