In the kitchen of the recently closed Four Seas restaurant on Grant Avenue, in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Brandon Jew is searching for rats. More than a century of cooking has occurred in this kitchen; now it’s an impressively long row of greasy wok stations under flickering fluorescent lights, its grime-coated floors unmopped for who knows how long. “Oh, God,” Jew says, discovering a desiccated rodent of unusual size. “It’s a skeleton.”
The rat hunt turns out to be no hunt at all. Jew swiftly uncovers another stiffened rat — like a giant wad of gray lint — and sweeps its body into a dustpan and then a garbage bag.
The former chef of SoMa’s swanky Bar Agricole, Jew, Chinese but not quite Chinese speaking, is one of the newest tenants in North America’s oldest Chinatown, a neighborhood made up of the city’s oldest of timers. Thirty-five years old, soft-spoken, and polite, Jew seems like he’d flourish in any number of contexts — you could take him to a kegger or home to your conservative Chinese family. In a nod to his grandparents, whose last name was processed incorrectly when they arrived in California from southern China, he’s calling his two-story, 10,000-square-foot restaurant Mister Jiu’s. Slated to open later this year, it will be the first new restaurant of this size in Chinatown in 30 years.
The place feels haunted (Jew mentions that it’s a stop on something called the Chinatown Ghost Tour), and how could it not? It’s been a restaurant since people were holding out their hopes for gold: first Hang Fer Low (“the Delmonico’s of Chinatown,” according to an 1885 travel guide), then Four Seas in 1960, when ownership changed. Until last November, Four Seas served Cantonese and Chinese American fare, dim sum and walnut prawns. It’s not hard to imagine how the place might have felt mid-century: the dirty, patterned carpet newer, the golden-lotus chandeliers shinier, the paintings brighter, the peeling booths tidier and packed with people. Upstairs was a banquet hall, once crammed full of tables. It was where Jew, as a kid growing up in the Sunset District, went to red-egg parties, at which parents introduce their babies and hand out dyed eggs for good luck.
The banquet tables are gone now. Jew has plans for a private dining room and test kitchen, where he will make Chinese pantry items (fermented mustard greens, rice vinegar, tofu, Chinese sausage) and teach cooking classes. Downstairs, tables will seat roughly 85 diners, with 15 more at the bar. The chandeliers are coming down so the brass can be polished; the old leather in the booths is being refurbished. “I’m looking to do more of a restoration than a remodel,” Jew says.
Opening a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown seems straightforward. In fact, it’s anything but. For as long as the neighborhood has lured tourists and San Franciscans with chop suey and egg foo yong, it’s also been closed to newcomers — they can come and go, but not stay. Buildings are owned by longtime Chinatown families who are rumored to charge outsiders higher rents; once upon a time, Chinese gangs sweated restaurant owners. (“‘We’ll protect you if you pay us,’ that sort of thing,” Jew says.) After Jew connected with the landlord of Four Seas, Betty Louie, it took a year of politicking and negotiating before he could sign the lease.
Jew climbs a narrow staircase to the roof for some fresh air. Looking over the neighborhood, you can see American and Chinese flags waving from poles; you can see lanterns strung up below, the kite store and the wok shop and the top of the Transamerica Pyramid, hinting at the world beyond Chinatown. A little ways down Grant there’s the Empress of China, its name emblazoned on the side of the building in that takeout-box font. It’s another iconic restaurant that shuttered at the end of 2014, not surprising in Chinatown, which for the past decade or so has had trouble competing with other pockets of the Bay Area that have become Chinese American hubs.
Jew was disappointed to hear about Empress closing. While we’re eating bowls of noodles and wontons at the nearby Hon’s Wun Tun House — yet another frozen-in-time, no-frills Chinatown establishment — he describes the trade-offs he’s been worrying about for years now: how to reconcile the old with the new, nostalgia with progress; how to open a compelling restaurant that not only pays the bills but revitalizes the community, attracting a diverse crowd to Chinatown and validating this chance that’s been taken on him.
The wontons we’re having at Hon’s, with their rich, porky filling encased in silky, industrial-made wrappers, are familiar tasting, like many a bowl of wontons in many an American Chinatown. Jew is interested in making wontons in a distinctly San Francisco-in-2015 way, using “pork from a local farmer that cares about how his pigs are raised, cabbage that’s grown from around here.” His menu will play on Chinese and Chinese American classics — things like Peking duck and sweet-and-sour pork, but made with better ingredients, as many as possible produced in-house. “Mission Chinese did a good job of making Chinese food a conversation again,” Jew says, referring to the Sichuan-inspired restaurant that’s attracted cult followings in San Francisco and New York. “For me, it’s wanting to try to continue that conversation, and continue to keep pushing what Chinese food is.” Jew has been taking notes on Chinese service: He wants to incorporate the things he likes (the big bowl of soup that’s ladled out at the table, for example) but has no qualms about ditching the things he doesn’t (like the hurried, less-than-gentle pace).
Jew has already agonized over all the varieties of pushback he may receive. Mister Jiu’s could be the most expensive Chinese restaurant in Chinatown — Jew knows this. “I can’t compete with a $5 bowl of wontons,” he says. “I know people” — Chinatown traditionalists — “are going to say it’s too expensive, your portions are small, and this is not Chinese food.”
It’s not, that is to say, the Chinese food that’s been served here, in this Chinatown, for as long as he can remember. But this Chinatown is changing. Jew has heard that the owners of Hon’s want to retire, too. “Which is understandable,” he says. “They’re pretty old. But it makes me sad. Who’s gonna take the torch of these places that have been here for so long?”