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Mayor Ed Lee Talks Chinese Food

Anita Lee and Ed Lee talk about Chinese food.
Anita Lee and Ed Lee talk about Chinese food.

[Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux]

Yesterday Mayor Ed Lee joined Eater for his favorite pork bun in town. Amidst a crazy campaign schedule, he and his wife Anita sat down for a quick 30 minute lunch break at Cafe Bakery & Restaurant, one of their family's favorite Chinese-American spots, which serves a mash-up of American and Hong Kong-style fare. Proprietress Annie Cheung greeted Lee with a huge, loving hug before showering the table with freshly baked raisin bread loaves and shiny pork buns the size of mini pumpkins. Before heading out to kick off the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at Harding Park Golf Course, the Mayor munched on a garden salad as he shared his thoughts on Chinese food, Chinatown and all of those pink plastic bags.

How was the morning? This morning at 8 a.m., I was at the Balboa Park BART station, the most active commuter station, and David Chiu and Phil Ting had the same idea. I think people on their morning commute were a little surprised to see all of us greeting them!

So, let's talk about Chinese food. What's your favorite go-to Chinese restaurant other than this spot? If we've got some kind of a celebration for dim sum, I'll go to Yank Sing. It's a little more expensive, but excellent. If our kids are in town, and we just want to go to dim sum, we'll probably go to New Asia in Chinatown. It's on Pacific. That's where a lot of the working class folks go to, housing residents, plus small business people are there, and they all know us because we've been there a lot. I'll take my staff out there. They don't want too fancy, but they want good dim sum. And there's a couple others we go to in the City. Hong Kong Lounge on Geary and 18th, very quality, very nice neighborhood Chinese restaurant. There's another one called the Mayflower on 26th and Geary.

What do you usually get? Dim sum I like because I don't have to get the same thing. I'm partial to the steamed and fried turnip. In the early years when Anita knew me, I would only order whatever pork buns they have, steamed or baked. Because I love pork buns. Over time, I have increased my cuisine to try all the other things, and I really like the turnip that's steamed first and fried on both sides, it's got pork in it and vegetables. It's actually really healthy for you because there's taro root in it.

What about dinner places? We have not wanted to limit ourselves to Chinese. We'll be in the mood for Thai, Italian, Indian, Vietnamese. We like Bodega Bistro. In the earlier years we liked Phnom Penh House in Oakland, when we lived over there with our kids. We haven't had a consistent Cambodian restaurant here in SF yet.

Do you ever eat in Chinatown? R & G is one of the most popular Chinese restaurants. A signature dish there is their salt & pepper crab. That's excellent. But I can't eat crab any more. I ate too much when I was young. I get skin irritation.

What would you say is Chinatown's importance to the city of San Francisco? There are different levels. Those who haven't been in the city for very long, like convention visitors, consider it one of the icons of the city. Clearly that's well established. For those that have lived here a long time, they look to it more for cultural and family associations, beyond the food and the facades. They're into the cultural celebrations, Chinese New Year, different festivals, the autumn moon festival, the Spring banquets. even the parades that they do for the funerals. When you go deeper into the culture, looking into the nuances of the different associations, merchant associations, who's doing what, who likes the night market better than Sunday Streets? Who's into ping pong, Badminton? There are things that a lot of folks that aren't Chinese don't know about.

How would you say Chinatown's changed in the past 25 years? You see the change in the fact that 10 years ago, you were lucky to find one person who would want to go through the process to become a supervisor, someone like Gordon Lau. He was very strange for his time. Today three out of the eleven candidates for Mayor are Chinese. Four out of the eleven are Asian. Those first three are coming up from the generations, hearing it's good to be in politics. Because, guess what? If we're not, decisions will be made without our input. And guess what? It'll hurt us. The generation I'm in is encouraging their kids to be socially conscious. It's just as valuable as being good at math and science. We told our girls we want them to be knowledgeable about the whole world. We insisted they learn another language other than Chinese. So they know Spanish too.

What's with all the pink plastic bags? I think they used to be red, but you have to spend more money to make them deep red, so I think pink is the cheaper option. That's what I think. [Laughing] We don't like plastic bags.

How do they get away with that? Cheap things they can buy in bulk. I'm going to work on a law about plastic bags. I was at the head of weaning them off of Styrofoam. It's been great that Chinese bakeries and restaurants have gotten off of them. We did it the right way. We started a huge educational campaign. Then we started making them self-enforce before the government enforced. We gave them a year to report to us who on the block is still using Styrofoam. I was the enforcer. I did it, what I call, the Chinese way. For a whole year, all the restaurants and bakeries were reporting about each other: who wasn't in compliance. I would send my enforcers out. Today there's about 100% compliance and nobody's had to be fined.

You think you might do something similar with plastic bags? Yeah, we have an industry that's still trying to push them. Right now plastic costs less than paper. We're trying to wean them onto recyclable bags. Right now it's just banned in bigger markets, we're going to have to lead with example and ban plastic bags all together.

Where do you live? Glen Park. In our own little neighborhood. Gialina is right there, and then the burrito place, La Corneta, is very very popular. My daughters grab the baby burrito every time they go on the plane back to New York.

Off the Chinese subject for a second, what about pizza? Patxi's or Little Star? I've never been to either one! There's Bucca di Beppo. That's the Italian restaurant right there on Howard St. I like their pizza. They serve some dishes on top of cans, and historically too I like North Beach Pizza.

If you had to sum up the difference between Chinatown and The Avenues, what would you say? It's been an evolution. We've been here long enough to know that everything used to be in Chinatown, and as rent went up, people started to look to other places. Housing was so congested in Chinatown, that Clement St. became like Chinatown #2. Then all of the sudden Taraval and Irving St. became Chinatown #3. And then Balboa, now you'll see Asian restaurants in Visitacion Valley, eventually they'll be in Bayview. A lot has to do with rent space, affordability and where people can expand with more shops. So for a while Chinatown was down in business and Clement St. was way up.

When? I think that was like in the late 80's and early 90's. Clement St. became very very popular, especially with the young kids who wanted to try out the new restaurants, Ton Kiang and Yet Wah.

Yet Wah just closed. Yet Wah was pretty hot in the 70's and 80's. It created pressure. It forced the restaurants in Chinatown to update. So, R & G did a complete remodel. All these pot sticker restaurants reinvigorated themselves. Back in the mid 80's and 90's restaurants were suffering all around. So what The Chinese Chamber did is led a movement to have everyone update all their bathrooms and facilities so they could say they were clean restaurants, because they were getting this cockroach kinda thing. As they renewed them, a lot more business came out. Now people are not only going to Chinatown, but all the other neighborhoods. I opened up a campaign office out on Clement St., and you can get so many different things out there.

What Chinese-American owned restaurant do you think represents the future of Chinese restaurants in SF? On any given night, you're going to see lines outside Hong Kong Lounge, R&G Lounge, I think that the diversity within the Chinese taste is growing, so that there isn't any particular restaurant, there are restaurants that excel because of the quality of the food.

Have you been to Wo Hing General Store or Mission Chinese Food? I haven't. Slanted Door, that's like Asian fusion. They do some scrumptious stuff. I think Asian food is always changing. One of the things we know is that every major Asian restaurant sends their assistant or manager to Hong Kong every year to find new flavors, new combinations. I think that's part of the cuisine movement, getting the most original flavors and ideas from China where masses of people eat out every day. Right down to the size of the dumplings.