China Live: Food, Decor, and Assimilating Into Westernized Culture

Sitting in the heart of San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, China Live is a sprawling, three story compound that houses a restaurant, bar, market, and more to come.

As I’m sure many ABC’s may wonder, why would I pay inflated prices to eat the same (if not slightly better) Chinese food that I can get much cheaper somewhere else? To me, it’s not just about the price – what China Live is doing is what Boba Guys did for milk tea: making it more accessible and friendly to those who are not used to what I grew up with everyday. It is elevating Chinese gastronomy, and with that, culture, beyond trite stereotypes. Nothing like Panda Express or PF Chang. No Mongolian beef or orange chicken or whatever watered-down Chinese food you see in these inauthentic chains (though there is a time and a place for those dishes). And at the same time, no dingy Chinese restaurants ambiance here, where you rinse your utensils with tea because you’re not sure how clean it is.

It’s an interesting space for sure, but to me, China Live is more than just a fancy market. Steeped in this restaurant and what it represents is the ongoing quest to modernize ‘foreign’ tradition, which mirrors a lot of cognitive dissonance I’ve felt as an American Born Chinese (ABC).  While I am certainly proud of my heritage, there are those times when I’ve had to balance that, with the embarrassment from foodshaming, which I’ve found is a shared experience for many ABC’s out there. Rather, China Live is a sophisticated and ambitious venture bringing diverse Chinese cuisine in a pretty little package, making it more palatable and accessible to the masses. 

As I was thinking about China Live, it reminded me strongly of a Facebook post detailing the foodshaming:

In the office, we have white bowls and clear bowls. Today, there were only clear bowls, but I went out of my way to get a dirty white bowl, wash it, and use it. why? because i have been subtly foodshamed in the past few years. this sounds silly but it actually has made me ashamed to eat the ethnic foods i eat in public. i’d rather use the white bowls so people won’t see my “ethnic” food and say, “what is that HORRIBLE smell? or ew, you’re eating that for breakfast? ugh. that is disgusting. i would NEVER eat that. i don’t understand why people would never eat such a thing. ugh. get your meat plate away from me. eating another giant slab of meat today?” in times like these i am especially sensitive, as small comments like these can eventually lead to something else. at first, i just laughed it off. then it happened again and i began to eat at different times to avoid people seeing what i ate during lunch. sometimes nowadays, if someone asked me where i ate or what i ate, and i ate something more “ethnic”, i am afraid to show them. i’ll describe it as something else more familiar and won’t share pictures. for things that are *really* out there, i won’t admit that i like them at all. i will agree with them and decide that it is a disgusting food, when really, i fucking want to eat it. GIMME THE DAMN GIZZARD! But instead, i’ll turn my back on it. it’s these small “casual” comments that are in fact not just insulting the food that i eat, that i’ve grown up with, but rather a dig at a whole culture. food represents more than food. i would encourage you to have an open mind, especially when it comes to “foreign” things in your everyday life. i don’t expect people to love everything i eat, but there is a difference between not liking something and shaming someone for liking what they like. it only takes one or two comments to blow the lid off pandora’s box, and today’s state of affairs, well it all started with just a few “harmless” comments.

Growing up, I’ve eaten some crazy things. I’ve traveled through China, eating everything from intestines to fish sperm to bugs. I’ve had some of the best meals in my life in the rural countryside— an array of clay pots and fresh vegetables, enough to serve five people for a mere $13. Yet, when I talk about food here, and share pictures, it’s about something like avocado toast. I don’t share other food experiences, for fear of sounding too other— too foreign, or disgusting, especially when you share online.

I know I’m pinning a LOT on a gourmet marketplace, but to me, this is a step towards reducing those subtle digs, those ‘harmless’ comments which can stick with someone for years. Foods from European cultures, such as foie gras in Paris or Ossobuco from Italy are often romanticized, but I don’t see anyone writing home about the braised pork shank from Taiwan. My hope is that as more people who might have been intimidated by traditional Chinese restaurants become more comfortable with Chinese food, they’ll begin to venture out of their comfort zones and learn to appreciate how diverse and special this culture is.

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Ok, now on to the *actual* China Live. As I had mentioned earlier, the place is absolutely stunning. You know I’m a sucker for good design, and China Live did not disappoint. Each different section of the marketplace has its own design theme— from the porcelain-inspired Boba bar to the comic-themed bathroom to the “Eately-esque” dining hall.

Don’t forget to look up to see the writing on the wall ceiling. Unfortunately my Chinese skills could use some improving, but I do see one of the words is tasty (or can also mean seafood when paired with another word).

On to the food. I am lucky to have been able to feast on a significant portion of the menu with my two visits. I will say this— the dim sum is stand out and on par with other fantastic dim sum at more conventional restaurants. However, a lot of the main entrées tended to be on the sweet side, as well as mild. This does not surprise me though, I would expect that the traditional dishes might be “toned” down a little to fit a wider variety of taste palates. One example in particular was the “Sichuan “working hands” wonton in mala chili broth”, which is one of my favorite Sichuan dishes in general. I’ve had it at least 10 different Chinese restaurants here in San Francisco. I was disappointed that the dumpling was hardly mala (numbing spice). It was extremely mild, and being accustomed to very spicy food, it didn’t seem spicy to me at all. It definitely was not numbing. The Sichuan Blistered Green Beans, Yunnan Olive, Pickled Radish, Salted Plum, Mushroom Toon is also another favorite of mine, but here it wasn’t garlicky enough and had a bit too much salted plum, making it overly sweet.

However, the dim sum is VERY good. The Sheng Jian Bao ‘SJB’, pan-fried pork dumplings, came out on a cute little cast iron pan. They were perfectly crisp on the outside and had a good amount of soup on the inside. I’ve had this at a few different places, and sometimes it’s not crispy enough or doesn’t have soup. The SJB hit all the marks here. Also, I typically don’t like Char Siu Pork “Crunch” Baked Buns, but I loved the one here. The top had a perfect crunch and the char siu was moist, but not too sweet (surprisingly). Another favorite is the Kurobuta Pork Loin Char Siu bao. To be honest I wasn’t completely sure which bao I was putting in my mouth but I can tell you it was damn tasty and exceeded my expectations.

And last, but certainly not least, OMG the dessert. Though it’s not the prettiest, I still think about the sesame soft serve and mango shaved ice. My initial reaction when I first heard the description was like “Hmmm that’s an interesting combo” but it really works. It pairs creamy, nutty sesame soft serve with crisp and refreshing mango shaved ice, and topped it off with sago and some sort of crispy bit. To be frank, I might be building up your expectations too high, but it’s a dessert I personally really enjoyed, and I’d go back to China Live just for that. And the dim sum.

In summary… Yes, I’d definitely go back to China Live. It is still new, so still working out some issues I’m sure. I also really did enjoy their dim sum, and would like to finish trying all the entreés. I am also looking forward to the launch of their fine dining floor AND rooftop bar! You don’t see those too often in San Francisco….

I’d love to hear what you think and if you’ve had any similar experiences. Please share below!

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