Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chinatown, Then a Return to the Sixties

We left Yank Sing in the general area of the Ferry Building and took the cable car to Chinatown.

To walk through San Francisco's Chinatown is to touch the culture of the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America.

But a "touch" is all it is. The sounds of a different language, the music of a different culture, and the smells of a different cuisine that weave around the buildings are but a brief introduction to people with different resources designed to strive for goals common to people of all cultures.

The colorful decorations of the neighbor-hood are ever-present, and the skills of the carvers, jewelers, designers, and artists are on display in many shops.

Our short walk through the streets was all too brief.

Our next stop amounted to a short trip back in time to the 1960's.

The world-renowned San Francisco saloon, located in North Beach just across from the infamous City Lights Bookstore (below), was first established in 1948 and has remained an historical monument to jazz, poetry, art and the good life of the Beat Generation. (Flower Children will remember the tour buses, filled with passengers eager to sight "beatniks," pulling up in front of City Lights, the Beats' legacy of anti-authoritarian politics and insurgent thinking.) But it was in the equally-renown Vesuvio's that we chose to take a break between Chinese meals.

For more than 60 years, the Vesuvio Cafe, located where Columbus Avenue meets Jack Kerouac Alley, has "attracted a diverse clientele: writers, artists and actors, cab drivers and chess players, exotic dancers and seamen, business people and barflies--bon vivants from all walks of life, who have come from as close as the next street over and as far away as Mars" (Vesuvio's web page).

I tried not to look over-whelmed with the sur-roundings and tried very hard to be incon-spicuous in my picture-taking. But it was not easy, given that merely by carrying a camera, I had "TOURIST" written all over me. Looking aournd, I realized that several visits would be necessary to fully comprehend the saloon's meaning.

I thought that perhaps the philosophical writing on the wall of Vesuvio's (lower right in the photo below) would offer a starting point for this bon vivant wannabe: "When the Shadow of the grasshopper falls across the of the field mouse on green and slime grass as the red sun rises above the western horizon silhouetting a gaunt and tautly-muscled Indian warrior perched with bow and arrow cocked and aimed straight at you, it's time for another martini."

Then again, this may have been a different philosophical theme represented here.

According to one source, Vesuvio was mentioned (in conjuction with San Francisco as a whole) as one of the top ten literary destinations in the world.

As one traveller noted: "Have a beer at the Vesuvio Cafe and you might be sitting where Kerouac sat."

But, it was on to our final stop of the day.

So after a long and busy day, it was time for dinner (Didn’t we just eat lunch? Yes, we did. But that didn’t stop us from eating again.) at Barbara’s favorite restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown--Hunan Home’s. “Hunan Home's Restaurant has been a favorite among local Chinatown residents since it opened in 1983. The restaurant is owned and operated by the Yuan family, who is originally from Taiwan and has been in the restaurant business for decades….Hunan Home's Restaurant has won numerous awards for its exceptional food and service including the Golden Award for the "Best Bay Area Chinese Restaurant" in the Chinese World Journal” (from the restaurant’s web page).

Tripadvisor.com lists Hunan Home’s as the fiftieth best (of 3,069 reviewed) and the third most popular Asian restaurant in San Francisco. (The most popular--listed as number seventeen--is The House where a meal for one can cost up to $100.00.) But Barbara has been coming to Hunan Home’s since shortly after its opening, and this is where we shared a meal during our 2009 visit. So long and so often has Barbara been eating here that she was recognized and greeted at the door upon our arrival.

Not wanting to mess with a good thing, we duplicated almost exactly last year’s meal. (The one exception was the omission of an order of pot stickers, which we had just eaten at lunch.) Every time we eat at a Chinese restaurant, I am determined to experiment. But I still keep going back to my favorites. For example, the soup menu contained Sizzling Rice Soup (chicken, shrimp, and vegetable with fried golden rice crust), Wor Wonton (shrimp, chicken, barbecued pork, squid, and vegetable), Spinach and Bean Curd (bean curd in chicken broth), Chicken with Corn (ground crabmeat with cream corn and egg flower), and Seafood with Bean Curd (shrimps, scallops, and bean curd with egg flower).

But I wanted hot and sour, and an outstanding version this was--full of pork, bean curd, mushroom, bamboo shoots, and eggflower. And best yet, the soup contained the right balance of hot to sour. Too often, Chinese restaurants get the sour right, but seem afraid to be assertive when it comes to the hot.

Next we shared an order of Mu Shu Pork, the first serving for each of us prepared by our genial (for a Chinese restaurant) waiter. Using only two large spoons, he would place a thin pancake on your plate, spread a thin layer of hoisen sauce, spoon a generous helping of pork and vegetables over the sauce, and then deftly--using only the spoons--fold the pancake into a tidy package. Not only did we get a delicious entrée, we got enter-tainment. (Shown in these two photos is Chuck’s attempt to duplicate this dish using two hands.)

One of Barbara’s favorite dishes at Hunan Home’s is the Prawns with Honey Walnuts. The menu describes this dish as deep-fried prawns topped with special sauce, but that doesn’t do it justice. Large fresh and succulent prawns are perfectly cooked and then coated with a sweet, but not cloying sauce, and garnished with crispy candy coated walnuts.

And now to the dish by which I measure a Schezuan or Hunan restaurant-–spicy string beans listed on the menu here as String Bean A La Hunan. All versions begin with fresh and tender green beans, but the variations from there are endless. Hunan Home’s dry stir-fries the beans with garlic and minced pork and then lightly sauces the dish with soy and chili paste. This is my favorite Chinese dish, and should a restaurant not include it on the menu, I probably won’t be back.

Another 5.0 Addie meal. Were we tired of Chinese food after two meals within six hours? No way.


A couple of readers have said to us, "If I'd known you were going to be in a specific area, I would have passed along some suggestions about what to see or where to eat." So, since we are often writing about places we have been to 7-10 days ago, I will note our up-coming destiinations:
Sept 17 -- arrive in San Juan Bautista, CA
Oct 1 -- Paso Robles, CA
Oct 10 -- Santa Barbara, CA
Oct 15 -- Bakersfield, CA
Oct 20 -- Hemet, CA
Nov 1 -- San Diego, CA

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