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December 17, 2010 > Travel: Better than Chinatown - San Francisco's Clement Street

Travel: Better than Chinatown - San Francisco's Clement Street

By Denny Stein

Chinatown is one of the main tourist attractions of San Francisco. You've probably been there at least once, with visiting friends and family; streets are crowded with sightseers, shoppers, school groups, travel tours, and the folks who live there. The throng moves steadily and swiftly, knocking into you, catching your elbow, banging your bag. Just stopping to look in a window forces the wave of pedestrians to swerve out and around you. Too crowded? Too noisy? Too dirty? Then here's an alternative: Clement Street in the City's Richmond District. One can wax on about the tasty opportunities here, but I am struck by the eclectic offerings outside the ubiquity of dim sum, grocers, coffee houses, and bubble drink vendors.

One of the main appeals of Clement Street is the visual excitement. Nothing beats a good display: bright colors, multiples of items, high stacks, and block-length ribbons of possibilities. Maybe you don't need a pink or a yellow broom, or you already have three multi-colored laundry baskets, but you can never have enough plastic storage boxes with green, red and blue tops. Here's a pile of nesting baskets next to clusters of hangers swaying over mounds of lacy dish scrubbers in primary colors. And this is just one store, Kamei House Wares & Restaurant Supplies.

Inside Kamei, wonders reveal themselves like a stroll through the treasure caverns of Ali Baba. Perhaps I'm getting metaphorically carried away, but there is one wall of orchids, and another of those glistening wooden sushi boats. French coffee presses sit next to traveling alarm clocks. Bouquets of ladles stand by stacks of baking sheets, cooling racks and mixing bowls. You find dish soap and band-aids, chopsticks and carving knives, practical kitchen gadgets and whimsical decor in orderly ranks. And the second time you visit, you'll find something new you didn't notice last time.

Kamei isn't the only store of this kind, but it does seem to be the most prominent. Down the street is the May Shun Trading Company whose front door is flanked by flip-flops, silken Chinese slippers and buckets of artificial flowers, below tidy rows of toilet bowl brushes hanging from the top racks of the wire display shelves.

Our monthly visits to Clement Street are a bit ritualistic. After parking (easier when it's not lunch time), we always go to China First, a large restaurant with an extensive menu, in a red-fronted building. Large round tables are filled with Chinese-Americans, usually workmen, attesting to both the authenticity and reasonable pricing of our choice. We always order something new, off the menu or blackboard specials, and are rarely disappointed.

The next order of business is to stroll the street, which some might call trolling the street for bargains but let's be nice about it! There's no point in reeling off a list of store names because the fun is just popping in and out of the Mom and Pop emporiums as you pass them. You may be on a hunt for something specific or merely window shopping but it's all fun. One store is full of aquariums, the next may have a window hung with barbecued duck and trays of dim sum. There are a variety of clothing stores, from second hand to unique designer boutiques. My tastes tend toward plastic rabbit shaped clocks, but don't let me influence you.

Down at 642 Clement is Haig's Delicacies. On-line reviews seem to concentrate on the tiny deli seating and middle-eastern take out menu. But walk past the deli display at the front of the store and look at the jewelry case in the back, filled with glistening blue evil eyes, dark gold filigreed necklaces, bracelets, and other exotic beaded jewelry. Then let your nose guide you through the coffees and teas, English, Indian, Turkish and Greek specialty foodstuffs. The packaging alone is enticing enough to buy something without even knowing what it is.

Along the walls above your head are beautifully inlaid backgammon boards, underscored by shelves of espresso pots and bags of pistachio nutmeats, garbanzo beans and dried figs. On the way out, get a few pieces of Turkish delight made in California! And one more thing, Haig's headquarters is in Hayward. So you'll be supporting one of your hometown businesses in the process.

Time to sit down and have a cup of coffee and indulge in some pastry. Clement Street is the perfect place, if you can make a choice. Schubert's Bakery is popular, filled with beautifully decorated cakes and cookies. Or try one of the Asian bakeries with cases full of small custard pies and coconut sprinkled sweet bread twists. You can't go wrong. Afterward, you can salve your conscience with fresh fruit or vegetables to carry home from the sidewalk market displays. Pick up a book, used or new, for you or a grandchild, from Green Apple Books; it's one of those old-fashioned, poke around in the stacks, independent bookstores.

Whatever your tastes, your bound to find something to like or to amuse you on Clement Street, without being overwhelmed or stampeded by sightseeing throngs. My usual outing goes from 4th Street to about 13th Street, but venture further afield, make your own discoveries and report back. Just to get you started:

China First
336 Clement St., San Francisco
(415) 387-8370

Kamei Household Wares & Restaurant Supply
547 Clement St., San Francisco
(415) 933-8508

Haig's Delicacies
642 Clement St., San Francisco
(415) 752-6283

Schubert's Bakery
521 Clement St., San Francisco
(415) 752-1580

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