San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the United States and the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. The neighborhood has a real sense of tradition, which means you can find authentic markets, herbal shops and bakeries, as well as some of the best Chinese restaurants in San Francisco.
People often describe China Live’s massive dining room as “bustling,” but, during peak hours, the energy can honestly tip over into the plain chaotic. Still, for those who don’t mind raising their voice to be heard by their dining companions, the modern Chinese food is worth it. The space has a mix of seating, including bar spots at the exhibition-style cooking stations (fun if you enjoy watching the action), and communal and individual tables (make a reservation for the latter). The go-to favorites are the char siu barbecue pork dutch crunch baked buns, the sichuan blistered green beans and the peking duck in kumquat glaze.
When it comes to pushcart dim sum, most people in San Francisco think of Yank Sing, but City View delivers bite-size dishes that are equally as delicious at more affordable prices (and usually without as long of a wait). The name is misleading – the view is of Commercial Street – but that hardly matters when you consider the two main things about dim sum: tracking down the dishes you want to eat and then eating them. Though everything is good, if a cart with shrimp dumplings, turnip cakes or custard buns passes by, you’ll definitely want to ask for those.
On the second floor of the China Live complex is Eight Tables, a “private chateau cuisine” fine-dining restaurant meant to emulate the experience of enjoying an elaborate meal in someone’s home. The entrance is reached via a back alley and a secret elevator, which avoids the chaos from the main floor of the busy emporium and sets the stage for what’s to come: a high-end 10-course tasting menu enjoyed at one of – you guessed it – eight tables, separated by walls and screens. The menu is among the priciest in the city (wine pairings are additional), but the exceptional service, beautiful presentation and refined dishes merit the extra expense.
If you can only eat one meal in Chinatown, it should be at Mister Jiu’s, where you’ll feast on contemporary Chinese food in an impressive and welcoming space. The menu has all of the usual suspects, updated in a thoughtful way. The dishes will make you question if you can ever go back to hot-and-sour soup that’s not deconstructed and served with dungeness crab, or wontons that aren’t black from squid ink, stuffed with perfectly seasoned pork and squid and served on a plate surrounded by even more squid. The truth is, you can. But you really won’t want to.
Sam Wo opened in 1907 and has been sating San Franciscans’ Chinese food cravings ever since, especially when those cravings hit late at night on the weekends; the restaurant is open until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights. Local people are particularly thrilled with the barbecue pork rice noodle roll or tomato beef chow mein. Though Sam Wo is a go-to late-night destination in Chinatown, it’s a worthy destination any time of day for a satisfying meal (try the chicken jook) that won’t break the bank.
When people talk about Z & Y, they often mention that Obama went here when he was in town. That’s actually not true – he just had his picture taken outside after ordering dim sum from the place next door – but by no means does that take away from the amazing food at this authentic Szechuan restaurant. (And if it makes you feel better, the chef has cooked for other presidents, as well as foreign ministers.) A lot of the dishes are super spicy, which is part of the appeal, but they are denoted with a chili pepper in case that’s not for you. Be sure to make a reservation – otherwise, expect a wait.
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