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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Travel Adventure: San Francisco Sights

I've been to SF several times so I've gone to the big touristy places - Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Lombard Street, etc... This post is not going to be about them. The internet is already full of information about these destinations so I thought I'd focus on a few of my favorite lesser known shops.

DAISO
(Japantown)
22 Peace Plz
San Francisco, CA 94115

(Financial District)
570 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94104

(UC Berkeley Area)
2369 Telegraph Ave
Berkeley, CA 94704
Daiso in Japantown
Daiso was one of the stores on the top of my must-see list. In Japan, Daiso is famous for being a 100 yen shop. They carry everything from kitchen knick-knacks, bento accessories, and ceramics to school supplies and home decorations. In the U.S., they are mainly located in NorCal so I knew I had to check it out while I was in SF.

I absolutely, positively love love LOVE bento and kitchen gear and Daiso did not disappoint! I was so obessesed with Daiso that I went to all 3 of the closest Daisos to me. Although they all carried similar inventory, there were slight differences between the stores. Japantown's Daiso was by far the largest. They had the widest selection and a huge area for ceramics (bowls, dishes, plates, etc...).The Daiso in the Financial District was smaller, but they had the tall flan/pudding cups I've been searching everywhere for. (All 3 stores carried the shorter, wider flan/pudding cups though.) Berkeley's Daiso was the smallest out of the 3 and had a smaller inventory, but I did find some paper embossers that I didn't see (or maybe missed) in the other 2 stores. After going to so many Daisos, my suitcase was packed with bento boxes and soy sauce bottles and other random accessories. If making bentos is something you're interested in, be sure to check out Daiso! Their prices really can't be beat when it comes to items like these.

JAPAN VIDEO AND MEDIA, INC.
(Japan Center Kintetsu Mall)
1737 Post St
San Francisco, CA 94115
Japan Video and Media, Inc. - Giant Totoro
While shopping around Japan Center, I stumbled across this anime/Asian drama shop. What caught my eye was the GIANT Totoro at the entrance! I've never seen a Totoro this big! It made me want to just run up to it and hug it! Inside, they had other anime plushies, but I didn't really browse around. There were a few other shops in Japan Center I wanted to visit and time was running out so I didn't even look at their selection of anime, but if you're a My Neighbor Totoro fan like me, you'd get a kick out of seeing a giant Totoro!

MOW LEE CO.
(SF Chinatown)
774 Commercial St 
San Francisco, CA 94108
Mow Lee Co.
Mow Lee Co. is one of those hidden gems that the older generations know through word of mouth.  Many of my mom's friends bring back fresh-made lap cheong (Chinese sausage) from SF for her so while I was in the area, she wanted me to bring some lap cheong back for her and her friends. Unfortunately, I had no idea where to go (and neither did she!). After doing some extensive internet searching, I found Mow Lee Co. in SF Chinatown.

Honestly, I was apprehensive about wandering around Chinatown on my own. You see, I'm an ABC (American-born Chinese) and I don't speak any Cantonese or Mandarin. At best, I can vaguely get the gist of a conversation and just nod and smile. (Total disgrace! I know! T__T) I do, however, speak Toisanese, another dialect of Chinese. Well, to cut to the chase, I was elated to find that the man behind the counter in Mow Lee Co. spoke Toisanese!! He was very friendly and helpful! I told him how my mom wanted some pork lap cheong to give as gifts and he was kind enough to separate the sausages into bags with labels instead of packing everything into one big bag.

Sadly, I wasn't able to get a picture of the sausages before giving them to my parents, but you can tell the fresh-made lap cheong by the string that links 2 sausages together. The typical lap cheong you see in supermarkets are normally vacuum-sealed in bunches with no string. Mow Lee Co.'s lap cheong was loads better than store-bought lap cheong! It had great flavor and was slightly sweet. There was a lot of fat though (even more than store-bought lap cheong), but fat is typical in lap cheong. If you're looking for a unique souvenir to bring back to your Asian family and friends, consider getting some lap cheong from Mow Lee Co.

WYCEN FOODS INC.
(SF Chinatown)
903 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94107
Wycen Foods Inc.
Wycen Foods Inc. was the other lap cheong place I found through the Internet. When I first walked in, the cashier was deep in conversation with one of her regulars. (I'm assuming she was one of the regulars because they were gossiping about someone they knew.) The cashier basically ignored me until the regular left, but that gave me time to look over the different types of lap cheong they sold. Unlike Mow Lee Co. (which only made pork lap cheong and duck liver lap cheong), Wycen Foods Inc. had several varieties including just duck lap cheong and a lean version of lap cheong. I opted to buy a pound of pork lap cheong and a pound of their lean pork lap cheong. After leaving the store, I called my mom to inform her that I bought all the lap cheong she wanted. She suddenly remembered that she wanted some lap yok (Chinese-style bacon) too so I made the trek back to the store to look at their lap yok. What I liked about their lap yok was that they sold them in individual 1-lb vacuum sealed pouches. They sell them by the pound behind the counter too, but I wanted to select a slab that had minimal fat.

Once again, I didn't get a chance to take a picture of the lap cheong or lap yok, but trust me, they were delicious! Out of the 3 varieties of lap cheong I bought (Mow Lee Co.'s pork, Wycen Foods Inc.'s pork, and Wycen Foods Inc's lean pork), I liked the Wycen Foods Inc.'s lean pork one best. I'm actually pretty health-conscious so I appreciated having less fat, while still having good flavor. The lap yok was the best lap yok I've ever had! It wasn't all dry and dense like the supermarket brands of lap yok. Wycen Food Inc.'s lap yok was relatively tender and had great flavor too - salty but not overly salty and slightly sweet. In retrospect, I wish I had bought more of the lap yok, but at the time, I was walking around Chinatown with 5 pounds of lap meat in my totebag and I didn't want to carry any more!

THE WOK SHOP
(SF Chinatown)
718 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94108
Years ago, when I was on my quest to find mooncake molds, I stumbled across a blog that mentioned The Wok Shop. This shop was rumored to not only have mooncake molds, but also a ton of other kitchenware and gadgets at a relatively cheap price. I bookmarked this store (along with Daiso) as places I wanted to visit if I ever went to SF and lo and behold, I got to come here over the summer!

The male shop owner I found to be very nice and helpful. I got there really early in the morning (technically before opening hour) and he still let me browse around. He spoke perfect English so if you don't know Chinese, it's not a problem. Since I was running short on time, I quickly chose a mini mooncake mold and was on my way.

A few days later, I went back to get a better look at the items they sold. I chose a regular-sized mooncake mold ($20) and bought 2 ramen spoons (the ones that come with a notch so they don't fall into your bowl for $1.25 each). I thought The Wok Shop was the only store that sold mooncake molds, but while strolling around Chinatown, I stumbled across a different kitchenware store (see below) that sold mooncake molds for even cheaper! I went back to The Wok Shop to return the one I just bought hours before. Needless to say, the female shop owner wasn't too pleased with me. (Asian store owners are notorious for being friendly when you want to buy something but turning cold once you want to return it - at least from my experience.) But since I had my receipt, she issued me a refund - albeit begrudgingly.

When I got home, I remembered that The Wok Shop gave instructions and a recipe when you bought a mooncake mold from them (at least that's what other people said online). When I bought the mini mooncake mold, I was in such a rush that the shopkeeper and I forgot about it. I found their email online and they were nice enough to email the instructions and recipe to me. Thank you, Wok Shop! That was very kind of you!

GINN WALL HARDWARE
(SF Chinatown)
1016 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133

Ginn Wall Hardware
While wandering around SF Chinatown, I noticed this kitchenware shop. It was closed for lunch when I first walked past it, but on my way back, I saw that Ginn Wall was open. They had regular-sized mooncake molds (just like ones at The Wok Shop) in the window display so I decided to check it out. I couldn't believe that they sold the mooncake molds at a significantly lower price! Ginn Wall sold them for $15, while The Wok Shop had them for $20. (Interestingly though, the mini mooncake molds were cheaper at The Wok Shop.) The shop keeper was really nice and friendly. He also spoke perfect English like the people at The Wok Shop. I didn't look around at the rest of the kitchenware, but based on my experience, I'd say you should check out both stores to see which one carries the lowest price for the items you want to buy. That way, you don't have to go through the hassle of returning items like me.

WWW.LOWFAREBUS.COM
www.lowfarebus.com website

Passengers for www.lowfarebus.com
Although this isn't a specific sight to see in SF, I wanted to mention a way to get to San Francisco. LowFareBus is a Vietnamese company that operates a daily charter bus between NorCal and SoCal. If you check out their website, you can see their exact stops and departure times. I learned about this bus from J, who found out about it from her friend. People in our generation seem to find out about it solely through word of mouth, but apparently, many Vietnamese people know of its existence. Just check out all the Vietnamese families in the crowd at the San Jose stop! (Perhaps, they advertise in the Vietnamese community?)

G and I took this bus home to SoCal. You make your reservation online, but they also allow "walk-ins" on a first come, first serve basis. The bus driver/ticket person spoke heavily-accented English, but it was pretty clear what he wanted when it came to paying the fare or the time to return during pit stops. Their fares are kind of interesting. To travel from SF or Oakland to San Jose, it's $5. Traveling from San Jose to SoCal is $40, which they collect mid-journey. So a one-way trip from SF to LA (or vice versa) is $45. Be sure to bring cash! I don't think they take credit card or checks.

Banh Mi from Lee's Sandwiches (included with LowFareBus fare)
What's cool about LowFareBus is that they include a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) from Lee's Sandwiches with your fare. I'm not a big fan of Lee's (there are plenty of other banh mi sandwich places I love), but I thought it was nice that they included it. There's only one pit stop during the San Jose to SoCal portion so the sandwich provided good sustenance for the long trip. G and I passed the time chatting, watching things on his laptop, and napping. The trip definitely passed by faster because we kept each other company so overall, it was a pretty enjoyable experience! Despite not knowing any Vietnamese, I would travel on LowFareBus again. If you know of any other inexpensive ways to get around, please share!

So there you have it! The end of my San Francisco Summer 2011 series! (If you missed it, you can read about some San Francisco Eats and San Francisco Sweets too!) I hope you guys learned something new or found a place you want to visit! San Francisco is one of my favorite cities! A foodie paradise with great public transportation - what more could you ask for? I can't wait to go back for my next adventure in NorCal! Until then...

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