Visit the Country inside the City of San Francisco

By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

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.

 

10. Golden Gate Bakery
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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.

9. Great Eastern
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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.

8. Henry's Hunan Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

7. Sam Wo Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Sam Wo Restaurant

For fans of Conan O'Brien, check out his hilarious spoof-commercial of Sam Wo's during his 2007 visit to San Francisco. Although the new Sam Wo is not at the original location - that Sam Wo's closed in 2012 after over a hundred years at that location - the video still describes the quintessential Sam Wo's experience: quick, cheap but satisfying Chinese food. To tell the truth, even if you don't feel like eating at Sam Wo's, just visiting this classic San Francisco institution should be part of any San Francisco visit. And, if you happen to be hungry, check out the menu of "jook," a classic, authentic Chinese porridge dish.

6. Hunan Home's Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Gary Soup

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.

5. R&G Lounge
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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.

4. Lucky Creation Restaurant
Photo courtesy of images.travelpod.com

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.

3. Chinatown Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Gary Soup

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!

2. House of Nanking
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

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.

1. Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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.