Established in 1848, San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest and oldest neighborhood of its kind in the country. Drawing more visitors annually than the uber-popular Golden Gate Bridge, this really is a country within a city, twenty-four square blocks of Chinese American culture that has its own distinct hospitals, parks, social clubs, parades and, of course, restaurants.
The smell of Chinese food dominates most of Chinatown, whether it's the sweet waft of fresh egg tarts from Golden Gate Bakery or the savory soy stirfry sizzling from Chinatown Restaurant. To understand San Francisco's Chinatown is to eat in San Francisco's Chinatown, so trying some dimsum is a must.
Plan for a long stroll, too, keeping your eyes wide open and your ears tuned sharp as if you're a traveler in another country - because, for all intents and purposes, you are. If you want the full history and cultural context of Chinatown, then don't skip The Chinese Historical Society. If you're an adventurous traveler who believes every trip - even a trip within one's own country - should include something of the mysterious and exotic, then head to Chinatown.
And after trying the restaurants on our list below, you might be inspired to start saving up for that big trip to China.
Golden Gate Bakery
Venture through San Francisco's Chinatown for a visit to Golden Gate Bakery, a sweet shop that has customers braving long, out-the-door lines for its incredibly tasty egg custard tarts. In addition to these flaky, custard-filled pastries, patrons can choose from a wide range of other confections, including lotus seed paste cakes, moon cakes, flavored napoleons and classic chocolate chip cookies. The bakery also serves savory favorites like barbecue pork roll and chicken pie. You can't leave San Francisco without experiencing Chinatown, and you can't experience Chinatown without a visit to Golden Gate Bakery, so get in line and wait for that scrumptious egg tart. (415-781-2627)
Great Eastern is so appreciated for its authenticity that you're likely to find a large clientele of native Chinese folks enjoying the cuisine. Seafood is always top-rated, as you'll see with lobster sashimi and prawns prepared a number of ways. Other dishes feature everything from duck and quail to abalone and pork. Dishes offer good value, and reservations are accepted for large groups. The lunchtime dimsum menu rivals anything that Chinatown has to offer, too. You can't leave San Francisco without eating seafood, and you can't get the full experience of San Francisco without visiting Chinatown, so head to Great Eastern and cross both experiences off your list. (415-986-2500)
Henry's Hunan Restaurant
Henry's Hunan Restaurant, owned and run by chef Henry Chung, specializes in hot, spicy Hunan cuisine, and regulars can't get enough of the addictive fare. Folks hold Henry in high esteem, not only because of his food but the large servings (you'll likely leave with a bundle of leftovers) and fair prices. Among the options you'll find are house-smoked duck (and other meats), fried onion cakes, hot shredded pork, and kung pao chicken. Besides its Chinatown location, Henry's has two other downtown locations, one at Natoma and one on Sacramento, so a Henry's Hunan experience is never too far away. (415-956-7727)
Mission Chinese Food
Locals swear this is the best Chinese food in the city - and the line out the front door every night supports that. Although some local restaurant critics have said the quality may be going downhill, Mission Chinese is still incredibly popular and offers one of the more interesting Asian menus in the whole city. Where else can you start off your meal with Beer-Brined Sichuan Pickles? Or Tea-Smoked Eel? If you like spicy, there are several dishes that will sizzle your tongue, including the always popular Ma Po Tofu. If you're willing to wait for a table and fight some crowds for your dinner, Mission Chinese is worth checking out. (415-863-2800)
Lucky Creation Restaurant
If you've been up and down the alleys of Chinatown, and the egg rolls and dim sum are all starting to taste the same, drop by Lucky Creation for a different take on Chinese. Although the atmosphere of this restaurant is cramped and divey, the staff take great pride and care in making dishes that you will swear is real meat. Their orange chicken alone will make you bite twice to believe it's really not chicken...! The pan fried noodles are crisp and light, and the clay pot selections are impressive and tasty. This is a fun restaurant to take that lifelong meat-eater to. ((415) 989-0818)
Hunan Home's Restaurant
Chinese food enthusiasts flock to Hunan Home's Restaurant for award-winning cuisine that's reputedly "the best kept secret in Chinatown." The extensive menu features all the traditional items you expect to find, including classic Kung Pao chicken, Mongolian beef and eggplant with spicy garlic sauce. Diners particularly love the chicken with orange peel, prawns with honey walnuts, pot stickers and, of course, hot and sour soup. Attentive service rounds out an authentic and satisfying dining experience. For those who happen to be driving, the restaurant offers two hours of validated parking at the nearby Portsmouth Square Garage from 5-9 pm on orders of $45 or more. (415-982-2844)
Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant
Specializing in the slow and sumptuous method of clay pot cooking, Hong Kong Clay Pot offers many familiar Chinese dishes, just prepared in this unique way. After soaking an unglazed pot in water, the food is secured and the pot and then heated, which steams the food but retains all the taste. Fans of this style of cooking swear the porous nature of the clay allows the steam to escape slowly, making meats more tender but keeping vegetables crisp. If you find yourself hungry and wandering Chinatown during lunchtime, it's hard to beat their lunch menu, featuring generous rice plates for under five dollars. (415-989-2638)
When you're in the mood for good times and great cuisine, be sure to check out Chinatown Restaurant. The restaurant is located in one of the area's most pleasant settings and is known for its delightful staff and superb cuisine. The menu at Chinatown Restaurant features a wide array of great selections, made from only the freshest and highest quality ingredients, with something sure to please every member of your group. Chinatown Restaurant has established itself as one of the area's favorite culinary destinations and is sure to offer you a pleasant and unique dining experience every time you visit.Please stop in soon! (4153927958)
Known for its innovative yet traditional Chinese dishes, R&G Lounge is a relative newcomer to the Chinatown restaurant scene, having opened its doors in 1985. While nearly thirty years of experience might seem a long time, in Chinatown, where traditions in cooking run thousands of years deep, it's just a passing second. But R&G's popularity can't be denied, having expanded from one to three floors in that time. Most patrons credit the success on R&G's ability to follow the traditions of Chinese cooking (namely balancing the elements of Wood, Water, Earth and Fire) but adding their own innovations. The simple but sumptuous Chicken Salad appetizer is a great example. (415-982-7877)
House of Nanking
If you want a truly unique Asian dining experience, head to House of Nanking. But be prepared to put yourself into the hands of head chef/owner Peter Fang, who since 1988 has down his best to get patrons to ignore the menu and allow him to determine what's the best meal of the day. The service is brusque but effective, with servers not shy about trying to get the tables turned-over for the next group waiting in the very long line. But the unorthodox approach rarely fails. The Famous NanKing Sesame Chicken is a must order - even if it earns you a glare from Fang. ((415) 421-1429)
About Tom Molanphy
The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom.
Tom has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 2000. His journalism has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, and 7x7. He teaches writing, journalism and literature at the Academy of Art University in downtown San Francisco. His latest book, Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life, is available through Outpost19.
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