Walk the streets of Chinatown to discover a world of delicious items and experiences, ranging from preserved egg porridge and dumplings to cultural tasting tours and cooking classes.
Oakland is ever so trendy on the food front these days, the darling of culinary media touting fancy falafels, rich ramen, house-made salumi, and crisp wood-fired pizzas. But for decades there have been incredible culinary riches to be found within just nine square blocks of a vital but often-overlooked Oakland neighborhood, Chinatown. Here’s what you may have been missing.
Peek inside Tom’s Bakery to watch workers and old machines endlessly churn out fortune cookies. Beware though: There are rules for this show. No more than two people at a time, don’t cross the red line, and absolutely no cell phones. Tom’s Bakery, 295 Ninth St.
Sesame Paste Noodles
Handmade. Noodles. Shan Dong’s noodles are so infallible they all but confirm the existence of a higher noodle power. In the Sesame paste noodles, the chewy noodles swim in a thick, nutty, spicy sauce that lets the sesame shine. Shan Dong Restaurant, 328 10th St., ShanDongRestaurantSF.com
Salt Pork and Preserved Egg Porridge
Alternatively known as jook or congee, Gum Kuo Restaurant’s porridge embodies everything the dish can be. Ridiculously creamy, the warm rice soup is a comfort food hug—subtle and simple—with sparse flecks of salty pork and, most importantly, dark grayish-green eggs with a kick of stinky sulfur. Perfect for everything from the flu to a hangover. Gum Kuo Restaurants, 388 Ninth St., Suite 182.
Ng Ka Py
John Steinbeck described this sorghum-based liqueur, a favorite of Lee from East of Eden, as tasting of “good rotten apples.” Avoid bottles meant for cooking; Park Liquors is the only place in Chinatown that sells an Ng Ka Py for drinking. Look for a squat brown ceramic bottle or ask for it, because it may be behind the counter. Park Liquors, 828 Franklin St.
Though you trade the fun cart service for standing in a long, crowded line, Tao Yuen Pastry does not disappoint. Sesame balls filled with red bean paste are always slightly oily; airy rice noodle rolls bulge with tender shrimp and a thin sauce that never adheres; and spicy fried tofu with sliced jalapeños is sinfully salty. Resist the urge to order “one of everything.” Tao Yuen Pastry, 816 Franklin St.
A relative newcomer, Tian Jin Dumplings is really a small walk-up window that redefines hole-in-the-wall, but the flavors are anything but tiny. In addition to smoked eggs, savory crepes, and pork buns, Tian Jin’s dumplings are perfect walking-around food. Stuffed with pork and either chive or cabbage, they’re also available frozen, to go, so you can take a bit of Chinatown home with you. Tian Jin Dumplings, 989 Franklin St., Suite B.
Chinatown Tasting Tour
Sample the neighborhood and learn about its cultural and historical roots on a tasting tour that will leave you full and impressed after the first stop. Savor Oakland’s owner and guide Carlo Medina has a great love and understanding for the culinary scene within Chinatown—and Oakland, in general—making the tour a great way to discover the wide variety of regional cuisines represented within Chinatown. Savor Oakland, Lincoln Park, Chinese Junk Bunk Playground, 10th and Alice streets, www.SavorOaklandFoodTours.com
Chinatown is full of grocers spilling onto the streets, but LG Supermarket always delivers something unique to shake up your shopping list: preserved eggs, alligator meat, fruit jelly cups, snails, abalone, Pocky, live frogs, and fresh and inexpensive produce that often decreases in price as closing time nears. LG Supermarket, 325 10th St.
Even Willy Wonka would die from a sugar overdose after spending a day in Napoleon Super Bakery. Buns stuffed with cream and custard, deep yellow egg tarts, sponge cake that’s impossibly light and fluffy, and endless breads and cakes. After 5 p.m., most items are half off, but the trays empty quickly, so delay at your own risk. Napoleon Super Bakery, 810 Franklin St.
The Oakland Asian Cultural Center occasionally hosts culinary workshops with a varying theme and focus. Past classes have taught—and fed—students Pad Thai, green beans with sesame sauce, and nori-speckled rice. Check the website for upcoming classes. Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 Ninth St., Suite 290, www.OACC.cc