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Dinner at Great Eastern Restaurant in SF Chinatown

Great Eastern in San Francisco’s Chinatown gets mentioned more often for dim sum lunch than other meal choices. After having a quick dinner a month ago for the first time in ages, I wanted to recommend a couple dishes.

A windy and wet night, I opted to push my mother there in a folding wheelchair instead of risking walking on the slippery sidewalk. When Great Eastern’s manager spotted us approaching the entrance, he came out to help us inside to a nice table toward the back. On exit we were flanked by a couple waiters to help us out the door as well.

Tables seem to have a skosh more space around them than similar spots in Chinatown (R & G, I’m looking at you) and the interior was spiffier and brighter than I remembered. Roast ducks hung on spotlighted display behind gleaming glass.

At dinner time, house soup (old fire soup) is complimentary. This night’s was turnip and carrot with pork bones, just right for this chilly night. Our server ladled out the warming elixir in formal fashion, that is with his left hand cocked in the small of the back. He worked silently, no clanging of dishes or drips, and later returned to ask if he could serve us more.

We ordered but two dishes:

XO Beef Chow Fun, $10.50 – A huge heap, the biggest serving I can remember, with plenty of tender beef, maybe a little overly tenderized. A well-turned and delectable XO sauce expressing layers of umami and not just salt and heat, lightly charred fresh rice noodles, bean sprout “silver”, yellow leeks and scallions, stir-fried nearly dry with just the barest shimmer of oil left behind on the platter.

Oyster and Roast Pork Claypot, $11 – Served up bubbling and boiling hot, whole black mushrooms, diamonds of tender fresh ginger root, green onions, and carmelized garlic cloves played supporting yet very essential roles contributing their deep savoriness to the main named players. Lightly coated, pan-fried oysters and the pebbly skin of the cubes of roast pig absorbed the juices like sponges, releasing bursts of surf and turf flavor harmonies with each bite.

Complimentary dessert was a dried tangerine peel scented red bean soup with tapioca pearl and better than most. Our server boxed up our leftovers.

The customers in the main dining room were close to half non-Chinese, an opportunity for Mom to play one of her favorite games. She pays attention to what non-Chinese have on their tables and then judges who is clued in or not, exclaiming, “They really know how to order!” or “Those people don’t know Chinese food.” This time the ones in eyeshot did well in her book though she wondered about the stacks of eggrolls. I reminded her that we were in the middle of Chanukah and Jewish people might be fried food loading to celebrate. Looking around at other tables also made me notice how solicitous the staff are, checking back on tables, visiting with regulars, and the manager keeping a watchful eye over everything.

Considering the prices, complimentary courses, quality and service, I had to question why I’d not been here in recent years. The prices are the same level as Yuet Lee and the portions might be bigger here. Great Eastern serves until midnight in much nicer surroundings and with considerably better service than the neighbors. Great Eastern’s an easy choice for Chinatown dining.

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  1. You realize it's been eleven years since I first ate at Great Eastern with you? http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/18296

    2 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      And turned you into a crab eater!

      Great Eastern used to have a relatively complete website that listed the set dinners such as we had ordered. Not any more.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        I have so many associations with that meal. It was the first place I drove my new car, before it was even officially christened the Chow Cruiser. Almost a year later I was in Spokane, and it turned out that a restaurant run by Tom's girlfriend's parents was very convenient to where I was staying. I mentioned that I'd dined with Tom, and they were very welcoming. Just the beginnings, really of how my life has been enriched through Chowhound.

    2. Close to 20 years ago Lady PB and I walked through Chinatown one night in search of a chow worthy meal and almost gave up when we happened to look down Jackson and noticed GE's small lit sign above the door. It was the highlight of our trip that week. Thanks for the nostalgic trip down memory lane, Melanie, and a reminder that we need to return soon.

      1 Reply
      1. re: PolarBear

        Thanks for sharing that. GE used to validate for parking at one of the nearby lots. I didn't need it so forgot to check, but if someone finds out, please let us know.

        Also, one of the reasons that our family stopped going as often is that the restrooms are on the lower level down a flight of stairs. But I asked the manager about that and he pointed to an unmarked door on the main floor that he said he will unlock for disabled customers.

      2. Great Eastern used to be one of my "go to" spots. I will have to go back and have a "reunion".

        1 Reply
        1. re: escargot3

          Here's the photo gallery from last year when Obama dropped in for Great Eastern take-out. (He paid cash and carried his own food to the car.)

        2. Thanks for jogging my memory. GE is now back on the stack.

          1. Haven't been in awhile but we used to go often and loved the salt baked flounder. The problem for us is that Great Eastern is next door to Z&Y which we are addicted to.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Ridge

              To make matters worse, I also have Bund Shanghai on my list making it possibly the most compact dining trifecta in existence?

              1. re: PolarBear

                Yes, we have been wanting to check out Bund Shanghai as well.

                1. re: Ridge

                  Sounds like the perfect opportunity for a progressive dinner, starting at Bund and ending at Great Eastern. Just need enough bellies. I've been to all three on our trips and they all have dishes you could target. Wish I could come!

            2. In a separate thread, "gini" reported that she was not offered the complimentary house soup or dessert at Great Eastern. So I wanted to note that it may be necessary to ask for these items.

              When I ordered our two dishes, the server asked if we wanted to order a soup. . . de rigueur for the Cantonese. Then I inquired about house soup (old fire soup) instead of something from the menu, and he brought it.

              6 Replies
              1. re: Melanie Wong

                my Cantonese is not very good ...... I've heard the phrase
                "lai tong" before ( gift soup? ) ..... does that also refer to house soup? or as you mentioned ....... old fire soup ( loh foh tong ? )

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Ate there just before closing I think and didn't see this thread because I didn't have net access and hadn't planned to eat there but it was one of the few places open at 11

                  Wasn't offered soup OR dessert even though I ordered enough for 4 people ( I was by myself)
                  Peking duck - good crispy skin but 1/2 had tons of fat under the skin and the other half did not? This was an order of half a duck. Duck meat was juicy but sparse.

                  Lamb with asparagus in XO - listed as a house special, was plentiful but with tough and undercooked lamb (which will work in my favor when I heat up the leftovers)

                  Spicy eggplant with pork - included pickles and mushrooms with almost no pork. Interesting, but not my favorite prep compared to others I've had.

                  1. re: estnet

                    Desserts more often than not are left unfinished, so I could understand why places profile on those.

                    Do house soups typically contain flavors distasteful to non-Chinese (speakers)?

                    1. re: hyperbowler

                      Probably not the flavors that are the issue, rather servings of house soups frequently have bones and herbs that one should not swallow. Or chunks of spent vegetables that are not pleasant to eat and should be left in the bowl. They can also have an oil slick on top. It's all about the stock.

                      1. re: hyperbowler

                        Sorry, I've been to many Chinese places that offer comp soup and or dessert and don't understand your comment - how do u know whether or not I should be "profiled" ?
                        There was only one I've been to where we had to ask for,the comp dessert, with a group of ch's and someone in the group asked (this was at Zen Peninsula).
                        As for GE I don't knoe if they've changed policy, if it was just before closing and they had "run out" or........ Never heard of "flavors that are distasteful"?!?

                        1. re: estnet

                          Unless you were speaking to the server in Cantonese, it's a fair assumption on my part that you might have been profiled.

                          Not giving a non-Cantonese speaker "the special menu" is a very bad type of profiling IMHO, but profiling on complimentary items makes sense both in terms of not wasting food and getting customers to come back. Anytime I've gone with friends/family to a Chinese restaurant and gotten the complimentary dessert (Mochi balls in soup), they've been left mostly uneaten. Even more adventurous friends don't like it, so I can only imagine how many gallons of the stuff would be wasted if they have it to everybody. I personally like the stuff, but have to ask for it more often than not, even if I order non-Americanized dishes. I don't like the practice, but for the same reason Saul's deli stopped giving complimentary pickles, it saves waste.

                          The unpleasant (to me) flavors I've encountered in Chinese soups have been medicinal flavors (e.g. Chinese Angelica) and strong seafood flavors. I've rarely been given complimentary soup, so I was inquiring whether those are the kinds of things you'd find typically.

                  2. Great Eastern is our go-to HK-style restaurant.

                    Every time we've eaten at a similar place in the San Gabriel Valley we've found ourselves saying, "This is better (or just as good and less expensive) at the G-E."

                    Whether splurging or ordering off the more noodle-house parts of the menu, we rarely have a complaint.

                    BTW, we always over-order and have one or two "ethnic" specialties--goose or other innards, etc.--we've never been offered either soup or dessert.

                    Faves include: both fresh and preserved mustard green dishes; fried squab; boiled live prawns with chile pepper dip; pumpkin fries; something with salted fish.

                    I found menu on Menu Pages