SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
It’s easy to find Chinatown’s main shopping district on North Broadway Street. There are plenty of signs to direct you, and large dragons defining the entrance as you cross Cesar Estrada Chavez Avenue and enter what might feel like traveling to a foreign (or familiar, depending on where you are from) world. You will see temples amidst the souvenir shops, the places to find good luck bamboo or a sun umbrella, but there are a few spots you’ll have to seek out so you don’t miss their incredible bargains, with things you’ll want to take home.
If you take the gold line subway into Chinatown (the first stop heading east from Grand Central), the subway exit leads you right to the corner of College and Spring streets. On the westside of College, you’ll see what looks almost like a warehouse. The grey building has several signs and you’ll see one that says “The Shop” in both English and Chinese. Head to the back of the building there and you’ll discover a treasure trove of kitchen items. Some are the cheap but useful variety, like brooms, plastic baskets, ladles, or dish racks, but look closely at the stainless steel pots and pans and you’ll find some great ones, at prices that could make a miser blush with glee. Try to contain your giddiness so you don’t end up taking home more than you can carry.
While not always displayed, the vendors here sell wonderful Kiwi brand knives. They are thin, extra sharp blades that make kitchen prep a dream. They cost less than it does to get a knife sharpened, so you might want to stock up, especially if getting here is a journey. The knives come in all sizes, from paring to large chef blades, pointed or squared tips. They’re cheap enough that you can have the entire set. You’ll also find a variety of dishes and kitchen tools. If there is something specific you are searching for, just ask. It’s easy to miss things hanging from the walls or tucked into corners.
Walk up to Broadway and just west of College Street. There you will find Tin Bo Co., Inc. Yan, or one of the other workers, can help you find ingredients, remedies, or your new favorite dried fruits. The prices are slightly higher here than other shops carrying similar foods and herbs, but Yan says, “That’s because it’s better quality.” The Job’s tears barley is definitely cleaner than higher priced ones you can find in health food stores, and the lotus seeds are unblemished and sweeter. (Both are touted to give you clear skin, in case you were wondering.) They have an in-store Chinese doctor who will take your pulse and tell you what’s causing your headache, digestive upset, or other complaint, then prescribe the proper Chinese medicine you can take home with you. If you love your new potion, or need more of anything they sell, Tin Bo will happily ship it. They have a huge selection of herbs, dried foods, teas, and ointments. One topical balm they sell comes from a very old recipe. It’s called Zheng Gu Shui, and is a popular item to have on hand for any type of bruise, strain, or sprain. It’s supposed to help ease pain while speed up healing.
Another shop to explore, and one that could easily get missed, is Tenren’s Tea Time. The best way to find it is walking down Hill Street because it is in the back of the Far East Plaza at 727 North Broadway. If they are not too busy, or you arrange it in advance, they’ll make you tea to try before you buy anything. Kelvin and Mai are happy to show you their different teas. Many come from the shops own farm in Taiwan. Kelvin explained that the owner Mr. Lee started the tea company more than 40 years ago with the intent of being international. They have shops in Taiwan and China, in addition to the Los Angeles one.
The most popular teas are the oolong and jasmine. Kelvin says that choosing a tea is “like beer. There are strong ones and light ones. You might want different tastes at different times.” He says if you steep the tea too long you bring out the bitter notes, so it is best to steep only for about three minutes. They have plenty of boxed teas in tea bags, but the bulk of their business is selling loose tea. Stop in and let them open the tremendous jars and take a whiff. You’ll likely want to take some home. Just in case you haven’t got a proper tea set to brew the best tasting tea, they’ve got many of those to choose from too.