It's a natural thing to think you can find good Chinese restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown. However, before you go there looking for a place to eat, you need to know this.
Many restaurants in that part of town work hard to get tourists in the door but don't pay much attention to what happens after that. Some of them fall short on customer service, as measured by Western standards. Many take cash only (no credit or debit cards).
And some might be best described as a "hole in the wall."
Until recently, the best places to eat Chinese food in San Francisco were in other parts of town. That's starting to change now, with a new generation of eateries coming up that provide some excellent options and don't require a trek to a neighborhood that's miles away.
For some of the best new Chinese cuisine or "authentic" San Francisco Chinatown dining with better service and food quality, these places are some of the best you can find there.
Best Traditional Restaurants in San Francisco Chinatown
Many of the small, family-run establishments in Chinatown don't have websites, so these links go to diner reviews at Yelp instead. Not only can you read a broad range of opinions there, but you can also see their health department scores.
Menus in Chinatown can be short on explanations, so no matter which cuisine you choose, don't be afraid to ask questions.
- Chong Qing Xiao Mian, 915 Kearny: Their Szechuan cuisine is among the spicy-hottest of Chinese cuisines, but if you can tolerate all those chili peppers, you'll have the best experience if you stick to their Szechuan dishes. Some reviewers say it's a "step up from a hole in the wall," but everyone loves their food.
- Sam Wo, 713 Clay: Sam Wo has been serving Chinese food for decades. In fact, their original location claimed to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Their food is good, but many people love it just for the nostalgia.
- Yan's Kitchen, 57 Columbus: You might think of celebrity chef Martin Yan when you see the name, but this is a family-run business that serves good food, although some people think it's too Americanized. You will need to bring cash to pay for it.
- Bund Shanghai, 640 Jackson: Bund Shanghai's cuisine uses more soy sauce, sugar, rice wine and rice vinegar than other Chinese regions.
- Hong Kong Clay Pot, 960 Grant: Clay pot cooking Hong Kong style is the specialty here. Dishes are somewhat like a hearty stew, cooked and served in a clay pot with a lid. Among reviewer favorites: oxtail stew and seafood clay pot. Several visitors comment that it's not the cleanest of places, but most are willing to forgive that because the food is inexpensive and tasty.
- Hunan Homes, 622 Jackson: At this Hunan-style Chinese restaurant, hot and sour soup, prawns with honey walnuts and wontons in hot sauce get high marks. If you're sensitive to MSG, several reviewers mentioned that they detect it in Hunan Homes' dishes. Hunan food can also be hard on the digestive system because it uses more hot peppers than other Chinese cuisines.
- New Lun Ting, 670 Jackson: It's a bit of a hole in the wall, but they serve big portions at affordable prices. Some people jokingly call them the original "fusion" restaurant because they serve oh-so-American Jell-O and apple pie for dessert.
Places to Eat Dim Sum in San Francisco Chinatown
Even before "small plate" dining became popular, Chinese dim sum restaurants were serving an ad hoc meal made up of lots of small items. They may include meat-stuffed, steamed dumplings and buns, rice and noodle rolls, steamed meat and vegetables, and fried items. It's a great way to sample a lot of different things, and a dim sum meal can make a nice lunch while exploring Chinatown.
Some dim sum restaurants serve their food from a counter, but in others, servers circulate through the dining room, carrying them on carts.
Typically, you pay by the dish, and your server may tally up the bill by counting the empty dishes on the table.
Most San Francisco restaurant reviewers say the best dim sum in San Francisco is found outside of Chinatown proper, but if you want to try it in Chinatown, these are your best bets:
- Good Mong Kok Bakery, 1039 Stockton: There's no menu, it's takeout only, and they only take cash, but if you're comfortable with all that, you'll soon understand why the line often stretches out the door and down the sidewalk.
- Delicious Dim Sum, 752 Jackson: This is another small place, the menu is in Chinese only (although pointing works just fine), and there's no room to sit down inside, but service is fast, and most reviewers say the food is good.
- Great Eastern Restaurant, 649 Jackson: Their claim to fame is that President Obama ate there in 2012. We don't know what he thought about his meal, but 84% of Zagat reviewers like Great Eastern. It's the only dim sum place on this list where you can sit down and eat. Stick to the dim sum items, which are ordered from a menu. During busy meal times, you may have to wait quite long time to get a table.
Best New Chinese Cuisine in Chinatown
- Hakkasan, 1 Kearny: San Francisco is just one of this international chain's restaurants (others are in Saudi Arabia, New York, Miami, Dubai and other countries). Their menu includes items like roasted duck pumpkin puff, Chiu Chow style sea bass with Chinese celery and salted plum, and traditional Peking duck, along with some dishes served only at this location.
- China Live, 644 Broadway: A beautiful open dining room provides the backdrop for an innovative menu that features Chinese classics and dishes with modern twists like green tea tiramisu. You can dine in the Market Restaurant or opt for counter service in the less formal Oolon Cafe which serves "grab and go" Chinese bites.
- Eight Tables by George Chen at China Live: You'd have to score a meal at chef George Chen's home to have a more intimate dining experience than this. They serve a tasting menu with wine pairings. It's probably not necessary to say that you'll need to reserve ahead for this one.
Chinatown Tea Shops
There's no shortage of tea shops in Chinatown, most of them selling a good variety of teas and offering free tasting. The best-rated of them are Vital Tea Leaf (509 Grant), Red Blossom (831 Grant), T-We (50 Post St), and Aroma Tea Shop (845 Washington).
Chinese Bakeries and Fortune Cookies
A quick bite from a bakery is an excellent way to keep the energy going in Chinatown. Besides the cakes and sweets you'd expect, they also make an assortment of mooncakes, filled with red bean or lotus seed paste and surrounded by a thin crust. Some contain yolks from salted duck eggs.
These little treats are best shared. According to Wikipedia, a 4-inch diameter moon cake can have 1,000 calories.
The two best-rated and most popular Chinatown bakeries are Golden Gate Bakery at 1029 Grant and Eastern Bakery at 720 Grant which has its own Presidential connection: Bill Clinton stopped by there some years ago, and they have photos on the walls to prove it.
If your taste in baked goods favors fortune cookies, you can buy a bag of them straight from the source at Golden Gate Fortune Cookies (56 Ross Alley near Jackson Street). Elsewhere in Chinatown, Mee Mee Bakery is said to sell the only flavored fortune cookies (original, chocolate, and strawberry) in town.