Utopia Cafe Is Where You Go for Clay Pots

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Jonathan Kauffman
Clay pot rice from Utopia.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

There is a particular shade of teal that I'm beginning to associate with Rice Plate Journal food shots. It's the color of the tables at Utopia Cafe, Lucky Creation, and a couple of other places I've visited. And at Utopia Cafe, just a few doors off Washington on Waverly Place, the blue-green tables stand out against lemon-yellow walls decorated with pink menus -- an Easter basket of a room.

On every one of the teal tables, from the square two-tops along the sides of the room to the large round tables at its center, there is at least one brown stoneware pot, set on a cork trivet blackened from its heat. Utopia Cafe's patrons may have ordered any number of Cantonese stir-fried dishes and stews, but they're eating them with the restaurant's specialty: clay pot rice.

There are 15 varieties, all of which take 20 minutes to cook. Cuttlefish and minced pork. Spare ribs and black beans. Chinese sausage and preserved duck. All served with a few stems of baby bok choy draped over the top and a bowl of soy sauce, which you drizzle onto the rice, tinting the white grains beige and baking onto the sides of the pot, forming a dark brown crust.

On my first trip, I try the Chinese sausage and preserved duck, their salt and fat seeping down into the rice. There are two shades of sausage covering the rice: a sweeter pink lap cheong that leaves a faint taste of anise and spice on the lips, and a darker, muskier sausage with liver's metallic edge.

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Sam Wo: Still The Most Charming Dive in Chinatown

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Jonathan Kauffman
Sam Wo's rice-noodle roll with barbecued pork.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

It seems strange to visit Sam Wo before midnight. In my 20s, Sam Wo was just the place you went when you had been drinking downtown and needed late-night chow fun. It's still "that place with the dumbwaiter" to tens of thousands of San Franciscans, many of whom never venture farther up the hill from Washington and Grant.

Look closely, and you get the sense that the narrow, three-story building is squashed between two other buildings, propped up between their exterior walls. You enter into the kitchen, gawk at the cooks for a few seconds, then take the steps up to the first dining room, paneled in what looks like formica, each of the tables built out of the walls and surrounded by stools. In short: dirty and adorable.

Some say Sam Wo was founded a decade before the 1906 earthquake. The place has been a magnet for non-Chinese diners since the 1950s, many of them searching out its most famous attraction, Edsel Ford Fong. As Shirley Fong-Torres wrote in The Woman Who Ate Chinatown:
Edsel ... had command of the second and third floors of the restaurant, while his brother Henry Ford Fong worked the first floor. Sam Wo's food was not its main attraction -- customers came to see and be verbally abused by Edsel. He instructed customers where to sit and what to order. He did not necessarily bring you what you ordered, which he sometimes scribbled down while smoking a cigarette. ... He was notorious for flirting with girls, rudely criticizing customers, and reminding people about tipping him.
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Imperial Palace: Great People, Lousy Dim Sum

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Jonathan Kauffman
Imperial Palace's stuffed eggplant.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

All due respect to the woman who greeted us at the host podium at Imperial Palace. With her thick eyeliner, rhinestone-spangled jacket from the Michael Jackson collection, blindingly flashy rings, and multi-zippered, body-hugging pants, she belonged with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at yesterday's Hunky Jesus contest in Dolores Park. As a gay man, I was contractually obligated to be impressed.

Several seconds after she assigned us a number in line, though, she disappeared, and a man in a much less reflective suit gathered my friend and me together with three women and ushered us all to a large round table in the main dining room.

Outside the Chinese American community, Imperial Palace is better known for hosting performances of Assisted Living: The Musical and Tony & Tina's Wedding in the upstairs ballroom. The downstairs is known for budget dim sum and fading glamour: swagged curtains around the perimeter, wooden parquet aisles laid over tattered burgundy carpet, tables whose oil-spotted pink tablecloths are freshened up with white paper place mats between meals.

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San Sun Is the Busiest Restaurant in Chinatown (And We're Not Talking People)

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Jonathan Kauffman
Pho ga from San Sun.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

San Sun moved to Las Vegas its Washington Street location last fall after the city claimed the Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant's former Stockton site for the new subway station. It is hard to document the awesomeness of the new location in less than 3,000 words. So many mirrors and digital displays are mounted on the walls that I didn't know how to photograph the space. Any picture I took would turn out out looking like the funhouse scene from The Lady of Shanghai or a miniature Times Square. There are several different slide shows of menu items, and one, possibly two, basketball games.

I spent the first five minutes of my meal mesmerized by the two 36-inch digital clocks, one of which depicts the time plunging repeatedly into a clear pool of water. Then I practiced seeing how far I had to crane my neck around to spy on every other person in the restaurant (answer: less than 30 degrees). Add to that Chinese New Year cutouts, glittery granite-topped tables, gaudily painted trim, and a 200-item picture menu -- simply awe-inspiring.

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Lucky Creation and the Enduring Gluten Plate

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Jonathan Kauffman
Lucky Creation's spoon tofu with mushrooms.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

The conversation between the three women who work at Lucky Creation is as constant as the Stockton street traffic. Conducted in Cantonese, it bounces back and forth as the women wander around the tiny room, ricocheting off the cook who emerges from the back, circling around the cash register where they perch when the tables are either empty or occupied. Matching perms can make it hard for the halfhearted eavesdropper to pinpoint just who's holding the ball, conversationally, except when the blondest of the three breaks into song. 

When you go to a ultra-ultra-liberal-arts college, your circle of friends tends to include more than the statistical average number of vegetarians. Which is how I began going to Lucky Creation for mixed gluten plates and unfamiliar species of mushrooms in the early 1990s. 

Lucky Creation practices Buddhist Chinese cooking. It's a more rustic version of the food at Enjoy Vegetarian on Kearny, which cooks with a full spectrum of realistic-looking faux meats. At Lucky Creation, the tofu doesn't look like spare ribs. It looks like tofu. And some of the restaurant's gluten selection resembles barbecued pork bits, but most of it takes the more abstract forms of puffs and chunks, with slight variations on the same bright-red sauce.


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Mee Heong's Spare Ribs: The Dish That Almost Got Away

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Jonathan Kauffman
The $4 chicken at Mee Heong. The spare ribs are even better.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

All right, I admit it: In my survey of Chinatown, I've skipped a couple of restaurants (not to mention all the meals I've decided not to write about). And one of them was Mee Heong. Back in the beginning days of Rice Plate Journal, I poked my head into the bakery, which is dimly lit and vaguely gray in color, and spotted a bakery case stocked with a tray of buns, and two guys bent over big plates of rice. I backed out, walked down to the next restaurant on the strip, and forgot all about the bakery. 

That is, until I talked to Frank Jang, who schooled me on what I'd missed. "It's a real hole-in-the-wall run by a father and son," he told me, "and they only make two dishes -- chicken and spare ribs -- but they're good! They probably serve 300 plates a day."

So a friend and I went back to Powell and Broadway for lunch, stepped back into the narrow bakery, and spotted a sign: Spare ribs $4, chicken and mushrooms $4. There was a single tray of cocktail buns in the long, vacant display counter, and a hot water dispenser with two off-duty taps. A shaved-headed dude in a baseball cap looked us over, took our order -- one of each -- and pointed us back to the metal teapots near the kitchen. On the other side of the doorway, an older man was taking a cleaver to some chickens, working on a circular wooden cutting board that was concave enough from use that it could have held a quart of soup.


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Taking Chinatown Eats With Wok Wiz Tour Guide Frank Jang

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Frank Jang / Professional Event Photography by Frank Jang
​​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

Frank Jang is known in Chinatown for his photography -- not only does he cover many special events in the neighborhood, he's devoted to documenting Mayor Lee's mayoral tenure -- but he also leads food tours of the neighborhood for Wok Wiz. Wok Wiz founder Shirley Fong-Torres passed away last year, but her daughter, Tina, has taken over the business. It continues to offer walking tours of Chinatown, all led by people who grew up in the neighborhood.

That certainly applies to Jang, who grew up on Pacific above the old Wo Chong tofu factory. A graduate of City College's hospitality program, Chong managed Zim's restaurants and worked in the family arts and antiques business before turning to professional photography. We met over lunch at Pot Sticker on Waverly Place, which, incidentally, was once owned by his aunt. "It may even have been called Pot Sticker back then," he says, "but I don't remember. Many of the businesses here have kept the same English name, but the Chinese name changes."


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Kam Lok Is Moderately Loud and Somewhat Close

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Jonathan Kauffman
Kam Lok's clams with black bean sauce.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

Despite the noise that buffets the dining room at Kam Lok, preventing us from hearing one another as well as we would like, reminiscences spool out of Ruby and Ben Tom as we eat. My guests, who are now in their 80s, grew up in Northern California and moved to San Francisco after college. Ruby remembers meeting up for dates in the wooden booths at the Far East Cafe on Grant. Ben remembers visiting Chinatown in the 1940s, when waiters would deliver food from Chinese restaurants to the nearby hotels, balancing trays stacked high with dishes on their heads.

The Toms and Melanie Wong -- Chowhounder and niece -- have joined me for lunch at Kam Lok, one of the Chinatown's three remaining basement restaurants. I've written about Kam Lok's salt-and-pepper crab before, but now that Dungeness season is petering out, the restaurant's advertising $38 lobster wo choy dinners, few of the Cantonese homestyle dishes cost more than $8, and most of the tables around us are covered in plates and loud banter.

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Napoleon Super Bakery Is All About the Bun

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Jonathan Kauffman
Napoleon Bakery's pork floss bun.
Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

While Good Mong Kok Bakery, on Stockton and Jackson, has Hurculean steamed buns and fried sesame balls in its window, and AA Bakery, just across the street, is all about the foofy cakes, Napoleon Super Bakery -- dimmer and dingier than either -- is all about the baked buns.

Just peer into the crowd and you'll see: One of the women pressed shoulder to shoulder against the case may be ordering a box of egg tarts, and there are sponge cakes and egg-shaped pastries behind the glass. But most of the customers are directing the counter staff to fill up bags of buns. Custard buns with crackled, golden tops. Cheese buns. Raisin buns. Smaller, denser whole wheat buns. Durian buns, which look like they have warts. The lineup seems to change every time I return to Napoleon, leaving me to wonder: Just how many different kinds of buns are out there?

So each time I've been to Napoleon -- three? four? -- I sidle into the swarm of customers, slowly edging my way toward the front, leading with one hip until it touches glass, readying my wallet so I don't slow the process down. (What might happen if I asked too many questions? I'm not brave enough to find out.) And on each visit, I order three or four buns, watch them get double-bagged, and cash out, heading back to the office to inspect my haul.

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House of Nanking vs. Chef Jia's: Different Shades of Chinese American Cuisine

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Jonathan Kauffman
Chef Jia's sweet potatoes with string beans.
​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

Since the early 1990s, non-Chinese-American San Franciscans have prided themselves on knowing a secret about dining in Chinatown: House of Nanking might get the tourist traffic, but Chef Jia's, next door, had better food. So inculcated was I with this piece of common wisdom that I avoided Peter Fang's perennially popular House of Nanking for close to a decade before I dared join the line.

There, I remember enjoying something with spicy with sweet potatoes. But it has been another decade since I've been to either place. So when Rice Plate Journal reached the intersection of Kearny and Jackson, I decided to try them side by side (well, within the same week). Standing outside the two, trying to figure out which one to hit first, a white woman walked up to me and whispered, "Go to Chef Jia's. It's much better." 

Did I come out of my visits with an opinion about the two? Oh, definitely -- mainly, that the food both restaurants serve is different from anything you'll eat one block away. House of Nanking and Chef Jia's, like Hunan Home's a few doors up Jackson, are firmly in the Chinese American restaurant zone that rings Chinatown.

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