Oaklanders may debate endlessly over who has the best burrito, pho or bagel, but there are certain things we agree on--like where to get the best fresh noodles for any Asian dish. Ask anyone in town—the only place to go is Yuen Hop in Oakland’s Chinatown. Egg noodles? Check. Rice noodles? Check. Wonton wrappers? Available in a variety of thickness for all your dumpling needs. The wide selection of noodles are unparalleled in their quality, variety and price--most one pound bags sell for $1.75 per pound.
Started in 1931, Yuen Hop is one of Chinatown’s oldest--if not the oldest--businesses. It’s the elder statesmen and centerpiece of one of the original neighborhoods in Oakland (formed in the 1850s, it’s also one of the nation’s oldest Chinatowns.) The store has remained a constant during everything: the neighborhood’s expansion and economic contraction over the years; the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 which allowed immigrants to become citizens; waves of newcomers from San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 80s and 90s; and the rise of famous martial artist, Bruce Lee. For the people who have grown up going the store, who continue to buy their noodles there today, it’s a comforting sight, remaining largely unchanged even as the city shifts around them.
The store was started by Quong Pon, who first sold bean sprouts and tofu. By the 1970s, it was categorized by “Try Us: 1975 National Minority Business Directory” as a place to buy “noodles and related products,” and in the 90s, the store expanded to sell produce. Now, it’s a bustling, large-for-the-area store packed with teas, sauces, and pastries from local favorite Sheng Kee. But in the corner is the real reason people flock there: a refrigerated case piled high with plastic bags of noodles.
On a recent weekday, the store buzzed with activity. It’s the Lunar New Year, and according to tradition, noodles--specifically long, uncut noodles--are a necessity for any household that wants good luck and longevity in the coming year. In the back of the store, an employee weighed out one pound bags of various sizes of noodles before adding them to the case. Another employee gave a customer a tour of the case, explaining the subtle differences in noodle varieties. An impeccably dressed woman in high heels sifted through the bags of noodles, frowning as she tried to pick the best one.
At the center of the store, Sabrina Cribbin stood manning the cash register. Cribbin is Pon’s great-granddaughter, and she’s the fourth generation of family workers to be employed there--making her a familiar site to the store’s customers, many who have known her since she was a child.
“Sabrina!” a woman with burgundy-tinted hair cries out as she walks in. “Happy New Year! Why aren’t you wearing red?”
She clucks at Cribbin, then turns her attention elsewhere: “Where are your parents?”
The work of Cribbin and her family (who both politely requested not to be photographed) has made them the go-to brand for local businesses looking for authentic Asian noodles. Berkeley Bowl carries their line of noodle products. So does Alameda’s Hang Ten Boiler. One of the seafood restaurant's famous dishes--mentioned in half their Yelp reviews--is their garlic noodles. And those noodles? Courtesy of Yuen Hop. “I choose and enjoy this particular noodles because they are great tasting, high quality (freshly made) and superior to other brands,” said Mai Wong, Hang Ten’s owner, said in an email. “In fact, our Hang Ten Boiler customers have stated that they are still great tasting the next day.”
The noodles are made simply, with just egg, flour, salt and a small amount of preservatives. Some of their noodles include potassium carbonate, which makes the noodles more alkaline and in turn makes them chewier, more elastic and less sticky. After boiling, they’re firm but tender, with an ever-so-slight egginess that makes them the perfect vehicle for whatever sauce you decide to add. It’s easy to understand why Yuen Hop has become so famous, said Cribbin. “We use good ingredients,” she said. “We don’t skimp. Other factories might skimp, use less egg or artificial egg.”
The burgundy-haired woman comes back to the counter, loaded down with groceries and sighing over the heaviness of her load.
“You always get heavy things,” Cribbin gently reminds her.
The woman grumbles some more.
“You’re strong,” Cribbin teases.
“I’ve got a bad back,” chides the woman.
Cribbin’s parents are getting older, and Cribbin’s has been helping them out more and more these days. Eventually, her brother plans to take over the family business, ensuring that even as Oakland continues to change around them--and as Chinatowns across the country start to fade away due to gentrification and displacement--Oaklanders can continue to get their noodles from the same place they always have, a vestige of comfort and normalcy in a city that continues to change too rapidly for some.