Sunday, February 21, 2010

Five Top Chinatown Dim Sum Spots

Who can resist dim sum: juicy little dumplings, plates of spicy spare ribs, slices of tender eggplant stuffed with shrimp and sweet egg custard tarts? Many Chinatown restaurants double as dim sum parlors at lunch and have a great, casual atmosphere: there's lots of conversation at large round tables as food carts circulate, servers stopping to uncover each dim sum delicacy as if presenting a gift.
If it's your first time here's what happens: When the cart rolls around to your table and the dishes are uncovered point to what you'd like: typically, you start a tab and the servers mark off how many dishes you've ordered, at what price level. It's part of the fun: you don't order from a menu and choose what you like by what looks good.
San Francisco's Chinatown is going to be bustling in the next week during the New Year's celebrations. It's a terrific time to visit.

Here are some picks for ever-favorite dim sum spots (unfortunately, they don't have web sites):

*City View, 662 Commercial, between Kearny and Montgomery. This is one of the most elegant of the Chinatown restaurants and serving some of the finest dim sum around. It's the place to take less adventurous first-time dim sum diners, or those who know dim sum (there's a lot of variety here) and want fancier surroundings than many of the traditional Chinatown dim sum parlors. Try the glazed walnut prawns, scallop dumplings, pork siu mai and potstickers.

*Pearl City, 641 Jackson, between Kearny and Grant. For many San Franciscans, this is the go-to spot for dim sum. It's inexpensive, rustic and the excellent dim sum comes in large portions.

*Dol Ho, 808 Pacific, between Stockton and Powell. Don't be scared away by the drab exterior and no-frills interior. Dol Ho is authentic, with fresh dim sum that the locals recognize as the real thing. Don't miss the spare ribs.

*Gold Mountain, 644 Broadway, near Stockton. This is one of those cavernous dim sum restaurants that draw in local Chinese families by the dozens. Because of volume of dim sum served, the dim sum is fresh and there's a large variety. Try the pork buns and chive dumplings.

*Lichee Garden, 1416 Powell, between Broadway and Vallejo. This traditional Cantonese restaurant is better known for its wonderful lunch and dinner fare but also offers top dim sum at lunchtime. Good service is a notch above the rest of the dim sum establishments.

Amy Sherman of Cooking with Amy informed me Lichee no longer serves dim sum. Drats, it was so good.

Here's another favorite then: Kay Cheung at 615 Jackson near Kearny. This is one of those hole-in-the-wall Chinatown eateries that are easy to miss. Like Pearl City, which is close by, this has authentic dim sum, nothing fancy but inexpensive and good.

Do you have a favorite Chinatown restaurant for dim sum or other Chinese food? Comment, please!

And, check out my Chinatown travel app for more, including interactive maps, descriptions and photos that you can download onto your iPhone or iPod Touch.

Monday, February 15, 2010

In Chinatown: It's Happy New Year

If you're headed to San Francisco's Chinatown for the big New Year's Parade Saturday Feb. 27 get there early and make a day of it. Have a dim sum lunch and stroll off the tourist-packed streets and onto the alleys that the locals use to get around. Forty-three such alleys criss-cross Chinatown. They date back to the late 1800s when all kinds of nefarious activities took place along these narrow passageways. Look along the bottom edges of the buildings on Pagoda and Ross alleys and you'll see narrow openings boarded over or covered by steels bars. Underground opium dens, gambling parlors or brothels may have operated there. It's said some were linked to a network of tunnels where people fled to avoid police raids.
On Pagoda, my favorite of the alleys, Hang Ah Tea Room, one of the oldest of San Francisco's dim sum restaurants, continues to do a brisk business even though the decor is stuck in the 1970s. There's something charming and exotic about walking along Pagoda where you can hear the frenetic clicking of mah jong tiles behind closed doors and stepping inside this narrow little restaurant.
Hollywood also finds the alleys picturesque: scenes from the Will Smith movie "The Pursuit of Happyness" were shot along Pagoda and Ross alleys. On Ross, next to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can watch women making the cookies by hand, there's a hole-in-the-wall barber shop. Barber Jun Yu, who briefly appeared in the movie, often takes a break outside, serenading passersby on the erhu, a two-string Chinese violin.
You can often get an insider's peak at the alleys on City Guides' free tours that start from Portsmouth Square several days a week and cover many of the alleys on foot. Some of the guides are born-and-raised in Chinatown. For more places to visit and restaurants to try, check out my Chinatown travel app for iPhones/iPod Touches, which has interactive maps and more detailed information (all for .99 cents!).

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tahoe's Great Snow at Great Prices

Lake Tahoe's ski areas are having their best year in at least four years. More snow has fallen and more skiers are hitting the slopes, much to the relief of those in the travel industry here. In the Colorado Rockies, Lake Tahoe's main competition for skier travel, snow arrived late and the amount disappointing. Tahoe, meanwhile, luxuriates under blankets of fresh snow that seem to arrive each week on schedule, with a few days of brilliant sunshine in between. On a trip to South Lake Tahoe last week for the Society of American Travel Writers conference, resort operators said that they are thrilled. The slopes were filled with skiers from all over the world. "There's no other lake like this and no other ski destination like this in the world," said Andrew Strain, Heavenly's vice president. But the economic recession has taken its toll. Resorts last fall responded by heavily discounting season passes to stimulate business and it worked. If you bought last year, you could get unlimited skiing passes for some of the major areas for under $400, including at Heavenly (top right). I met a woman from Placerville who purchased a season pass for the Sierra-at-Tahoe resort for $369 for the entire season (the only restriction: it can't be used on Saturdays) together with ski rental for the season for only an additional $109. At Harrah's, the casino seemed quieter than usual, but late afternoon there was a steady stomp of skiers late heading back to their rooms to change for drinks and dinner. The hotel has terrific midweek ski-and-stay packages for getaways. I had some good meals, with two standouts: Ciera, an upscale steakhouse at the Montbleu Resort and Evans, an elegant little neighborhood restaurant serving California cuisine with some Asian influences. For those who don't ski, there's wonderful snowshoe and cross-country skiing opportunities at quiet, lovely Camp Richardson (see photos) where the Beacon Grill is open for hot chocolate, drinks and a good selection of beer served in front of big picture windows overlooking that oh-so-lovely-blue lake.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

San Francisco's Chinatown -- by App

San Francisco's Chinatown, a travel guide app for IPhone and IPod Touches, is available now on iTunes. I included more than 50 places in this historic neighborhood of San Francisco, which has been the heart of the city's large Chinese community since the Gold Rush. The app contains descriptions of small, tucked-away dim sum parlors, elegant seafood restaurants, the narrow alleyways that locals have used for generations to quickly wind their way through the neighborhood and avoid the tourist traffic, historic sites, unique and not-so-unique shops, quiet temples and hidden museums. The app also features interactive maps that you can use as you're exploring Chinatown and more than 150 photographs so that you can plot your day trip or weekend getaway before you leave home. The app's for sale for .99 cents, much less than a cup of coffee, through iTunes. Look for my North Beach/Fisherman's Wharf app in a few weeks.