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Aug 20, 2012 05:14 PM

Best Sichuan food in SF?

We're debating between Mission Chinese, Spices! or ... we're open to other suggestions! We are staying at the Serrano Hotel downtown and are willing to travel a bit for authentic Sichuan. Love spicy beef tendon, especially. Any recommendations are appreciated!

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  1. Mission Chinese is not really Sichuan. I think either Spices (there are multiple branches with slightly different menus, so check before you go) or Z&Y in Chinatown would be your best bet.

    1. Via BART, the Oakland Spices! location will likely be quicker for you than the one in the Richmond District of SF.

      1. You probably should check this chain:

        The consenus seems to be China Village (in Albany across the Bay and currently closed for post-fire remodel), Z&Y in Chinatown. My favorite is Dong Bei Mama on Geary in the Richmond district.

        11 Replies
        1. re: davidg1

          I will add that if one is talking about consensus outside SF city proper, in the East Bay: there is Sichuan Fortune House (and some new ventures by the chef and owner of that restaurant) and Da Sichuan in Palo Alto.

          1. re: goldangl95

            i was incredibly disappointed by da sichuan. food was very greasy and not spicy at all. maybe good for palo alto, but not worth traveling to at all. i second ruth's recommendations above (spices and z&y).

            1. re: possumspice

              Huh - interesting and good to know for future recs. I wouldn't say Da Sichuan is necessarily destination worthy (but I find few restaurants so) I certainly haven't had a problem with their food being not spicy enough, and it's certainly as spicy as any of the Sichuan restaurants in the East Bay. It may be that they know me at this point and that's why I haven't had an issue. But they know I like the food "Sichuan spicy" and the Ma Po Tofu, Boiling Fish, Manchurian Chicken etc. all have plenty of tingly peppercorns as well as the dried red chilis.

              1. re: possumspice

                Da Sichuan is certainly the rustic, full bore salty, oily and very spicy genre. Greasy I can understand, but not spicy? That's quite a change, as it lays on more peppercorn and chiles when I've been there than the other more finessed kitchens.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Vastly underrated is Little Sichuan in San Mateo. Their menu is full of "chinese classics" so you have to hunt - but the food has punch and less grease than others.

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    Spicy Empire, also in San Mateo, is good too. Apparently, it is a sister restaurant to Pot Sticker in SF.

                    Another note: A new place called Yi Yuan Szechuan Restaurant just opened this month in Millbrae on El Camino Real, a block north of Asian Pearl. The space was previously occupied by Happy Chef, a Korean/Chinese restaurant.

                  2. re: Melanie Wong

                    Hmm...I guess we got unlucky on the spice level of the dishes. We *did* order dishes that we would expect to be fairly spicy, including the boiling fish. Then again, very few restaurants (barring maybe Jitlada in L.A.) make food spicy enough for me and my husband. :)

                    1. re: possumspice

                      Can't speak to Da Sichuan specifically, as I've not eaten there that many times, but while water-boiled xxx (fish, lamb, beef, pork, etc.) is often the spiciest thing on a Sichuan menu, the red meats get more flames than the fish does. The chef will match the firepower to the specific protein, and the fish version is not as hot.

                      Have you taken any of the ghost pepper challenges that some restaurants are offering? :)

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        Any specific restaurants that you can name? It certainly sounds like something we might like. I often cook with ghost pepper at home.

                        1. re: possumspice

                          One I'm aware of specifically is Red Hot Chilli Pepper in San Carlos, Indian-Chinese though I've not been there myself. I heard that you have to sign a waiver before ordering the ghost pepper dish.

                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            interesting. certainly a lot of spicy looking dishes on that menu. may have to give it a try. thanks!

            2. Well Mission Chinese is not "authentic", but it is good. Dong Bei Mama is not sichuan at all as suggested below, but a good place. Spices is Taiwanese , not Sichuan.

              Z andY and Potsitcker in SF are good.. I Love Z and Y. In Richmond Sicuan Fusion and in Pleasant Hill, Sicuan Fortune House..

              16 Replies
              1. re: jason carey

                Sorry Jason, but as has been discussed many times, Dong Bei Mama has an extensive and excellent Sichuan menu (in addition to its Dong Bei food).

                1. re: jason carey

                  I believe Dong Bei Mama is a makeover of Panda Country Kitchen by the same owners. In any case, they kept a bunch of Sichuan dishes from the old menu.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    According to Jonathan Kauffman in SF Weekly when Panda Country Kitchen was reborn as Dong Bei Mama, the owners brought in "Dongbei-born Chef Xue from Little Sichuan in San Mateo." Not sure if he's still in the kitchen, but someone there knows what they're doing.

                  2. re: jason carey

                    Spice's Taiwanese origins would explain their selection of stinky tofu ...

                    Regardless, Spices has tons of well made Sichuan dishes, and certainly outnumbers the number of Sichuan related dishes served by Mission Chinese. I've enjoyed Spice
                    s beef tendon (not as good as China Village, but that's not currently open), their Ma-Po Tofu is great, and their Chongqing style chicken and tofu are well flavored. I'll add that they're one of the most vegetarian friendly restaurants around.

                    That all said, Z&Y is probably the most convenient for the OP. Unless you can read Chinese characters, make sure to ask the servers to describe some of the items on the menu that are underneath the glass on the table. Or just look around at what other people are eating.

                    1. re: hyperbowler

                      My wife and I are vegetarian and can confirm what you say about Spices II. It's one of our go-to places for that reason. The spicy numbing eggplant is fantastic.

                    2. re: jason carey

                      It is so often repeated on this forum that Spices is "Taiwanese" that I believe this statement needs to be examined and corrected.

                      Spices I serves stinky tofu, which is undoubtedly a Taiwan (olfactory) experience. We frequent Spices II, where there is no stinky tofu, and haven't been to other Spices, so I will only refer to Spices II.

                      We have spent several days in Chengdu, and searched out the original Mother Chen's Ma Po Tofu place. Spices II ma po tofu is as close to the original as I have ever encountered. Their other dishes are also close to what we had in Chengdu, including the fish filet/beef boiled in water (red hot "water"), which is also excellent at Little Sichuan. We first ran into the chicken wings buried in chile dish in an out of the way Sichuan restaurant in Beijing (next door to the hotel run by the government of Tibet).

                      Last year we spent 2 weeks in Taiwan, much of it in Taipei, and had wonderful Taiwanese food all over, in night markets and restaurants. We looked for Sichuan restaurants, mainly because of the comments on this forum that Spices is Taiwanese. Tried Kiki, which was OK, sort of Sichuan, and Xiao Wei (小魏川菜餐廳) near the main railroad station, unspectacular. Neither was anything like Chengdu or Beijing for Sichuan food, or as good as either Spices II or Little Sichuan in San Mateo. There may be good Sichuan in Taiwan, but we didn't find it. (Maybe KK can comment.) Link to my long report on Taiwan within a very interesting thread by HongKongFoodie and KK:

                      So, maybe the owners of Spices II are from Taiwan, but the food is not Taiwanese (IMHO).

                      1. re: Thomas Nash

                        The most important point is that the various branches of Spices! have different menus, which should be taken into account when deciding which one to eat at.

                        1. re: Thomas Nash

                          Interesting. Spices III, the Oakland location I'm most familiar with and discussed above, isn't listed on their webpage. Anyone know the story behind that?

                          In any case, it says:
                          "At SPiCES! Restaurants, we deliver a new fusion of various Chinese Szechuan Cuisines, originating from Taiwan, Chung Ching, Chen Du, and Shanghai. "


                          1. re: Thomas Nash

                            When Spices first opened in SF, one could order Sichuan dishes prepared through the filter of Taiwan or straight up. There were chefs from Taiwan and Sichuan in the kitchen. The owner of the place in Redwood City that recently closed, who had been a partner in Spices, told me that he left Spices because the cooking was too Taiwanese-y.

                            1. re: Thomas Nash

                              My taste memory tell me that Spices is in general sweeter than the same dish eaten in Chengdu. I assumed that was part of the Taiwanese influence.

                              1. re: boris_qd

                                I've been to Spices ll in SF about 4 times now. I tried the spicy numbing eggplant which was given to me part cold and part hot (they told me it was a cold dish, but maybe they didn't have any prepared and had to cook it from scratch). Anyway, it was horrible - under-ripe eggplant and a crappy sauce. I also had their fried tofu w/ explosive chili pepper. That was spicy and tasty, but not with any sort of real flavor beyond chilis and sichuan pepper. Wanted to try fish dishes, but they use catfish (basa), which I don't eat.

                                Not that a non-Chinese person can't cook Chinese food well (viz Fuchsia Dunlop), but there wasn't anyone Chinese in the kitchen and there was certainly no Fuchsia Dunlop.

                                My opinion is that the food here is not authentic Sichuan in the least.

                                1. re: davidg1

                                  Sorry to hear about your bad experiences there. I was at Spices III in Oakland earlier this week, and had a mixed experience. I wasn't paying attention to the ingredients enough to see how well they conformed to Dunlop's specs, but the Dan Dan noodles tasted great. I've liked their cold sesame noodles in the past as well. On the other hand, their chicken with explosive chili wasn't very appealing. They continue to hack the pieces with little precision, and we wound up having to continually spit out little bone shards.

                                  I like their fried tofu for the exact reason you don't!

                                  1. re: davidg1

                                    I've been to Spices II a lot, and that eggplant dish varies from visit-to-visit. I don't think I've ever had it underripe before, but I have had it as you describe - warm from being made to order.

                                    Would love a better suggestion of a place to go. We usually get the iron pot mushrooms, and an eggplant dish made w/ black vinegar.

                                    1. re: Josh

                                      Josh, have you tried Mission Chinese Food? Not authentically Sichuan, but the food is fiery and the menu is clearly marked with vegetarian and vegan options.

                                      1. re: Josh

                                        we haven't tried the dishes that seem to be popular with the folks on this thread yet, but the food we've had at Sichuan Fusion at the big Pacific East/ranch 99 mall in Richmond (Central Ave. exit from the freeway) has been good to very good. one dish we've had there and at Z&Y in SF, wontons in spicy sauce, had noticeably more assertive spice with the numbing ('ma') effect of the sichuan pepper at Sichuan Fusion. the only 'fusion' we've encountered there is multi-regionalism in the menu; their hand cut noodles are nice and chewy.

                                  2. re: Thomas Nash

                                    I agree that Taiwanese label is to broad. The reason there are significant sichuan and shanghai (jiang nan) dishes and influence in the cuisine has to do with 20th century history. Taiwan was taken over by mainland nationalists after the civil war. The head of nationalists is from near shanghai and is capital in nanking . The government spent a decade in exile chungkin sichuan. So xlb, stinky tofu, spicy hot pot may not be native to taiwan but they certainly have excelled there.

                                2. Possibly great new Sichuan place on Geary - Grand Hot Pot Lounge. Here's my Yelp post:

                                  Pulled over on a late afternoon whim to look at the huge picture menu posted in the window, and was surprised to find that this was a Szechuan place rather than (yet another) hot pot restaurant. Was also surprised to get a huge discount on the check, as they have daily happy hour from 3-6pm.

                                  I'm a huge Sichuan fan, and this place was excellent and totally authentic. The watiress said the chef is from Sichuan. Had the spicy pickled chili fish filet ($12.95) and dry-fried string beans, both really good and huge portions. And a cold enoki mushroom starter that was very tasty. Will be back soon to sample many more dishes.

                                  38 Replies
                                  1. re: davidg1

                                    Nice, and I'm excited that there might be real Sichuan hot pot in San Francisco again. Menupages has a menu up, does this look representative of what you saw in house?

                                    Grand Hot Pot Lounge
                                    3565 Geary Blvd, San Francisco 94118
                                    (Btwn Stanyan St & Arguello Blvd)
                                    (415) 387-2346

                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                      Sugar Pee Sprouts?

                                      There looks like there is something missing from the menu. Everything between the "Lunch Specials" and the "Beverages" sections indeed appear to be hot pot components. There are no a la carte "rice" dishes (not even the chili fish filet mentioned by davidg1) other than those in the over-the-top luxe "Chef's Master Collections."

                                      As that menu stands, if you're there for dinner, and not in a hot pot mood, what choices do you have?

                                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                                        Nope - the menupages menu is missing maybe most of it, along with photos etc. The actual menu is pretty extensive.

                                        I was expecting it to be one of those hotpot places with burners on the tables, but it's not. I don't even recall noticing hotpots on the menu, but there probably were some. I was too busy looking at all the fish, vegetable and appetizers.

                                        It's in a space that was formerly a club - it's nice, but cavernous for a restaurant. It feels like they need to add more tables.

                                        I'm curious to see what others think of the food.

                                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                                          Here's the menu. I don't know why the photos didn't come out full size portrait style (the way they are on my phone) when they were uploaded. Hope you can read it.

                                          1. re: davidg1

                                            Looks like Chowhound's picture upload software puts everything into that box. Makes portraits hard to read. But you can see how extensive the menu is.

                                            1. re: davidg1

                                              I should also provide a little more detail on the pickled pepper fish I had. It didn't come out looking much like the photo on the menu, but it was very nicely and deliberately presented by someone who clearly knew what they were doing:

                                              In fact, there were 2 large fillets of flounder sitting side-by-side in a large dish. One side was red, the sauce full of pieces of pickled red chilli. (No sure if they were those special heaven-facing chillis, I should have looked more closely). The other side was green, the sauce full of green and greenish-yellow chillis, that were hotter than the red ones. I tried each side, then mixed them together.

                                              Very good flavor, lighter on the MSG and salt than these kinds of dishes sometimes are.

                                              1. re: davidg1

                                                Thanks so much for uploading those menu shots. When you click on the thumbnails, the photos expand to full format.

                                                Given your love for Sichuan food, I hope we'll hear from you this month in the mapo doufu olympics.

                                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                  When you click on the thumbnails, you get reduced-size images in which I'm unable to read most of the text.

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    The pop-up images are reduced in size and smaller than the thumbnails? Maybe it depends on the size of your screen. Also, I can pinch and expand them to reading size on my phone.

                                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                      In a Windows or Mac web browser, clicking on an image thumbnail pops up a dialog with an image that is reduced to 390 pixels high.

                                                      On my phone, I can enlarge that image, but the resolution doesn't improve, so text doesn't get any more readable.

                                                      This has been a problem for years, I think since Chow first added images.

                                                  2. re: Melanie Wong

                                                    Melanie, the menus are not readable when using a web browser. Are you using the chowhound iPhone app? If so I suspect they are treating images differently than a browser in that app. If true, we should probably alert them to the problem.

                                                    1. re: sfchris

                                                      I took the photos on an Android phone, but they were uploaded from my laptop. When I zoom into the photos on my phone, they are perfectly clear and readable.

                                                      Melanie, regarding Ma Po Tofu, I've never had a version I've really liked - it's always too sweet and vinegary to me, even in the best Sichuan places. Unfortunately I don't eat meat, and I suspect that would make all the difference.

                                                      1. re: davidg1

                                                        The original photos or the CH versions? The text of the CH versions is unreadable zoomed on my Android phone or tablet.

                                                        Chrome browser.

                                                        1. re: davidg1

                                                          "Unfortunately I don't eat meat, and I suspect that would make all the difference."

                                                          davidg1, FWIW, that has not been my experience at all, so I would counsel not attaching major importance to this factor. (The far bigger difference among versions I've tried, regardless of how the restaurant itself was described or perceived, was whether the place made the dish true to standard Sichuanese principles -- your mention of "vinegary" in particular has me suspicious about that.)

                                                          At one of the now-closed restaurants I alluded to in the ma po tofu thread, which had a splendid Sichuanese chef and made all the best-known Sichuanese dishes superbly, I noticed that its ma po variation, with a number of textureful vegetable bits and fermented black beans and extremely flavorful, lacked any meat. "We find it doesn't make much of a difference" said the owner when I asked about that (around 2005). Since then I have paid closer attention and I generally concur with that assessment now, both in [good] restaurant versions and when making the dish at home.

                                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                                            Thanks for that info. Can you recommend a place to try it? Among places I'd rate highly for their Sichaun food, I've had it at Chilli House (Z&Y), Dong Bei Mama, and one or two places in NYC. And I'm always disappointed.

                                                            I'm tempted to try Spices II's version, which a poster here seems to like and says is authentic. But everything else I;ve eaten there is Sichuan food through the filter of the 1990's Taiwan Sichuan craze, once removed to San Francisco. Sometimes tasty, but not authentic.

                                                            And Sichuan Home has a ma po dish. But don't get me started on how overrated that place is.

                                                            1. re: davidg1

                                                              I gather that your query, like this thread itself, is SF-based and regret I can't help you there.

                                                              Most of my good Bay Area Sichuanese restaurant-cook finds have been outside SF itself, scattered around the Bay Area. And they've seen considerable turnover too. But they do have their fans. At the now-closed place I cited here on the "meat" conversation, one wealthy Chinese-born customer used to come regularly, often by himself, just for a dish of ma po tofu (something like $9 at that restaurant), and leave looking satisfied, leaving a $50 or $100 tip (so his visits were eagerly anticipated by the servers).

                                                              Lately I've gotten a "MPTF" fix at Chef Zhao Bistro, which is in Mountain View near Moffett Field -- may stop there again today, after all this appetizing dscussion -- but there must be good sources much closer to SF.

                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                I'm going to try posting the menu again.

                                                                I tried one page and posted straight from the microdisk on my phone. It doesn't seem to help - looks like Chowhound automatically reduces the resolution

                                                                1. re: davidg1

                                                                  Yeah, like I said, that's been the case since they added photos.


                                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                    I went back again. This time I had "Spicy Fish and Tofu." Really excellent, with a lot of layers of flavor. Photos attached.

                                                                    1. re: davidg1

                                                                      Very interesting, yours is the third sighting of a fish version of mapo doufu.

                                                                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                        And if this is Mapo Tofu (with fish), then I've found a version I actually like!

                                                                        1. re: davidg1

                                                                          Since you have the more legible versions of the menu photos, is it listed there and what is it called in Chinese and English? I've been trying to view them on my phone but the photo screens keep crashing my browser.

                                                                              1. re: davidg1

                                                                                Thanks for providing that snippet. But I'm still not able to make out the first two characters. Maybe someone else can help.

                                                                                  1. re: davidg1

                                                                                    the second ideogram is difficult to make out (each stroke has to be legible -- there's about 11+ strokes in there), everything else is relatively easy -- wai (4) xxxx dou fu yu. is there an adjective that makes sense with 'wai' (outer, outside) as part of the compound ?

                                                                                    1. re: moto

                                                                                      Maybe the second character is la (6) 辣 ? Perhaps davidg1 could look at his higher res photo and compare for us.

                                                                                      (I noticed the restaurant yesterday morning when I was on Geary and if I'd not been late for my next stop, would have pulled over to look at the menu!)

                                                                                        1. re: davidg1

                                                                                          Thank you. The second character is 婆, the same po as in mapo.

                                                                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                                            So do you know what the Chinese says? "Ma Po Tofu and Fish?"

                                                                                            1. re: davidg1

                                                                                              the character 'po' is actually a kinship term -- the very bottom element, blurred in your earlier photos, is the key, and means 'woman' or female. often used in the context of 'mother in law'. 'wai po' (the first two ideograms) is a specific kinship term, 'wai' refers to the mother's side of a family [paternalistic perspective of traditional society, women who were outside of the male's kin were brought into his by marriage -- in some societies, like the Dineh, it's the opposite]. normal meaning of 'wai po' would be maternal grandmother ; the entire expression, then, granny (on mother's side) dou fu fish.

                                                                                    2. re: davidg1

                                                                                      Funny, I've ordered this dish at a couple places, including Happy Golden Bowl (I forget the current name) in El Cerrito, but always thought of it as water boiled fish with tofu added, but it looks like the name is actually mapo doufu ...
                                                                                      I make both myself and unless you add a lot of fermented black beans to the mapo doufu, they aren't terribly different. Though it looks like their are peanuts and chopped garlic in Grand Hot Pot Lounge's version, based on davidg1's picture, which sounds good to me.

                                                                                      1. re:

                                                                                        No peanuts, those are what seemed to me to be slightly crunchy dry black beans. There were a lot of flavors in there, as well as Sichuan peppercorns and the rest, I tasted some brief hints of anise, and some other vegetables and textures I wasn't sure about.

                                                                                        There were some large parties in the place, who seemed to be getting some enormous platters piled high with fried stuff and covered with red chilis and green herbs. Those must be the $28 dishes on the menu (fresh bbq catfish vs the $13 flounder filets I've been eating.

                                                                                        Owner told me a lot of their customers are mainland chinese students from nearby USF.

                                                2. re: davidg1

                                                  Just wrapping up our meal. Also did the enoki starter, plus the spicy black fungus. Both excellent.

                                                  Also had fish filet with explosive chili pepper, the string beans, and BBQ squid. All really good, especially enjoyed the squid. I'm attaching a photo, but not a very good one.

                                                  1. re: davidg1

                                                    2nd on this place. went here tonight, excellent. too tired now to do full writeup, but will soon.

                                                    1. re: vulber

                                                      Was hoping to read your review some time....

                                                      I went back again, had fish filet in chilli oil (the cheap one, not the fresh fish) and napa cabbage. Excellent.