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Who Needs a Supermarket When You Have Stockton Street?

A primer on Chinatown's main drag's chaotic and delicious food shops. 

 

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. 

Where does the produce come from? While much of Chinatown’s produce used to be grown in Salinas, these days more comes from Central Valley growers who work through distributors or sell directly to stores. Mrs. Li, who runs the New United Supermarket with her husband, says that they get their fruits and vegetables from farms in Gilroy, delivered six times a week. Freshness is key: “If the leaves are yellow,” she says, “we refuse to take it.”

What are the big sellers? “People are looking for everyday produce,” says Chinatown native Calvin Leong, who runs VegiWorks, a produce distribution company that supplies restaurants and caterers. That means foods familiar to Western shoppers, like Napa cabbage, spinach, celery, oranges, Red Delicious apples, and garlic, as well as fruits and vegetables rarely seen outside of Asian-American neighborhoods, such as bitter melon, fuzzy melon, Chinese eggplant, ginkgo nuts, water chestnuts, and lychee.

And the preferred protein? The Hang Seng Meat Market sells the big three: lamb shanks for making soup, flank steaks, and, prominently, the other white meat. The shop’s owner says that pork is his biggest seller, especially to new immigrants: “The newcomers always buy pork. They don’t even know how to cook beef.”

How much does everything cost? Chinatown offers some of the best prices in town—and even those can go lower. Prices are posted, but as Francis Chan, of the city Office of Economic and Workforce Development, says, “Everything can be negotiated.” A worker at City Super recommends shopping at around 4 p.m. to get the best buys: “That’s discount time.” But be careful buying ginger and green onions—their prices have shot up recently as demand has exceeded supply.

How’s the parking? The worst—and sometimes even worse than that. The butcher across the street from Chinese Hospital says that construction has made it hard for his customers to find parking—so hard, in fact, that they’ve resorted to calling in their order ahead of time so that he can run it out to their car.

Are all these shops really independent? Actually, no. Many of the markets are owned by the same people, mostly members of long-established families. Though they look like competitors, they work together, says Chan: For instance, they’ll call each other with a heads-up when city officials are writing tickets for blocking the sidewalk.

How often do people in Chinatown shop? For seniors, a trip to the produce market is a daily ritual. “They might get two apples for the day,” says Chan.

How much is rent? A good question, and a hard one to answer. Much of the business between landlords and tenants is based on guanxi—personal connections— rather than a written contract. Let’s just say it’s hard to pin down.

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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