Tour San Francisco: Chinatown, North Beach, and the Wharf

It was time. A full day with Jae-Min, unfettered access. No work in the morning; a Saturday.

First on the agenda, a coffee in Union Square paired with a morning snack in Chinatown, One of the few neighborhoods in San Francisco that has remained fairly unfazed by the cultural shift that is changing the very fabric of this city as I type. When I moved here in ’04 (from the Peninsula, where I grew up) San Francisco’s cultural stew was a mix of contrarian’s, misfits, yuppies, progressives, hipsters and the like. Now, techies are crashing they party and they are not exactly welcome guests, having driven rents to prices that are untenable for most working class folks. While they bitch fight over who will ultimately land a two bedroom apartment for the bargain price of $7000/mo, long time city dwellers are being forced out of those very apartments to make way; gentrification on steroids. The tech industry has been great for San Francisco in a lot of ways, but the resultant cultural rape is not one of them (see again: Silicon Valley, HBO)

Chinatown, at any rate, has retained some grit. But first, a quick visit to one of the cafe kiosks in U. Square for a little caffeine, and a look at four of the many heart sculptures that can be seen in various spots around the city.


The heart project began in 2004 as a fundraising deal for San Francisco General Hospital, wherein each heart is painted by a different artist then displayed for a year. At the end of that year, the hearts are sold at auction. To date, SFGH has raised somewhere near ten million dollars with the eleven year-long project.


Our tiny little city is host to world’s largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest in North America. Grant st. is the most heavily trafficked by tourists, and while I love the charming sight of lanterns strung over and across Grant, we opted to go a little more native, taking Jae-Min to Stockton st. via the Stockton tunnel, a conduit that runs under Nob Hill.


I always enjoy walking through Stockton tunnel, listening to the odd echoes that come as traffic sounds and chatter bounce off of the walls, emerging from the darkness to suddenly find myself in Chinatown. This is one of Jake’s favorite hole in the wall stops when he is feeling peckish during a walk to or from work; Yummy Dim-Sum and Fast Food:


The usual Chinatown restaurant routine consists of us whitey uptighty’s walking into the loud buzz and hustle and bustle of folks eating their breakfast, to be met by sudden silence and a thorough stink eyeing; then, I like to imagine, some old man belches or spits, and everyone goes back to what they were doing. That last part is just my own preferred ending to the stand-off, though I swear it did end that way once at the Y Ben House (now closed. *sob*). In the smaller spots, ordering typically takes place at the counter, where steam trays await, full of delicious dumplings and buns.


We wanted Jae-Min to try a baked pork bun, a favorite of white people everywhere (in the cart places, they relentlessly push these on us, along with pot stickers, because nine times out of ten that’s what non-Asian people eating dim sum tend to order), with its sweet dough stuffed with even an even sweeter, sticky mixture of barbecue flavored char siu pork. Jae-Min swooned.


The fortune cookie’s origins are heavily disputed, but the one thing that seems to be agreed upon is that the original recipe made it to the states via Japan, after which it was adapted to its current flavor and form. However, the person who accomplished this feat is unknown, the claim coming down to a battle of “he said, he said,” one contender being a Japanese man who supposedly brought the cookie westward, selling them in Golden Gate Park’s tea garden. A real life turd of a fortune cookie factory (the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory) is in operation over on Ross Alley


where some little old Chinese lady sits next to a paper sign that reads “pictures $0.5” scrawled in sharpie, as she fills cookie molds in front of your very eyes, the delectable vanilla-ish aroma of the cookies wafting about.


They sell enormous bags of cookies, vanilla and chocolate; bags so large they only seem appropriate for caterers or stoners; I mean, they can’t stay fresh for very long. We conserved our calm and purchased a smaller bag

then set off down crowded Stockton street, past the fish shops we frequent when we need live spot prawns or crabs (not for the faint of heart, aquatic life is handled with savage brutality in those places). Roast ducks hang in windows, dried herb stores abound, Chinese produce, the majority of which I cannot identify, lay in heaping mounds outside of storefronts, cheap electronics, luggage, porcelain bowls, soup spoons and firecrackers; Chinatown’s tsotchke cup runneth over.

Jackson street serves as the border where Chinatown’s herb shops abruptly end and North Beach’s delicatessen’s suddenly begin. North Beach is a real mixed bag; It’s pretty, and fun, and full of delicious food and drink, while simultaneously being unbearably loaded with tourist traps (barkers included) and cheesy nightclubs/strip clubs that attract this city’s version of bridge and tunnelers, who inevitably behave as though every time in a bar is their first time in a bar.

Stop one was random, a first for all three of us, luring us in with a bit of Korean flair on the sign, International Cocktail Lounge.


International Cocktail lounge is a no frills dive, the kind of bar where you wouldn’t dare order a cocktail; a place where the word “mixologist” is only uttered as the punchline to a joke. Best to stick with shots, beers, and $2.50, two ingredient, well happy hour drinks if you know what I’m saying.


Columbus and Broadway streets are North Beach’s main drags, but the back and side streets certainly hold the most charm, full of tiny and colorful shops and restaurants, one of which is Golden Boy Pizza, a local favorite serving squares of focaccia loaded with pizza toppings. Also, the building is painted like an Italian flag.

golden boy pizza

Come on. That’s cute.

When we find ourselves in those parts, we often stop in for a pint at Maggie McGeary’s, an Irish pub that attracts our friends from across the pond when they want to watch soccer or cricket or hurling at some absurd hour of the morning (do people watch cricket?).


We were about to delve into the depths of tourist hell at that point, inching our way ever closer to the famed, and dreaded, pier 39. First, a quick look at Ghiradelli square, though the sign is not nearly as impressive by day as it is by night. We took a gander through the chocolate shop but Jae-Min had the good sense to not want to actually stand in a switch back line to buy any.

The Buena Vista is about a block away, and yes, it is one of the most touristy spots in all of San Francisco, but also, truly worth a visit.

buena vista exterior

The BV brought Irish coffee to America, theirs, a rendition of the original, which was served at the Shannon airport in Ireland, a drink that was so thoroughly enjoyed by a Chronicle travel writer that he did not rest until he successfully recreated it. That was in 1952, and the Buena Vista has not looked back since, serving up 2,000 Irish Coffees A DAY.

buena vista plaque

The Buena Vista’s IC comes in a special glass, a little six ouncer that allows for the perfect ratio of coffee to cream but also boasts excellent heat retention properties. There has been much hullabaloo about this particular vessel, because you see, the Buena Vista bought them all from the distributor so that their competition could not actually compete.


It is a terrifically satisfying thing to drink, the cold, thick cream hits your upper lip, while cooling and coating your palate, only to be followed by the heady mixture of sugar, booze, and coffee below.


There are other places worth visiting down at the wharf, the Pub at Ghiradelli being one, a mellow bar right by the Buena Vista which serves some craptastic “Tommy Tots;” a tater tot, buffalo sauce and blue cheese mess, along with other hearty pub fare. There is Sabelle and Latore, our favorite place to belly up to the diner style bar and dive into cold, cracked, Dungeness during crab season; there is the pack of sea lions, who sunbathe on floating hunks of wood, barking, occasionally sliding their fat laden bodies into the water. There is Boudin, where one can watch sourdough bread being made, as it has been since 1849, through the demonstration bakery’s window, facing Jefferson street.


However, we were pressed for time as we had a ferry to catch; our next move had to be judicious. We opted for lunch at Scoma’s, one of SF’s most beloved seafood spots.


Scoma’s dates back to the 60’s and it shows; it is San Francisco of old, a place Don Draper would have brought a conquest for martini’s and oysters. They are in the midst of a facelift but happily, they are maintaining the vibe, only now the bar stools are crazy comfy, a wonderful place to sit and soak up the view of the Bay.


We ordered a cold cracked crab, served with a fat hunk of sourdough and salty butter


along with a pint of locally brewed Anchor Steam and a shot of fernet; a perfect meal of regional specialties.

scomas beer fernet

Had time permitted, we would have stopped in to Fog City for wings and milk punches, checked in at Pier 23 for beers on the back patio, meandered through the Ferry Building for small batch wine, caviar, Cowgirl cheese, Acme bread, Fatted Calf jerkey, oysters, and Ricchiuti chocolates; just the tip of the Ferry Building’s culinary iceberg. But time did not permit, forcing us to stroll briskly by the FB; that will have to be a another day and another post.


Ferry tickets purchased ($12/pp) we waited in Sinbad’s, another seedy old spot that is about to fall victim to the times, a place that has been serving San Franciscans vodka crans and burgers since the 60’s, being forced out by the city to make way for a new ferry port. They are fighting, and they will lose, and that, my friends, is a real bummer.

The Buena Vista The Buena Vista on Urbanspoon

Scomas Scoma's on Urbanspoon

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