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 xiaolongbao and slurp-worthy noodles, to freshly baked pastries and other dishes that highlight the many different regions of China and its incredible diversity. Here are 15 of the best spots in Chinatown.
Mouth-tingling, lip-numbing heat is a major theme in Sichuan cuisine, and the menu at Z&Y Restaurant puts it front and center. Red-hot chilies and Sichuan peppercorns work hand-in-hand (a combination called má là), treating your taste buds to an explosion of burn before soothing them with a mild buzz. These vibrant dishes that don’t hold back on flavor – like duck blood with pickled vegetables and vermicelli, griddle-cooked intestine stew, and braised fish head with chili peppers – make this one of the best Sichuan restaurants in the Bay Area. Balance out the intensity and order the fried rice with black truffle and a few greens, like stir-fried Napa cabbage or dry-sautéed string beans. You’ll also want to bring a group of spice-loving friends to catch up over dinner at this laid-back spot – the round tables with lazy Susans are great for family-style dining.
Those who love spice and heat will feel right at home at Henry’s Hunan. Dishes here are gān là, or “dry and spicy” (unlike Sichuan cuisine, in which Sichuan peppercorns afford some mild numbing). After you’ve had the excellent smoked ham sautéed alongside bamboo shoots, or the twice-cooked pork with cabbage and spicy bean sauce, you’ll probably want to cool down your mouth with refreshing greens, so get the chicken salad with peanut dressing, or the “Diana’s Special” (deep-fried dough sandwiching a bed of meat sauce, parmesan cheese, and lettuce) – a must-try, if it’s your first visit. If you’re bringing your family or a group of friends, dine in one of the comfy booths – and if you’re waiting for a table, head to the dimly-lit full bar next door (the two joints are connected) for a pre-dinner drink.
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 xiaolongbao, braised pork belly, and wheat gluten stir-fried with luffa. Your taste buds will tour the Chinese city even while the rest of you stays in San Francisco. Better yet, Bund Shanghai’s home-style 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.
Cha chaan tengs (or “tea restaurant” in Cantonese) have been around since the mid-1900s in Hong Kong, becoming popular for serving affordable tea drinks and dishes that blend Chinese and Western flavors. Hong Kong-style cafes have made their way to other parts of the world, including San Francisco. Enter VIP Coffee & Cake Shop. Everything at this spot on Broadway is comforting and hearty – the menu includes things like French toast, macaroni soup, and baked pork chops smothered in black pepper sauce over a bed of rice. Wash everything down with some iced lemon tea or Hong Kong-style milk tea, and then end your meal with one of the cafe’s many desserts, like the crowd-pleasing egg tarts. The super casual spot is great for a quick lunch – and since most of the dishes aren’t delicate, they travel well for takeout.
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.
If warm noodle soup isn’t comforting, we don’t know what is – and Chong Qing Xiao Mian on Kearny Street has options galore. You’ll want the super savory braised pork intestine noodle soup, or the one with pickled mustard fish filet if you’re into something slightly sour. On days when you really, really want to stay under the covers, it’s wonton soup with chicken broth all the way. And on a hot summer day, the house cold noodles, topped with crunchy peanuts and refreshing cucumber slices, are never a bad idea. The restaurant also serves regional noodles from all across China, including Wuhan (hot dry noodles), Guilin (rice noodle soup), and the restaurant’s namesake city of Chongqing (spicy and numbing noodles).
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 less than $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.
There’s no better feeling than watching your favorite dim sum rolling out of the kitchen in a push-cart, fresh out of the steamer. At City View, the cart-style dim sum is some of the best in the city, and it’s hard to go wrong with whatever you choose here. We recommend the scallop siu mai, chicken feet, and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf. End the lunch (or weekend dim sum brunch) with an order of taro puffs, which are stuffed with a slightly sweet, creamy filling. If you’re here with a large group, remember to order two or three of each selection – most baskets have only two to four items in them.
This cozy, laid-back restaurant has been a Chinatown fixture since 1983, and it’s where you’ll find some of the best sizzling Hunan bean curd ever. Sautéed with pork in a black-bean sauce, the dish is a must-order and packs the heat. Or, choose the Hunan smoked pork, which is sautéed with cabbage and green peppers in a spicy sauce so luscious you’ll want to slurp it up by the spoonful. To balance out the heat, go for the chicken with orange peel – chunks of deep-fried chicken coated in a mildly sweet, citrusy sauce – and a lighter vegetable dish such as snow pea leaves sautéed with garlic. You can also ask the servers about the spiciness – they’ll gladly adjust heat levels to suit everyone in your group.
This colorful spot feels like a diner (there’s a TV and photos of popular dishes posted on the walls), and is one of the relatively few places in Chinatown open past midnight – they close at 1am most days. But being an ideal option for a late-night snack isn’t the only reason we love them. Yuet Lee is one of the best spots in Chinatown to sample a whole bunch of the best Cantonese seafood dishes. The roasted salt-and-pepper prawns-in-shell are perfectly crispy, the sautéed clams with black bean sauce literally drip with flavor, and we can never pass up the sautéed crab with ginger and green onion. Don’t miss the succulent clay pot dishes either, like the braised catfish with black bean and roast pork – it’s the perfect comfort dish after a night on the town.
At Mister Jiu’s, Cantonese flavors are reinterpreted to produce unique dishes that highlight California. Think grilled Wolfe Ranch quail served with glutinous rice and lap cheong, sourdough scallion pancakes, and chicken “dirty” rice with shacha sauce. The menu at this Chinese American restaurant changes seasonally, so you can expect new creations each time you visit. Soft lighting, stunning brass chandeliers, and elegant artwork create a lovely, airy atmosphere, one that’s great for celebrating a special occasion or enjoying a date night out.
Hon’s Wun-Tun House is a casual lunch spot that’s been a Chinatown go-to for wonton soup for almost 50 years. The wontons are generously stuffed with juicy meat, the broth is extremely slurpable and umami-rich, and you can even choose from a range of meats to go in your soup – get the beef tendon or barbecued pork. The wontons are so good that you’ll definitely want to pick up some freshly wrapped, uncooked ones for whenever you want to get your warm soup belly on at home. If you’re looking to switch things up, the menu also has other great options - noodle soups with curry beef or fish balls, and scallion pancakes that are perfectly crisp and make a great appetizer.
Like the name suggests, this Cantonese restaurant serves many dishes in traditional clay pots, the perfect vehicle for maximizing flavor and distributing heat and moisture. Order the eggplant with garlic and ginger, and the lobster with vermicelli – both of which are cooked to a perfect texture. They also serve plenty of delicious non-clay pot dishes, from steamed pork with salted fish to bitter melon with frog. The atmosphere is homey and relaxed (carpeted floors and simple, elegant decor including red lanterns and Chinese paintings) – which is especially great for a casual lunch when rice plates like curry chicken or oxtail with mushrooms run under $10.
This three-story Cantonese seafood restaurant on the edge of Chinatown near the Financial District has been around for decades. It’s also where we go for steamed Maine lobsters with garlic and onions, and their signature live crab with salt and pepper. The restaurant is usually crowded (expect a wait unless you have a reservation), but the lively atmosphere and round banquet tables make this spot perfect for family reunions and large gatherings with friends – plus, you’ll be able to try more dishes, like shrimp with scrambled eggs (always beautifully soft and velvety) and steamed fresh rock cod or sea bass (tender and light). Definitely don’t forget to order a round of lychee martinis, which are refreshing and mildly sweet – they pair well with all the seafood you’ll be eating. Keep in mind that there’s always a crowd here, so be prepared for a wait, or make a reservation.
For delicious dim sum options to take home (or enjoy immediately in your car – we won’t judge), stop by Good Mong Kok. The tiny takeout-only bakery makes some of Chinatown’s tastiest buns, pastries, and dumplings, and they’re generous with their fillings. You can’t go wrong with the char siu buns, shrimp dumplings, or pork siu mai. And you’ll find it hard to turn down the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, velvety turnip cakes, and flaky egg tarts (they’re that good). Long story short, expect to end up buying way too much when you’re here (we never complain about the leftovers). Another thing to know is there’s almost always a line out the door, so be prepared for a bit of a wait. Luckily, you can use that time to try and figure out what’s in the giant steamer baskets that are visible through the window.