MERCURYNEWS.COM: November 22, 2013
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’ve got a bird’s-eye view of one of the largest Chinatowns outside of Asia. Laundry flutters on the roof near a jade-colored pagoda. Four iron crosses stretch toward the heavens from Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, built by Chinese laborers in 1854. In the distance, a smattering of sailboats punctuates the Bay.
This San Francisco neighborhood looks peaceful from my seventh-floor room at The Ritz-Carlton, but it can be overwhelming if you’re a tourist looking for the best dim sum, tea or bakery.
Coming to the rescue is a man who knows San Francisco’s culinary scene better than most — Liam Mayclem with KPIX’s “Eye on the Bay.”
He’s formed a partnership with The Ritz-Carlton to lead “Inside the Kitchen” food tours of San Francisco’s most celebrated neighborhoods.
The Chinatown tour begins at Portsmouth Square. “Chinatown’s living room,” says Mayclem, who points out the children on swings and the silver-haired seniors playing cards at dozens of tables packed into the teeming greenbelt. A man plays an erhu — an ancient stringed instrument — on a small, makeshift stage.
From here, we walk to Ross Alley, once notorious for prostitutes and gambling dens. Today it’s the home of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, a surprisingly small shop where a handful of women still make fortune cookies by hand, the old-fashioned way. It’s 50 cents to take a picture and not much more to buy a bag of fresh cookies, which Mayclem does for the group.
The tour stops at a popular Chinatown teahouse, where 200 leaf teas are available for tasting. We sit at a long bar and sip fragrant blends touted to cure everything from low energy to hyperactivity. Mayclem likes Chinatown’s adult beverages too, pointing out three local lounges, including one where the bartenders buy you a drink if you beat them at dice.
Next to the famed Eastern Bakery where Bill Clinton once brought his entourage, Mayclem stops at The Wok Shop and buys everyone a gift.
“An early Christmas present,” he says with his boyish charm — a product of Irish parents and a childhood in London.
One of the overwhelming things about Chinatown, Mayclem admits, is finding the best dim sum. He takes his guests to three extraordinary venues, including City View Restaurant, where the Lazy Susan is loaded with steaming pork buns and other delights. “I love the chicken dumplings here,” says Mayclem. “They just explode in your mouth.”
Eight years of exploring San Francisco for “Eye on the Bay” makes Mayclem an affable guide and a perfect partner for one of the world’s great hotels.
At the end of the tour, you have the option of dining at The Ritz-Carlton’s own acclaimed restaurant, Parallel 37, where chef Michael Rotondo serves each guest a dreamy four-course meal. I say dreamy because you can combine an overnight package with the tour that lets you gaze out your window and contemplate the good fortune of living near a world-class city.
The next “Inside the Kitchen” tours are Dec. 7 (Holiday Shopping and Tasting at the Ferry Building) and Dec. 14 (Holiday Cocktail Tour). For more information, see www.ritzcarlton.com/sanfrancisco.