What: Tucked between the Financial District and Italian-flavored North Beach is San Francisco’s Chinatown, recognizable by its gorgeous pagoda gate and streets strung with red lanterns. Despite the curio-selling shops and tourists galore, it’s a neighborhood rich in history, and filled with food worth exploring. Famously, it’s the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and the oldest in North America. Established in 1848 in the midst of California’s development (and rebuilt following the 1906 earthquake and fire), San Francisco’s Chinatown has historically been heavily Canton in makeup, the influences of which show in the language spoken and the food that’s served, but more recent years have seen great diversification and expansion of San Francisco’s Chinese population—nowadays, you’ll find Hunan, Sichuan, and even Shaanxi outposts in Chinatown and beyond. While the area is still densely populated, much of the Chinese community has moved to the Western reaches of the city in the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods, and even larger groups are settling in Bay Area suburbs.
As for the food: It’s certainly not unique to San Francisco, but our pick for getting a nicely varied taste of Chinatown is dim sum. Served for breakfast, brunch, or lunch, this Cantonese culinary tradition involves individual, sometimes bite-size portions of food that can be combined to create a customized Chinese feast. Chinatown dim sum comes in several formats, from fast-service sit-down restaurants, in which dim sum offerings are brought by tables on carts or trays, to hole-in-the-wall takeout shops, where a filling meal might set you back $3. Standard dishes always include dumplings—filled with shrimp, pork, chives, and more—piles of wide, flat rice noodle rolls, filled with pork or shrimp and doused in soy sauce; sweet buns filled with pork, either steamed, baked, or fried; and a wide range of more substantial small plates, from chicken feet to pork ribs and sautéed greens. Our dim sum strategy involves eyeing what the regulars are ordering and proceeding accordingly.
Good to know: Another essential component of your Chinatown visit is fortune cookies. The crisp, crescent-shaped, vanilla-flavored cookies, complete with a paper fortune inside, have long ties to San Francisco (bakers in both San Francisco and Los Angeles have claimed to invent the sweet, though it most likely came from Japan originally). Most sit-down restaurants will serve you a plate at the end of your meal, but if you’re in Chinatown, you’ll want to stop by the 1962-established Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company (415-781-3956; 56 Ross Alley, map), a tiny, fragrant factory tucked in a back alley, where some 20,000 fortune cookies are handcrafted daily. You can pick up a bag of them for a few bucks.
Where: While we love the sit-down dim sum experience, there’s something special about seeking out the best cheap dim sum to-go in Chinatown. For that, Delicious Dim Sum (415-781-0721; 752 Jackson St., betw. Stockton St. & Grant Ave., map,) is one of our favorites; the line snaking down the block every day at lunchtime indicates its popularity among locals, too. The operation is tiny, with just one table in the back, usually stacked high with kitchen-prep materials. The ladies behind the counter may not speak much English, but they’ll happily oblige when you point out a variety of dumplings and noodle rolls. Be sure to head across the street to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company (see above) for a bag of cookies for dessert, then take your bounty to the Transamerica Redwood Park to enjoy.
When: Every day except Wed., 7am-6pm
Order: Whatever items look good, anything that comes straight out of a steamer basket, or items that regulars seem drawn to (about $.60 per piece, cash only). Pictured are a variety of generously stuffed dumplings and fluffy, meaty steamed pork buns, including har gau, siu mai, jiu cai bao, and cha siu bao. Depending on the filling (sweet pork meatball, shrimp and chives), the dumplings have wrappers ranging from thick and toothsome to melt-in-your-mouth delicate.Vinegary dipping sauce comes with the rice noodle pancakes, but you can ask for bracing, garlicky chile sauce on the side.
Alternatively: There’s no shortage of sit-down dim sum joints in San Francisco, both in and out of Chinatown: We like Hang Ah Tea Room (1 Pagoda Place, at Sacramento St., map), which claims to be the oldest continually operating dim sum restaurant in San Francisco, or you might go upscale at the much-lauded Yank Sing (multiple locations including 101 Spear St., betw. Mission & Howard Sts., map), in the Financial District. Also outside of Chinatown are dim sum favorites Hong Kong Lounge (5322 Geary Blvd., betw. 17th & 18th Sts., map) and Ton Kiang (5821 Geary Blvd., betw. 22nd & 23rd Sts., map), two destination-worthy spots in the Richmond neighborhood, with constant lines during weekend brunch hours. Want to sample different kinds of Chinese cuisine? Try Chinatown’s Z & Y Restaurant (655 Jackson St., betw. Grant Ave. & Kearny St., map) for flaming-hot iterations of classic Sichuan cuisine, or House of Nanking (919 Kearny St., betw. Columbus Ave. & Jackson St., map) for an elevated Hunan experience. In the Outer Sunset, sample the Xi’an-style food of Shaanxi at Terra Cotta Warrior (415-681-3288; 2555 Judah St., betw. 30th & 31st Sts., map).