Category Archives: San Francisco

My Favorite Chinatowns

It’s been months since I wrote a blog post, since the pandemic has really made my normal blog staples, reviewing different restaurants, virtually impossible. I thought about writing a blog post on what restaurants are open to outdoor dining, but I am wary about tacitly endorsing dining, even outdoors, in the midst of a new surge and plateau of cases in much of the US.

So instead, I figured I would write about my personal favorite Chinatowns in North America that I’ve been to, why I like them, and which of my favorite restaurants are still open for takeout. The order is loosely based on my preference but don’t fret, even if I left yours out, I still love all Chinatowns.

San Gabriel Valley (LA), CA

Kaya (Coconut Jam) Pastry at Longo Seafood
Kaya (Coconut Jam) Pastry at Longo Seafood in the SGV

I admit, I am a little biased given that I have traveled to the San Gabriel Valley (aka the “SGV” or “626”) since I was a kid, as it was often the area where we could get better dim sum and Chinese groceries that were harder or more expensive to find in San Diego. That said, the SGV is one of the largest “Chinatowns” in North America encompassing hundreds of square miles and dozens of different cities just east of Los Angeles and can probably be divided into 2: the west San Gabriel Valley centered in the cities of Alhambra, Monterey Park, Rosemead, and San Gabriel, and the east San Gabriel Valley around the communities of Diamond Bar, Rowland Heights, and Walnut.

Unlike historic Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York City with their dense streets and small alleys, the San Gabriel Valley is filled with sprawling suburbs centered on commercial corridors jam packed with Chinese strip malls along Valley Blvd, Garvey Ave, Colima Rd, and other streets. Partially because of such vastness, over the last 50 years the SGV has been an area where successive waves of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China have been able to settle and set up new businesses. This allows a continual wave of new competition and trends from China to emerge, which also keeps old standbys on their toes to better their offerings or potentially be replaced fairly soon.

It’s also a fairly young place, with a pretty dynamic and ever evolving Chinese American culture that help popularize emerging Asian American trends in the United States like boba/bubble tea 20-30 years ago. (yes, bubble tea has been in the US for that long!) This Fung Bros “The 626” video typifies how this culture was like 10 years ago.

So where are some of the places to order takeout in the best Chinatown in North America? See below:

  • The Bay Cafe – One of the SGV’s better known and regarded Hong Kong style cafes serves a good Hong Kong milk tea and a cornucopia of other great Hong Kong staples. Order on DoorDash or Uber Eats
  • Bistro Na’s – Michelin starred Bistro Na’s in Temple City serves self proclaimed “imperial court food” that is nonetheless vary delicious, like the Crispy Shrimp and Na’s Spicy Chicken. You can order online via their website, DoorDash, or Grubhub
  • Elite Restaurant – One of the SGV’s best places for dim sum is now open for takeout again on DoorDash
  • HaiDiLao Hot Pot – Takeout hot pot you say? Yes, it exists (and I can report that it’s really doable if you got a pot and burner/hot plate at home) and you can order from this popular, and expensive, Chinese chain on virtually all the delivery platforms.
  • Mian – Chengdu Taste’s sibling restaurant with a tasty assortment of noodles is available for takeout on Uber Eats
  • Sea Harbour – Constantly evolving and standard setting Cantonese and dim sum specialist Sea Harbour is open for takeout. Given them a call at 626-288-3939
  • Savoy Kitchen – This perennial chicken rice favorite is available to order togo. Just give them a call at 626-308-9535
  • Yin Ji Chang Fen – The San Gabriel outpost of this Guangzhou style rice noodle roll chain accepts orders on DoorDash and Uber Eats

Richmond (Vancouver), BC

Lamb Fried Dumplings at Yue Restaurant
Lamb Fried Dumplings at Yue Restaurant

While great Chinese food can be found nearly all over Vancouver, the best in the Lower Mainland is concentrated in the southern suburb of Vancouver. While the San Gabriel Valley’s strength is in its wide and continually evolving breadth of regional cuisines, Richmond’s strength lies in its particular depth of one regional cuisine: Cantonese.

It’s not to say you can’t find great places serving other regional Chinese cuisines in Richmond, but the particular depth of Cantonese cuisine here lies in its unique history. As the 1997 handover of Hong Kong approached, many wealthy Hong Kongers feared what might change in a PRC controlled Hong Kong and promptly found ways to immigrant. One of the easiest options was to get investment visas in Canada, and thus tens of thousands of Hong Kongers and their children moved and settled to Richmond. They brought along and could entice good chefs from Hong Kong which helped increase the quality of Cantonese food in the region, so much so that many restaurants in the 2000s to mid 2010s were close or at the level of their counterparts in Hong Kong.

More recently, arrivals from mainland China have helped expanded the number of good regional options available, but not to the level of SGV yet, and it remains to be seen on how Hong Kong’s latest political turbulence will mean for even more food and immigration to Canada. That said, some of my favorites are:

  • HK BBQ Master – This was always basically a big takeout restaurant, so you can still get their excellent Cantonese style roast meats in person
  • Mama’s Dumpling and Coffee – Renown for their xiaolongbao, you can get these delicious orders for takeout
  • Silver Tower – Old school Hong Kong Style Cafe serves the best comfort food that you can order on DoorDash
  • Sun Sui Wah – A couple of my friends recently dined here (BC’s COVID rates are significantly better than the US, though I’d still be pretty hesitant) and the food seems just as great as pre-pandemic, which you can order on Skip the Dishes.
  • Yue Restaurant – One of my favorite dim sum spots in Richmond is open for takeout via DoorDash

Flushing (New York City), NY

Liang Pi at Xi'an Famous Foods
Liang Pi at Xi’an Famous Foods (which started in Flushing)

The sights and sounds of Canal and Mott Streets in Manhattan Chinatown may get much of the spotlight in New York City, but I say that the best New York Chinatown is a hop uptown and a 7 line subway ride away to Flushing in Queens.

In contrast to the SGV and Richmond’s sprawling strip malls, Flushing is a decidedly urban Chinatown, densely packed along Main Street and its side streets and allies. You can find a variety of Chinese regional cuisines here too, especially in the few densely packed mall food courts like the New World Mall (though not sure how open they might or will be with the COVID-19 pandemic). However, many of the main stars in Flushing are Taiwanese, Fujianese, and Shanghainese and some of my favorite memories in New York City are of walking down Main St with various friends and cousins sipping on boba and eating street food.

Here are a few great places currently open for takeout:

  • Hunan Cafe – Order some authentic Hunanese food for takeout via Seamless or Uber Eats
  • Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao – You can order some of the best soup dumplings in the city online through their website
  • Nurlan Uygher Restaurant – One of NYC’s first Uygher restaurants is open for takeout by looking at their menu and calling 347-542-3324
  • Xing Fu Tang – I couldn’t write about Flushing without a bubble tea recommendation right? Well get some Brown Sugar Boba Milk from this new kid on the block that replaced the old Red House on Seamless, Uber Eats, or DoorDash
  • Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea – I love Yi Fang Fruit Tea for their endless array of delectable fruit teas, which you can order on Seamless and DoorDash

The Richmond (San Francisco), CA

Juicy Pork Xiao Long Bao at Dragon Beaux
Juicy Pork Xiao Long Bao at Dragon Beaux

There are numerous Chinatowns in the San Francisco Bay Area, but in my opinion the Richmond District in the western part of the city is the best Chinatown in the region.

Why? Unlike San Francisco’s historic Chinatown, the Richmond is a little less touristy but packs in the bustle as much as you’d find on Stockton St. Clement St and Geary St have a large selection of Chinese restaurants, supermarkets, and other businesses, including my favorite dim sum place, Dragon Beaux.

Here are some places to try ordering from in the Richmond:

  • Dragon Beaux – The aforementioned Dragon Beaux is available for takeout on Uber Eats or Grubhub, but you could also give them a call and order their frozen dim sum to reheat yourself to perfection
  • HoDaLa – From beef noodle soup to popcorn chicken, this Taiwanese favorite can be ordered for takeout or delivery via its website.
  • Jiangnan Cuisine – Cuisine from the area just north of Shanghai in Jiangsu province can be found on DoorDash, Grubhub, or Postmates
  • Kowloon Tong Dessert Cafe – This no frills cha chaan teng is ready to serve you some delicious Hong Kong milk tea or basic Hong Kong style western food and deserts on nearly all delivery apps
  • Tasty Pot – Taiwanese hot pot chain Tasty Pot is available for your individualized hot pot needs via takeout or delivery on DoorDash or Uber Eats

Manhattan Chinatown (New York City), NY

Food at Noodle Village
Food at Noodle Village

The only historic Chinatown on my list is New York City. Why Manhattan’s historic Chinatown you ask, instead of other ones like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, or even my hometown of Oakland? The simple reason is that unlike the others, it’s a perfect combination of history, mix of shops, and an area where both old Chinese families from Guangdong, recent arrivals from Fujian, and tourists alike can mix and mingle with ease. San Francisco’s Chinatown, sadly, feels very weirdly divided between tourist and trinket shop dominated Grant St and local market and restaurant focused Stockton St.

So if you’re in or near Manhattan, here are some places open for takeout!

  • Carol’s Bun – Located in the East Broadway part of Chinatown, this no-frills Fujianese places is perfect for some affordable takeout
  • Cha Chan Tang – One of the original cha chaan tengs in the city serves up comfort Hong Kong style western food like macaroni soup and curry chicken that you can get on DoorDash or Seamless
  • Kong Sihk Tong – Feast upon all sorts of Hong Kong style foods by getting some takeout via phone at 646-850-6140
  • Noodle Village – My favorite comfort Cantonese spot in Manhattan Chinatown is available for takeout or delivery on virtually all the delivery apps
  • Wo Hop – Want some old school Chinese American food? Like so old that the restaurant has been around for 80+ years? Look no further than Chinatown staple Wo Hop to grab some Chinese American takeout

Houston Chinatown, TX

Dinner at Fung's Kitchen
Dinner at Fung’s Kitchen

I think many folks tend to think of big historic and even suburban Chinatowns as being exclusively a West Coast or East Coast thing, but one of the largest Chinatowns in the country is, in fact, in Houston! Centered on Bellaire Blvd. east of Beltway 8, Houston Chinatown is similar to what you would find along Valley Blvd in the SGV or heavily Chinese cities in the Silicon Valley around Sunnyvale and Cupertino. There’s a mix of Hong Kong, mainland Chinese, and Vietnamese Chinese people in Houston that also makes Houston’s Chinatown a little unique. Houston’s Little Saigon is also just to the west of Beltway 8.

I’ve only been to Houston Chinatown once, but here’s some places that are still open for takeout:

  • Fung’s Kitchen – The only one of the places on this list I’ve actually dined in, you can get your craving of dim sum filled here through ordering takeout or on DoorDash or Uber Eats (I hear they are taking COVID precautions pretty seriously too!)
  • House of Bowls – One of Houston’s cha chaan tengs seems well beloved with a variety of Hong Kong style dishes available for takeout
  • Mala Sichuan Bistro – The authentic flavors of Sichuan can be had by ordering takeout on their website as well as Uber Eats
  • Mein – Classic Cantonese food, including the namesake noodles and noodle soups, can be found for takeout at this well regarded spot
  • One Dragon – For Shanghainese xiao long bao and their crispy bottom cousins, sheng jian bao, order takeout here

Honorary Mentions:

I didn’t include pan-Asian areas just so it was clearer/cleaner. However, there are a few pan-Asian districts (places where there’s more of a mix of different pan-Asian shops, restaurants, and markets) that I really love.

  • International District (Seattle), WA – The most recent non-Bay Area Asian district I’ve been to, the International District, is a historic Japanese and Chinese area that has a great diversity of different Asian cuisines just southeast of downtown Seattle.
  • Irvine (outside of LA), CA – I went to college in Irvine and loved being able to eat all sorts of Taiwanese food here as many Taiwanese families settled in Irvine in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Kearny Mesa (San Diego), CA – Yes, I’m biased in that I grew up in San Diego, but Kearny Mesa, especially on Convoy St, was the area I grew up eating dim sum, Korean BBQ, yakitori, and other variety of Asian food. Mira Mesa, historically a large neighborhood of Filipino and Vietnamese folks, is also a great pan Asian area to visit in San Diego as well.
  • Mesa (Phoenix), AZ – While Mesa leans more toward Vietnamese and Vietnamese Chinese folks, it’s a great place to eat and shop all types of Asian cuisines. I always made it a point to stop in Mesa on my ways to/from Albuquerque to/from my visits seeing family in Southern California
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Harborview, San Francisco

Harborview
4 Embarcadero Center
San Francisco, CA 94111

Late last year Harborview opened up in the space that housed former Crystal Jade Jian Nan (a branch of the famed Singaporean Crystal Jade chain that opened to harsh reviews). The new restaurant was opened by a former founder of the vaunted R&G Lounge in Chinatown and serves Cantonese food. In a typical Cantonese seafood restaurant fashion, they serve dim sum during lunch hours and higher end seafood specialities in the evening.

Since they serve dim sum, of course I had to try it and so I invited a high school friend of mine a couple weeks ago to see how it is. I made a reservation and we were seated with ease at 1PM on a Sunday. We were given a menu but since carts came around fairly regularly (and, perhaps, a bit aggressively on occasion), we decided to just order off the carts. Over the course of the hour and a half we were there we got the following:

Steamed Kurobuta Pork & Shrimp Dumplings (Siu Mai) at Harborview

Steamed Kurobuta Pork & Shrimp Dumplings (Siu Mai) at Harborview

  • Steamed Kurobuta Pork & Shrimp Dumplings (Siu Mai) – The siu mai were fairly good with a nice snap of the pork and shrimp. They were topped with a little shrimp roe as well. They could have been seasoned a little more or perhaps added with slightly more flavor, however.

Steamed Rice Flour Rolls with Beef at Harborview

Steamed Rice Flour Rolls with Beef at Harborview

  • Steamed Rice Flour Rolls with Beef – The rice noodle rolls were very nice, absorbing the sauce and holding the thin ground beef mixture while keeping its shape. The sweet soy sauce was nice without overpowering and the ground beef mixture had a nice hint of cilantro and scallions.
  • Steamed Shrimp Dumplings (Har Gow) – The shrimp dumplings were solid. The shrimp was plump and just the right amount for the dumpling wrappers. The wrappers were a touch thick but the perfect texture so they were too gummy or delicate. I do wish the shrimp had a little more salt and pepper but overall pretty good.

Chinese Bacon and Sausage Sticky Rice at Harborview

Chinese Bacon and Sausage Sticky Rice at Harborview

  • Chinese Bacon and Sausage Sticky Rice – Harborview’s stir fried sticky rice had liberal amounts of diced lap cheong and salty Chinese bacon, topped off with some thin slices of steamed egg (which I had never seen before). While it was well executed in general, it did feel a bit one note with the salt and umami of the protein. It probably could have used a little more green onions or some more pepper for some brightening for flavor.
  • Steamed Pork Spareribs with Black Bean Sauce – The pork spareribs were pretty meaty and because they spent very little time in the carts, was cooked well but not overcooked. The black bean sauce was pretty light but enough to give that signature savory umami flavor.
  • Deep Fried Glutinous Rice Dumplings with Assorted Meat Filling – This was probably one of the better “ham sui gok” (鹹水角) I have had. The glutinous rice dumpling skin was perfectly fried and the minced meat filling was well seasoned with a good mix of mushrooms and ground meat. Given that I didn’t quite have high expectations for this dish in general, the Harborview version was surprisingly good.

The total bill for these 6 items ended up being around $60 which is fairly steep at $30 a person. However, I would say that the dim sum is well executed, even if a little pricey. If you want good dim sum at a refined setting without going to the Richmond or Koi Palace, Harborview is great and arguably even better than fellow neighborhood swanky dim sum place, Yank Sing.

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SinoinSocal’s Asian Food Travel Guide – San Francisco

With the summer travel season having just begun, I figured I should do a limited series combining a few things I love to do: travel, eat Asian food, and help people by giving suggestions. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll have guides to places including Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, Vancouver, and Washington D.C. but I figure I would start with my current adopted hometown of sorts first – San Francisco (and the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley).

Like most conventional travel guides, I’ll group things geographically by neighborhoods of sorts. Unlike them, however, it would be built exclusively on tourist sites and the like because, well, my blog is about Asian food I like and not Asian food I find reasonably edible within walking distance of X. Therefore, as you can see on this guide, there will be less emphasis on the twisty turns of Lombard Street or more on the delicious dumplings of the Richmond. Of course, I’ll still reference some landmarks in the guide but it’ll be more in context of the proximity to food. So without further ado (and the map)…

Chinatown/Embarcadero/Union Square
(or what to eat after riding the cable car)

Among the top tourist attractions in the city by the bay are the cable cars and Fisherman’s Wharf. While most locals turn up their noses at the thought of being caught at either, I can see why a tourist would want to experience them, if only once. The bad news is there aren’t any good Asian bites to eat at Fisherman’s Wharf (you should be getting some clam chowder or cioppino anyway), but the good news is there’s another tourist loving area close by that has an abundance: Chinatown.

Chinatown, of course, can be confusing so here are my recommendations:

Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan at China Live

Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan at China Live

  • Golden Gate Bakery (assuming they are open) for arguably the most delicious egg custard tarts in the Bay Area
  • Golden Gate Fortune Cookie if you want to see how fortune cookies are made AND get some free samples
  • Lai Hong Lounge for good dim sum in a neighborhood filled with mediocre dim sum
  • China Live for yuppie, pricey, but also tasty, Chinese food
  • Mister Jiu’s for pricier Chinese food, but worthy of its one Michelin star

But maybe you’re resting your feet by the Ferry Building and don’t want to take the hike up to Chinatown? No fear, the Slanted Door has some great, if fancy, Vietnamese for you.

Or maybe your hotel is by Union Square and you just want some food after a little r&r at the hotel or retail therapy. Well, you can definitely dip your chopsticks into some hot pot at Little Sheep; get some Michelin Star, reasonably priced Thai at Kin Khao; or get some grade A boba at Boba Guys.

SoMa & South Beach
(or what to eat after SFMOMA)

Maybe you are here for a tech conference like Dreamforce or had a visit to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and need some delicious Asian food to fill your stomach.  No fear, as you are in luck! Here are a few of my recommendations in the neighborhood:

Dim Sum at Yank Sing

Dim Sum at Yank Sing

  • Yank Sing for some spendy, but pretty good, dim sum still delivered on carts
  • Tin for no fuss, but good, Vietnamese food.
  • Sorabal (Korean) and Inay Filipino Kitchen (Filipino) for spot on scrumptiousness in a mall-like food court

Little Saigon & the Tenderloin
(or what to eat for Pride or pre-theatre)

Are you in town for San Francisco Pride or Folsom Street Festival? (If you are, a very warm welcome to you!) Or maybe you’re a local just looking for a little grub before seeing a show at Bill Graham or watch a musical at the Orpheum? Well you are in luck because you are very close to some of San Francisco’s best Vietnamese and Thai food. Here are my selections for this much underappreciated part of San Francisco:

  • Turtle Tower for absolutely delicious northern style Vietnamese food (get the pho and the bun thang)
  • Them Ky for great Vietnamese Chinese food, especially noodle soups like the wonton noodle soup
  • Rose Kitchen, a new restaurant that does solid Vietnamese style Chinese food like the salt and pepper pork chops
  • Sai Jai Thai for a hole-ish in the wall Thai restaurant with all around great food

Perhaps you’re at a theatre closer to Union Square like the Curran and the American Consevatory Theatre. Well, you’re not far from a number of delicious places in the so-called “Tendernob” area:

  • 707 Sutter for some great, non-barbecue, Korean food
  • Kim Thanh for Vietnamese Chinese seafood dishes like salt and pepper shrimp, crab, and even geoduck
  • Joy’s Place for a lovely, cozy Korean owned coffee shop

Castro & the Mission
(or what to eat after an afternoon in Dolores)

Among the taquerias that (weirdly) sell burritos and yuppie brunch places, one wouldn’t think there’s too much Asian food to eat if you’re doing a mural walk or grabbing a bite after a lovely afternoon at Dolores Park, but have no fear as you can munch at these fine establishments:

  • Namu Gaji – Right next to Dolores Park is this Korean fusion place that has a pretty delicious stone pot and gamja fries
  • Ushio Ramen for a solid bowl of ramen, especially the black garlic ramen
  • Yamo for homestyle Burmese food cooked in a tiny kitchen that served Burmese food before it was hip (I recommend the chicken coconut curry noodle soup)
  • Burma Love for more modern/current Burmese food with nicer settings (recommend the tea leaf and rainbow salads)

In the Castro there are less options, but still a few after an afternoon exploring the neighborhood or watching a movie at the Castro Theatre:

  • Mama Jis – a few blocks from the main strip in the Castro is a nice, easily accessible place to get dim sum in the day and Sichuan food at night
  • Me & Tasty – The dinner menu at this place provides solid takes on Thai food
  • Qualitea – Newly opened, delicious place for boba or for some fruit spritzers & slushies

The Richmond
(or where to eat for the best dim sum)

Further afield on the west side of town is where you can find the best Chinese in town. And while the Richmond is a little bit aways from the core tourist areas, there’s enough to also do here like looking at art at the Legion of Honor or soaking in the view of the Pacific at Lands End. Just before to eat at one of these places before or after your adventures:

Juicy Pork Xiao Long Bao at Dragon Beaux

Juicy Pork Xiao Long Bao at Dragon Beaux

  • Dragon Beaux – for the best dim sum in SF (and arguably still in the US). Must gets include the set of 5 soup dumpling and the rose rice noodles roll. Come for hot pot at dinner as well.
  • Hong Kong Lounge II – the second best dim sum in town also has very solidly executed classic Cantonese dishes for dinner
  • Boiling Hot Pot – for those cold, foggy nights in San Francisco, Boiling Hot Pot’s hot pot will make you filled and warm

The Sunset
(or where to eat with all the Chinese folk)

There are even fewer tourist areas by the Sunset, but a hop, skip, and a jump from most of Golden Gate Park are the Chinese dominated strips of inner and outer Sunsets on Irving Street. So if you’re hangry for a bite after a day at the deYoung or Academy of Sciences, I recommend:

Dry Fried Chicken Wings at San Tung

Dry Fried Chicken Wings at San Tung

  • Lime Tree – for one of the few Malaysian/Indonesian places left in the city or East Bay
  • Kogi Gogi – for delicious Korean BBQ that’s about as good as you can get in the city
  • San Tung – for Chinese food that is geared a little more toward American tastes, but still amazing for their dry fried chicken wings
  • IPOT – for soothing, all you can eat hot pot during a cold summer or winter night in the city.

And further south on Taraval where both Dumpling Kitchen and Kingdom of Dumpling are known for their solid renditions of soup dumplings.

There you have it: Sinoinsocal’s guide to San Francisco. Any tips, suggestions, or feedback can be posted in the comments and hope folks will like these places as much as I do.

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No Car, No Problem? #BARTable Asian Food Part 3

Part 3 of this series takes us to admittedly the hardest, and generally most consistently evolving, BARTable area in terms of surveying the Asian food landscape. Why? Because it takes us to the heart of downtown San Francisco where a number of San Francisco Asian retail and culinary districts are located and the landscape of food in the area is ever evolving. Part of my hesitance to finish this part of the series is on how fast everything changes but I just realized that I can’t be paralyzed by the constantly evolving landscape, otherwise I’d never finish this post and move on to the next post, my stomping grounds in Oakland.

So here we go, a BART station by station guide to downtown San Francisco as of March 2018.

Civic Center Station

Civic Center and the Tenderloin is home to San Francisco’s Little Saigon, a community of Vietnamese immigrants that started springing up in the 1970s and 1980s as refugees from the Vietnam War and its aftermath immigrated here. Over the past few decades the strip of Larkin Street in the Tenderloin has been a center of Vietnamese businesses in the city. As such, you’ll find wonderful places to taste Vietnamese cuisine such as the Vietnamese Chinese style wonton noodle soup at Hai Ky Mi Gia and neighboring Them Ky. You can get Southern Vietnamese style pho at Pho 2000 and Northern Vietnamese pho and other items at Turtle Tower. Banh Mi chain Lee’s Sandwiches also has a location on this stretch of Larkin between Eddy and O’Farrell.

While Vietnamese cuisine has been in the Tenderloin for decades, that last ten years has seen a wave of Thai cuisine in the neighborhood. This includes an outpost of the swanky-ish Ler Ros and the more mom and pop San Jai Thai. If you want Northern style Thai with some fantastic Lao specialities, there’s Tycoon Thai.

Powell Station

Pad Kee Mao at Kin Khao

Pad Kee Mao at Kin Khao

Powell Street Station is the stop for Union Square, the central shopping hub of the city and the area with an endless array of hotels catering to the millions of (mostly well to do) tourists that travel to the city. As such, I generally don’t recommend any Asian restaurant around Union Square and the parts of SoMa near Powell.

However, there are a few bright spots. Northeast of the station, slightly removed from the tourist and shopping hubbub, are a few solid choices. Among them include Chinese hot pot chain Little Sheep, delicious ramen shop Mensho Tokyo, Korean restaurant 707 Sutter, hole in the wall Filipino diner Tselogs, and Vietnamese Chinese seafood restaurant Kim Thanh.

Right by the BART station in the heart of the hustle and bustle are some good options, especially if your wallet is a little more hefty. Michelin starred Kin Khao serves terrific Thai food (their tasting menu, though pricy, is absolutely worth it) and Hakkasan serves solidly refined Cantonese cuisine. And not to be remiss is Tin, a good Vietnamese restaurant in SoMa.

Montgomery Station

Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan at China Live

Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan at China Live

Montgomery Station drops you off in San Francisco’s Financial District. While there are are a few gems during the lunchtime rush like Señor Sisig‘s regular food truck locations on 2nd Street and Pine Street, it’s a rather barren place as a whole for quality Asian food.

However, Montgomery Street is the closest BART station to San Francisco Chinatown. While the hike to Chinatown is generally uphill and requires at least a 10-15 minute walk from the BART station, most places in the neighborhood aren’t too far to be considered unwalkable. Closer to the BART station on the flatter Kearny Street you can find such restaurants as vaunted Cantonese seafood place R&G Lounge, Taiwanese tea and food experts Hanlin Tea Room, and Sichuanese noodle specialist Chong Qing Xiao Mian. 

Further up the hill include upscale Eataly styled restaurant/food emporium China Live and a number of longstanding Cantonese places. These include Kam Po, a delicious purveyor of Cantonese BBQ, and Lai Hong Lounge, a dim sum and Chinese seafood restaurant.

Embarcadero Station

Wood Oven Roasted Branzino at the Slanted Door

Wood Oven Roasted Branzino at the Slanted Door

And finally at the eastern end of San Francisco before BART heads through the Transbay Tube is Embarcadero Station. Like Montgomery Station there isn’t a plethora of Asian food around it, as expense account new American and European influenced restaurants are generally the norm. A couple bright spots do exist though (and both are also fairly pricey): Yank Sing, a solid purveyor of dim sum with 2 locations, and The Slanted Door, a Vietnamese restaurant that may not live to its previous heights but still serves well executed food.

Downtown San Francisco, overall, has a great volume of Asian restaurants though finding a good one can be like finding a needle in a haystack.  Hopefully this guide can help cut across the clutter and won’t be dated too soon. 

I can’t wait until the next part of this series though, as I head across the bay to my hometown of Oakland.

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Ten Places to Taste Hong Kong in North America

It was 5 years ago this weekend that my mom passed away. While there were a number of delicious foods and restaurants she introduced my siblings and me to, the one that stood out the most in our memories were the cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳), also known as a Hong Kong style cafes. In fact, to this day my brother wistfully remembers the times and food we had at a now-closed cha chaan teng near the college he attended. So while I love all the dim sum, Korean BBQ, and pho we had, our meals at cha chaan tengs are what I miss the most.

And arguably, I think it’s the best type of restaurant to experience the culture and food of Hong Kong. Sure, dim sum is delicious, seafood palaces are sumptuous, and Cantonese BBQ purveyors deliver morsels of lip-smacking goodness, but nothing represents the East meets West, fast paced lifestyle that is quintessentially Hong Kong like a cha chaan teng.

After all, cha chaan tengs are essentially Hong Kong’s version of a diner, and honestly what is a more quintessential American restaurant than a diner? Like a diner, cha chaan tengs may not have the best food, but the food is reliable and comfortable. And of course, they are ubiquitous in Hong Kong. A block could have a few cha chaan tengs, all doing brisk business with lines waiting for a seat.

Thus, here’s a guide to ten decent cha chaan tengs where you can sip a good cup of Hong Kong style milk tea, eat a steak with black pepper sauce and rice, and take a bite of a pineapple bun across North America (restaurants sorted by metro area by state/province. There are other metros with decent cha chaan tengs, this is just a selection):

Vancouver/Richmond, BC

Cafe Gloucester (3338 Cambie St, Vancouver) – Not the most glamorous cha chaan teng (though most are rarely glamorous), but they serve reasonably good takes on classic Hong Kong diner dishes with larger portions and reasonable prices. I loved their Hong Kong style Russian borscht in particular.

Silver Tower Cafe Restaurant (100-8500 Alexandra Road, Richmond) – There are a few cha chaan tengs in this couple block stretch of Alexandra Road in Richmond alone, but I find Silver Tower Cafe to be one of the better ones. Whether you want steak on top of a bed of french fries and peas or a bowl of beef brisket noodle soup, they have it all and almost everything I’ve had there in the couple times I’ve been have been very satisfying. Best of all for a traveler, it’s just relatively short walk from the Landsdowne Canada Line station.

Los Angeles, CA (inc. the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County)

JJ Cafe (447 Garvey Ave, Monterey Park) – One of the first popular cha chaan tengs in the San Gabriel Valley, JJ Cafe has been dishing out solid, if not spectacular food for a couple decades. The baked pork chop dishes and milk tea here are fairly representative of the east-west fusion you would find back in Hong Kong.

Tasty Garden 2

Tasty Garden (288 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra; also in Irvine, Monterey Park, and Westminster) – This mini chain in SoCal executes almost all its dishes well. I prefer the Alhambra location for excellent execution of the Cantonese comfort dishes on the menu in addition to excellent Hong Kong milk tea and egg waffles done right (unlike at some other branches).

San Francisco Bay Area, CA

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Dumpling and wonton noodle soup at Cooking Papa

Cooking Papa (949A Edgewater Blvd, Foster City; also in Mountain View and Santa Clara) – Not a true cha chaan teng as they do not have the ubiquitous Hong Kong style western food that’s endemic and definitive of a cha chaan teng, but they do a solid serving of classic Cantonese food with pretty decent milk tea. Foster City used to be the standard to beat, but I’ve had better food at their Santa Clara location more recently.

Hong Kong Chef (46356 Warm Springs Blvd in Fremont) – I came here on a whim during the first day of service at the Warm Springs/South Fremont station and it didn’t disappoint. I really liked their preserved meat claypot rice dish as well as their various stir-fried vegetables including Chinese broccoli and tong choy.

Kowloon Tong Dessert Cafe (393 7th Ave, San Francisco) – Some of the best milk tea and egg waffles I’ve had in the Bay Area have been at this tucked in restaurant on 7th Ave in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. While their entree plates are fairly mediocre (which you can tell by their name), their snacks and desserts are pretty good, including their curry fishballs that definitely tasted like home.

Hong Kong Style Milk Tea at Shooting Star Cafe

Hong Kong Style Milk Tea at Shooting Star Cafe

Shooting Star Cafe (1022 Webster St, Oakland) – Glitzy decor and modern-ish furnishings set this cha chaan teng apart from most others. But this restaurant isn’t just about the looks. I find it has the best milk tea I have tasted in the Bay Area and they shine very bright in their desserts, including their egg waffles. Their savory food leaves a little more to be desired but there are some gems there too, including their Hainanese Chicken Rice, Wonton Noodle Soup, and Black Pepper Short Ribs.

New York, NY

Cha Chan Tang (45 Mott St, New York) – Their menu sides more with the instant ramen, sandwiches, and macaroni soups that are popular in Hong Kong and they do them fairly well. Those are not my favorite cha chaan teng dishes, but it definitely gives you another side of Hong Kong cuisine where they make “western” foods uniquely their own.

Toronto, ON

Phoenix Restaurant (7155 Woodbine Ave., Markham; also on McCowan in Markham, Scarborough, and Thorhill) – This place excels the most at baked rice dishes, Hainanese Chicken Rice, and their Hong Kong style twist on Southeast Asian food, but other dishes seem to be solid as well. 

Of course, most of these cha chaan tengs also have “authentically” Hong Kong style service, where turning tables is of the upmost importance. So sit down, look at the menu quickly (yes, even with all the options!), order, and eat. If you need something, just wave your hands. Yes, this perfunctory service is part of the ambience. It’s not necessarily rude, just ruthlessly efficient and an integral part of Hong Kong’s go-go-go culture.

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China Live, San Francisco

China Live
644 Broadway
San Francisco, CA

After languishing for years as more and more people flocked to the Richmond and Sunset for San Francisco’s best Chinese food, SF’s Chinatown has seen a resurgence of late. Chong Qing Xiao Mian, Hanlin Tea House, and Mister Jiu’s are among the most notable of the new restaurants that have opened in the last year or so. Now comes China Live, an ambitious houseware store and restaurant with additional plans for a cocktail lounge on the 2nd floor. It’s large, it’s modern, and it’s perhaps the most symbolic statement yet that Chinatown is adapting to the diversification of Chinese food in the Bay Area and the gentrification of the city while still proudly maintaining its Chinese roots.

Given its loud splash in the neighborhood and promise of quality, if pricey, food, I was eager to try out the place. I got that opportunity on Saturday when I went to CAAMfest’s Eat Chinatown short film showing in conjunction with 41 Ross’ current gallery exhibition of beloved Chinatown stalwarts (which you should definitely check out if you’re in the Bay Area by April 9). Since my good friend and I were already in the area, we decided to check out China Live for dinner right after.

We arrived a little before 8PM and stood in line to get a table. When we arrived at the front of the line we were notified that the wait would be one hour, so I put down my cell phone number. Afterwards, my friend and I browsed the attached houseware shop to see their range of interesting items, including whiskey barrel aged soy sauce and dried abalone from Kona.

At about 8:45PM we were alerted that our table was ready and we finally had a seat. Our seat faced the open kitchen where most of the cooking takes place. This included a view of the tanks with live lobsters and crabs, which we were sorely tempted to order, but settled on these items instead:

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Charred Chinese Broccoli at China Live

  • Charred Chinese Broccoli -The first dish we had also turned out to be my favorite dish. I am perfectly content with blanched or stir fried Chinese broccoli, one of my favorite vegetables, but grilling them to a crisp was to a whole new level. I loved play between the crunchiness of leaves with the tenderness of the stems. The mushrooms gave a nice, light umami flavor as well which I liked even more than the regular oyster sauce you usually get.

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Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan at China Live

  • Three Treasure Bao Zai Fan – I’m not sure why they transliterated this dish from Mandarin when it is a classic Cantonese dish, but either way the dish had tasty bits of Chinese sausage, ham, and thin slices of duck. The server presented the dish, poured the soy sauce, and mixed the rice, which was baffling to me as the sauce should have simmered in the (covered) clay pot for another couple minutes before serving. Nonetheless, the dish was still tasty and had some stalks of bok choy to help balance and soak up the richness of the sauce and meats. So all in all it hit the mark on flavor mostly, but definitely missed the mark in presentation.

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Xiao Long Bao at China Live

  • Xiao Long Bao (XLB) – Despite ordering this when I first ordered, apparently the server mistakenly did not put it on the ticket. This meant we continually waited for a dish that apparently was never put in the system! Thankfully, when we asked about them again after finishing the other two dishes, she noted that it would only be another 6 minutes for the next batch of XLB. The XLB skins were decently thin, albeit a bit chewy and gummy, so it wasn’t quite executed right. The soup was rather light, but had a good portion to go along with the tender pork dumpling. The vinegar and soy sauce was on point, however, which helped mask and balance the flaws of the dish.

To go along with our food, we ordered the Chrysanthemum Oolong Tea as well, which was very nice with the balance of floral sweetness of the Chrysanthemum with the nutty earthiness of the Oolong. It was beautifully presented in a clear glass kettle, though I am not sure it really warranted $10 for a pot.

All in all, even a week into the service, there are still a bit of hickups on the service side. Like many San Francisco restaurants nowadays, they are short staffed and I think the frantic energy with the multiple stations, while fascinating to see, also hurts the seamlessness of the service. That said, the food is reasonably good (if a bit pricey) and I’ll return again later to try different dishes when hopefully all the service issues have been ironed out.

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No Car? Not a Problem! – #BARTable Asian Food Pt. 2

A year ago I started a project to find Asian restaurants within walking distance of BART stations. I started Part 1 of the series visiting the southernmost stops on the Richmond-Millbrae “Red” Line from Millbrae to Daly City. Unfortunately, a combination of things delayed my ability to write part 2 for the last year, not the least of which was the large amount of Asian restaurants in San Francisco within close proximity to a BART stop. My original plan to include ALL San Francisco BART stops was scrapped because of that.

So below you’ll find BARTable Asian food near the Balboa Park, Glen Park, 24th Street Mission, and 16th Street Mission stations. I’ll note that since there are more Asian restaurants closer to downtown San Francisco, this post will be relatively light.

Balboa Park

As we move north into the city of San Francisco, we first reach Balboa Park station. While Balboa Park is a transit hub for both BART and MUNI, there isn’t a lot of commercial development near the station. However, across the street from the station there are two Asian restaurants.

AJ’s BBQ and Cafe is slightly upscale “turo turo” (or “point point”) Filipino eatery where you can get a range of standard Filipino fare including pancit bihon, kare kare, lumpiang shanghai, and bbq chicken skewers. Like most turo turo places, AJ’s combines value with reasonably tasty food making this a decent stop for Filipino food, especially if you are on the run to somewhere else or picking up something on the way home in the Excelsior (where there are a number of other Filipino restaurants).

Cumin Lamb at Crazy Pepper

Cumin Lamb at Crazy Pepper

Around the corner from AJ’s is Crazy Pepper, a standard Bay Area neighborhood Americanized Chinese food restaurant that mostly does takeout business, but has a number of tables for a nice sit down meal. I got the cumin lamb, which was cooked with a lot of cumin. While tasty, the cumin was a little bit overpowering. The menu also included other standards in a Bay Area Americanized Chinese restaurant including basil chicken and a limited number of dim sum items. I also got the siu mai, which seemed to be resteamed from a frozen or refrigerated item. While the pork flavor was decent, the wonton skin wrapping was a little gummy. All in all, Crazy Pepper does try to differentiate itself with some Dongbei items, but food is average at best.

Glen Park

After Balboa Park station you reach Glen Park station. Glen Park station is near a small commercial and retail area that is the center of the Glen Park neighborhood. Unfortunately, there’s only 2 Asian restaurants in the area.

Basil Chicken Lunch Special at Win Garden

Basil Chicken Lunch Special at Win Garden

The first is Win Garden, another neighborhood Americanized Chinese restaurant. When I asked what lunch special I should get, the server guided me toward their basil chicken. The dish itself was pretty decent, with a flavorful, but not overpowering, amount of Thai basil. However, I did find it a little strange that the plate included a mesclun with Italian dressing. I also ordered some har gow, which were decent, if nothing to write home about. The shrimp was alright but the skin was a bit thick.

The second Asian restaurant is Tataki Canyon. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough stomach space to go in, but it seems to be a nice neighborhood Japanese restaurant that mainly focuses on sushi and ramen.

24th Street Mission

As you get closer to downtown San Francisco you reach 24th Street Mission station. It is one of two BART stations in the Mission district, a historically working class Latinx neighborhood that has gentrified in the last few decades with young, mostly white, people (first with  artists and hipsters and lately with those who work in tech). Given the community’s demographics, there aren’t a lot of Asian restaurants around 24th Street Mission. However, there are a few.

A 10 minute walk to the 23rd and Bryant intersection will get you to Spice Jar, an eclectic Asian fusion restaurant that has a number of Asian style noodle soups including pho and laksa. Slightly closer to BART is Sugoi Sushi, a neighborhood Japanese restaurant that obviously focuses on sushi. Slightly further afield is Dosa, which has very tasty, if pricey and small, South Asian food. Of course, their specialty is dosa, which are done very well from my limited knowledge of South Asian food.

16th Street Mission

The final stop before the core downtown San Francisco neighborhoods takes you to the northern end of the Mission District. The waves of gentrification in the Mission is more visually apparent closer to this station. Accordingly, there are more trendier Asian restaurants near this station to cater to the number of young urban professionals that now live and/or spend money in the area.

Valencia Street, a street that parallels Mission street just one block west, is where the gentrification is most visible. The original Slanted Door (before its eventual move to the Ferry Building) opened on Valencia Street and since then there have been a number of other Asian restaurants that haven opened up. This includes the San Francisco’s location of James Syhabout’s Hawker Fare serving northern Thai and Lao dishes (more on Hawker Fare as this series heads to Oakland). You can also find Thai up the block at Bangkok Bistro as well. Valencia Street also houses Mau, a hip modern Vietnamese places that serves decent pho and other items. 

Mapo Tofu at Mission Chinese Food

Mapo Tofu at Mission Chinese Food

Moving closer to Mission Street you can drink some of San Francisco’s best boba (and sip on decent Hong Kong milk tea) at Boba Guys. On 18th Street, around the corner from Mission Street, is Yamo, a tiny hole in the wall that served Burmese food before Burma Superstar started Bay Area’s craze for cuisine And around the corner from Yamo is Mission Chinese Food, the much celebrated former Chinese fusion pop-up turned cross-country restaurant chain. While the food is not a good as it once was, I do recommend the Mongolian Long Beans and Salt Cod Fried Rice at Mission Chinese.

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Fish Chowder Noodle Soup at Yamo

And rounding out the 16th Street Mission station are Ken Ken Ramen, which dishes out decent ramen and Japanese style curry, if a bit small on the portion sizes, and Namu Gaji, a Korean fusion place on the corner of 18th and Dolores that serves dishes ranging from dolsot bibimbap (labeled as “stonepot”) to “Korean tacos”. Both places are on the pricier side of things, but nonetheless still have some good and interesting flavors.

So even though you might not be in downtown San Francisco, the stops south of Civic Center still give you a number of options to fill someone’s desire for East or Southeast Asian food. 

San Tung, San Francisco

San Tung
1031 Irving Street
San Francisco, CA 94122

For decades San Tung has drawn crowds from the Bay Area and beyond almost entirely due to the reputation of its Dry Fried Chicken Wings. Over the course of my life I’ve eaten at San Tung a few times, though curiously never once now that I actually live in the area. That’s mostly due to two things: 1) its distance from my home in Oakland makes such a trip rather long and potentially arduous, and 2) newer and generally better Chinese restaurants have popped up since in the Richmond district.

However, a good friend of mine recently moved to the Inner Sunset, just a few blocks away from San Tung. That gave me a perfect opportunity to go try San Tung again and to see if the current food matched the fond food memories of my youth.

We came there around 1PM on a Sunday afternoon. As usual, there was a pretty decent line with a number of names already written on the white board. However, it didn’t take too long to get a table, about 25 minutes max. We sat down and browsed through the menu, settling on these few items to eat:

  • Pork Dumplings – As it’s implied by the restaurant’s name, the dumplings are more toward the thicker skin dumplings of Shandong province. As a person who generally likes the thinner skinned dumplings from southern China, I loved that the skins here weren’t too doughy. The filling was pretty tasty and moist too that matched well with dipping sauce mix of soy sauce, chili oil, and vinegar.

Walnut Shrimp at San Tung

Walnut Shrimp at San Tung

  • Walnut Shrimp – My friend wanted a shrimp dish and zero’d into this Chinese American favorite. The shrimp was cooked just perfectly and I’m glad they put just the right amount of mayo based sauce. It’s probably one of the better versions of the dish I’ve had, and this is a dish I’m generally not that fond of.
  • Mushrooms, Bamboo Shoots, and Snow Peas – This simple stir fried dish was a nice balance to the large amounts of meat we had. It was perfectly tasty but not something I’d say is an absolute must order.

Dry Fried Chicken Wings at San Tung

Dry Fried Chicken Wings at San Tung

  • Dry Fried Chicken Wings – At the end came the glistening glow of the dry fried chicken wings. Lightly sauced with a sweet and slightly spicy sauce, they were just as good as I remembered it. Perfectly fried, the meat was juicy inside while having a slight crunch outside.

So after all this food, I would say that San Tung is just as good as I remembered. Now, there are better Chinese restaurants in the area, especially in the Shandong cuisine that the restaurant name implies they specialize in. However, they are still a reliable favorite and there’s no shame in going back just for the chicken wings from time to time.