Munchies

This Restaurant Tells the Story of San Francisco's Chinatown

Mister Jiu's is more than just an homage to chef Brandon Jew's Chinese heritage; it's a statement on the changing face of San Francisco's Chinatown.

by Brandon Jew
Apr 27 2017, 8:37pm

Photo by Derek Yarra

In 2014, Four Seas was toward the end of their lease, and I was putting it out there that I was looking for a space in Chinatown; I wasn't looking for a space anywhere near this size, but I was like, "Fuck, I can't turn my back on this building." It's in the heart of Chinatown, and I have some great childhood memories there. My uncle even got married here. The soul of this building is steeped in Chinatown celebration history, and it deserves to live on.

One of the reasons I feel comfortable as a chef is because I went to school as a biology major—life systems and the structure of plants and animals have always interested me. I have always believed that part of my role as a chef is to work with local farms and ask questions about their farming practices so that I can ensure the quality of what I serve.

I also wanted to go into architecture; I was all over the place. I've been threatening to go back to school when I turn 50 to be an architect. That's why I love this neighborhood, too—architecturally.

Photo by Derek Yarra

Before we renovated this space to become Mister Jiu's, it was the Four Seas restaurant for about 50 years—hosting weddings, political fundraisers, and red egg ginger parties for the local community—and before that, it was a restaurant called Hang Far Low, which opened in the 1880s. With the shutdown of Four Seas and Empress of China—which closed around that time, too—the neighborhood lost two of the biggest and most historic places to celebrate within Chinatown. For long-established businesses, the competition to stay relevant or to become an institution is increasingly impossible. 

In the back of my mind, I think of how short-lived restaurants are these days and how rare places like Four Seas and Empress of China have become in San Francisco. When they closed, the community was like, What's going on? They found out the real estate person was pitching a lot of tech offices, and that really boiled people's blood. That's the hard part about the climate of San Francisco right now: If you own a building, and that building's old as fuck, it's payday right now.

"Gentrification" is such a buzzword here, because the fabric of San Francisco is these districts that are very distinctive. As this change is happening, everyone's very protective over their neighborhood. Even with Mister Jiu's, there were people who wrote about how it was gentrifying the area. I wasn't sure if they did their homework: I'm a Chinese-American kid born in San Francisco, passionate about Chinese food, opening a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown—what gentrification are you talking about?

But I worry about places like Eastern Bakery—my parents talk about hanging out there after high school to eat coffee cakes and stuff. Their operators are now very old; who's going to continue their legacy?

Photo by Derek Yarra

The businesses here now have to cater to mostly tourists. When opening Mister Jiu's, I contemplated, how do we get people to come back here to enjoy this historic neighborhood again? And food is the best answer. 

I'm on the hustle right now, trying to wrap up the money and the paperwork to renovate the upstairs banquet hall. I really wanted this restaurant to be a place where people can continue to celebrate in Chinatown, and for it to remain accessible for people in the neighborhood.

"I have always felt that Cantonese food and California cuisine have a similar soul."

Through my chef training, I've come to understand the value of ingredients that come from organic and biodynamic farms, and how using them in your pantry can transform the basis of your food. When you compare the prices to what the place down the street's charging for a lunch plate—I can't compete with that. But I hope people that come to Mister Jiu's can taste the difference. 

WATCH: Brandon Jew Shares His Favorite Bay Area Eats on Chef's Night Out

Part of my frustration with Chinese-American food was that everything was tasting the same to me. I'm positive that every restaurant makes a dish better than the next, but you don't know that when you walk in, because there's so many things [on the menu]. I'm sure the initial thought was, let's give so many options that people feel like they can find something they want. But I wish places would just tell you what they feel passionate about making, or which dishes they think are exceptional.

Photo by Derek Yarra

I'm making alkaline noodles because chow fun is one of my favorites; I love the texture and how it absorbs sauces. We put a little aleppo pepper in to give it a really nice color. We're making everything by scratch—our noodles, wrappers, buns, pancakes, and dumplings. We recognize that it takes a long time to master each of these things, and we want to get on that road.

My grandma is the reason why I'm very obsessed with ingredients. When I was a kid, we would spend a whole day going to different markets just to get one thing there. We took the bus from the Richmond district, and when we finally got to Chinatown, it was an adventure of getting Chinese sausage from this place, and then getting greens at that place, and then picking up a live chicken. At that spot, they'd [kill the chicken] on site. It was awesome.

I wanted to take a lot of preservatives out of the pantry of Chinese food; typically, there are a lot of fillers and stabilizers, and we work on our recipes to replace those with better ingredients. For example, we don't use MSG, because I think we can be more creative about how to get those flavors. You can find that umami quality in things from the ocean or the earth, or from cured meat. Instead, we can use bottarga (cured fish roe) and pork floss.

Photo by Derek Yarra

When you go to Chinatown, you see all those jars of dehydrated things, which have always fascinated me. I wondered, Where do those shrimp come from? How long have they been sitting in that jar? Having control of those things is important to me, so I figured, why don't we just dehydrate things ourselves? So we dehydrate everything—our own shrimp, scallops, mushrooms, seaweed, rice, onions, and scallions. The list goes on.

"Even something like Peking duck—who the fuck thought to blow air through the skin of the duck, and then baste it with sugar and soy, and then hang it up and dry it with a fan for two days and then roast it?"

Our XO sauce is made with shrimp that we dehydrate, and we reconstitute them by frying them with ginger, garlic, scallions and chili. XO sauce, to me, is always made from a mix of dried ham and dried seafood, so we use a mix of spicy salami. For other ones, we use nice prosciutto. We take time to build a pantry here with items we believe in.

One of our garnishes is these tea eggs we make that look like eyeballs. Usually, tea eggs are hard-boiled and cooked in dark soy, spices, and heavily brewed black tea. I've always loved them, and we combined that idea with the eggs in gelée that I loved eating in Paris. We soft-boil quail eggs and set them in an aspic made of toasted barley tea, and serve them with an amaranth cracker and caviar.

Photo by Kassie Borreson

The first dishes you get at the beginning of a Chinese banquet are usually this mixed platter of cold cuts—often ham, jellyfish, and beef shin—which I assume is just operationally very easy for the restaurant. I wanted something that evoked that memory for people, so since we get a whole pig delivered here every week, we wanted to do something with the head. We butcher the pig head from its throat all the way back, and we bone out the cheeks and the temple and everything to make the Devil's Gulch Pig head.

Our char siu pork sauce is made with a fermented tofu—it's super-red, but all-natural—and bulls' blood beets. It stains the meat red and gives it that distinctive Chinese barbecue flavor. We also make our own lap cheong, which we stuff into hog casings and leave to dry for a couple days. It's been really fun to use my charcuterie experience through a Chinese lens. Our Chinese sausage gets put into a sticky rice, and served with some roasted figs, so it's a kind of Californian-Chinese mashup.

Photo by Derek Yarra

I have always felt that Cantonese food and California cuisine have a similar soul. You're looking to showcase pristine ingredients and express them purely. Both cuisines value food that looks like food. Looking at mainland Cantonese dishes, [I think about] how to express the past, present, and future in my cooking. The past is my memories and that nostalgia, the present is the local and seasonal products from our farms, and the future is letting loose and using some contemporary techniques.

RECIPE: Green Garlic and Egg Drop Soup

After I got my degree in 2001, I moved to Italy. I'd been cooking part-time while I was in school, and loving it every step of the way. I couldn't afford to go to culinary school, and I was still paying off my college loans, so I found apprenticeships—first in Piedmonte, then in Bologna, where I lived upstairs from the restaurant and worked all the time.

Photo by Pete Lee

Bologna, and the food history there, is where I wanted to be: the land of Parmesan and prosciutto and balsamic. That's part of what I've always enjoyed about food: how you can tell stories through food and remember people through food. With ma po tofu, for instance, someone invented that, and it's still being eaten to this day. Even something like Peking duck—who the fuck thought to blow air through the skin of the duck, and then baste it with sugar and soy, and then hang it up and dry it with a fan for two days and then roast it? The duck, as cliche as it is, is one of the quintessential dishes here—I want people to have the experience of coming to Chinatown and having roast duck.

As the world becomes more globalized and homogenized in some ways, there's still a desire, at least for my generation, to hang on to some of these things before they get more and more diluted.

There's a lot of crossover between Italian and Chinese cuisines, too. There's such a pride for the regionality of the food. In Bologna, it was so intense how much they put into preserving their traditions. There's a monument there for tagliatelle, saying exactly how wide and how long it should be. 

After coming back here, the authenticity question comes up all the time. I'm trying to make food that's authentic to San Francisco, and to this neighborhood. This neighborhood was where people were creating dishes that attracted an entire city.

Some of the dishes I wanted to do here are nostalgic to my parents, stuff they ate at home. The spelling of my grandfather's name got changed, which happened to a lot of immigrants, because when he arrived in the US, the processor figured, "This is how I spell Jew. J-E-W." (My grandfather used that name to get into America, but it wasn't even our real family name. I haven't really told people that, because it would probably confuse them even more.) But my idea with changing the spelling of the name was, if my name was "Jew," it should be spelled traditionally: "Jiu." Jiu has so many meanings to it, [depending on] the way you pronounce it.

Photo by Derek Yarra

When my grandmother was passing away, I wanted to get recipes from her and I wasn't able to. She had stage-four cancer that came on very quickly. It made me realize how fragile these recipes are, and how important it is to pass them down. As the world becomes more globalized and homogenized in some ways, there's still a desire, at least for my generation, to hang on to some of these things before they get more and more diluted. 

I found a parallel with Chinese food and Chinatown in the sense of what it means when something is passed down, in this neighborhood. I'm trying to dedicate the rest of my culinary career to Chinese food, and I'm just on the edge of learning a lot of things. It's going to be a lifelong creative journey.

Brandon Jew is the chef and owner of Mister Jiu's, a Cantonese-American restaurant in San Francisco, California.


As told to Hilary Pollack. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.