The main drag in the Richmond District of San Francisco is a cultural stir-fry heavily spiced with Asian influences.
Wandering Clement Street, I wish I had a map of Asia. No, I'm not that lost—I know I'm standing squarely in the middle of San Francisco's Richmond District, able to smell the salt air of the Pacific. But passing a Malaysian restaurant, a Chinese bakery, a Korean barbecue, a Japanese sushi bar, and a Thai noodle shop in the space of a few blocks, I'd like to see exactly how these countries nudge up against one another and how this geographical jigsaw puzzle fits together far across the ocean.
I keep turning this cartographic conundrum over in my mind as I venture into the Burma Superstar restaurant for a lunch of crunchy tea leaf salad and samosas—triangles of crispy wonton stuffed with golden potatoes, minced chicken, and a mixture of spices that somehow reminds me of Christmas. I ask the waiter, who turns out to be from Indonesia, about the taste. "Cinnamon and curry," he answers smiling. "It's an Indian flavor."
Indian spices in a Burmese restaurant with an Indonesian waiter. On Clement Street such cultural crossings are to be expected—and savored. Although it's sometimes referred to as "the other Chinatown," the Richmond District offers a more diverse experience than its downtown counterpart, with more than a dozen different Asian groups throwing their languages, traditions, and cuisines into the neighborhood's cultural stir-fry. From Arguello to about 27th Avenue, Clement runs thick with their varied eateries and shops. Add in Russian, Irish, and Eastern European enclaves—the legacy of post-World War I immigrants who were drawn to the foggy Richmond's more affordable real estate—and the result is one of the richest eating, drinking, and shopping experiences in San Francisco.
There's no better place to gain an appreciation for this diversity than the Richmond New May Wah Supermarket, the largest of several colorful markets that tumble out onto Clement's sidewalks. Here chefs can let their imaginations run wild in the aisles of tangy kimchi, salted duck eggs, sweet tamarind, black eel, green bottle gourds, dried chrysanthemum, and artichoke tea. Like the shopper in that old Charmin commercial, I can't stop squeezing the huge Mexican papayas, the Manila mangoes, the red bean mochi. Only the hard spiny durian, a fruit so pungent and so sticky it's banned in some Asian hotels, successfully resists my advances.
Across the street, the delightfully named New Sunny Land & Co. offers stir-fry junkies the unique experience of shopping for plump Thai eggplant, tender bok choy, and crisp snap peas in a forest of hanging bananas. Seafood lovers shouldn't miss the Wing Hing Seafood Market, where the ingredients for a hearty bouillabaisse (red snapper, lobster, clams, shrimp, mussels) swim, squirt, and snap right before your eyes.
Shirley Fong-Torres, author of In the Chinese Kitchen with Shirley Fong-Torres, advises cooks to comparison shop their way down Clement. "I duck into each market, looking to see what's fresh, what's cheap," she explains. But for those still struggling to distinguish bitter melon from fuzzy melon, the best pit stop may be the ramshackle Green Apple Books, Clement Street's beloved bookstore and purveyor of numerous titles on Asian cooking and ingredients.
Even shoppers who can keep their exotic vegetables straight may have trouble identifying items in Chung Chou City Herb & Tea, where ghostly pale fish stomach, chalky Dioscorea root, tangled bird's nests, and wrinkled abalone fill countless jars and bins.
Vinh Khang Herbs & Ginseng offers walk-in consultations for $30, which also covers enough herbs to make five doses of restorative tea. Herbalist Tony Yang asks about everything from your sleep patterns to your heartbeat, touches your wrists and elbows, checks your tongue, and even looks at the shape of your face before prescribing his individualized remedies. "It's not like Western medicine," Yang explains. "Everyone needs something different."
Walking out with my bundle of dried flora, I realize I don't even have a pot to put it in. Thank heaven for Kamei Restaurant Supply Co., which sells all sorts of ceramic teapots, as well as knives, woks, wonton spoons, sushi trays, bamboo steamers, and chopsticks. Boxed sets of Japanese bowls (less than $20) are also a steal, ideal gifts if you can resist the temptation to keep them.
Shopping bags can seem heavy on an empty stomach—easily remedied at the cheerful Fountain Court. The specialty at this neighborhood institution is flavorful Shanghai fare, characterized by dishes like pot-au-feu, a savory stew of pork ribs, ham, tofu, and bamboo shoots simmered slowly in a clay pot.
Chinese candies, such as sugared ginger, honey kumquat, five-flavor olive, and milky plum, can be sampled at Sweet Delite, a shop that also sells tapioca pearl tea, the textural sensation that has gained a cult following in the States. The secret, I discover, is in the monster-size straw, a device that allows me to slurp up the chewy black balls of tapioca with anteater-like efficiency.
Next door to Sweet Delite, the carry-out dim sum at Wing Lee Bakery offers more revelations. Opening one of their banana leaf-wrapped bundles to discover sticky rice with red bean can be a joy or a disappointment, depending on your taste, but with prices as low as 40 cents, there's no excuse for not trying everything that catches your eye.
In a departure from mainland Chinese fare, Taiwan Restaurant features the island nation's distinct dishes, many of them based in garlic and sweet-and-sour flavors. Homemade noodles and dumplings are the house specialties; peer into the front window and you can watch the latter being rolled into glistening pouches that explode with flavor when you pop them in your mouth.
Two standouts from Southeast Asia, Le Soleil and Narai Thai, lie at opposite ends of Clement. To the east, Le Soleil is popular with a young, hip crowd that chatters over spicy lemongrass chicken and coconut curry prawns. Order the translucent rice-paper spring rolls and you can literally see how the ingredients you passed in the markets—fresh mint, shrimp, bean sprouts, and rice noodles—come together in mouthwatering appetizers.
Closer to Clement's quieter west end, family-owned Narai Thai earns its stellar reputation with a rainbow of spicy curries (red, green, yellow, and brown) and panfried sea bass in garlic and white pepper sauce—owner John Komindr's personal favorite. If you can still stagger across the street after Narai's fried banana and coconut ice cream concoction, the 4 Star Theatre is the place to catch Chow Yun-Fat in the latest Hong Kong action flick.
By the time the last show lets out, most of the shops and restaurants are closed, their sounds replaced by a fiddle jig and cheers ringing out from one of the street's lively Irish pubs.
Catching the scent of papaya, I realize I never found my map of Asia. It seems less imperative now that I've taken in the sights, smells, and tastes of an entire continent. Regardless of how this jigsaw puzzle of cultures fits together in the Old World, I at least know how it fits together here. Perfectly.
Feasts and finds
Burma Superstar 309 Clement St. (415) 387-2147
Fountain Court 354 Clement St. (415) 668-1100
Le Soleil 133 Clement St. (415) 668-4848
Narai Thai 2229 Clement St. (415) 751-6363
Sweet Delite 519 Clement St. (415) 386-8222
Taiwan Restaurant 445 Clement St. (415) 387-1789
Wing Lee Bakery 503 Clement St. (415) 668-9481
Chung Chou City Herb & Tea 324 Clement St. (415) 666-3668
Kamei Restaurant Supply Co. 507 Clement St. (415) 666-3688
New Sunny Land & Co., Inc. 538 Clement St. (415) 668-9288
Richmond New May Wah Market 547 Clement St. (415) 668-2583
Vinh Khang Herbs 512 Clement St. (415) 752-8336
Wing Hing Seafood Market 633 Clement St. (415) 668-1666
Green Apple Books 506 Clement St. (415) 387-2272
Photography courtesy of Runner1928/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in September 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.