Pan-Asian Town /pan ˈeɪʒ.ən taʊn/ n. The new (and more P.C.) way to speak of a Chinatown that is not only Chinese. Asia’s more than just one country, people.
For how complex a system language is, it has a funny way of simplifying things. And for a system so intricately tied to culture and travel, it’s unsettling how often language can skew reality.
This can be in the form of euphemisms: The hostel’s bathrooms are “adequate” is code for “There’s a high probability of staff infection in the showers.”
In the form of hyperbole: Every meatball in Italy was “the best you ever had,” which cancels them all out.
Or in the form of vast generalizations, like referring to Oakland’s neighborhood at 8th and Webster as “Chinatown.”
Not all who hail from Asia are Chinese. Can we clear this up, once and for all?
Savor Oakland Food Tour Sets It Straight
So when I began the Chinatown food tour with Savor Oakland one fine Saturday morning, I was thrilled to hear founder Carlo Medina explain right off the bat that the term was misleading, and that language should not be used to make such sweeping generalizations. Because really, the residents of this Oakland neighborhood—the ones that have made it a little enclave of Asia, 7,000 miles away—have roots all over, including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and yes, mainland China.
And just like many of its residents, the city of Oakland itself is often misrepresented. It’s not a bloodbath or a gang haven. Sure, it’s had a rough upbringing, but Oakland is actually on the rise, as hoards of people move across the Bay seeking lower rent prices and a more neighborhood feel. Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., and to talk it up even more, Carlo gave us the facts:
Oakland by the numbers:
- 158 different neighborhoods in Oakland
- Listed #5 place to visit in the world (!!) in 2012 by NY Times
- 120 languages spoken in Oakland
- 4th largest Chinatown/Pan-Asian Town in the country
- 60 restaurants opened in Oakland last year alone
So once Carlo set us straight, we headed off, stomachs rumbling, to try the best of Pan-Asia Town.
Stop #1: Classic Guillin Rice Noodles. Cuisine: Authentic Chinese.
Carlo told us that most “Chinese” food we’re used to isn’t even Chinese. Many immigrants came over not knowing how to cook, not having the right ingredients, and trying to placate American taste buds. Broccoli beef? Broccoli comes from Italy, my friends.
But the first stop of Savor Oakland tour was as authentic as it gets. At Classic Guillin Rice Noodles, take a guess what we tried. The guillin noodles were bathed in a beef broth with chunks of tender beef and crispy pork, and the dish is typically served for breakfast. After tasting such a kick from the spicy bean paste, I can say I’m fully on board with noodles in the morning, and might switch out the cereal routine shortly.
Stop #2: Tom’s Bakery fortune cookies. Cuisine: American Chinese.
Here we peaked into a tiny factory to see how fortune cookies are made, and heard several stories on the possible origins of fortune cookies. Whereas guillin noodles scream authentic Chinese, fortune cookies most decidedly do not. Americans love their dessert, though, so restaurants needed a sweet treat to end the meal. Also, no one ever tires of revealing little slips of paper that read “You will succeed in the coming month” (which suggests to me that all of you will start following this blog).
P.S. Don’t put a bag of fortune cookies in my hands. Self control is not my forte.
Stop #3: Banh Cuon Tay Ho. Cuisine: Vietnamese.
I was thrilled to try out some Vietnamese food next. Vietnam is one of my top bucketlist destinations, largely due to its amazing cuisine. Have you ever eaten Vietnamese and gone into a food coma afterwards? A resounding No. That’s because everything is so light, fresh, and full of vegetables.
Carlo balances out the Savor Oakland tour with tastings and history, as he explained that, due to colonialism, Vietnamese cooking has a lot of French roots. That’s why the well-known báhn mì sandwich is made on French bread, or why the spring rolls resemble crepes. Here we were served generous portions of three different plates, my favorite being the fried sweet potato balls. (Oh wait, I just said everything about the cuisine was light…)
We finished this place off with a shot of espresso mixed with condensed milk, which tastes like melted coffee ice cream and beats Starbucks any day of the week.
Stop #4. Nature Vegetarian Restaurant. Cuisine: Vegetarian Chinese.
Vegan Chinese food? Is that an oxymoron?
The owners of this next place watched Youtube videos for days on end to nail down the techniques to make soy products palatable. We tried “pork” fried rice and sesame “chicken” that could have fooled the most adamant carnivore. In fact, I don’t want to play favorites or anything, but this place might just take the (vegan) cake. Here we also learned classic Chinese eating etiquette, which mostly revolves around avoiding things that symbolize death, like leaving your chopsticks straight up in your rice, or turning over a fish. Just don’t do it, and don’t ask. Savor Oakland not only feeds you well, but makes sure you won’t offend while doing it.
Stop #5. Pork bun + Asian Market
At this point I was blissfully full, but one must keep pushing if they’re to see all of Asia in 3 hours. Also, when Carlo offers you a warm pork bun, you leave not a crumb.
The Savor Oakland food tour then ventured into a world away from Safeway or Whole Foods—your typical Asian market, complete with exotic fruits like durian (barred on public transport for its smell) and also frozen and reconstituted sea cucumber. Remember when Meredith lived in China and had to eat sea cucumber? I’ll pass.
Then I witnessed a nice farm-to-table scene in which a fisherman emptied his daily catch of live, flapping fish into a trash bin beside me. He offered to let me hold a particularly feisty one, but I politely declined and filmed instead.
Stop #6. Battambang. Cuisine: Cambodian.
If you’re wondering how I managed to cram more food in on stop #6, the answer is that a glimpse of those sea cucumbers re-whet my appetite.
Just kidding. I was bursting at the seams, but also had never tried Cambodian cuisine, and I consider myself to be a well-versed eater.
Because of Cambodia’s dark recent history—dictator Pol Pot murdered nearly half of the population—many Cambodian refugees didn’t know what Cambodian food was. Pol Pot burned all books and traces of culture. In the 1990s there was a huge movement to introduce Cambodian food and culture, and so more and more Cambodian restaurants have been popping up in Pan-Asian towns across the U.S. Here we tried a light beef chopped salad and, since we couldn’t end without dessert, a fried plantain with coconut ice cream.
I can’t recommend Savor Oakland Food Tours enough. Food is a fantastic way to experience new cultures, and walking the streets of Pan-Asian town, you’ll also hear a myriad of languages that will transport you to a place far far away from the San Francisco Bay Area. For me, the highlight wasn’t just eating (and I’ve never said that before); it was learning about what set each culture and cuisine apart from the rest at every restaurant we went to. Savor Oakland founder Carlo Medina balanced food and facts just right, and it made for the perfect recipe.
A special thanks to Savor Oakland for inviting me on the tour. All opinions and sea cucumber aversions are my own.