S.F. Neighborhood Nibbles

When I travel, I prefer to experience a place on foot as much as possible. Of course, it means I'll get lost, but that's part of the adventure. Inevitably, whenever I wander, I learn something new.

In continuation of my mission to get reacquainted with San Francisco, I set out for two walkable (and culinary rich) neighborhoods, side by side, but distinctly ethnically different from each other.

San Francisco Chinatown
The main gate and entryway of San Francisco Chinatown. (Kim O'Donnel)

There are 20-some Chinatowns in North America, but the one in San Francisco is not only enormous (about eight blocks long), it's historically important. San Francisco's Chinatown was established in the 1850s as a community for Taishanese and Zhongshanese immigrants who came to work on the railroads.

Although the neighborhood has its share of tourist trap-style souvenir shops, there is nothing better than aimlessly wandering up and down the hilly avenues. I picked up a Chinese Kitchen God, a red plaque of Chinese characters that functions as a guardian for cooks. Apparently, you are supposed to burn your Kitchen God at the Lunar New Year and replace it, but I haven't following proper protocol since cookbook author Grace Young gave me one several years ago. In any case, it's meant to bring good luck and prosperity into the kitchen -- if you honor it with candies and other sweets from time to time.

It's fun to wander inside the little shops that sell herbs and roots. So what if there's a language barrier; the smells and sights are their own teacher. Before continuing on to North Beach, I stumbled upon an amazing cookware store that has been added to my must-visit list for future visits to California.
The little gem in question is The Wok Shop, owned and operated by a dynamo named Tane ("like Octane," she says to me) Chan.

Upon entering, I am greeted by the largest collection of woks I've ever seen, and I'm thinking if ever there was a chance to buy a wok, it's now. For a few years, I've wanted to buy a cast-iron wok, and baby, this was my chance. (In the coming weeks, I plan to season her and share my report. ) Miss Tane is a firebrand who's happy to help navigate the aisles, which are loaded with steamers, claypots, bamboo utensils, tea accessories, rice cookers and anything you can imaginable for Asian cookery. What a blast. I can't wait to go back. Chan tells me that she hosts cooking classes in her home, and if you're in town this fall, you might want to give her a call for those details.

As I walked up the hill to Columbus and Broadway, the signs began to change, and I began to hear Italian. I knew I was in North Beach, enclave to Italian immigrants as well a mecca for beat poetry. Also known as a touristy-laden area, North Beach is chock-full of Italian caffes (notice the Italian spelling of café) and eateries. And if you're not loaded to the gills with Peking duck or dim sum, dive into a prosciutto sandwich, a gelato or a proper espresso.

For me, there's no other place to get my North Beach caffeine fix than Caffe Trieste. Serving espresso since 1956, Caffe Trieste claims to be the first espresso house on the West coast. Its original North Beach location (there are others scattered around San Francisco) is an old storefront, a bit rough around the edges, with no shortage of ambiance. A mix of Italians, tourists, homeless and seemingly unemployed intellectuals, the joint has a unique energy, where everyone's happy to be there, sipping away, reading and listening to the Jukebox, which played Frank Sinatra and opera while I was there. A far cry from the cookie-cutter coffee shops you find in the mall, Caffe Trieste is an unadulterated breath of caffeinated grit and charm.

A visit to North Beach would be incomplete without a visit to City Lights Books, the famed independent bookstore co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953.

In spite of mass bookseller industry domination over the past 20 years, City Lights is stalwart in its mission, as a bastion of independent literature and poetry and home to beat poets for the past 50 years. Among its claims to fame, City Lights is the country's first all paperback book store.

You'll find hard-to-find titles from smaller publishing houses and works that challenge the status quo. I love walking on its creaky wooden floors and feel like I'm absorbing great moments in literary history when I'm there. Go!

By Kim ODonnel |  August 3, 2006; 10:25 AM ET Travel
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If you are headed to North Beach, you must must must stop at Cafe Grecco's for their coffee. It is delicious and, more importantly, has a great atmosphere!

Posted by: North Beach | August 3, 2006 12:02 PM

Lucky you, Kim - SF is one of my favorite cities in the whole world. I can just walk up and down the hills all day - with lots of stops for food, of course! To wit - if you get a chance, try Sam Wo's at 813 Washington St. A total dive, with waiters with attitude, and the food is so good: roast pork rolls, much like those Vietnamese summer rolls, all kinds of noodles, and a huge serving of anything is like 5 bucks.


Posted by: Reine de Saba | August 3, 2006 12:09 PM

What a wonderful resource in the Wok Shop -- great Web site! I had somehow missed this growing up there. And now the big decision: pre-seasoned? cast iron? enameled cast iron? stainless? Makes me wish I had heard Tane's recommendations...

Posted by: SF Expat | August 3, 2006 2:47 PM

I subscribe to the Post online but have never seen this blog before. It's enjoyable and I would like to see every issue. How do I do this?

Posted by: roberta churchill | August 24, 2006 4:56 PM

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