San Francisco tour includes a stop at a fortune-cookie company in Chinatown


January 01, 1995|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The Chinese women deftly grabbed the hot, flat cookies from the press and quickly folded them in the familiar triangle shape, tucking the fortunes inside.

"So that's how they get the paper inside the cookies," 8-year-old Reggie said, pleased to discover the secret. Along with another family, we were crowded into the minuscule Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co., tucked in an inconspicuous storefront on Ross Alley in San Francisco's Chinatown. An amazingly efficient assembly line was going full speed: In a space considerably smaller than most children's bedrooms, each worker would shape 1,200 cookies an hour. We felt we'd been given a privileged glimpse into another world. The kids left smiling, clutching a bag of newly baked cookies.

We learned a bit of San Francisco lore, too, which has provided fodder ever since for party conversations: Fortune Cookies were invented in San Francisco, but not in Chinatown. They first were served at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park (where we enjoyed them also). Chinese restaurants borrowed the idea, turning their production into big business.

We wandered through Chinatown's narrow streets, stopping to gape at the whole roasted ducks and pigs hanging in store windows, the piles of sea slugs and 1,000-year-old eggs (they've actually only been preserved a few months, but look ancient because they turn brown, with a green yolk).

We watched a tea ceremony and saw elderly men playing Chinese chess in Portsmouth Square. It is where San Francisco really began: A ship captain named William Richardson pitched a tent and then built San Francisco's first house here in 1835.

There's no more exciting time to visit San Francisco's Chinatown than in the coming month as the city welcomes the Year of the Boar. Two weeks of Chinese New Year festivities begin Jan. 28 and culminate with the famed Chinese New Year Parade on Feb. 11 at 5:30 p.m. (For information on the festivities, call the parade and festival office at [415] 391-9680. Consider a Chinatown walking tour. Try Wok Wiz at [415] 355-9657 or Chinatown Discovery Tours at [415] 982-8839.)

But anywhere you wander in San Francisco, you're bound to come face-to-face with different cultures and history (or historic trivia). At the same time, you'll share new experiences that will please the junior as well as adult travelers in the group. (For visitor information, call the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau at [415] 391-2000.)

Take the city's famed cable cars. Matt, who is 10, and Reggie loved going up and down San Francisco's steep hills. Take time to visit the Cable Car Museum at the corner of Washington and Mason streets. The kids can learn how Andrew Hallidie, a young engineer, thought an underground steel cable could pull San Francisco's streetcars more safely than horses. He wouldn't give up, even though people scoffed at his idea. More than 120 years after the world's first cable car made its initial run in San Francisco, peer over a balcony at the Cable Car Barn to see the giant wheels turning, pulling the cables under San Francisco's streets.

A cable-car tip for novice riders: Face the direction you're going and hold on around the curves. Tell the conductor when you want to get off.

Across the city, down at Fisherman's Wharf, we laughed at the huge sea lions lounging at Pier 39, the shopping-cum-amusement center that boasts everything from dozens of shops to an antique Venetian carousel. Hundreds of sea lions have made their home here since the 1989 earthquake. Here's how to tell the difference between sea lions and seals: Sea lions have ear flaps and walk on all four flippers on land. Seals have no ear flaps and crawl on their bellies.

From Fisherman's Wharf, we rode a ferry to Alcatraz and toured the famed prison where the most dangerous convicts were sent. It's now a historic site. "I wouldn't want to be stuck here," Matt muttered, peering into a bare, dank cell.

Another day, we spent hours exploring the indoor and outdoor attractions in the 1,000-plus-acre Golden Gate Park. The kids climbed the Drum Bridge and slid down the steep slides right over some rocks at the Children's Playground, the oldest public park playground in the country.

During a rain shower, we amused ourselves at the California Academy of Sciences, looking at fish in the Steinhart Aquarium and rocks in the Gem and Mineral Hall. My Midwestern troops loved feeling the earthquake at the Safequake exhibit.

Wherever we were, eating was as much an adventure as sightseeing. San Francisco is a first-rate city for introducing kids to new foods. We ate creamy clam chowder in sourdough bowls along Fisherman's Wharf; sushi in Japantown; pasta in North Beach, which boasts 75 Italian restaurants in a few-block radius; sundaes made with Ghiradelli chocolate and, of course, Chinese food in Chinatown.

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