Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Asian Affair on Independence Day

This past Saturday I was strolling through an exhibition surrounding the railroad’s history in America at San Marino’s Huntington Library, Art Collection and Gardens when I came across an illustration titled “The Chinese Experience.” In it, a bunch of Chinese men and women were gathered around a table in San Francisco showing some white men their textiles and food. I giggled because I had just experienced my own grand Asian affair in my favorite American city by the Bay for Independence Day.

This past Fourth of July, the Cute Gardener and I decided to celebrate the Asian experience instead of the bombastic fireworks and tourist display that would surely be populating San Francisco’s thumb-shaped bay with mass loads of revelers.

It seemed like every inch of San Francisco had become a ghost town overnight as we drove the car down eerily empty streets on the starkly white sunny day towards the Tenderloin District. We were on the hunt for the best banh mi at Saigon Sandwiches. The tiny hole in the wall already had about six people stuffed into its small entrance door squeezed around the two people eating at the only seats in the place. A mere deli counter stuffed to the gills with Vietnamese yam, gel, and taro puddings and candy treats in unnatural colors that were oddly alluring welcomed us. As we waited in line, we watched the two ladies mechanically filing and stuffing made to order sandwiches that came in just a few varieties of pork and chicken with stacks of carrots, cilantro and onions piled on top and a few slices of raw jalapeno. They didn’t even bat an eye when the homeless man came strolling through the line begging the customers for a dollar and even getting into a fight with an alley cat young lady with a trucker’s mouth. 

We drove our warm sandwiches up to Twin Peaks and sat on top of the world as we ate our $3.50 stuffed to the brim treats. A few days later I would come to see a franchise type banh mi store on Fillmore where sandwiches cost $8 bucks a pop and young kids in shiny uniforms served them up with dull looks on their faces. I was happy that we had uncovered the real deal.

In the afternoon, we walked through the Inner Richmond District that was as empty as the rest of the town, to the small and ancient Bridge Theater. An independent movie house in the middle of a block full of Asian eateries and computer repair stores, it satisfied all the things I liked about the day already—celebrating our freedom by choosing to stay away from the crowds and eke out small undiscovered gems with a subtle poignancy. The ticket takers at the theater were offering free popcorn in exchange for correct answers to trivia questions and a water pitcher sat next to the theater entrance for those not wanting to pay lots of money for overpriced candy. We were there to see a small and precious movie called Jiro Dreams of Sushi about a man whose life has been devoted to mastering the craft of the raw fish delicacy. To me, the Asian aesthete represents things done with care, modesty, silence and an extreme respect towards patience, minding the words and actions and cultivation without an expectation for validation. A minimalist approach to life in its present form is emphasized with large demonstration towards a small and simple life of meaning rather than the other way around.   

We ended our day with a trip to Chinatown’s R&G Lounge for some traditional Cantonese cuisine. We were specifically looking for Peking duck and deep fried crab.

The two-story restaurant was crammed full and we were shown downstairs into the basement where I felt like we were inside someone’s old home. Tables squished together full of families in all forms of dress, paper lamps and colorful murals on the wall, gilded mirrors all around and tons of happily smacking lips.

The duck was sweet and came with homemade buns but the crab was the treat of the evening with its pepper and salt simplified glory, fried whole and with a head shell stuffed with fried brains (eyeballs included as you can see above) and other dirty parts favored by my dining mate. We both needed a bath when we left, hands sore from cracking claws and full of juice all over our clothes.

We were obviously sated and hungry for more because our Asian experience didn’t end there but would carry over to the next day as we went on the hunt for Japanese.  

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