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Visit SF's Chinatown? I'm from LA

Beignets Mar 19, 2008 11:19 PM

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. w
    waldrons RE: Beignets Mar 20, 2008 12:44 AM

    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. k
      klyeoh RE: Beignets Mar 20, 2008 12:50 AM

      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
        Xiao Yang RE: klyeoh Mar 20, 2008 09:52 AM

        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
          shortexact RE: Xiao Yang Mar 20, 2008 08:31 PM

          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
            david kaplan RE: shortexact Mar 20, 2008 08:41 PM

            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
          Steve Green RE: klyeoh Mar 20, 2008 01:40 PM

          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. m
          ML8000 RE: Beignets Mar 20, 2008 01:48 AM

          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
            grayelf RE: ML8000 Mar 20, 2008 09:22 AM

            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
              Xiao Yang RE: grayelf Mar 20, 2008 09:38 AM

              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
                grayelf RE: Xiao Yang Mar 20, 2008 09:46 AM

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

                1. re: Xiao Yang
                  sylphi RE: Xiao Yang Mar 20, 2008 11:18 AM

                  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
                    Xiao Yang RE: sylphi Mar 20, 2008 07:40 PM

                    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. PeterL RE: Beignets Mar 20, 2008 03:05 PM

              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. Chandavkl RE: Beignets Mar 20, 2008 03:33 PM

                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
                  Pei RE: Chandavkl Mar 21, 2008 09:12 AM

                  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
                    rworange RE: Pei Mar 23, 2008 01:31 PM


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

                  2. re: Chandavkl
                    Xiao Yang RE: Chandavkl Mar 21, 2008 09:37 AM

                    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
                      Pei RE: Xiao Yang Mar 22, 2008 09:20 AM

                      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
                      kinipela RE: Chandavkl Mar 24, 2008 08:32 PM

                      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....

                    3. K K RE: Beignets Mar 21, 2008 10:01 AM

                      I've been to a few Hong Kong style cafes in Monterey Park/SGV area, but can't say I was that impressed.

                      For SF Chinatown, I think these are worth visiting:

                      Hon's Won Ton House - does LA even have someplace like that that resembles a 60s style jook fun meen fan joint? Granted it's not prime stuff let alone the location, but the vibe and flavor is not bad at all (assuming you don't mind the interior dumpyness which adds to the ambience and authenticity according to hole in the wall enthusiasts)

                      2nd the rec for jook/congee at Hing Lung. Order anything else at your risk, but the congee has to be as good as if not better than LA.

                      Lucky Creation - Vegetarian Cantonese but I think this place is at least multiple notches better than Happy Family vegetarian Chinese chain (Monterey Park) and at least one other buddhist vegan Chinese/Taiwanese in San Gabriel (I think it was on Valley). Come up 2 weeks before mid autumn festival and try their vegan mooncakes (no lard!) It's healthier and really really good. Wheat gluten is great (along with a few of their other deli counter offerings to go or dine in).

                      Golden Gate Bakery - egg tarts of course, haven't been since the original flakey crust pastry chef passed on, but it has got to be better than a lot of other places. They have other offerings that are pretty good, like Cantonese style pineapple bun, "French" bread which looks like a mini toadstool etc.

                      ABC (on Jackson) - if anything one of the best HK style milk teas. Though if you end up at Slanted Door or Out The Door, try their version (going against the old school way of prep, where I'm told they use a SEVEN leaf blend vs the traditional 2 to 3, in addition to evaporated milk).

                      9 Replies
                      1. re: K K
                        ML8000 RE: K K Mar 21, 2008 10:16 AM

                        Actually the Chow Fun at Hing Lung is pretty good...but otherwise you're right, don't veer off the path.

                        1. re: K K
                          Xiao Yang RE: K K Mar 21, 2008 10:50 AM

                          Great description of Hon's. Even the servers are classic and vintage. It's certainly the vibe more than the noodles that drags me in the door.

                          I think the "you tiao" (fried dough sticks) at Hing Lung are a must too. Best in Chinatown, and always straight from the fryer to your plate.

                          1. re: Xiao Yang
                            K K RE: Xiao Yang Mar 21, 2008 04:03 PM

                            Hon's is also affordable which is another draw. Cash only yes? Haven't been in some years. The portions are small, but authentic, because a bowl of won ton noodles in Hong Kong should theoretically be small (it's snack food after all), and not the giant out of proportion portions that are more common in Chinatown.

                            The only aspect of Hon's interior where it does not resemble an authentic noodle congee rice fun from the 60s, are the diner style bar stools/counter. I suppose if they broke out the foldable tables and small round collapseable stools, then they would more look the part. And of course the old style Hong Kong 50s wallpaper that look like marble/stones at some 50+ year old HK cafes (unique to Hong Kong...sigh).

                            Oh yeah complete forgot about yoh tieo at Hing Lung, a must with congee. It's like the butter that goes with bread. Northerners are probably used to dipping YT's with soy milk for breakfast/brunch, but in Cantonese food culture, it's congee. Hing Lung seems to be quite well known in food guides and amongst tourists now too. Don't they also have two other fried starch Canto items that are pretty decent, like cow tongue pastry and maybe ham dzeen beng (my memory escapes me).

                            1. re: K K
                              kc72 RE: K K Mar 21, 2008 04:06 PM

                              do they also do the yoh tieo w/ the rice roll around it?

                              1. re: K K
                                Xiao Yang RE: K K Mar 21, 2008 08:02 PM

                                Yes, they make the "cow tongue" pastry (which reminds me of another part of a cow's anatomy) which my wife knows as "tang gao". That and the youtiao are the only two things they make in the main frier by the front window.

                                What is ham dzeen beng in Mandarin?

                                1. re: Xiao Yang
                                  K K RE: Xiao Yang Mar 21, 2008 09:45 PM

                                  hsien dzien bing (salt, pan fried, cake).

                                  1. re: K K
                                    Xiao Yang RE: K K Mar 21, 2008 10:38 PM

                                    xian jian bing? The only jian bing I know are the crepe-like things usually made by street vendors on an oil drum "stoves", not something I'd expect to find in a jook joint.

                                    1. re: Xiao Yang
                                      K K RE: Xiao Yang Mar 21, 2008 10:57 PM

                                      It's uber old school Cantonese starch snack. Last time I had it was in Hong Kong during the 80s, typical dai pai dong/hawker type fare.I have no memory of what it looks or tastes like sadly. I think it's probably not as easy to find over there too. That's the salty version, which in contrast the sweet version is cow tongue pastry which look like a set of giant lips.

                                2. re: K K
                                  rworange RE: K K Mar 23, 2008 01:41 PM

                                  link to Hon's

                                  Hon's Wun Tun House
                                  648 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108

                            2. b
                              Beignets RE: Beignets Mar 21, 2008 02:12 PM

                              Thanks so much for all the useful feedbacks! It looks like I should skip it altogether... Thanks again SF hounds :)

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Beignets
                                wolfe RE: Beignets Mar 21, 2008 04:25 PM

                                Oh my goodness gracious, now you've gone and done it.
                                You successfully turned Beignets off to Chinatown.

                                1. re: wolfe
                                  Chandavkl RE: wolfe Mar 21, 2008 04:38 PM

                                  Well there's nothing wrong with S.F. Chinatown. But for someone who hasn't been to San Francisco in many years, and who is used to the wide variety of high quality authentic Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, there are many better dining options available in the Bay Area.

                                  1. re: Chandavkl
                                    wolfe RE: Chandavkl Mar 21, 2008 05:07 PM

                                    And that's not all you did.
                                    The Olympic torch likely will not pass through Chinatown when it comes to San Francisco next month on its way to the Beijing Games

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