No doubt one of the worlds greatest cities, San Francisco is a place of secrets, oddities and hidden gems. The notorious Bay Fog obscured the narrow inlet into one of the world's greatest natural harbors from Spanish explorers for over 200 years. Once the port was established and rumors spread of gold laden hills it did not take long for San Francisco to boom.
One of the many legacies of the boom is Chinatown, which is home to the largest population of Chinese people outside of China. Striding through the Dragon Gate and into their neighborhood is a one step journey that takes you around the world. A realm of cryptic signs, sharp syllables and bustling business.
Yes, there are the shops that have English signs and cater to tourists. But right next door there are markets raw with authenticity and squirming delicacies. Yes, the two ladies cranking out 20,000 fortune cookies a day accept tips for photos, but tourism isn't their bread and butter. You can buzz in, snap your photo for a 50 cent donation and be on your way, but take a moment to linger and peer into the dynamic that is the real Chinatown.
Don't worry if you don't speak Chinese, you can still get by, but expect miscommunications, possibly deliberate ones. Rest assured you won't get the best price, or even what you wanted, but it will still be cheap. At the electronic stores bursting with knock off goods price tags are irrelevant. I highly suspect the price you pay is pasted on your face. At the bakery, if you ask for two, you might get four and no change. Move along now, don't try to argue, it was only $1.
At an authentic restaurant there is no use trying to figure out the menu and asking questions is futile, but that's part of the fun. Besides, using the point and pray method almost always ends with something delicious delivered to your table. Worst comes to worst get the all you can eat dim sum and learn the calligraphy of these hand spun two bite treats. You are guaranteed to find a few you like and leave satisfied. I haven't picked up a lick of Chinese on any of my visits, but I have learned the symbology of the fried treats that lie under grease sheened signs of Chinese characters. Every time I go I venture out into a new style. I have no idea what is in them, but one of my favorites is the dark brown fried bulb with the crinkly edges.
I make it a point to go for at least a snack every time I am in the city, but one of my fondest memories is with a group that had a Singaporean brother and sister semi-fluent in Cantonese. Not only were they a bright spot of diversity on the Trek, but on the evening we dined in Chinatown they helped us order, score a bargain, and the waiters actually paid attention to us! They weren't without a sense of humor though. The Brits and I didn't know how adventurous our palates had been until they explained in English we had just eaten frog legs!
So whether you find yourself on your own or with a pair of Chinese speaking jokesters, seize the day and take a big bold bite of that deep fried mystery dumpling. And if you still cannot manage to stomach the deep fried delicacies you are still in The Bay and the Italian district of North Beach is just a couple blocks down the way.
If you want to explore Chinatown and the rest of this amazing city, then check our out Western USA tours as the majority of them will pay a visit to this City by the Bay.