On a recent muggy, aimless Saturday I met my friends Shane and Jessica and their young daughter at the Far East Center for lunch. We didn't have much of a plan, so after making a quick 360-degree spin in the middle of a parking lot alive with the sights and sounds of a market bazaar, we decided to grab a few items from Celestial Chinese Bakery and some banh mi from Vinh Xuong Vietnamese Bakery. Since neither place has tables, we eventually took our haul to a grassy strip under the shade of a locust tree at the back of the shopping center.
The two bakeries are very similar in atmosphere: cluttered, a little dingy, and foggy with the intoxicating aromas of fresh baked buns, barbecued meats and a potpourri of unidentifiable spices. Celestial distinguishes itself with a glassed-in display of barbecued duck and pork; whole mahogany-hued birds and various pig parts hang from hooks under hot lamps that keep the crisped skins gleaming with a slick of tantalizing fat. The display case and every inch of counter space are jam-packed with sweet and savory baked or steamed buns, rolls, tarts, cookies and dumplings. With so much to choose from, it's easy to just stand and stare like a dumbstruck kid in the Disney World gift shop. Tags in Chinese, Vietnamese and English (for those items with English names) are helpful. We were able to pick out barbecued pork buns, steamed chicken and mushroom buns, a couple of sesame seed balls and a humorously named banh hotdog for Shane and Jess's daughter. (Although honestly, what adult wouldn't love a hot dog wrapped in tender, sweet pastry dough?)
The bakery also distinguished itself with pots of uncovered meat parts sitting on the floor in front of the counter, in full view of customers. I'm far from squeamish and I love the open-market atmosphere that gives many of the strip malls on Federal a distinct atmosphere of far-off lands, but being presented with buckets of pig and chicken parts (destined for the trash or the oven -- I couldn't tell) conjured visions of days stuck in a hotel bed with stomach cramps rather than fantasies of succulent cuts of seasoned, grilled or baked meats. I understand that the bland and sterile appearances of shopping-mall food courts across America don't guarantee food safety and in many cases hide worse violations from public view, but health department regulations are fairly straightforward in this town and it's not in any way difficult to keep meats covered, refrigerated and off the floor.
After a short walk past a couple of shops and markets overstocked with all manner of home decor, cookware, Asian specialty foods and tropical produce -- some of it spilling out onto the sidewalk -- we arrived at Vinh Xuong, whose shelves were similarly burgeoning with baked goods in addition to packaged sweets, canisters of spiced jerky and Styrofoam trays of colored sticky rice.
After we ordered our Vietnamese sandwiches, the clerk mentioned that they are a cash-only establishment (their second location on West Alameda accepts credit cards), so I had the privilege of adding another can't-miss Federal Boulevard experience to this excursion: crossing the intersection of Federal and Alameda on foot on a busy Saturday and then standing in line at the drive-up ATM for some quick cash. After a dash back through an obstacle course of construction cones, idling trucks and abandoned shopping carts, we paid for our three banh mi -- chicken, meatball and barbecued pork -- and chose a shady spot in the grass to enjoy our picnic. The sandwiches were all made with fresh, crusty baguettes and crisp vegetables. The meatball version stood out as the best; the moist and tender ground pork shared more of a textural kinship with Italian meatballs than with generally firmer, more rubbery Vietnamese meatballs commonly found bobbing among rice noodles in bowls of pho. For those with limited tolerance to heat, those rough-chopped chunks of jalapeño (some of which were nothing but seed and ribs) could problematic, since picking them out means dissecting the tightly wrapped torpedo and digging through tangles of cilantro and other shredded veggies. The pork buns from Celestial -- yeast-raised dough completely surrounding a filling of diced pork bathed in a sweet and savory barbecue sauce -- went quickly. At only a dollar each, the buns don't hold much filling; I could easily eat them by the dozen. The chicken and mushroom buns, pale white from steaming rather than baking, were a little bland, mostly because we didn't have access to a good dipping sauce. At home I would have doused them in a little hoisin. The sesame seed balls offered waves of sweetness from the crisp-fried exterior to the glutinous rice dough to the soft center of rich red bean paste. I would have enjoyed everything from Celestial Bakery more if not for visions of mop water splashing over pork possibly destined for the middle of an otherwise tasty bun. Neither tradition, convenience nor ignorance of regulations should stand in the way of basic food safety and maintaining a pleasant environment for customers. That said, none of us got sick from anything we ate; the food all came from warming ovens handled by clerks wearing latex gloves.
A lively, even cluttered atmosphere can add to the fun of searching out new products and can allow more choices for experienced shoppers in even the smallest of spaces. Rent prices and space are always considerations for business owners selling specialty products to a niche market. But it's hard to make money if your customers are put off by an unclean store, or worse, if they get sick from anything you make and sell. I'm not asking for much: just a little of the bazaar without too much of the bizarre.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.