Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

Out & About and Back—San Francisco

Black sesame gelato with smatterings of green tea on the corner of Broadway and Grant

Don't try to take a photo of your goods at Yoogo Gelato. Because what you think is an empty table suitable for food photography will become a target for an eager Cantonese family with strong elbows, wondering why on earth this girl is giving her gelato the Kate Moss-treatment. There's better luck outside on Broadway and Grant, where Chinatown melts into North Beach. Beforehand, you will spend some time wondering whether to get limone with your avocado gelato or go for green tea with black sesame. Once you step onto the busy pavement, the flavors in your cup become emblematic of this piece of urban earth. The inaugural taste of black sesame gelato overtakes your mouth—a seedy crunch and hazelnut butter-like richness mingle with the exhaust fumes of the traffic. And suddenly, when a swarm of taxis honk at your intrusion into traffic you realize...Man, I love this city.

A feeble attempt into Golden Gate Bakery

Hotel des Arts was home base. From here I could walk to the Civic Center, Embarcadero, and Chinatown without breaking a sweat. The other cool thing about this hotel is that most of the rooms are have been painted by Bay Area artists. Jet Martinez created this midnight and gold landscape. Reminded me of Where the Wild Things Are. My friend Scott met up with me and embarked for lunch, er, brunch, at Dottie's True Blue where over blueberry cornmeal pancakes, we laid out plans for the day. Destination: Chinatown. And what luck, the Merchants Association set up shop up and down Grant. Orchids, bamboo plants, Asia-pop CDs, and money trees saturated every square foot. From this tangle of shopping bodies, you couldn't tell where the line to Golden Gate Bakery began. But it ended somewhere down the block, snaking its way through the grandmas with carts and idling families enjoying the good weather.

A little oasis—looking into VitalTea

And then suddenly, there was tea. VitalTea to be precise. According to the guys behind the counter, they've only been open for a few months. They advertise "Free Tea Tastings." Being the skeptic, I didn't bite when we stepped in to browse the jars of loose leaf tea. But when they set two places for Scott and me, it would've been rude not to oblige.

Tools of the trade

Five folks worked the counter, each milling up and down with big jars of fragrant leaves from far away places. Scott and I were the only ones partaking in this free demonstration when the first round of tea came. But gradually, more people filtered in, lured by the curtain of live music at the entrance. And as they sat down, Kenny, Ming, and the others clunked down clean tea cups in front of them making the counter sound like a cross-between peaceful tea house and crowded poker table.

Kenny works his magic.

There was Ginseng Oolong—the root tasting brighter and less medicinal with the deep amber liquid. Blue Tea—a remarkable green tea whose leaves were incredibly sweet, as if someone had dumped sugar into my teacup when I wasn't looking. Sweet rice tea felt like a nice quilt you'd wrap yourself in when you're sick. The lychee black was wonderfully balanced—just enough fruity fragrance to round out the brew. The reason? According the deep-voiced and pony-tailed Kenny, lychee peels were ground and added to the leaves in the last part of the tea-curing process. Kenny talks with his hands, each syllable punctuated with a little gesture as if guiding the chi around him to make the word resonate on our tea-ignorant ears. He talked of bitter tea which we don't actually drink, because, well, it's so bitter. Reserved for upset digestive systems, it's what Kenny would put into a Ziploc bag for me when I returned the next day, looking for a remedy for my food-poisoned and puke-y friend. He generously insisted that I not pay for it.

NOTE: There is no decimal point in the price

Finally, he poured bamboo green into our cups. Steep it two minutes, he says, and the flavor will be soft and clean, like the purest mountain water. Steep it two hours, and the flavor will be exactly the same. Steep it forever, and the same. All the more remarkable considering this steady tea hails from a temperamental tree prolific for years on end and suddenly dormant. The leaves can only be harvested for a certain period of days, if only a day. And the tree grows in inaccessible climes. The effort and rarity makes this tea $800 dollars/pound. Kenny poured us another cup. "The first cup was free. This next one, will be $80," he said laughing.

Tea propaganda

Actually, Kenny, this cup of bamboo green is probably around $45.

Voyage to Dinner
We couldn't stay there all day and the hordes were breathing down our necks for a seat. So with a bag each of lychee oolong and blue tea, we set off for North Beach. Scott made a pit stop at Stella's bakery for some marzipan rum balls. I just like saying their name, let alone nibbling on one across Washington Sqaure. With Mel, we headed to Luella.

The reason there are no photos of dinner is simple. It was dark—and the food was too good to not eat, no, pardon me, snarf down immediately. Fried sweetbreads with frisée and pomegranate seeds, started off the meal. Scott's Coke-braised pork shoulder with pureed white beans was the best antidote to the chill coming on in the night air. Tender and caramel-savory. My Huffman pollo al mattone (chicken sauteed under a brick or some sort of weight to seal in the juices) with meyer lemons, sliced fennel, and potatoes fortified me for another day of walking. But the best part of the meal was dessert—just-out-of-the-fryer-hot orange ricotta fritters. WARNING: I'M ABOUT TO PULL A GIADA: It was crunchy on the outside and so milky soft on the inside. There was a whisper of orange peel. And with the honey poured over, you had to pull apart each morsel from the vast network of fritters.

I don't care how touristy it is—I love riding the cable cars, swinging off the sides like a lemur. Scott and Mel sent me off on one to meet up with my friends Vivek and Ajay in North Beach at a place called the Sake Lab. The place was swanky. The DJ was all into the Top 40 (Kanye West was God, here), and the expensive sake elixirs were all served in plastic cups. It was the best Asian frat party I've ever been to.

Fancy Food Fun
But I called it an early evening. There was after all, a Fancy Food Show to go to. A breakfast at Canteen soaked up the bad lychee martinis (oh, where was the black sesame gelato then?) The place—four two-person booths and green formica counters and all—could fit into your pocket. Chupacabra was a clever mix of soft-scrambled eggs, stewed peppers, black beans, and spicy chorizo. Black coffee to wash it all down. Enough gusto for the next few hours where I got lost in the Tenderloin and finally made it to the Moscone Center.

I totally used my day job to pimp the press credentials. And in the press room, where editors and writers of actual bona fide food trade and consumer magazines talked shop, I unbashedly took advantage of the coffee, bagels, and Aquafina.

I'll be totally honest—there's a lot of crap at these shows (No, I don't give a shit about your preservative-filled wieners.) The New York show is the same way. But there are the good things that are worth the trek from one end of the hall to the other. It's like an extended, International Costco sampling spree. You put alot of things into your mouth. Some of which you wish you hadn't. It makes you tired. It can even make you cranky. And it sure as hell makes you hungry. Thank god for the Total Greek Yogurt booth. They actually gave away free full-sized samples!


I didn't take many photos. I wandered. Tasted. Ducked away from people who walk excrutiatingly slow or were painfully unaware of other people's toes. But mostly, my friend Jared and I dragged the Italian hall, checking out the fine Italian men in fine cut suits and TIGHT pants.

My show favorite—Palapa Azul ice cream. The company is known for Cucumber Chile, Hibiscus, and other classic Mexican flavors in their line of popsicles. But their pint ice creams and sorbets will rock your world. Goat milk caramel. And no, it doesn't taste like a goat's ass (Ha Ha, C.I) Rather, it's the best caramel you'll ever taste. Mexican chocolate had a malty base with little bits of cinnamon-infused chocolate. When I say cinnamon, I don't mean this Big Red chewing gum B.S. either. But my favorite flavor was sweet corn. Like the insides of corn fritters when you fish them out of the oil still creamy hot. This time it was creamy cold.

I was ravenous by the time I met up with Vivek again for dinner at Firefly at the edge of Noe Valley. The food wasn't remarkable. But the locale and conversation made up for it. Our water boy looked like Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, our waitress, like Lisa Loeb, and the runner-guy was just Fun-Size cute—like the Snickers you get for Halloween.

I did my laps around Moscone and I figured I deserved a good lunch. So I hopped on out with a friend for The Slanted Door at the Ferry Building. On my way out, I ran into Ben from Rishi Tea, my favorite tea company. The company was smart enough not to show this year. Considering the sheer number of high-end tea booths, they would've been as unique as a blonde Utahn with the surname "Jensen." Enough with the tea already.

The fabulous of lunch (as remembered after the giddy food high)...
I dream of this
1. Vietnamese crepe. An unbelievably crunchy network of batter and savory sausage encasing a mixture of soft cooked onions and bean sprouts, and shockingly pink shrimp (which you can see peeking out in the photo). You eat your share like lettuce wraps, with a perfect mint leaf, and some sweet-ish sauce.

2. Niman Ranch flank steak noodle salad. Lemongrass, arugula, and chile-spiked beef that's as soft as the noodles.

I believe in the hey!
3. Dungeness crab with cellophane noodles. Okay, so it doesn't look like much. Monochromatic blah at first sight. And conceptually, it could be a disaster—bland. But there's this concept in Chinese cookery called wok hey. The fire and metal of (proper) wok cooking imparts a flavor that's indescribable but oh-so-detectable. Smoky, sweet, and with the occasional crunch from the scallions.

With cilantro still on my breath, I ran back to the Palapa Azul booth for another sample of the Sweet Corn ice cream. Apologetically, but greedily. The BART commute to SFO was painfully picturesque. Sunset cutting across the hills down the Millbrae line. Death Cab for Cutie on the iPod. It was too late to make a quick pit stop at La Taqueria—damn. Would the dungeness crab and cellophane noodles would still be on The Slanted Door menu when I returned? Hell, maybe even Sake Lab will have invested in some martini glasses by then. I already wanted to be back, smacking my lips with black sesame gelato all over them.

UncategorizedVanessa Chang