Sunday, December 4, 2016

36 Hours in The Bay Area

Though the ostensible reason for flying up to San Francisco was for a football game, this was really an eating trip. Landing a little after 9am Saturday, first stop was iCafe on Waverly Place in Chinatown for the poor man’s giant crispy top bbq pork bun for only $1.35.  This compares to the admittedly better but much smaller versions which you can get at some of the dim sum houses for $5 for an order of three.  I then headed to one of the two full service Chinese restaurants that had opened in Chinatown since my last visit, Hanlin Tea Restaurant.  I had their boneless fried chicken, kind of a cross between a chicken nugget and a chicken strip, with a very crunchy batter.  It was similar to something I remember eating a long time ago, and my best guess is that it resembled cracker meal. 

While it stopped raining before I landed, it started to rain lightly when I got in the car to drive to Berkeley around 12:30pm.   I would get lunch first at the Pacific East Mall in Richmond, where I knew there was at least one restaurant I hadn’t tried, Sichuan Fusion.    It rained fairly hard part of the way to Richmond, so I decided on a leisurely lunch in the mall and wait for the rain to break.  I had the tofu with crab and egg yolk, which I had only previously eaten as a dish with gravy.  This was actually a soup dish, and the large tureen contained about six bowls worth, which I struggled to finish.  When I finished lunch I left the mall to find the sun shining. However as soon as I started on the short drive from Richmond to Berkeley the skies darkened and it started to rain again.  Fortunately, by the time I got to Berkeley the rain stopped and once again the skies lightened.  For some reason I stopped by 85 Degrees on Shattuck to have something to eat later in the afternoon.  With so many branches of 85 Degrees in Los Angeles,  I don't know why I went there instead of something local.  I guess old habits are tough to break.

Driving back from Berkeley to the city after the game was pretty much bumper to bumper the whole way and took well over an hour.  Actually I didn't mind because in recent years my night vision has deteriorated and I was apprehensive about driving at night so far away from home.  But with traffic creeping along there was no problem  After the long drive back to Chinatown, I headed to Chong Qing Xiao Mein.   I had the Guilin rice noodle soup with stew meat and peanuts, and it was very good. 

The main reason I went up north was to try Hong Kong Lounge II, to compare its crispy bbq pork with Hong Kong Lounge 1, Lai Hong Lounge and Dragon Beaux.  While Chinese food in Los Angeles is clearly better than San Francisco, the crispy bbq pork bun, made famous by Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, isn't available in Los Angeles except at Golden Valley in City of Industry.   Hong Kong Lounge II, Hong Kong Lounge I, and Lai Hong Lounge, were all once commonly owned, and consequently have very similar crispy pork buns.  However, the ownership of all three have since been separated.  Hong Kong II is the smallest of the three, and if it was the best of the bunch as some observers have indicated, I was worried that I might have trouble getting into the restaurant, particularly since I’ve seen the problem you have (i.e., an hour’s wait) if you miss the first seating at Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown.  So with a 9:30am opening time, I was dismayed that I couldn’t get out and over there until 9:15am.  However I was surprised to see when I drove by that there were only a handful of people waiting in line.

Needless to say I went wild at Hong Kong Lounge 2, spending $50 on two orders of crispy pork buns, plus also their famous coffee pork ribs, fish cheung fun, pea leaf and chicken dumplings and chicken potstickers.  My verdict?  Dragon Beaux, part of the Koi Palace group, still had the best crispy bun, followed by Hong Kong 1, Lai Hong Lounge, and then Hong Kong 2.  The Hong Kong 2 crispy bun wasn’t as crisp and was a little too sweet for my taste.  The coffee ribs were very good and very interesting, but since I’m not partial to the taste of coffee I wouldn’t order it again.  The pea leaf dumpling was ordinary and the fish cheung fun was OK.  The chicken potsticker was very good, one of the best I’ve eaten, but for $7 for five small potstickers, the value is lacking.  But I’m so happy to have tried all of these places.  The big surprise about Hong Kong 2 was that there was not the huge crowds I had imagined.  It didn’t fill for perhaps 20 minutes after opening, and even when I left around 10:30am, an hour after opening, there were only a handful of people waiting to get in.  (In contrast, when I walked by Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown a couple of hours later, there was a mob waiting to get in.)  Not sure what the reason is.  Perhaps it’s too pricey, or perhaps it’s a little further east of where the Chinese live in the Richmond district.

I then headed back to Chinatown where I did a last sweep around just to make sure there weren’t any new restaurants I had missed.  I then drove out to the Sunset district, on the way passing Hong Kong Lounge 2 again and still seeing only a small group of people waiting to get in.  My target was a place called i Wonton, but when I got there I couldn’t find it.  Checking my Blackberry I saw it was closed.  At first my plan B was to stop for a regular baked bbq pork bun at a nearby places called Donut House, which supposedly had one of the best versions around.  It was good, but the truth is there are a lot of good places for that item in San Francisco.  At that point it occurred to me that I was near San Francisco State University and I vaguely recalled that an authentic Sichuan restaurant had opened up in a shopping center near campus, part of the trend I’ve written about how the current crop of Mainland Chinese students have spawned new Chinese restaurants near campuses all over the country.  I had assumed the restaurant was in the Stonestown shopping center, but when I got there I saw it was too upscale (Macy’s etc.) to be the right place.  Though I didn’t remember the name of the restaurant I Googled the right details to pull it up and found that it was a half a mile away  on a side street in a residential area near the SFSU campus.   I ordered the pepper salt fish at Fang Yuen which was pretty good and made for a nice dinner at the airport.

All in all this was a very enjoyable trip. My room at the Royal Pacific was only $96, parking included, but an extra $15 in taxes, compared to as much as $240 when staying there during prime convention time.  So this was the perfect weekend to come up to San Francisco, especially with a beautiful sunny Sunday after the rainy Saturday.