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Mar 19, 2008 11:19 PM

Visit SF's Chinatown? I'm from LA

Hello SF locals, I've gone to SF plenty but haven't for years. I've also not eaten in SF's Chinatown because I've always assumed since I'm familiar with the offerings in Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, etc., I don't need to.

Am I wrong? If so, which restaurant should I go to? I'm not looking for any particular prices or setting either. Also open to non-Chinese Asian. I'm not picky, I eat almost anything.


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  1. I'm not familiar with the other Chinatowns you mention, so can't give you a direct comparison. But I suspect that those locations are suburbs that are heavily populated with Chinese immigrants, but that physically look like regular suburbs. SF's Chinatown, for good or ill, looks different... the buildings have many Chinese architectural flourishes, and the area is quite compact and walkable.

    While many say that the "best" Chinese food isn't in Chinatown, you can get very good food there, especially off the beaten path of Grant Ave. For dim sum try Gold Mountain on Broadway. For unusual fare, the new Jai Yun (may also be called the Flying Pan Bistro) on Clay... you select the price, the chef does everything else, and I guarantee you won't get chop suey or egg foo yong or any other American food! For good versions of more "accessible" Chinese food, I like Hunan Home's at 622 Jackson... it's comfortable enough for visitors, but good enough that the local Chinese eat there, too.

    You can also visit temples, herbalists, bakeries, etc., so it's an interesting stop for a couple of hours.


    1. A Chinatown denizen once told me that there were only 2 restaurants worth eating at if you're stuck in Chinatown and want the genuine article: R&G Lounge, and Great Eastern. I've tried both since, and they are really good.

      Beware of that tourist trap: Empress of China - it's got great views, loads of posters of celebrity diners (think Tony Bennett, Karl Marlden, Sammy Davis Jr, etc) but awful food & high prices.

      4 Replies
      1. re: klyeoh

        I would add ZY Garden, Yuet Lee, and, tentatively Utopia Cafe (there may have been a recent ownership change) as worthy dinner spots. Hing Lung is good for jook, and there are a number of good HK-style noodle and small plates venues, like Washington Bakery on Washington (check out their salmon fried rice and their pan-fried cheung fun!), and ABC on Jackson. Chinatown's best kept secret for bargain good eats, if you stick to the Chinese side of its Chinese-Vietnamese menu, may be San Sun of Stockton St. between Clay and Washington St. You heard it from me.

        1. re: Xiao Yang

          I would agree about Z&Y, but I've been noticing quite a bit of inconsistency there recently. One meal I had there some months ago was pretty awful. I returned last weekend with a bit of trepidation, but the dan dan mian was well done.

          1. re: shortexact

            In the dan dan mien, are they back to using those chewy thick noodles, or it is those thin noodles that were overcooked and all stuck together the last time I ordered it there?

        2. re: klyeoh

          I don't know --I was taken to Empress of China by a client a few years back, and was pleasantly surprised. Tasty food (if somewhat Americanized) and excellent quality ingredients. The Peking Duck there still stands as the best I've ever had -- way better than it was at R&G last year.

        3. If you've been to SGV and there abouts, I don't think there will be much in SF Chinatown except for Canto food. As mentioned R&G Lounge and Great Eastern are very good and nicer places. There's also Yuet Lee for seafood (hole in the wall but great seafood), Lychee Garden and perhaps Hing Lung. These are all good Cantonese places.

          You're not going to get as good Canto in SGV or LA, but then SF can't do some things SGV can ... although I think SF has caught up nicely with xiao long bao. I know I'll catch some flak for this but I tried two XLB places in SGV and Shanghai Dumpling King beat them both.

          5 Replies
          1. re: ML8000

            Any thoughts about Utopia Cafe on Waverly, a place we really enjoyed on our first trip to SF in March 2003? We went twice for lunch and ordered off their "afternoon snacks" menu which included the best deep fried squid I've ever had. I've also read good things about their pork belly, rock cod, deep-fried tofu and clay pots on CH but ran across a couple of more recent posts that were a bit less complimentary. The prices were silly cheap and I liked the fact that it seemed very popular with non-Caucasians (we were the only white faces in the small and unfancy place both times).

            1. re: grayelf

              I'm a Utopia Cafe fan, too, and it still seems to be very popular with local Chinese, but scuttlebutt has it that the owner, Winnie Leung has left to take over the Imperial Palace around the corner on Washington St.

              1. re: Xiao Yang

                Thanks for the scuttle... or but :-).

                1. re: Xiao Yang

                  I just thought I'd clear this up. I'm friends with the owner's son and since the last time we spoke, which was about a month ago, the family still owns Utopia but they also own Imperial Palace.

                  1. re: sylphi

                    Thanks. I thought it checked out because Winnie Leung abandoned claim to the fictitious business name "Utopia Cafe" about the same time she applied for a beer and wine license for Imperial Palace. That might be just be a tax dodge or something, because the new claimant to the "Utopia Cafe" name is listed only as a corporation named "Hollywood World, LLC" which of course could be a business front.

                    I look forward to more good claypot meals at Utopia!


            2. You will go into sticker shock if you are used to the Chinese food in Monterey Park and come up to SF. There isn't much in Chinatown SF of interest. It's only marginally better than LA Chinatown. You may want to go out to the "new" Chinatown if you want to stay in SF, or go down to Millbrae for a newish area of Chinese food concentration.

              1. Skip S.F. Chinatown--I pretty much do when I go to S.F., even though I always stay in the Chinatown area. Only exception if you want to go high end with Jai Yun. That's the only thing that S.F. Chinatown has that L.A. doesn't. Now if you're talking suburban Chinese food, a lot of that compares favorably with SGV, though SGV still has the edge. Koi Palace in Daly City would be my top pick in that regard.

                5 Replies
                1. re: Chandavkl

                  I have not yet been to Jai Yun, but I want to thank Chandavkl for typing this post and saving me the time of typing it myself. Ditto on everything, and I've lived both in the SGV and SF (shopping and eating often in Chinatown).

                  The one thing SF does have that LA doesn't have but it's in the Inner Richmond, is SPICES II. OMFG. If you like Szechaun food and Taiwanese food, this is the place for you. Be forewarned, the menu's extensive and some of it is bad, but the things they do well are amazing. I missed this place the entire time I lived in LA.

                  -pai gu fan (pork chop over rice)
                  -niu ro mien (beef noodle soup)
                  -10+ kinds of stinky tofu, stinkier and tastier than any in LA. Really.
                  -cumin lamb hob pot

                  There's a lot more. If you go, just stay away from anything that sounds Cantonese or Chinese-America (mayonaise shrimp) because they cannot do those types of dishses well at all.

                  1. re: Pei


                    Spices II
                    291 6th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94118

                  2. re: Chandavkl

                    With Jai Yun I think you need a group as least as big as four to get the maximum benefit.

                    I'm not a dan ta fan, but does the Southland have egg custard tarts as good as Golden Gate Bakery's are reputed to be?

                    1. re: Xiao Yang

                      In my experience, the best egg custard tarts in LA are in the best dim sum retaurants. My sister, an egg custard tart fiend, likes the ones at 888 Seafood.

                      As with most pastries, however, those tarts are best when fresh. Once they're allowed to get cold, it's hard to tell the best from the okay.

                    2. re: Chandavkl

                      i agree. i would skip sf chinatown because sgv/monterey park is better, imo. i've lived in both areas.

                      i would focus your trip on other types of food. if you still want an "asian" flavor, i really like slanted door (vietnamese).

                      and i find that the culture and emphasis here in the bay is more into fresh locally grown ingredients....