Tag Archive | Chinatown

San Francisco IV

In mid-November, before the latest twist in the pandemic, I traveled to northern California for a friend’s wedding. (The title of this post is a reference to my actually rather frequent trips to San Francisco. This was my second trip to the Bay Area since I graduated from UCLA in 2019; by comparison, I have not yet been back to Los Angeles, except for transferring at LAX on my way to Honolulu.) After teaching on Friday morning, I drove up to the Twin Cities and caught a flight to San Francisco. I arrived late in the evening and caught a shuttle to a nearby hotel. The next morning, I picked up the first car I’d ever rented by myself and headed south. (I would like to brag that I managed to drive everywhere I wanted to go the whole weekend without GPS and without getting lost!)

Retro charm in Aptos

My destination was Aptos, a little seaside town near Santa Cruz. I visited UC Santa Cruz as a prospective grad student years ago, and the road through the wooded mountains seemed familiar. When I arrived in Aptos, I left my rental car at the hotel and set out in search of lunch. After cutting through the parking lot, labyrinth, and cemetery of the adjacent Catholic church, I discovered, in the nearby strip mall, Companion Bakeshop. I could tell by sight that their viennoiseries were good, so I went in and bought a goat cheese-arugula-pickled onion on baguette sandwich. It was excellent. I resolved to return the next day for breakfast pastries. If you ever find yourself in Aptos (or Santa Cruz), I absolutely recommend this bakery.

Almond croissant from Companion Bakeshop

Happily, I was able to check into my room early and put on my wedding-appropriate clothes (my backup plan was to change outfits in the hotel’s public restrooms). The wedding was at Sand Rock Farm, a venue tucked up in the woods. We guests arrived by shuttle. It was the wedding of a high school friend of mine: Dustin and I both went to grad school in the LA area, and we also used to meet up around the holidays in Minnesota. I was 99% sure I would be the only person from high school in attendance, and I knew the odds were low I would know anyone else at the wedding besides Dustin’s mother. This turned out to be true, but I still had a good time. During the pre-ceremony mingling, I met some of Dustin’s grad school friends. While we were standing around chatting with glasses of lemonade or iced tea, one grad school friend opposite me said, “Dog,” and I looked down to see a wolfhound pressed against my red dress. His name was Pirate.

Redwood (?) illuminated by the late afternoon sun at Sand Rock Farm

The ceremony was unique and lovely, and the rest of the evening was enjoyable. I met Dustin’s now-wife, Jiejing, for the first time. Some of the speeches over dinner made me realize just how poor my Mandarin comprehension has become. Dustin and Jiejing were very gracious hosts. I hadn’t expected to have much time to talk to Dustin, seeing as it was his wedding day and he had all sorts of family and friends in attendance, but we actually did get to talk. I enjoyed meeting some of the other guests too (did everyone work in machine learning except the veterinarian specializing in exotics?).

Flying pelican off the pier at Seacliff State Beach

The next morning, I returned to Companion Bakeshop for an almond croissant, a ham and cheese croissant, and a kouign amann. Then I walked down to Seacliff State Beach. Jiejing had recommended it, though I probably would have gone anyway. I walked out onto the pier, the end of which was closed off by a chicken-wire fence, presumably to keep humans away from the flocks of roosting cormorants and pelicans. I left the pier and walked across the sand toward the water. I watched the waves for a while; I was especially amused by the train of waterfowl swimming parallel to shore that would go bobbing over the incoming breakers like so many rubber duckies. Before leaving the beach, I ate my almond croissant for breakfast; it was scrumptious.

Over they go!

I left Aptos and drove back up to San Francisco, where I ditched my rental car and took BART to Chinatown. In St. Mary’s Square, I ate my ham and cheese croissant for lunch. It was also scrumptious. I checked out the memorial plaque to Chinese American soldiers who died in the World Wars, the Korean comfort women memorial, and the huge statue of Sun Yat-Sen.

“Comfort Women” Column of Strength, by Steven Whyte, in St. Mary’s Square

I walked up Grant Avenue, keeping an eye out for Chinese bakeries where I fully intended to buy egg tarts. After a little bit of reconnaissance, I went on to City Lights Booksellers and skulked around the basement between the children’s/YA and SFF sections until I finally settled on P. Djèlí Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums.

Justice for Vicha Ratanapakdee mural in Chinatown

After buying my book, I turned the corner back into Chinatown, ready for egg tarts. I also checked out a number of holes in the wall selling dim sum items out of huge steamers, but some of them had lines out the door, and I also didn’t want dumplings right then, and I wasn’t sure hot food would keep till my next hotel. So I just went back to Eastern Bakery for egg tarts.

Eastern Bakery in Chinatown

The bakery wasn’t open to the public; there was a man taking orders behind a plastic table set up on the sidewalk, blocking the entrance to the shop. I was a little worried when I got in line because something I heard made me think there might not be any egg tarts left, but that wasn’t the case. I asked for three, and the man told me it was four for $9, so without thinking very hard I said sure. Then he asked whether I could wait ten minutes or so for them, and I said yes. I also ordered a baked pork bun. The man told me I could sit on a nearby bench to wait for the egg tarts, so I did. While I waited, a Chinatown tour led by a white man came by; he told his group that Eastern Bakery made the best mooncakes in the world. Eventually, my egg tarts were ready; I took the paper bag with the fresh tarts hot out of the oven and went back to the bench to eat one right away. Before I was finished, the man approached me from behind and asked me if it was good. I was so startled I said something incoherent and ungrammatical. I meant to say it was good.

Waiting for egg tarts in Chinatown

I left Chinatown for Glen Park, to meet up with my friend Katherine and her toddler son Walter. We went on a walk around the neighborhood in search of interesting vehicles and then returned to their backyard to ferry pinecones from bench to flowerbed. Walter warmed up to me and even said my name, which was very cute. I had bought several egg tarts thinking I’d offer a couple to them, knowing that they might not like or want them (pandemic times being what they are). Indeed, Katherine turned them down, which meant I still had three egg tarts all for me. This was not really a problem.

Passionflower in Glen Park

After sundown, I headed further north, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Rohnert Park, where I’d booked my last hotel. I ate the pork bun for dinner. The next morning, I ate my last pastry from Aptos, the kouign amann, which I think had gotten a bit stale. Then I went to Dhammadharini Monastery in nearby Penngrove to visit my friend Kaccāyana, who as of this fall is a fully ordained bhikkhunī. We walked over to the campus of Sonoma State University and wandered back into the woods, where we sat on a fallen tree across a dry streambed and talked.

When it was getting toward lunchtime for the monastics, we returned to the monastery, and I left to go back to San Francisco. After returning my rental car, I went to investigate whether there was a food truck outside the terminal, and indeed there was! It had an extremely generic, non-descript name, but it turned out to serve Filipino and Mexican food. The cook seemed to be Filipino, and the more Filipino-oriented dishes sounded appealing, so I ordered the teriyaki chicken plate with garlic rice and lumpia. I ate it on the sidewalk; it was delicious.

My teriyaki chicken plate with garlic rice and lumpia

All in all, it was a very successful trip. I got to see one high school friend, one college friend, and one grad school friend (in order!). I feel lucky to have made it out there to see all those people. Now I expect to hunker down for the winter, and I hope that as the year comes to a close you are also safe, healthy, and warm.

Yosemite and Beyond

Next up in my Northern California trip: Yosemite! My mother and I drove there from San Francisco, stopping for lunch in Tracy. Quite by accident, we stumbled upon an Indian grocery store/restaurant called Apna Bazaar, where we ate a delicious meal. Plus there was a case full of different flavors of barfi, labeled in English and (what I think was) Hindi, and the aisles of the grocery store were full of millet flour and pickled mangoes and rusks!

The last time I was in Yosemite, I was not yet born, so this was my first real visit. We stayed in a tent cabin in Half Dome Village in the valley, and we had two full days in the park. On the first day, we walked past/through the prescribed burn in the Ahwahnee Meadow. The smoke billowing under the pines and the flames licking the earth were a rather eerie sight. Naturally, when I noticed the sign for the Yosemite Cemetery, I had to go check out every gravestone and marker. Then we went up to Glacier Point to take in the views and hiked to McGurk Meadow, where we ate wild blueberries.

sam_9176

Me and Half Dome

img_4052

“Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”

On the second day, we hiked along the shoreline of Tenaya Lake (where there were still patches of snow!). Then we went to Tuolomne Meadows and climbed Pothole Dome.

img_4091

Tenaya Lake

The following morning, we returned to San Francisco. My mother flew back to Minnesota, while I headed to San Francisco Chinatown. It was in fact the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節) that day, and I was determined to buy moon cakes. I just walked up Grant Ave., impatiently overtaking tourists and keeping my eyes peeled for a bakery amidst all the kitsch. (I must have looked like a tourist myself, pulling my little suitcase and wearing a stuffed backpack.) On one street corner, a man sat on an overturned bucket playing the erhu. I finally found Eastern Bakery and proceeded to buy three moon cakes, a 粽子, and an egg tart, which I promptly ate on the street (just the egg tart).

From Chinatown I went to Berkeley, where I was staying for the night. My friend Isabelle had told me about an exhibit by Alina Chau at a Berkeley gallery called Tr!ckster, so I decided to go see it. I hadn’t realized Tr!ckster was both a gallery and a charming comic book store. Alina Chau’s paintings were gorgeous, and there were so many intriguing and beautiful graphic novels to page through. Best of all, I was invited to an impromptu tea party with the owner, a volunteer, a young customer, and his guardian. It was a magical afternoon. Before I left, I bought Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.

img_4156

One of the paintings in the exhibit

中秋節 – Mid-Autumn Festival

Monday was the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese celebration of the harvest and the full moon. On Saturday, my roommate and I traveled to Chinatown to buy moon cakes for the occasion. We first met a friend of mine who goes to Caltech for lunch at Sam Woo, where we ate braised fish with tofu (a dish which included, to our surprise, a fair amount of pork), green beans with minced pork, and beef pan-fried noodles with pickled vegetable.

We then walked to Phoenix Bakery for the moon cakes. The bakery sells quite an assortment of pastries and confections, from French-style viennoiseries to mochi ice cream, from enormous frosted cakes covered with sliced almonds to savory buns and dim sum items. And moon cakes, of course! What’s more, they were 25% off!

They had the traditional red bean paste and lotus seed paste fillings I like, so I bought one of each, both without egg yolks inside. The moon cakes were labeled in Chinese and had quite poetic names. The lotus seed one was marked 雙鳳蓮蓉月 (shuāngfèng liánróng yuè), which means “double phoenix lotus seed paste moon.” (The character for lotus, 蓮, is in my Chinese name.) My roommate’s lotus seed moon cake with two egg yolks was labeled 雙黃 (shuānghuáng), “double yellow” instead of “double phoenix.” To my surprise, the red bean paste moon cake was labeled 玫瑰豆沙月 (méiguī dòushā yuè), which means “rugosa rose bean paste moon.” I’m not sure why a red bean moon cake is called rose. Maybe because roses can be red?

We waited until Monday, the day of the festival, to taste the moon cakes. Both the red bean and the lotus seed were very good.

Red bean paste moon cake

Red bean paste moon cake

Lotus seed paste moon cake

Lotus seed paste moon cake

Blurry inside of lotus seed paste moon cake

Blurry inside of lotus seed paste moon cake

Since I figured it would be a long time before I had another chance to visit a Chinese bakery, I bought a couple of other things too. First, a baked barbecued pork bun, which I hadn’t had in ages and which tasted exactly how I remembered.

IMG_1734

Second, a rice dumpling (粽子 – zòngzi), which the bakery called a Chinese tamale. It’s a packet of sticky rice filled with pork, Chinese sausage, a salted egg yolk, and other tidbits (I’m accustomed to mushroom and peanuts, but this one had neither and I think had mung beans), the whole thing wrapped in bamboo or lotus leaves and tied with string. Zongzi are associated with the summer Dragon Boat Festival, but I will happily eat them whenever. They are so good. My great-grandmother used to make them.

IMG_1738

Sadly, when we visited, the bakery didn’t seem to have any egg tarts, the delicious yellow custards in flaky crust that you can get at dim sum. If there had been any, I definitely would have bought one. Or several.