Sandwiched between Downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt, Oakland Chinatown’s current location with its densely populated, compact blocks may have resulted from exclusionary and racist laws stemming from the 19th century. But through the years, it’s remained both a landing and launching pad for Asian immigrants to come into their own.
One of the most striking features of Oakland Chinatown is its steady defiance against becoming an attraction or spectacle. It can’t always avoid comparison with its flashier sister across the Bay, but you hear from locals time and again that what makes Oakland Chinatown unique is that it is in fact a living Chinatown with businesses that serve residents over the needs of trendy neighbors or tourists. With its prime location, however, it hasn’t been immune to the steady erosion of gentrification and displacement. That’s only been all the more apparent as we emerge slowly from the COVID-19 pandemic and residents, particularly elders, continue to face community safety issues.
As an organizer with Cut Fruit Collective, formerly known as Save Our Chinatowns, I know that in spite of it all there are businesses ready to serve up tasty meals to residents and visitors alike. I hope this guide not only inspires many good meals, but also an appreciation for what this neighborhood is: a living, breathing community serving its residents.
Cut Fruit Collective is an SF Bay Area grassroots group creating art for AAPI community care. They recently changed their name and broadened their scope to expand their projects and mutual aid efforts across other AAPI communities. One common thread across this deeply diverse group? For all of us, the act of cutting and preparing fresh fruit for others is a quiet, yet powerful gesture of care and support - our quintessential love language. You see acts of care like this every day in Oakland Chinatown.
Sure, when you pass through Oakland Chinatown, it seems to be dominated by food-related businesses, however, I want to begin by highlighting a few meaningful public spaces for residents. As one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Oakland, community spaces here are truly precious real estate.
Pacific Renaissance Plaza
Start your day at Pacific Renaissance Plaza. The plaza itself is a mixed-use complex providing residential, commercial, and communal space. If needed, park your car in the garage and venture up to find the Asian Branch of the Oakland Library, the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and the open-air plaza where residents and visitors mill about by the central fountain. This also happens to be home to a few iconic restaurants (more on those below), including Peony Seafood, Gum Kuo, and The Sweet Booth.
A much fought over piece of real estate, Madison Park today remains a space for outdoor gatherings - whether that’s tai chi, line dancing, badminton, or more recently vigils and rallies against hate crimes and violence. In the 1970s, the construction of BART led to the displacement of over 10,000 residents of the neighborhood. Conflicts over park usage and BART projects continue to this day with the tai chi community actively speaking out against development that doesn’t serve residents’ needs.
Asian Health Services
Throughout Chinatown, you’ll spot several buildings belonging to Asian Health Services. Founded in 1974, AHS clinics ensure access to health care for the AAPI populations regardless of language, income, insurance, or immigration status. It’s a pillar in the community and a reminder that immigrants continue to rely on services offered in Chinatowns.
Lincoln Square Park
In 1935, the Wa Sung Community Service Club built and opened the Chinese Center in Lincoln Square Park as a Depression-era WPA project, and it’s since become an anchor for Chinatown. Before the pandemic, you’d see elders practicing tai chi, chess players crowding around tables, basketball pick-up games, and children in the playground climbing the iconic junk boat. For the past year, it’s sadly been a bit too quiet, but like Chinatown, we can expect this treasured space to bounce back quickly. Learn more about Lincoln Square Park’s history and plans to expand through Friends of Lincoln Square Park.
Lining the streets of Chinatown, there are many small grocers and markets offering fresh produce, seafood, tofu, and more. Andria Lo, photographer of the sartorial blog and book Chinatown Pretty, suggests stopping by in the morning if you want to spot the joyful, bold fashion choices on full display worn by elderly residents as they do their shopping.
As a second-generation owner, Finnie Phung prides herself on offering the freshest seafood and meat. Before the pandemic, Green Fish supplied many restaurants throughout the Bay Area, but lost much of that business once COVID hit. Now more reliant on foot traffic, she’s built out a colorful parklet in front of the market filled with fresh greens, vegetables, and fruit.
Opened in 1931 by the Quan family, Yuen Hop remains one of the oldest establishments in Oakland Chinatown still standing. Their signature items range from both egg and rice noodles to dumpling skins - all made fresh with a perfectly springy chew. You can also pick up a range of greens, vegetables, fruits, sauces, and other pantry items.
Plant-based protein and mock meat have been an integral part of Chinese cuisine for millennia. For anyone like myself eating a more plant-based diet, Layonna is a must-visit. It’s a key supplier for the growing community of plant-based restaurants in the Bay Area. At the shop, they stock a wide range of proteins and meat/seafood substitutes, including textured vegetable protein, shrimp, fish, tofu, and more. Don’t miss out on their vegan-friendly fish sauces or XO sauces either.
When you look closely at the food available in Chinatowns, you can unravel migration patterns and stories. Many of the classic dishes you’ll find in Chinatowns across the US reflect the Cantonese-speaking demographic of southern Chinese immigrants, and even more specifically from the Toishan region of Guangdong Province. Oakland Chinatown offers the opportunity to explore the wide range of styles and generational differences found within Cantonese cuisine.
Located on the top floor of Pacific Renaissance Plaza, Peony Seafood Restaurant is a quintessential Cantonese-style dim sum banquet hall. During the day, you’ll find steamer baskets filled with dim sum adorning the tabletop lazy susans. They’ve got the classic soup dumplings, chicken feet, and pork buns available alongside newer additions like delicately crafted crispy durian fritters and oozing custard buns. Though events were on hold throughout the pandemic, weekend evenings in the past would usually be reserved for special occasions and weddings in their banquet rooms.
Another avenue to explore in Cantonese cuisine is the vast amount of medicinal dishes and herbal soups. If you’re seeking restoration, Imperial Soup will have the right remedy for you. Select from several soups consisting of meat, seafood, and various herbs, along with rice and noodle plates. Make sure to try their classic Hong Kong-style steamed milk too. It’s a silky pudding with a custardy consistency that melts on your tongue giving way to the slightest hint of sweetness. It can be enjoyed hot or cold, but I love it best as a warm treat.
On days where I just want to retreat from the world, Gum Kuo is where I go for my ultimate comfort foods: congee and stir-fried bitter melon. Their congee is thick, flavorful, and rich with chunks of tender meat and seafood. If bitter melon isn’t your dish of choice, they’ve also got chow fun and rice plates. Enjoy any/all of this with a platter of barbeque pork, Hainan chicken, or roast duck, which you’ll see hanging in the window as you walk in.
Tastee Steam takes the Cantonese art of steamed foods to the next level. Similar to a shared cooking experience like hot pot or Korean BBQ, here you have a communal steamer at your table for seafood, meat, or vegetable dishes, and your server sets a timer for each dish. Underneath the steamer tray is a cauldron of bubbling congee that cooks and catches all the drippings over the course of the meal. This style of preparation ensures your fish, clams, or oysters are perfectly cooked every time - and you get to finish the meal with a satisfying bowl of that super flavorful congee.
Shooting Star Cafe takes after Hong Kong-style cafes also known as cha chaan tengs. These cafes catered to the working class looking for around the clock, affordable, and quick food usually paired with a strong cup of milk tea. Reflecting the British Empire’s colonial influence, the dishes mash-up European and Chinese flavors with staples like scrambled egg sandwiches, macaroni soup, beef chow fun, and congee. This place is also popular with the late-night crowd looking for more contemporary desserts like egg puffs, shaved ice, and sago puddings.
REGIONAL CHINESE & OTHER CUISINES
Within Oakland Chinatown, you’ll also find cuisines representing a wide spectrum of other Chinese regions and Asian diasporas. In the first half of the 20th century, Oakland Chinatown also became a landing pad for Filipino, Japanese, and Korean immigrants. By the end of the 20th century, Southeast Asians and a fresh wave of mainland Chinese immigrants arrived bringing their culinary traditions with them.
Dig into a bowl of Vien Huong’s beloved chow jew ho fun noodle soup and you’ll uncover another understated thread within the Chinese diaspora. The noodle soup, by way of Vietnam, originates from Chaozhou or Teochew, China (transliterated into “chow jew” by Vien Huong), a region in northern Guangdong province with a distinct culture and dialect separate from the rest of the province. I happen to have Teochew roots myself, and Vien Huong’s take on the noodle soup brings me back to the flavors of my mother’s home region whose diaspora and culinary influence extends across countries like Vietnam and much of Southeast Asia.
The thick ho fun rice noodles are submerged in a crystal clear broth and topped with heapings of homemade fish balls, chicken, pork, and liver. Opened in 1983, the second-generation owners have stayed true to their parents’ recipe only adjusting slightly to reflect some changing tastes of their customers. Cilantro? No. Extra fried garlic? Yes. Be sure to grab extra helpings of their chili sauce - their delicious take on the classic Teochew condiment, which brings a pleasant sweet heat to the otherwise delicate flavors of their dishes.
Get a taste of northern China at Tian Jin Dumplings with their signature jian bing, an egg crepe made with a mung bean batter, slathered in a spicy sauce, and stuffed with crispy you tiao (fried crullers). Owner Annie hails from the northern port city of Tianjin and opened her stand in 2013. Drop by for breakfast before hitting the produce markets and pair your crepe with boiled tea eggs and a cup of hot soy milk.
To round out the northern Chinese tour, stop by Huangcheng Noodles for a taste of Shanxi province and another take on shaved noodles. Owner Jimmy Huang, a former acrobat, used to hand shave the noodles, but now uses a machine to deliver consistently thick noodles and chewy consistency. After their original space closed from a devastating 2020 fire in Chinatown, Oakland organization Good Good Eatz helped him land a new space in Old Oakland. Our founder Jocelyn Tsaih and team member Maya Kulkarni then helped to redesign their logo and painted a mural bringing a bit of Jimmy’s bright personality to the space. Their take on classic tomato egg noodles hits all the bright, slightly smoky flavors you get from a well-fired wok.
This popular spot serves wheat-heavy, northern Chinese-style dishes including hand-cut noodles and dumplings. Every crevice in the thick noodles soaks up gravy and sauce, while the dumpling skins provide a satisfying bounce with every bite. Order zha jiang mian (spicy meat sauce noodles) or the ma jiang mian (sesame paste noodles), and get a scallion pancake too to add some crispiness to the mix.
I go to Spices 3 specifically for a tongue-tingling dose of the mala peppercorns found in southwestern Sichuan province. Try the classic dish liang fen, a spicy mung bean noodle dish doused in soy sauce and black vinegar and topped with chilis, or one of the other fiery Sichuan staples like ma po tofu, dan dan noodles, and water boiled fish in red oil. If you need a bold palate cleanser, try their Taiwanese-inspired stinky fried tofu.
After years spent in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, the first meal Anh Nguyen desired after landing in America was a simple Vietnamese banh mi at then Cam Huong Deli. Nearly 30 years later, Anh took over the business from the retiring owner and has maintained the hot dishes and banh mi while freshening up the menu. Walking into the shop, it’s hard to avoid the luscious fragrance of the housemade pandan waffles, for instance. Anh, an enthusiastic marathon runner and vegan evangelist, recommends her lemongrass tofu banh mi: stir-fried tofu infused with aromatic lemongrass is wrapped in a crisp baguette and topped with tangy quick-pickled julienned carrots and daikon. It all comes together with a gratifying crunch.
Last but not least, there’s nothing better than treating yourself to one of the many delightful hand-crafted snacks available in Oakland Chinatown - sometimes I just drop by the neighborhood to satisfy my cravings for flaky pastries. Fuel up in between meals or fill up a pink box at a bakery to bring to your next gathering.
Opened in 1957, the Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory is the oldest handmade fortune cookie maker in the Bay Area. To keep the business evolving, third-generation owner Alicia Wong added intricately decorated cookies to the mix, including colorful fortune cookies topped with chocolate, sprinkles, and even custom messages. Cookies are available to purchase online with curbside pick up at their 12th St. location.
I can’t tell you how hard it was to narrow this down to one Chinese bakery. The other candidates - Alice St. Bakery, Napoleon Super Bakery, Wonder Food Bakery, and the newest kid on the block, R’Noodle & Bakery - all have their takes on pineapple buns, sheet cakes, and traditional pastries. But if pressed, I would admit that Ruby King’s dan tat (egg custard tarts) have the flakiest crusts in town. Get them fresh out of the oven, and you can’t beat the winning combination of the crisp layers melting into the sweet, soft custard with each bite.
The Sweet Booth owner Calvin Tong never fails to remind every customer that his drinks are always made with fresh ingredients. Within the confines of his small booth, Calvin manages to craft the most refreshing smoothies, juices, and milk teas (with housemade boba, of course). The cult favorite is his avocado smoothie, with fresh taro milk a close second. My current obsession is his delicious Chinese-style bitter almond milk blended with fresh almonds and his homemade grass jelly. But on a hot day, you really can’t beat the freshly chopped watermelon juice. It’s Calvin’s practical care and attention to detail that keep his regulars coming back. When asked why he’s forgone using powders and continues to hand peel and cut fresh fruit to order for the past 28 years, Calvin answers resolutely, “It’s healthy... and more delicious!”