Chinatown Without the Tourist Kitsch

Oakland’s Asian-American epicenter lures and surprises with stellar dishes, well-stocked markets, and cultural oases.


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Photos by Lance Yamamoto

Henry Lau of Draline Tong Herbs.


Most Bay Area residents can say they have spent time exploring the narrow streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, but far fewer take an afternoon to investigate Oakland’s Asian-American epicenter. Spend a day looking into the happenings in this part of town, and what you might discover is a city within a city. Butcher and produce shops bustle with customers, performances and performance art occur in plazas and parks, and a variety of restaurants greet hungry visitors with surprising lunch and dinner specials.



Don’t let the sweet cartoon girl on the Spices! 3 sign fool you: Inside this colorful restaurant, the Szechuan cuisine is more bold than cute. Most dishes come with mild to explosive kicks that will leave at least a few beads of sweat on your nose. The menu hints at how hot it’s going to get with one to three levels of spiciness denoted by chili peppers. The chicken wings (three-pepper rating) are a must, as are the less spicy tofu “pockets” stuffed with bean sprouts and sautéed in bean chili sauce. For entrees, the “Gangsta” casserole served “Murder Style” and the “Kiss of Fire” orange chicken or beef are among the most popular items at this spot. The “stinky” dishes might not appeal to everyone, but they are certainly a staple here. 369 12th St., 510-625-8889,

For Cantonese fare, head over to Yung Kee for stir-fried noodles, congee, noodle soups, and rice plates. Roasted ducks, chickens, and slabs of pork dangle from the window as a butcher chops away at the front of the store. Stop in to buy some of the meat to go, or take a seat in the no-frills dining room to order wonton soup, rice porridge topped with tripe, or fresh bok choy. Bonus: The restaurant stays open until 2 a.m., making it a good stop on the walk home from the bars or a late-night meal. 888 Webster St., 510-839-2010.

Three-tier cakes tower over egg puffs at Sandy Vuong’s Delicieuse Princesse Bakery. For nearly 30 years, Vuong has been designing elaborate cakes and Vietnamese pastries that have been served at weddings, birthdays, and other special occasions all over the Bay Area. You can make an appointment for a tasting to pick your cake of choice—red velvet, mango mousse, coconut, and German chocolate to rattle off a few—or pop in and buy a premade creation. 317 13th St., 510-763-8366.

For more sweets, head into Yummy Guide for the Hong Kong-style milk tea, or the popular Mango Queendom dish of the chunky fruit served in a puree with sago (think tapioca) and pomelo chunks. 358 11th St., 510-251-0888.


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