New Lun Ting Cafe
It's probably not fair to begin the first post of my new blog about a dive in Chinatown, since Chinatown itself is basically one big dive. Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions that even for Chinatown's standards seem low.
One that I've written about before over at Bacon Press is called Star Lunch. Let's be honest, Star Lunch is definitely the star of Chinatown dives, if only because it's sheer, unadulterated, diviness. However, Chinatown's a big place and even on its best restaurant street (that would be Jackson Street), there is still room to shine like a tarnished spoon.
While there are many streets and many restaurants in the funky Chinatown, Jackson Street is my personal favorite. Lately, the regular Jackson Street pavement pounders and shopkeepers have been jumping at loud, popping sounds since a few days ago a shopkeeper was gunned down in broad daylight by what most believe was a hit job. The shop where this assasination took place shares a wall with Star Lunch and, while the FBI is working hard on the case, no one knows whether it was the bullet that killed the shopkeeper or years of breathing in the stench emanating from Star Lunch's stinky tofu.
Left: scene of the crime, Right: Star Lunch, also scene of a crime of some sort.
Indeed, there are days when the barometric pressure, wind direction, and humidity are just so that ordering a plate of Star Lunch's stinky tofu can cause Jackson Street from the top of Grant to the bottom of Columbus and even neighboring parts of Kearny to become one big gag-inducing cloud. I'm quite fond of these days as it seems to bring both English and non-English speaker, both Chinese and non-Chinese, together in brother/sisterhood sharing "what the hell is that?" grimaces, looks of confusion and head turning, and finally arms and index fingers extended, all pointing to the humble, little Diner That Could with the dilapidated sign.
I guess sometimes big stinks come in small packages.
Photo courtesy of Chronicle/Brant Ward
But other than Star Lunch, Jackson Street is home to such fine restaurants as Chung King, Hunan Homes, Great Eastern, New Woey Loey Goey, Golden Flower, and (now as I've learned) New Lun Ting Café.
I'm not sure how long New Lun Ting has been around, some say over 60 years, but just from the looks of it I would say at least that long. I had walked by the place often, once looking at the menus taped up on the window. While the dishes were many and somewhat cheap, the inside looked spare and not the place one would assume food would be tasty, or even edible for that matter. From first sight, this place looked like the bigger, less stinkier, sister to Star Lunch.
In my year and a half long exploration of Chinatown (since I work nearby), taking in the sights and smells, learning about the food, looking for the best or sometimes settling for the mediocre while looking for the affordable, seeing a place like New Lun Ting was like seeing every other dump between Broadway and Bush.
The main factor that lured me into New Lun Ting, I believe, is my misanthropy. My misanthropy often manifests itself by sending me down alleyways that parallel the main street in the direction I intend to go. In an alleyway, I experience peace and quite. In an alleyway, I avoid the constant psychic assault that is walking past 5,000 people to and from work.
It just happens to be that New Lun Ting sits at the corner of Beckett Alley, directly across from Wentworth Alley. From the corner of Beckett and Jackson, you pass New Lun Ting and eventually their backdoor, often open, that enters into their kitchen, followed by a few doors to the side - some are cracked open enough to hear majong tiles being clicked and slammed together. Afterwards a Buddhist temple with open doors, and finally a low-income housing project. The alleyway is so narrow that often cars will have to drive up onto the sidewalk in order to pass by.
Sometimes I just have to force myself to venture into new places. So, as it happens, I forced myself to step inside New Lun Ting. Upon sitting down at the counter, I was handed three menus, double-sided, that lists all kinds of Chinese dishes, some of which look pretty interesting. However, the first time I played it safe and, after waiting around forever to have my order taken, ordered the beef chow fun, which is my standard "play-it-safe" dish. I didn't really notice anything special about it, but I did notice something special about what other people were having.
I noticed big piles of spaghetti on their plates and piles of canned corn. I noticed meat and large pieces of vegetables covered in sauces the colors of which aren't normally found in nature. And I noticed that as I was asked whether I wanted tea or coffee, I chose tea, but most people chose coffee. And then there was the small square of jello for dessert.
"How bizarre", I thought.
Some time had passed since my initial visit to New Lun Ting, and while I wasn't impressed with the Chinese food, the thought of seeing what other people were eating, as well as the whole feel of the joint, stuck with me and nagged at me.
The second time I went back, I decided to have what the regulars were having.
After looking at the menu, I asked one of the waitresses/cashiers what was popular with the regulars. At first she said the roast pork, but only if I had time to wait. And if I was in a hurry?
She pointed over to the table of white PG&E workers who were all eating the same thing.
"Or, you might like what they're having. The marinated pork chop with spaghetti". She seemed quite enthused about it, so I enthusiastically said, "OK! Sure!"
I think she seemed pleased that I took her advice.
At first appearance, you might believe the two women who work as waitresses are surly. However, don't confuse surly with simply being "all business". In fact, after thinking about it, these women are the Chinese Flo and Alice, minus the uniforms. All business, but certainly interested in how you're doing, all while taking orders, delivering food, collecting money, and making sure your coffee mug stays full.
Regarding the roast pork: to tell you the truth, I didn't know what to expect. I knew that unless it was absolutely wretched, I'd be stuck eating eating it and most likely finishing it off. Before the meal arrived, I was given a small bowl of soup, which is generally customary in Chinese-owned restaurants. The soup was typical pork broth soup, salty, clear, a little bit greasy, and with small pieces of gourd squash and lotus root sitting at the bottom.
It wasn't spectacular, but it was warm and nourishing.
When the food finally arrived, it was steaming hot. And when I saw the presentation and realized what everything actually was, I just had to laugh a little. First of all, why am I eating food in Chinatown my mom could've cooked, and actually cooked well? I mean, I could do this dish in my sleep!
What it was was three, thin, marinated, bone-in pork chops that had been pan fryed and covered in a semi-transluscent, brown gravy. They were nudged up against a big mound of hot, plain, spaghetti noodles covered in marinara sauce and topped with corn, like you would get from a can.
Someone must really like canned corn there because I noticed it in all of the "western-style" dishes. It's like Chef Jia's down on Kearny, who puts yams in everything. I mean, you could do take out from Chef Jia's every day and not ever have to go on hormone supplements.
OK, not really.
While I thought at first this dish could possibly do nothing for me, boy howdy was I wrong! After a few bites, I actually found myself enjoying it! The flavors weren't complex, but they also weren't missing. The spaghetti sauce – it was just spaghetti sauce, not too heavy, not too acidic, not chunky, and very tomato-y. The corn – well, that's something a Southerner would put on his or her plate. Corn and spaghetti? Why not?
And the pork chops weren't half-bad either! Again, very basic preparation, but flavorful and tender.
As soon as I finished, I was presented again with the small plate of jello. It seems no matter what you order, you get the jello. This also amused me so, of course, I had to eat it. Perhaps it was my inner 6 year-old guiding my fork.
For $6.95, this is cheaper than therapy.
My next trip back to New Lun Ting was spurned on by the fact that I hadn't had the roast pork, nor anything with the mystery technicolor sauces. After googling New Lun Ting to see if anyone had the same experience as I had, I only found one reference to the roast pork, and that was by Leland Wong, who had lent me the use of one of his old Chinatown photos over at Bacon Press. He also is a big fan of the roast pork, so it can't be all that bad!
As I walked into New Lun Ting, I pretty much had the routine down. Seat myself at the counter, hang my coat up on the hooks behind the counter, ask for coffee, and without seeing a menu, order the roast pork. Instantly, I was a New Lun Ting regular and welcomed into the fold.
That's another thing I like about this place. It is a place for regulars; not tourists, not lunchtime white-collar workers from nearby offices. If you want to find them, go to Great Eastern or Hunan Homes. Hell, even Chung King has gotten more of that traffic, no doubt spill-over from Hunan Homes; and, of course, prices have risen slightly since.
But you won't see the local hotels sending their guests over to New Lun Ting. It has absolutely zero tourist appeal. Ditto with the office workers.
I mean, why come to Chinatown to eat spaghetti when North Beach is just up the hill?
But that's not to say that you won't find non-Chinese people eating there. Somehow or someway, perhaps like myself, a small handful of non-Chinese folks have discovered the big plates of westerner food and the cheap, but tasty looking hamburgers. These folks, as far as I've seen, aren't blue shirts or suits. Perhaps they were driven there by necessity. Or perhaps they are simply misanthropes. Regardless, they see me and I see them, and perhaps we are both wondering the same thing: "why the fuck is he here?"
Besides the gweilos, Old School best describes the feel of New Lun Ting. This is a place I imagine immigrant and American-born Chinese coming to for years, if not decades. I sure would've loved to see it in its heyday.
But while I'm waxing nostalgic about a past I never lived through and barely understand, I notice my soup has arrived. Again, I have to laugh little. The soup of the day isn't the typical Chinese broth – it's clam chowder.
OK, so I eat my clam chowder and it's not bad. You may be reading this and thinking to yourself, "you know, the food probably isn't good. It's just that he thinks it's better than it is because if it wasn't served in an old Chinatown dive, he wouldn't look at it twice".
OK, that's a fair statement and probably true. However, a dive is a dive anywhere. Personally I think it is a little special that New Lun Ting serves what they do and honestly, I would probably eat this meal somewhere else. Would I go out of my way for it? It depends. I mean, Foster's Big Horn or Al The Wops aren't exactly culinary meccas, but I'd make a special trip to visit them.
After finishing my soup and reading the paper for a bit, out comes the roast pork. Did I mention corn?
Ah, look at that lovely yellow color! What is that? Well, it appears to be some sort of chicken gravy, but then, why chicken gravy on pork? As weird as it is, at least it matches the white of the rice and the bright yellow of the corn!
The pork is pretty decent. It is roasted alright, and it's tender. It's a little gristley in some spots, but for the most part it is a large, hot, and satisfying piece of $5.90 technicolor gravy-covered meat.
The corn? Well, it's just corn.
My jello comes out, but surprise! It's strawberry jello. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention earlier that the jello flavors, and I suspect the soup, also must change with the day.
Hey, you gotta mix it up a bit.
How many other restaurants in Chinatown do the same? How many other waiters/waitresses even bother to remember what you had the last time?
The last time I was in New Lun Ting I ordered the pork chop again and towards the end, as I was paying up, the waitress gave me a meaningful look.
"You becoming regular."
That made me feel good.