Road Trip 2010- Day Two

Father’s Day Brunch in Chinatown, San Francisco

Dim Sum

The question of the morning: Should we go to the place with the best food or should we go for the most genuine 'Dim Sum' experience?

Only time would tell. We read reviews and blogs online about various places- most of which were not in Chinatown- but we wanted to be in the magic of Chinatown.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in America and has many nostalgic remnants. Along with its Maltese Falcon, Dirty Harry, Fire of ’06 and Barbary Coast romanticism, San Francisco has a love affair with its old Chinatown.

I love it, and wanted my sons to experience it through my old Charlie Chan experienced eyes.

After pondering the validity of the internet reviews we decided upon a place call Hang Ah Dim Sum and Tea Room. It opened in 1920 and, according to the many spirited readers in Chow Hound, was the most was “authentic” of the Chinatown Dim Sum houses.
Okay- Hang Ah Dim Sum here we come!

Oh-no-- we were still on East Coast time and we arrived early-- 9 in the morning! I know Dim Sum is a brunch of sorts, but nobody opened until 10 and, as we discovered later, nobody really started rocking until noon. We left the Hilton with our bags and trekked the 10 steep blocks or so from O’Farrel up to to California Street.

Hang Ah is on Pagoda Place, up a steep hill and down and alley next to Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Park- what looks like a great place for babysitting kids during the day and fending off junkies at night.. When we arrived the door was wide open but the joint was dark, like a church an hour or so before mass.

There were a few middle aged Chinese men unloading a truck with bags of mungsprouts, some frozen dumplings in clear bags and other brown bags sprouting greens and other vegetation. Here come the provisions. We looked around and decided to walk around for an hour or so until they opened.

We went back down the steep, steep hill and explored the tea and ginseng shops- heady with aromas alien to my sons, but somehow familiar to my 1970s brain.

Terry led us into a real over the top, tacky gift store where I bought my wife a $12 silk kimono---she always looks killer in a kimono-- and my daughter Sidni an 'Alcatraz, Home Sweet Home' magnet.

As I was paying the vendor asked me in almost cliché broken English if Willis and Terry were my sons. He darted his eyes left and right and then secretly showed me a hand ful of fireworks and asked, “M-80 and cherry bomb for boys? They are real thing!” Really! Just for laughs
I bought a couple of packs of salutes and he discreetly wrapped them in Chinese newspaper- Awesome!

Later, we found a 'seafood house' that had bins of American and Imported Shark FIn.
When I tried to take a photo, the middle-aged Chinese woman abruptly chirped “No Picture”. What did she think that I was with PETA or something? I just wanted a little souvenir picture...

Around 9:50 we found ourselves back in the alley. The door was still open, the lights were still off.

Hang Ah is a place that is so square it is hip- so old it is new. The entrance hall has dirty black and white, almost faded sepia photos of Chinatown days past.. They are not there to be retro, they just haven't been changed. There was a collection of 'Miss Chinatown USA' candidates from 1958 along with a 1963 Chinatown Chamber of Commerce poster. Wow!

The weird feeling of the place, the silence. It was like being alone in the home of someone you barely know, and it made us wary. We decided we'd forgo the best food and go for the most genuine Dim Sum experience after all.

We left with a commitment to return later.

On Washington there was a place that looked busier...

That felt better. It was called 'New King Tin.' It was pretty dingy inside and made us wonder about the Old King Tin... It had a glossy Hong Kong BBQ window complete with a whole hanging shiny, seductive and sexy suckling pig, ducks, geese, and cuttle fish.

We were seated at a four top in the middle of the small dining room. There were maybe 12 tables, tops. There was not enough room to roll around carts, which was a slight and collective let down. But since we were starving by this time we ordered a few items from he waitress who had a single, stationary cart right next to our table.

It was only a semi-Dim Sum place -- but onward we ventured.

We ordered-

1. Shrimp Shumai - Shumai were big and puffy, obviously from frozen. They felt sort of fake and not great. They would have been a bit offensive if we were not so hungry!

2. Pork Buns - These were sweet on the outside, almost like a dessert pastry filled with red yeast rice glazed pork. It was so sweet that Terry took one bite and passed- This from the boy who, at the age of two, at my mother’s on Christmas was found hiding under the dining room table with the candy bowl full of mini krackle, Three Musketeers and Mr. Goodbars. By the time we found him the bowl was mostly crinkled, empty wrappers and he was gorged, greasy and glassy eyed. He likes sweets to a fault--and he rejected the pork buns.

3. Tofu Skin Bundles - Filled with shrimp and veggies, these had a nice, soft texture, nice aroma- but they needed the hot chile sambal to get them on their feet. I like the texture of tofu skin when it is suspended in steam for a few hours. Sort of like soft, white, boiled chicken skin, which I love unreasonably and try to resist pulling from the backs when we strain the chicken stock pots at New World.

4. Chicken Feet - These rocked! Maybe even the best I’ve had--perfectly glazed, redolent of barnyard and bean paste -sweet and musky. They were cooked perfectly and garnished with a slice of fresh jalapeno. Willie was enthralled by the succulent pad of the foot. They came four to an order and we had to order a second serving.

Next we skirted the Dim Sum offerings and went for the big stuff. I ordered a plate of suckling pig and one of BBQ octopus, which was actually cuttlefish.

The pork was as perfect as it looked in the window. The skin made such a beautiful crackling sound when crushed between my molars that I deliberately chewed with my mouth open to savor the sound. The flesh was chopped into perfectly moist and savory cubes. I’ll take a good Hong Kong BBQ sucking pig over Peking Duck any day, as long as it’s done right. This was done right!

The cuttlefish was only ok--it was nicely lacquered with the soybean paste-sugar glaze but the texture needed work.

The white body slices were pretty chewy. I like chewy cuttlefish but this missed the mark. The face cavity and the tentacles were much better and sort of popped when chewed.

With a table full of empty plates, we opted to move on and search for greener pastures. We would find the Dim Sum motherload.

Next Stop, Dim Sum Action.

We went down two doors to another monstrosity of a place called 'The Hong Kong.' When we entered the foyer there was a waiter with a Dim Sum cart waiting for an elevator. I asked him if they served Dim Sum and he pointed to a sign that said 'Dim Sum, 3rd Floor.' He got into the small service elevator and the doors closed behind him.

With anticipation we climbed the smelly carpeted stairs. As we passed the 2nd floor we looked into a doorway and saw that there was a self defense class taking place. Scary.

We got to the top floor and it was a big, out of date banquet room with 72-inch round tables with pink polyester tablecloths and absolutely nobody there. A woman shouted, "Table for 3?!" and we almost sprinted down the stairs.

We wanted the experience! This was just not happening!

But, eventually, we found the experience we were hoping for the old fashioned way.

We wandered around for another twenty minutes or so, slowly tiring and getting ready to try the Hang Ah again.

Thankfully, Terry has no self control.

He just couldn’t resist the Ninja stores and entered a big one with conviction. While he was admiring, and buying some cheesy tin Ninja stars, I asked the shopkeeper where I could find some real Dim Sum action. She directed us well.

The place was right around the corner actually- on Jackson.

The place was called 'Great Eastern' and it was almost exactly we'd been looking for. The place had two floors, had fish tanks set in the wall with dancing prawns, crabs and beautifully fresh looking catfish and best of all, tons of Chinese people, smiling, chatting and eating! The first thing I fell in love with was two little sisters dining with Dad - digging chicken feet!

The only tricky thing about 'Great Eastern' was that there was no cart service. You actually ordered your Dim Sum off of a checklist menu with an accompanying picture menu. I'd never experienced Dim Sum without carts. How did this work? Would it suck? C’mon--just hook me up already!

Okay, it was kind of weird, but guess what - It worked out great!

Here's what we ate:

1. Steamed Fish Ball with Veggies - These were the best I've had. They had a distinct flavor of leeks and cabbage. An order consisted of three bals- each about the size of a golf ball

2. Steamed Tripe in Broth - This was awesome! It wasn't honeycomb tripe but the much milder smooth tripe from the first stomach. It was tender and not the least bit gamey. We loved it.

3. Deep Fried Crab Claw in Shrimp Paste - These were also golfball sized shrimp fritters coated with panko. To set them apart, each had a dungeness crab claw sticking out. It was served with kewpie mayonnaise to which we added some chile sambal. Nice, simple fried seafood cake experience.

At this point we noticed that something interesting was being served to the table text to us. I called over the waiter and asked him to bring us an order of whatever they were. He shrugged and returned in what felt like 15 seconds with a small plate loaded with chilled, glistening beauties - Soy Sauce Duck Tongue!

They were ice cold and the size of golf tees, with a small bone extending about a quarter of the way into the root. They were FABULOUS cold! They reminded me of the tongue served in a Jewish Deli- except they were little, and they were served on a bed of boiled, soy sauce soaked peanuts. Wow!


Pork Feet with Jellyfish - This is the kind of dish that I mess around with in my kitchen but nobody ever buys. The pig feet were deboned, rolled and braised, sliced like a roulade and served cold. They were topped with a nice hairdo of shredded and marinated jellyfish- served cold. The jellyfish was almost like rubbery noodles. The flavor of jellyfish reminds me of pork anyway and in this dish, it paired perfectly with the briny foot roll.

One disappointment?

Deep Fried Pumpkin with Egg Yolk Ball - This was "a wee bit not happening," as my son said. The ball was panko crusted but hollow and chewy, as if made from taro to resemble a breaded hand ball. The yolk in he center was over-cooked, not hard cooked, but pasty, too cooked to be delicious. Dud, we all agreed.

For Dessert? Turtle Shell Jello, of course!

Huh? Yes- this is a classic Gui Lin Gao--where turtle shell is boiled for hours to release its intense gelatins. It is then cooked with rock sugar. This is very weird, but worth a try once if you think you’d like RC COLA jello...

At this point we were stuffed---Dim Sum was a success!


Wine Country Cheap Eats...

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