How to Eat Your Way Through Chinese New Year in San Francisco
Last year I got to experience diverse culinary delights from many different Asian cultures during the traditional Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco. We went there to celebrate with Sara’s extended family. Unfortunately, her immediate family could not make it from Taiwan and China, but we did get to see almost everyone else on her mother’s side…dozens.
As individuals, Sara’s family members have many different interests and specialties. As a whole however, they only have one: food. When everyone gets together for a meal, while traveling, or just visiting, the topic of conversation over lunch is always what’s for dinner. Dinner always revolves around what tomorrow’s meals will bring. I knew ahead of time that we were in for a treat on this trip, but, once again, I was blown away by the quality of food that we were able to consume in one (three-day) weekend. If you are going to San Francisco any time soon and want some good authentic Asian food, read on…
Our first meal, lunch on Friday, was from a small, hole-in-the-wall Hong Kong style restaurant in the Sunset district of San Francisco called Cheung Hing Chinese Restaurant. We had a combination of soy-sauce chicken, duck and tofu over a bed of rice. I have really come to love this type of cooking over my years with Sara and this is one of my favorite restaurants that prepares it. No matter when you go, there will be a line, and, while you can eat it there, we never have because it is so tiny, so plan to take it away and eat elsewhere. Note that the beach is less than a mile away and if it is a nice day, it would make a great picnic.
For dinner on Friday, Sara chose to have us go to Japantown for some ramen, a traditional Japanese noodle soup. I have never been a big fan of ramen, mainly because we Americans are only exposed to the really, really cheap stuff, but when we were in Japan, we had some from Ichiran Ramen in Ueno, Tokyo and it was without a doubt the best I have ever had. Unfortunately, that doesn’t carry a lot of weight, because I, once again in case you weren’t paying attention, don’t really like it that much, but Sara and her sister Sophia also agree that it was the best in the world. That is saying something. The restaurant in San Francisco, unfortunately, was not nearly as good, but was not bad in any way. They make their own noodles and everything is very fresh and appealing to the American palate. However, I have been spoiled and am still pining for my Japanese ramen.
Saturday brought a dim sum brunch. A lot of Americans do not like dim sum because they are afraid of it. If you are unaware of what dim sum is, it is a Hong Kong style Chinese buffet that is brought to you. You typically stay seated while waiters or waitresses bring carts around the restaurant with different dishes and you can pick what you want for the table to share. You only pay for what you take. The problem is that most Americans cannot identify anything and are scared to death that they are going to end up with something like cow’s intestine (definitely possible, so be careful). To overcome this fear, you really need to go to a dim sum restaurant with someone who really knows their stuff (and whom you trust to accurately relay that information).
The first time Sara and I went to a dim sum restaurant was in San Diego (not really known for great Chinese food). One of the items that was an option was obviously chicken nuggets, but they were curiously shaped like chicken’s feet. Being of the McDonald’s generation (parts is parts), I was used to chicken being ground up and re-formed into palatable shapes, but I could not imagine why they would choose to make them look like feet. I pointed this out to Sara, who laughed at the silly white boy and said, “That’s because they ARE feet.” OK, skip the feet. One point of note, if you do choose to try the feet, Sara tells me that at the cheaper restaurants they still have the toenails on them, while the higher end places trim them.
On this dim sum trip to Koi Palace, the family decided not to wait for the carts to approach us (all the good stuff is gone), but instead to order from the menu. It was the most incredible dim sum brunch I have ever had. We had all different forms of shrimp, chicken, pork, and most of it would be outstanding to the average American taste. Don’t get me wrong, we did have a few things that were not too appealing to me: cow’s intestine and, yes, chicken feet (they actually ordered them off of the menu!). I was feeling good, however, and I agreed to try one of the feet. Well, just one of the toes, actually, and I would like to say that it was quite good. But, of course, I would be lying. It was mostly skin and fat. Also, you know how your fingers are made up of quite a few bones held together by ligaments…so are the chicken’s. You have to filter those out with your tongue and then dispose of them discretely. I will say that the toenails were clipped, though.
That night was the traditional Chinese banquet, usually a 12-course meal, made up of almost every type of food you can think of, and a few that would never occur to you (jellyfish, sea cucumber – those little slug-like things). Once again, we went to a traditional Chinese restaurant, Five Happiness. The meal had been selected beforehand, so all we had to do was wait for it to be delivered. Everything is served ‘family-style’, meaning it was all put on a large Lazy Susan and everyone took what they wanted. Even though there are twelve courses, the portions are fairly small, so it is possible to try everything. I will say that I have had jellyfish before, several times, and I do recommend it. It has a great taste and the consistency is something to be experienced, both chewy and crunchy at the same time.
The highlight of the evening was Sara discovering a new allergy: eel. She determined a few years ago that she is violently allergic to tuna. So much so that she has to carry an EpiPen with her. After eating the eel (an early course), she started getting the same feeling as she gets when she eats tuna: massive headache and a feeling she is going to pass out. Tom, husband of one of Sara’s cousins, quickly found a nearby pharmacy on his iPhone and I set off to get some Benadryl (the EpiPen was at home). Luckily, Sara is not quite so allergic to eel, so I made it back in time with the medicine and she was OK for dessert.
Since Sara has family in San Francisco, we go there often, but it is certainly a city that can be visited over and over and you will never tire of it. I think that the only U.S. cities that rival it for unique and exciting culinary destinations are New Orleans and New York. If you are planning a trip there, Chinese New Year is certainly a time of year to consider going, especially if you have some Chinese friends there that can show you the secrets.