Having lived, traveled, and most importantly, eaten my way through the different regions of China for a little over two years, I have become very picky about the kind of Chinese food I eat. Several friends of mine would say I’m a little too picky. A few months after returning to California, a couple of my good friends insisted on taking me to this “great Chinese restaurant” in town. I should have asked what their definition of “great” was because the food wasn’t terribly exciting. Combination platters with sweet n sour chicken and my choice of chow mein or fried rice just don’t cut it for me anymore.
The main problem with Chinese restaurants here is that everything is mixed together. You shouldn’t be able to find Northern and Southern cuisine on the same menu because the odds that the chef is very well-trained in both of those cooking styles are very slim. Usually the restaurant owners are counting on the fact that you have no point of reference. I, unfortunately, do. I’ll admit it, I’m an elitist.
Now I’m no expert in Chinese cooking. I can’t tell you about the different schools of cooking in Chinese cuisine or the various methods of preparing dumplings. But I do know the real deal when I sink my teeth into it.
In a departure from my usual strategy—which involves waiting for my China pangs to hit, screeching to a halt at the first Chinese restaurant I see and leaving thoroughly disappointed at the not-so-spicy-chicken and grumbling about the in-authenticity of the food—this time, I had a plan. I decided to navigate my way through the one place you can allegedly find anything you can find in China: San Francisco’s legendary Chinatown. People speaking Cantonese and Mandarin can be heard all over the place, from restaurants to tea shops to the streets, making it a wonderful place to explore. You can find your authentic Northern jiao zi, Southern dim-sum—and everything in between. It’s just a matter of looking in the nooks and crannies. Read on to savor my findings.
1. San Francisco Eastern Bakery Inc.
720 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94108-2114
With the musical sounds of Cantonese being spoken by the staff and the soap operas on the television perched above the counter, this is a great place to start your culinary adventure through Chinatown. I walked into this place to see if their cha siu bao -pork buns -were really the “best in town,” as the sign in the window boasted. They were. The barbequed pork filling had the perfectly pungent blend of seasoning. There is a reason this bakery has been here since 1924 and it isn’t just the 80 cent baked or steamed pork buns. It’s the scrumptious dim sum breakfast menu at bargain prices, the mooncakes, freshly made Southern style pot stickers and tapioca drinks. The 25 minute wait for the pot stickers and tapioca drinks is well worth it. For under $10, you can have an incredibly hearty breakfast/brunch.
2. Sweetheart Café
909 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94108
While I generally steer clear of chains, this is the exception. After a big breakfast, the Chinatown branch of Sweetheart Café is the perfect spot to cool off, Chinese style of course. From the outside, this might look like a regular ice-cream parlor, but don’t be fooled. The second you walk in, you’re bombarded with colorful packets of Chinese candies to your left, ice-cream and tapioca drinks to your right. The flavors have a very Asian flair to them with items like ginger milk, and coconut pudding, both for $1.95, lychee ice-cream or passion fruit with pearls for $2.75. And if you’d like a blend of East and West, try the lush, flavorful chocolatey cookies n’ cream drink with pearls for just $3.50. If you’re thinking pearls like the kind you find in Vietnemese tea, think again. These are huge black tapioca pearls that give a cold drink that extra kick, especially on a warm San Francisco day. If you’d prefer to enjoy your desserts (as you should!), this place is perfect with the latest stylings of the latest Mandarin pop songs playing on the television screen near the additional seating area.
3. Yee’s Restaurant
1131 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
If you’re looking for a quiet, romantic Southern Chinese style lunch with the family, this is probably not the best place to take them. But, if like me, you gauge a good restaurant by the quality and portions of the food, how crowded it is, and how boisterous the customers are, then Yee’s Restaurant is sure to have you in Bok Choy heaven. There’s no need to second guess yourself and worry about what a dish will look like after you’ve ordered it. For lunch or breakfast, tables are filled with a variety of freshly made dishes. Grab the ones you want, leave the ones you don’t. For $15.99 you can have three huge entrees of anything you see or just ask the chef to make you something which hasn’t been prepared yet. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try something straight from the streets of Hong Kong, grab a steaming hot plate of sautéed pork intestines, or pork’s blood and skin with chives. And remember tofu isn’t just for vegetarians, try the roast pork with tofu or the seafood tofu clay pot. If you and your stomach aren’t in that adventurous of a mood, go with the garlic bok choy. It’s divine! If you arrive early enough, between 8 and 11, they have a breakfast special for $2.50 per item. A sign of how good it is: the special is written on the menu, all in Chinese. Ask the owner or the chef to translate.
4. The Pot Sticker
150 Waverly Place
San Francisco, CA 94108
Any restaurant specializing in “Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin Cuisine,” is bound to have a few inauthentic dishes. But still, The Pot Sticker, which specializes in jiao zi (dumplings) offers up a variety of dumplings representing different regions of China. If you’re feeling courageous, try the dumplings in hot oil, a bellyful bargain at 12 for just $4.95. Other good bets: Fresh shrimp with leek dumplings ($6.50 for 10) are succulent and satisfying without being heavy. For heartier appetites, try an order of the barbequed pork spare ribs for $7.95 or go big with the whole Peking Duck at the bargain price of $24.
5. Z&Y Restaurant
655 Jackson Street, CA 94133
I was drawn to this restaurant by the promise of huo guo from the Sichuan region of South West China. Huo guo is Mandarin for what is translated in restaurants here as “hot pot,” but it literally means “fire pot.” The concept for hot pot is simple: cook the food yourself in a pot placed in the middle of your table with a burner underneath it. You order uncooked food like meat, vegetables, noodles, seafood and cook it in a delicious broth for a few minutes. Then dip it in a tasty sauce. The version Z&Y serves up pales in comparison to the real thing, but if you really have a craving, it will do in a pinch. They have several varieties to choose from such as the Sichuan spicy chicken hot pot ($15.95) and the Yunnan lamb hot pot ($17.95). The hot pot comes pre-cooked for convenience, but make liberal use of the chili oil sauce to spice things up. Or opt for a more authentic Sichuan experience by trying the spicy pig ear with five spices ($4.95), numbing spicy seaweed ($3.95). If you don’t want to venture that far out of your comfort zone, try the chicken with explosive chili pepper or the spicy fish with flaming chili oil ($9.95).
6. Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant
3132 Vicente (at 43rd)
San Francisco, CA 94116
If you’ve had your fill of pork from Chinatown and are in the mood for a very authentic meal, this is the place. Since Muslims do not do pork, they are experts in cooking other meats like lamb, beef and chicken. The specialty here is not Sichuan, Hunan and Cantonese cuisine. They are strictly a Beijing hot pot restaurant with Beijing wait staff and Beijing chefs and real Beijing copper hot pots and portable burners. The price of a hot pot meal depends on what you order, but is about $15-$20 per person. In addition to the copper hot pot with the burner, you can order uncooked ingredients like razor thin slices of lamb, see through squishy noodles, various types of tofu, and a plethora of greens. Once the ingredients are cooked, dip your chopsticks into the hot pot and grab whatever you like. Smother it in a delicious dipping sauce and be prepared for a scrumptious meal!