Chop Suey Was Invented in San Francisco

Or, maybe not. It sounds intriguing though. The story goes that it was a Gold Rush era thing. You see, Chinatown is proximate to The Bay downtown. And so, the docks of yore. Once upon a time (okay, 1849), it is told that a band of prospectors stumbled into a Chinese restaurant after a long day of mining, and drinking, to demand a late meal from an exhausted chef. Although, not particularly enamored with his drunken patrons’ lack of manners,a fatigued Yan did after some protest relent to go back into his kitchen and whip something up for the hungry miners. However, whether a statement of protest or an exercise in fatigue, Yan simply gathered a stack of still dirty plates from back in the kitchen and began to scrape the random leftovers of his earlier customers into bowls for the miners. Of course, not without first covering the fare with a generous dousing of soy sauce. Hence, Chop Suey was born. (Or, not.) It’s one of those hand me downs of history still open for debate.

There’s a lot of that kind of thing in San Francisco. Odd stories of old, full of half truths, or no truth whatsoever. Nonetheless, providing a story that has somehow stuck through time. And like many personalities later on the world stage has cut their teeth here. With questionable myths of their own. Charles Manson, for example. He was a staple in Haight/Ashbury in the late sixties, living up there for a spell during the heyday of the hippies. This, before moving down south to L.A. and, uh, making his mark on the world.


When driving fares visiting from “back east” I often trade notes on our perceived distinctions between the east coast and west, culturally. And “unhinged” has long been my go-to adjective for the zeitgeist in the west. I mean, when I lived back in New York, you got shot because you got caught with a spouse that was not your own. Here out west, someone just didn’t like your shoelaces.

Anyway, you are most certainly wondering about now where all of this is going. Why I am telling you this. Well. For no good reason, really. It’s just that lately I’ve been feeling a little, well, just a wee bit, uh… unhinged. Yeah, I’m originally east coast. But, I’ve been out west now closing in on twenty years. And as you can see, I’ve gone native. Now, it’s all just chop suey.
Been taking a break from NPR. I’m concerned about my sodium intake, and I figure some time in abstention from their excessive application of soy sauce will do me good.

Currently, I’m “on the throne” in the cab stand at the Four Seasons Hotel on Market, across from Union Square. (No, it’s not a potty joke. It just means I’m the first in the taxi cue.) I don’t usually spend time waiting in cab stands, but it’s the slow season now, full stop. And it’s not unusual to score an airport from The Four Seasons, compliments of the doorman and his whistle, when just randomly driving past it on Market. In any event, with Christmas shopping in full force, I’d be just as happy to warm the back seat with a bag laden straggler from Westfield Mall nearby, or one of the big brand outlets.

I’m dialing into KCSM Jazz – 91.1FM, to a very funky Herbie Hancock track from 1973, entitled ‘Watermelon Man,’ when a twenty-something Asian-American chick with bags from the Apple Store hunches over and knocks on the shotgun window.

Pao – looking confused, “Can you drive me somewhere?”

Why, yes. I believe accommodations can be made.

Pao settles quietly in back with her bags, and tells me that she’s headed to 600 Guerrero.

Driver – marking his waybill, “Tartine. French bakery. 18th and Guerrero.”

Pao, “Oh! You knew the address? I always have to direct my, uh, driver on how to get there.”

I believe this is what Uber and Lyft call “innovation.”

Driver, “Well, you’re in an actual taxi now, ma’am.”

And we drive.

Pao and I take off rolling west up Market. And with our initial exchange behind us, we take in this cool and sunny day in silence, but for Herbie Hancock grooving something wicked over the radio. This is to be a moderate ride over to Pao’s hipster bakery in the Mission District, what is now secured as Google’s main annex within San Francisco, and with its roots of recent decades as a predominantly working class Mexican hood fading faster than you can say “net neutrality.”

Eight minutes later…

We roll up on the insane line of educated millennial bottle blondes and hoodie and stressed jean-wearing South Asian men that, even late morning, is still winding down the block from Tartine. What, is there gold in the croissants??

I grab my clipboard/waybill poised for remittance and note the $9.00 meter, as Pao grabs her bags and begins opening her door.

Pao, “Well. Thanks for the ride.”

Driver, sighing,  “Uh, ma’am. The fare is $9.00.”

Pao, “Oh my gosh! I’m SO sorry! I usually take Uber, but my phone is out of charge.”

Driver, “Oh, no problem. It happens all the time. You know, there’s a legitimate taxi app you can download called ‘Cabulous.’ 80% of San Francisco’s drivers are on it. Actually, it was around before the ‘rideshares,’ but they’ve just never marketed the app to save their life. Or cab drivers’, for that matter. Many people don’t know, but Lyft actually stole the app from Cabulous when they debuted as ‘carpooling for a suggested donation.’ And then Uber stole it from Lyft and promptly declared ‘innovation.’

Anyway, I get a lot of people coming over word-of-mouth from those guys on account of passengers all being frustrated to no end with the revolving crop of unsafe, out-of-town drivers who don’t know The City.”

An embarrassed Pao scampers through her purse for a credit card, as transparently blowing off my ‘Cabulous’ pitch with a silent if not polite smile. And she hands her Visa up to Driver, who’s at the ready with his Square credit card reader and phone to process.

Driver, broaching the easy question first, feigning as an afterthought, “Oh. Do you need a receipt? Or, do you get them emailed from Square?”

Pao, “Oh, uh, I don’t need a receipt. Thanks.”

Driver, with his passenger’s attention, goes for the kill, “Oh. And would you like me to add anything to that?”

Driver gauges Pao via the rear view, with a whopping dollar tip on the $9 fare hanging in the air…

Pao, “Oh. No, thanks.”


Driver, “So, just charge the $9 meter, then?”

Pao, “Yes, please.”


Note: Until this past summer, Uber had no option in-app for tipping their “partners.” I do understand that now, as a concession to their upset and striking “partners,” there is an option for those sharing the ride to drill down into the app and set a tip, should they so choose. However, with a ridership that has spent years establishing that this, um, service requires none, well, meet Pao.

Wait. Where were we? Oh, yeah.


Driver, ever so slowly, and ever so silently, begins plugging the $9 amount into his Square app, and swipes.

Pao, “Thanks for picking me up, though.”


Pao, “I really appreciate the ride.”


Pao’s charge goes through. And with no signature required – under a $25 charge via Square, Driver hands back Pao’s Visa, in silence, as she nervously begins again collecting her multiple bags of Apple products and works her way out of Citizen’s Cab #1015 and on to hipster pastries.

Before shutting the door, however, Pao suddenly leans back into the cab. And with one more nervous smile, she blesses Driver with one last, “Thanks, again. I really do appreciate the ride.”


I’ll let my landlord know.



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Photo by Christian Lewis

Check out Alex’s Book 1 – San Francisco TAXI: A 1st Week in the ZEN Life…
& Book 2 San Francisco TAXI: Life in the Merge Lane…

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Alex Sack

Alex Sack, born 1970, is a taxi driver who grew up in the Washington D.C. suburbs of Maryland. He attended several different colleges and universities around the D.C./Baltimore region as a music major for 4 & 1/2 years before quitting - pre-diploma - to the horror of his father. He tried his hand as a professional musician/songwriter seeing him through travels domiciled in New York City’s East Village, Los Angeles (where he scored a few songs on The Disney Channel's 'Even Stevens') and San Francisco - where he's ultimately put down roots. Alex is a single dad to two boys, currently ages 15 and 17. His post-natal fallback occupation as Operations Assistant at a start-up clean-tech engineering consultancy came to a sudden end with the one-two punch of the owner’s fatal skiing accident in Tahoe and the subsequent downturn in the economy.This - and an acquired nervous twitch to cubicle work - has led to his latest job...

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