Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown

I know New Yorkers like to think they’ve got the world’s best Chinatown. Of course, New Yorkers think they’ve got the world’s best everything. They even like to think Nobu Matsuhisa and Thomas Keller are New York chefs.

Chinatown, San Francisco

I’ve never been to New York’s Chinatown. I’m a true native Californian. Which means I was born hating the Yankees, and ironically subscribe to a decidedly New Yorker-esque kind of regionalism in which I believe California has the best everything. You southerners ever tried Santa Maria barbecue??

With more than double the Chinese population of New York, I feel it fair to declare that California is the better destination for Chinatowns. Plus, we’re 3,000 miles closer to China — that’s gotta count for something, right? However, regionalism in California can be further cleaved into Northern regionalism and Southern regionalism. People get killed over the Dodgers-Giants rivalry. Personally, I like both cities — San Francisco is a better “city”, such as the traditional definition goes. There are charming buildings and unique neighborhoods, beautiful parks and cathedrals, you can walk from one end of the city to the other in an afternoon. It’s a great city for an espresso at a sidewalk Italian café or a steamed crab and cold Anchor Steam in an old brick pub near a wharf. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is less a traditional “city” than a large urban experiment. It’s as if someone dropped handfuls of smaller cities from an airplane and they splattered across 500 square miles. Crowded, jumbled metropolitan clusters give way to airy residential burbs, which in turn transition into gritty barrios, and the resulting tensions produce an exciting cultural vibrancy you won’t find in a quaint jewel box like San Francisco. I met a Native Angeleno girl recently who looked appropriately exotic and claimed Jewish, black, Hawaiian, Japanese and Mexican ancestry. It’s that kinda town. (Note: to be fair, there are other cities in California; I hear San Jose has a good Chinatown, too.)

All of which got me to thinking, after a recent stay in San Francisco, about which city had the better Chinatown. San Francisco is the hand’s-down obvious choice — it’s world famous, pedestrian friendly, postcard-pretty and historic; cable cars come rattling through every few minutes; the Transamerica pyramid and Coit Tower frame its skyline; at one end is North Beach, the famous Chinatown gate and Union Square at the other. Ask anyone who knows what the best dim sum in San Francisco is, and they’ll say Yank Sing (which isn’t even in Chinatown). Last year when we visited Yank Sing, we took my mother and her boyfriend. The napkins were pressed, the dim sum was fancy and pretty good, and it cost $120 for four of us and a couple kids. Not exactly what I’m looking for in a dim sum experience.

This year on our San Francisco holiday trip, while wife and baby were resting in the hotel, I strolled through the Stockton tunnel with Flynn and Willa to upper Chinatown, where there are fewer knick-knacks and more markets. Willa held her nose as I dragged the kids in and out of crowded, pungent stores where tiny pushy women shopped for dried sea cucumbers and bitter melons. On the way back, I held Willa up to look through the window of a little café where an elderly Chinese lady was making dumplings. She waved us in, and $5.60 later, we were stuffed with dim sum and had a heavy bag of leftovers to take back to the girls. I have no idea what the name of the place was, if it even had one. When I asked her if I could have some to-go boxes, she said “No!” and handed me a plastic bag. Exactly what I’m looking for in a dim sum experience.

Flynn, Willa and their dumplings

Yes, when it comes to charm and walkability, San Francisco wins. But when it comes to food, I invite you to come experience our Chinatown. Where the Chinese markets are the size of Costcos and the dim sum palaces fit a thousand people and serve hundreds of different dumplings the likes of which the folks at Yank Sing have never even heard of. And if you want to eat like the people in China really do (which left my poor sister Andrea with post-traumatic stress disorder when she visited and dined in China), you must continue another 10 miles inland to Monterey Park.

What is Monterey Park? my non-Angeleno friends may ask. It is the city with the highest percentage of Chinese residents in the U.S., at 47%. Beyond the usual kung pao and orange chicken, you’ll find dishes redolent of the bamboo and mushrooms of the Huangshan Mountains region, the crystal pork heels and crab shell meatballs of Jiangsu cuisine, and hot pots seared with the curious tingle of the real Sichuan peppercorn — illegal in this country until recently. Yes friends, if you don’t care about back scratchers and pop guns and chirping porcelain crickets, and aren’t intimidated by menus with no English, this is the best Chinatown of them all.

And which city exactly was I talking about when I started all this??

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andy
    Dec 02, 2011 @ 00:23:36

    Great writing as usual, dude. Amazing how much Flynn and Willa look alike. Look at their noses in that photo!


  2. Lisa Gaskin
    Dec 02, 2011 @ 02:16:03

    Wow…I see that…Flynn has the center ridge but WOW the shape IS the same…Flynn is VERY Cleall….Willa I think is very Leslie but I don’t know enough of that background to be sure…BEAUTIFUL for one 😉

    Sean, I accidentally drove as a passenger through Monterey Park recently…I was so surprised to see that it was SOO Chinese! I had to go to Cal State L.A. for a diagnostic evaluation of an autistic student at the school where I work…anyway…the teacher is Mormon and speaks Chinese and is very identified with the Chinese ethnicity…it was really interesting to have him as the driver…

    Monterey Park USED to be primarily white and Italian elderly…how neighborhoods change!!


  3. Mom
    Dec 02, 2011 @ 19:18:19

    I had my first dim sum in LA 35 years ago. A friend who had lived for years in Hong Kong knew exactly where to go. When I got to Hong kong many years later I realized how authentic it had been and clost to free.
    Honolulu has a fun Chinatown, much smaller that either LA or SF But regionally fun.


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