Jay Caspian Kang shares his views on Bay Area food

Maybe our region needs this tough love now more than ever.

Chatting with my sports enthusiast father and quiet hip-hop historian about the ups and downs of life in the Bay Area, I was reminded why I love this quirky region so deeply, despite its complex truths. Here’s what everyone likes Evangelist Tyler Hansborough And reformed online troll has to say about the state of the Bay – and its food supply – in these precarious times.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Alan Chazaro: You were born in Korea, raised in North Carolina, and have lived in many places. How long have you been in the Bay Area?

Jay Caspian Kang: I went to college in New England and then went to New York for graduate school. But after that, I moved to California and lived here in San Francisco for six or seven years. I worked as a high school teacher. Then I moved to Los Angeles, moved back to New York, and then right before the pandemic we moved back here to Berkeley. It’s been four years now.

Hand pointing towards
While browsing the menu at GangNam Tofu. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

You wrote about your passion for surfing in the Bay. What attracts you to this?

I’m not a good surfer, but yes, I spend most of my time thinking about surfing. For years, I used to go to Ocean Beach all the time, and you get used to it and, you know, you learn how to stay out of trouble. I go there once or twice a week. That’s the only way to do it: you have to prioritize. Or, if you don’t, you never go. If I get a Zoom call, I’ll just cancel it. You have to live with some consequences afterwards, but surfing is very necessary for my mental well-being.

It looks like you’ve reached a sort of zen state of mind. Did you achieve this goal while living in Los Angeles?

I don’t really like driving. And I never liked Hollywood culture. I just find that the people I vibe with the most are usually here.

Who do you think is a good example of the creativity and open-mindedness of the Bay Area?

Look at MC Hammer. He grew up doing this style of boogaloo dancing in East Oakland. He downloaded it when he was a child. He made him famous all over the world in a modified way. Now that he’s old, his social media presence does nothing but show all these old videos of guys from his neighborhood dancing. I find it amazing that he’s willing to go back and show these kids in his neighborhood who his influences were, and he basically shows how that made him who he is. That’s community, music that comes out of community. He’s interesting because he’s like the most Oakland guy ever, but he’s not always considered to be affiliated with that (laughs).

Kang and KQED reporter Alan Chazaro placed their order. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The Bay is weird like that. There are a lot of different characters here.

It’s strange. It’s interesting how someone like E-40 became this kind of rapper mascot. That’s the guy. He’s like a character in his own right. And people love him because he goes to every game. I’ve never seen Too $hort in a match.

Did you grow up listening to a lot of Bay Area rap on the East Coast?

I grew up listening to everything you imagine a 44 year old man would listen to (laughs). A tribe called Quest. Wu Tang. Deep Mobb. Then there was the Bay Area, so there was like “Blowjob Betty” or whatever, and you listened to it, and it was crazy because it was so bad. Luniz, Del (the Funky Homosapien).

Del is the one I personally listened to the most. I still listen to it. The Deltron 3030 album is awesome. The production of this album is fucking mad. The whole concept is weird. (Bay Area producer) Dan the Automator had been playing around with concept albums for a while. It was just kind of cool rap with enough backing to do some weird shit. This was before MF DOOM and all those guys. It’s like Del is imagining the future, and Del is awesome. He kills him. This album is quietly one of the 20 best rap albums of all time. I hesitate to put it higher because is it as important as, say, KRS One? I don’t know. Listening to these KRS One albums can make you feel like you’re just doing your homework. I bet more people liked the Deltron 3030.

What’s more Bay Area than an Asian American producer teaming up with a nerdy black dude from East Oakland to make a futuristic album about a fictional dystopian society?

Totally. And these guys were deeply influenced by the shit that was going on with Filipino DJs in Daly City. Every city has a version of this, but it’s very interesting in the Bay Area because it’s truly multiracial.

I wonder if the Bay Area still represents that as much as it once did. You commented on the whole fiasco with food critic Keith Lee’s recent visit to the Bay Area. He said the bay was “not a place for tourists” at the moment. What do you think of that?

There’s no doubt that the Bay Area is going through tough times right now. If Keith Lee went to the Tenderloin and parts of East Oakland, which he seems to have done – or even if he went to 24th and Mission, which are very busy – people, when they come to the Bay Area and see this, it’s shocking to them. You have to be real about it. You don’t see that in New York. You see it in Los Angeles, but it’s mostly in the Skid Row area.

The Bay Area has had these problems for a long time, but it was more contained and it didn’t seem like it was as big of a problem. When I moved to San Francisco around 2002, I got off BART at 16th Street. I was like, Wow, that’s a bit wild. And now it’s really expanded to a lot of places where a lot more people go. So in the Bay you get people coming for conferences or just to visit Fisherman’s Wharf, and chances are the hotel is in Union Square or right in the Tenderloin. So when you leave your hotel, you really see shit. This shocks outsiders and contributes to unfair discourse. If you put all the hotels in Los Angeles on Skid Row, everyone would say the same thing about Los Angeles. But at the same time, I think it’s good to draw attention to this problem: we have homelessness that is completely out of control in just one country. of the richest cities in America, and this paradox and contradiction is impossible to resolve.

The outcome will be very complicated and will create reactionary elements. People like (San Francisco author) Michael Shellenberger believes all this drug addicts should just be thrown in jail. London Breed feels this way sometimes too. But I think overall these people underestimate that the San Francisco Bay Area is a very progressive place. They will never accept that we lock these people up. And it’s a good thing. The idea that you’re going to lock up the poor and throw away the key, that’s just not going to happen. We are currently living in a time of extremes: of extreme cynicism and despair. And for good reason, because it’s really bad, you know? But I still wouldn’t trade places with anyone to live anywhere else in this country. It’s a compromise.

Gangnam Tofu’s version of budae jjigae is a soft tofu stew loaded with sausage and noodles. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Despite our difficulties, there is so much to discover here and so many pockets of rich culture. In fact, you I had a catch that most of Asian food in the Bay Area is bad, outside of San Jose. I’m not sure many foreigners, or even locals, would express that.

So here’s the problem. This is just my theory. Immigrant food is only really good for a certain period of time, after those who prepare it have immigrated here. For example, new Chinese populations in the United States will enjoy much better food in their restaurants and in the areas where they live than older, established Chinese populations. And the reason is very simple. Food on the continent continues to evolve, right? But that’s not the case for immigrants who have lived here for decades. They are frozen in time.

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