The Best Restaurants In San Francisco’s Chinatown
photo credit: Erin Ng
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America, and it’s been a culturally important area since the enclave was established more than 150 years ago. In this energetic neighborhood, streets are lined with restaurants, bakeries, and cafes serving everything from juicy xiao long bao and hand-pulled noodles, to freshly baked pastries and other dishes that highlight the many different regions of China and its incredible diversity. Here are the 14 best spots in Chinatown.
This small, always-packed Chinatown restaurant offers regional Chinese noodles galore. It’s also where we like to park ourselves on casual weeknights to get a steam facial over a bowl of dan dan noodles. The broth is nutty and rich, there’s an overabundance of wheat noodles, and it all leaves a tingly, numbing sensation in your mouth that somehow doesn’t overpower. On days when you really want to stay under the covers, order a wonton-packed soup with chicken broth, spicy and numbing Chongqing noodles, or spicy beef soup all the way.
Empress By Boon is the rare spot in the city where you can dress up, sit down to some Beijing dumplings and crispy-skinned duck, and stare at Coit Tower views. This Cantonese restaurant instantly makes you feel like you’ve crossed the velvet ropes to the VIP section of an exclusive club, especially after you’re seated in a curved booth behind a towering wooden pergola. The $108 prix fixe menu of occasionally changing dishes also makes you feel like royalty, like jasmine-infused short rib bao, sea prawn rolls, and a roasted duck that’s fatty bliss. A meal here adds up to a memorable night, every time, and is an experience unlike any other in the city.
Bring up R&G Lounge around your boss, uncle’s cousin, or yoga teacher, and you’re bound to hear at least one nostalgic story about that time they took down an entire salt and pepper crab in one sitting, or had a graduation party on the top floor with one too many lychee martinis. The multi-story Cantonese restaurant has been going strong since 1985, so it’s hard to find a person in the city who doesn’t have fond memories of sitting at one of the banquet tables and passing around plates of shrimp with scrambled eggs and crispy salt and pepper tofu. And if you do, take them to this Chinatown institution immediately. Excellent seafood awaits.
VIP Coffee & Cake Shop is a Chinatown cha chaan teng (Hong Kong-style cafe) with Jurassic-sized portions. You'll devour food that could feed a linebacker three times over, and nurse a cup of fantastic hot milk tea alongside daily regulars who are here to catch up over lunch. Are these dishes the best things you’ll eat all year? No, but it doesn’t matter since the cafeteria-like place is a castle of comfort. Pay attention to the case full of egg tarts and pineapple buns with crumbly toppings.
The orange awning outside of Good Mong Kok acts like a lighthouse beacon, signaling to the neighborhood that it’s a legendary dim sum destination. The sign is clearly working—people line up outside of this shoebox-sized Chinatown bakery daily for their generously stuffed char siu bao and pillowy pineapple buns. The big steamers by the window and the pastry cases are refilled constantly since items get snatched up fast. This spot is also takeout-only, so grab one of everything, and eat your treats on the sidewalk in record time.
When you see the roast ducks hanging in the window of Hing Lung Company, you know that meat is the star of the show. The shop has a singular focus: Cantonese barbecue. Take a look at the meats on display, and pick up a platter of tender roast duck, succulent barbecue ribs, or crispy pork belly—all prepared fresh daily and sold by the pound. The poached chicken (which you can purchase whole or half), is also impossibly juicy and comes with your choice of sauce (we like the herbal brine ginger sauce). Serve them with other dishes at home for dinner, and save yourself some of the labor of cooking. Or, for the ideal working lunch, you can also order a small portion of meat that includes rice and vegetables.
Hang Ah Tea Room in Chinatown is America’s first-ever dim sum spot, making it an institution. But tourist trap, this is not. While it's undergone various owner changes since opening in 1920, we can still rely on them for quick, satisfying dim sum in a low-key space. The ceilings are low, the walls are orange-tinted, and there’s even a random Captain America poster by the bathroom. Pop down an alley across from the playground to get here, and be rewarded with plump shrimp dumplings, chili wontons that activate the spice receptors in your tongue to just the right levels, and xiao long bao with flavorful broth.
Mouth-numbing wizardry via fiery flavors is going down at Z&Y in Chinatown. These Sichuan dishes demand your attention. Specialties include fish filet soaked in hot chili oil, mapo tofu with lip-tingling spice, and clay pots filled with chilis and an aquarium’s worth of shellfish. We never leave without that mapo tofu and a bowl of hot and sour soup. The snug space is málà heaven for anyone who loves a good mouth burn. And since the menu is a short novel (it would take weekly visits for a year to try every dish), you’ll be back.
To get to this basement-level joint, you need to descend a short staircase from Jackson Street. The spot has changed owners throughout the years (and has been around for nearly a century), but it continues to serve homestyle Cantonese food at unbeatable prices—many dishes will run you around $10 each. You could go with anything on their massive menu and leave satisfied, but we stick to a few favorites: steamed pork hash with salted fish (probably the juiciest giant meat patty you’ll ever have), salt-and-pepper prawns-in-shell that leave a spicy tingle on your tongue, and roast chicken stuffed with glutinous rice. Be sure to try one of the clay pot dishes, too, such as salted fish with chicken and eggplant, or chicken and roast pork—they’re always sizzling hot and packed with umami.
The Cantonese seafood classic has been around since the '70s, and has drawn in everyone from Jackie Chan and Jacques Pepin to Guy Fieri and Joey Chestnut (their photos are taped up on the walls). It’s also the neighborhood go-to for a casual night filled with excellent steamed fish, salt and pepper prawns, and sautéed crab. The showstopper is the clams with a sweet, gravy-like pepper and black bean sauce that balances out the brininess of the clams. Since Yuet Lee is never too packed—walk in with friends and spend a few hours dissecting the drama of the day over tea, chow fun, and fish cake-topped tofu.
You’re at Hon's Wun-Tun House in Chinatown for one reason and one reason only—delicious wonton soup. They’ve been a fixture in Chinatown for more than 40 years, and the space has barely changed over the years. The interior is simple and tiny (there’s just a few tables laid out on utilitarian brick-colored tile) and service is a bit on the curt side, but we never mind because you’ll be in and out having consumed life-giving soup in 20 minutes flat. The wontons are generously filled with pork and shrimp, and the supremely slurpable broth is packed with stringy noodles. There’s a range of meat options for your soup, but we like the semi-sweet BBQ pork and the fall-apart beef brisket the best.
Despite its prime location on one of Chinatown’s main drags, it’s easy to accidentally walk past the small entrance to Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant. But walk up the stairs of this homey Cantonese spot into their fully carpeted and simply decorated space (think white walls with some red lanterns and watercolor paintings) and prepare to enjoy a massive meal of Hong Kong-style clay pot dishes. The menu is long and has some heavy hitters throughout, but sticking to the clay pot dishes will be your best bet. Get the eggplant with garlic and ginger that’s cooked to the point where it gives a satisfying bite while still being soft and juicy and try the dried bean curd with duck for a saucy delight. We recommend you pull up with the entire group chat and order like it’s your last meal—it’s easy when most of the clay pots run under $15.
It’s easy to miss this small cash-only Chinese bakery in Chinatown. But once you spot the mooncakes photos taped to the window, you’ll know you’re in the right place. The face-sized pineapple buns are always squishy and fresh, and usually still warm when they’re pulled off the baking trays and packed neatly into pink boxes. The glass case at the front is a gleaming pastry utopia of egg tarts, baked char siu bao, and sponge cakes that puff up like hot air balloons. Swing by for one and sit at a table inside, or just fill up a box with one of everything (a move we’re always down for) and take your treats to-go.
Dishes at Bund Shanghai hail from the restaurant’s namesake city where braising and steaming are common preparation styles, and foods often have mellow aromas and slight sweetness. Here, these techniques and flavors are on full display, with classic Shanghai dishes like xiao long bao, braised pork belly, and wheat gluten stir-fried with luffa. Better yet, Bund Shanghai’s homestyle eats and comfortable setting will make you feel like you’re dining in a neighbor’s cozy kitchen. If you’re in the area with a small group, this spot is great for a casual dinner.