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The Wok Shop Abides

Since 1972, Tane Chan has schooled (and sold) us on Chinese cooking.


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here. 

“Chopping, slicing, mincing, dicing! It will do it all!” exclaims Tane Chan, gesturing toward a large cleaver. She’s giving the sell to a customer at the Wok Shop, the Grant Avenue store that she has owned since 1972. “I ship hundreds every week to Canada, Spain, Norway,” she continues. “And I’m gonna show you why. They stay sharp forever; it’s a miracle thing.”

Chan’s store, with its wall of cleavers, towers of woks, and numerous low-hanging paper lanterns, is narrow in size and expansive in reach. Thanks to its robust online sales, its woks—which are made in China and Hayward—routinely travel to points around the globe. “Even to Africa,” Chan says. “They can’t find woks there.”

The Wok Shop owes its existence in part to Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China, which piqued American interest in Chinese food. At the time, the only places that sold woks were “dark little stores,” Chan recalls. “Customers felt intimidated.” So she began stocking some woks in the Chinatown gift shop that she owned. Soon customers were also asking about utensils. “I said, ‘That’s a market,’” Chan recalls. Later that year, the Wok Shop was born.

In mission and appearance, the store has changed very little since its early days: It is arguably still the best place in the country to not only buy a wok and various accessories, but also learn how to use them. The correct way to season a wok is “the biggest thing—the biggest thing—that customers ask,” Chan says. She waits a beat. “We wok ’em through it!”

The most significant change to the business occurred in 1999, when Chan’s son convinced her to take the Wok Shop online. But Chan remains its nucleus, answering phone calls, coordinating FedEx shipments, and fielding customer queries. Her brand of service, while accommodating, has a certain blunt-force quality. When a customer asks if a steamer basket comes in a different size, Chan throws up her hands. “I don’t know, ma’am,” she retorts. “Too big, too small—China cannot make every little size!”

Given the multitudes the Wok Shop contains, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. But its chaos is controlled, with Chan its constant gardener. “You can always call,” she says. “We’ll ease your fears—you can’t ruin a wok.”  718 Grant Ave.


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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