Is It So Bad to Be a Tourist at Chinatown Restaurant?

The view from Chinatown Restaurant’s balcony.

Chinatown Diaries chronicles one man’s effort to eat at every restaurant and food shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, surveying the neighborhood block by block, rice plate by rice plate. Maximum entree price permitted: $10. Search the interactive map here.

You and I both have seen the hawkers for Chinatown Restaurant who lurk on street corners around the neighborhood, dressed in embroidered red jackets and waving semaphore signals with their flyers. “Chinese food?” they chant when you pass them, as if you’ve activated their motion-detecting sensors. I’ve dodged their glances and their brochures for for years, as if they were accusations: a tourist in my own city.

Lucky fish dumplings from Chinatown Restaurant

For some reason — whether misplaced pride or the wisdom borne of experience — I’d come to dread the day when I’d finally have to take them up on their offer. As if to emphasize the point, a friend and I even had to walk through a gauntlet of brochure-fisted hawkers as we walked into the restaurant they advertised. Allowed to pass empty-handed, we climbed the stairs to the dining room, slowing down every third step to read the captions on reproductions of 19th-century photographs posted on the walls.

And when we made it to the host station, we became two more white guys corralled into a tatty dining room with a team of Brits, Germans, and Iowans. Most of them seemed to be eating sweet-and-sour chicken in one of the few places in the world where that dish takes on historical significance.

But I was curious, too, about the giant photos of Sichuan dishes, with untranslated Chinese captions, posted in Chinatown Restaurant’s windows. And it seemed like a warm enough day to sit out on the slim second-floor balcony that rings the north and west side of the building, with a rare view over Portsmouth Square, the eastern edge of the Financial District, and drying laundry.

We stepped through a slim glass door onto the patio, took our seats in the sun, and traced the pepper-drenched photos to a “homestyle dishes” section on the menu, where classic Sichuan dishes were jumbled up with simple Cantonese stir-fries: water-boiled fish and beef (priced in the $25 range) alternated with beef and bitter melon, salt-and-pepper scallops with Sichuan cold noodles.

I ordered a couple of things from the dim sum menu — kawaii lucky-fish dumplings stuffed with shrimp, fried rice-flour dumplings with bubbly-crisp crusts and oddly seasoned pork centers. The dumplings were competent, even better than the food at many of Chinatown’s cheaper dim sum shops, but priced to compete with Yank Sing.

Sichuan-style pork from Chinatown Restaurant.

And while I’m not going to give up my visits to Z&Y in favor of Chinatown Restaurant’s Sichuan food (priced in the $10-13 range), it merited more than faint praise. Cucumber spears, their crunch bolstered with salt, were coated in a rust-hued oil flavored with garlic, toasted chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns. A slug of black vinegar animated fish-flavored pork (“Sichuan style pork” on the menu), and canned bamboo shoots and strips of cloud ear wound around quickly cooked meat, the acid bite yielding way to a chile-bean-paste heat.

The heat, a relief after a week of pure Mark Twain summer, slowed our meal. The sun proved so bright that it overheated my cell phone. We drained a tin pot of jasmine tea and watched old men, half-bowed, climb up Washington Street with hands clasped behind their backs.

It was not the meal I feared. Or at least, when it came to the food. When a friend asked for water, one waitress told us she only had bottled. “Nothing from the tap?” he prodded. She shook her head. So we drank tea instead, which must have been made with Evian.

And when another server brought the bill — $30 for two people — she left one corner of of the bill sticking out of the vinyl folder. “Tip: $5” she’d written in bold black letters. When she picked up the bill, topped with a credit card, she pointed to it. “Should I just charge this to the card?” she asked. We told her we could write it on ourselves.

“Should I just put the normal 20%?” my friend asked when the slip came back to him. I told him we should give the server what she asked us for. After all, if we were being treated like European tourists, why not take advantage of her expectations?

Chinatown Restaurant: 744 Washington St. (at Wentworth St.), (415) 392-7958, www.chinatownrestaurantsf.com