“What we’re talking about here is a potential loss of culture,” says the chef Brandon Jew about the pandemic’s effect on Chinatowns around the country. Jew’s roots are in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the country’s oldest, where his family has been for three generations. He grew up going to Eastern Bakery, and his uncle got married at the historic Four Seas Restaurant, the space that Jew’s restaurant Mister Jiu’s and bar Moongate Lounge now occupy. In 2020, he opened another restaurant, Mamahuhu, serving Chinese-inspired dishes, and on March 9, Jew and his co-author, Tienlon Ho, will publish Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown, in which he shares stories about his family history, thoughts on XO sauce and lazy Susans, and recipes for dishes like “Chicken in a Space Suit.” This week, Jew geared his own restaurants up for reopening, visited Zuni Cafe, and had a belated (but meaningful) Chinese New Year dinner with family.
Wednesday, February 24
Breakfast: Coffee. Banana. Granola. We usually drink Sightglass. We also have a subscription to Stumptown, so we just get it in the mail, which has been fun. We get granola from this local company called Nana Joe’s. I worked in the same kitchen as the owner a long time ago. That’s a lot of our mornings.
My wife is also completely addicted to this coconut yogurt called Cocojune. She has quarts of it lined up in the refrigerator, so I end up usually eating some just from being in close proximity. She loves that, and I’m pretty much lactose intolerant, but I love cheese. I love cheese so much that it’s hard for me to really just quit all dairy.
Lunch was staff meal: rice noodle soup with lemongrass chicken thighs. It was awesome. Our sous-chefs take it pretty seriously. We’ll reimburse them for certain things when they want to really get creative with it. Even for how small the gesture can be, I think something like a staff meal has been really impactful during the pandemic. These are meals that we used to do for 60 people. Right now, it’s for maybe six or seven people. I think that still being able to sit down with each other and enjoy food together has meant a lot. For my wife and me, it was really the largest meal that we had. We didn’t have any other people at our table for months.
For us in Chinatown, it’s been over a year of this. It’s been complicated, for sure. I think initially New York and San Francisco were experiencing slowdowns in the Chinatowns, and I think the community was quicker to say, “Hey, this is xenophobia.” My inclination was not to really lean too much into that, but the fact that there was a slowdown in the downtown meant there was a slowdown in tourism. It was hard for me to really believe that it was about xenophobia, in a way, because of how diverse the two cities are. But over the course of the pandemic, it has proven itself. It’s a surge, especially the violence against Asian communities.
Last year, I could just hear my grandparents saying “don’t.” It’s that model minority mentality — don’t cause any disruption, just suck it up and move on. I think this has catalyzed a lot of the community. We do need to speak up. We do need to come together to advocate for all Asian communities.
I talked to Grace Young recently, because she’s really doing some amazing work, especially highlighting New York Chinatown. But I think she’s worried that outside of San Francisco and New York, there are many tiny towns throughout America that are not getting the same attention or the same kind of advocacy. And then you start to realize that really what we’re talking about here is a potential loss of culture.
To me, San Francisco Chinatown is a representation of the success that an immigrant population can have as a community. The history of Chinatown is actually a story of perseverance and, I would say, struggle to bridge the community to the rest of America. Food has become such an important part of that. We have one last legacy banquet space here. It’s called Far East, and there was a story recently written about it because it was at great risk of closing for good. But they’re going to keep it open. When those legacy institutions go, the identity of our Chinatown becomes less rich.
I’ve gotten more out of the neighborhood than I had ever even imagined, as far as inspiration, as far as support, as far as even just the building itself. I think the hope is that maybe there are younger generations that also see there’s real value in some of these legacy businesses and might potentially want to continue them or continue them in their own kind of fashion. There are opportunities there that I think sometimes people don’t realize.
Dinner was mapo tofu from my other restaurant, Mamahuhu, also radishes, olive bread from Jane the Bakery, ricotta, and olive oil. I went into that restaurant to test some food. There was an egg drop soup that was causing some issues with the staff that I worked on. So I went to taste it and problem-solve a little bit. When I told my wife I was going over there, she was like, “I’m going to need one of those mapos.” She’s pregnant right now, which is awesome, and I’ve been trying to fulfill any food cravings she has. It’s fun for me. So I got her the mapo tofu.
Thursday, February 25
Breakfast was coffee and peanut-butter Puffins. I am a cereal guy.
We had staff meal at the restaurant again, but I had a sandwich from Jane the Bakery. My wife got it for me; it had a couple of cold cuts. There was mortadella. She knows I have a weakness for mortadella. It has been a weakness since I cooked in Bologna for awhile.
After I Ieft the restaurant, it was late enough that a lot of places were already closed, and we hadn’t done any grocery shopping. We were just exhausted. One of the things that my wife has really craved over the course of her pregnancy is smoothies. She has the freezer stocked with all of these different frozen fruits. There are blueberries and strawberries and pineapples and raspberries. So we had smoothies.
Friday, February 26
Breakfast was coffee and toast with jam and butter. The jam was a fig conserve from a company called June Taylor run out of Berkeley. She actually closed her business during COVID, and this was from the last batch of what she had. It felt appropriate to celebrate her contribution to local food-making.
At the restaurant, I had chow fun testers — curry versus beef and horseradish. We were recipe testing and the cooks gave me two full plates. I thought they both tasted really good. They both needed a little bit of work, but I think we’ll be continuing the recipe test throughout this coming week. And then we open on Friday and Saturday.
People have talked about chefs moving toward comfort food during the pandemic, and chow fun is one of my most cherished comfort foods. One of my sous-chefs Frankie just knows it’s one of my favorite things to eat. We didn’t really have it on the menu, because I was trying to figure out how to make it feel like a Mister Jiu’s version. I think I’ve realized really that the dish doesn’t need to be gussied up with anything. It’s just good as it is.
I think all of the older legacy businesses in Chinatown are the places and experiences that were nostalgic to me and my parents especially. My parents have a lot of stories of eating at certain places in Chinatown when they were growing up. So, again, the loss of culture is starting to crystallize. That threat is scary, and this is worth fighting to preserve. During the pandemic, I think I’ve started to realize my role as an advocate. And our Chinatown is — primarily, I’d say — an older community. They’re not on Instagram and they’re not online, but they’re being affected.
I felt like it is more of my responsibility to stick up for Chinatown and for Chinese Americans in that context. Even just running the restaurant here in Chinatown — especially driving to other communities and seeing how other neighborhoods are dealing with this — you understand that this is one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in all of San Francisco. There’s a lot of need for help for the community, and for the people running a restaurant here, well, the streets are empty.
For dinner, we got a lot of takeout from Nopa. We just got home, it was kind of a tiring day. We went big after Thursday’s smoothie night and got fried chicken, chicory salad, broccoli, kale, chocolate-chip cookies, and Garden Creamery pandan coconut ice cream. I wish that ice cream was vegan, but I don’t think it is. His fried chicken is, seriously, a gem. Big fan. lt’s kind of everything you want a fried chicken to be. It’s juicy, it’s crunchy, crispy. It’s seasoned really well. And then he serves it with just honey and it’s really good. It’s really, really good.
Saturday, February 27.
Breakfast was just coffee.
My sous-chef Sean made birthday pizza for his birthday. Also watercress salad. He made the dough, and we used a bunch of random toppings that we had in the restaurant. They were all tomato pizzas. Cheese. Some salami. We baked it in one of our ovens on a sheet tray. It was his birthday, so he wanted to have pizza, so he just made it.
For dinner, I pulled some frozen soup out of the freezer — smoked paprika, chicken, peppers, leeks, and white beans. Usually it’s hard for me to cook for just two people, so we end up with a couple quarts of extra stuff. I have quarts of some sort of soup or broth or some braise that I had made too much before, which a lot of times those come from wanting to clear out the refrigerator.
My wife jokes because they end up being a lot of different kinds of minestrones. I think this one, because there were peppers and stuff, it probably was from the summer. I usually always stock a can of some good tomatoes, and I always have good olive oil on hand. So once you have that combination, it’s pretty easy to put a minestrone together.
Sunday, February 28
Coffee for breakfast.
Had lunch, or brunch, at Zuni Café: anchovies, escarole salad, burger, and fried eggs. This was only our second time going to do outdoor dining. The first time, we went to the Progress, State Bird’s sister restaurant. That was, I think, in August or September. We haven’t done a lot of actual outdoor dining.
Zuni is near and dear to me. A lot of their staff is staff that had been working there even when I was working there over 15 years ago. It was nice catching up with people, checking in with them, and having a really nice brunch. I felt really appreciative for all these things that we do on a normal basis at the restaurant. I’m hoping that everyone else comes back to feeling that appreciation for what we do.
At night, we had a belated Chinese New Year dinner at my parents’ house. It was the soonest we could all get together. These days, it’s kind of chaotic at the table because my sister has two kids, my brother has two kids, and we are having our first. They definitely know how to bring the ruckus.
We had pork spare ribs, glass noodles, pea tendrils, shiitakes, and sticky rice. I think this year there were some things that we don’t normally have. The glass noodles really were something my grandma, my dad’s mom, made. My mom wanted to make a version of her dish, which was nice because it reminded us of her. My grandma also used to make these things called gai loong, and there’s only one place, Wing Lee on Clement Street, that we know of that still makes this dumpling. They’re particular to, I think, Toisan home cooking. It’s a glutinous rice dough that’s fried, and it’s very, very savory. It has dried shrimp, mushroom, and water chestnut. There are no pleats or anything. It’s just kind of a half-moon that’s crimped and then fried.
This year, the feeling was a little bit of a bummer, because usually Chinatown would be gearing up to do it’s big parade. That would have happened either Friday or Saturday this past week. When I talked to my mom, she said my cousin has been feeling more responsibility to continue our traditions. Even though they’ve all obviously had to be altered. We couldn’t celebrate with as many people. We can’t go to a restaurant to have a banquet meal. Or even just pass out red envelopes. All those things are just a little more subdued this year. So finding ways to continue to have the tradition and the celebrations, that became important to us.
It also felt important that we didn’t skip a year just because it might’ve been more difficult. I think the hope and the optimism and then just having your friends and family around you and all those things, you start to realign your priorities and the things that are important. It was a good year, I think, to jumpstart it even for my siblings’ kids, having them know the importance of the holiday. My grandparents really impressed that upon us as kids. And so I think it was about wanting the kids to know some of the traditions. That felt important, too.