San Franciscans do not always think of Chinatown as a dining destination. It’s considered a place that caters to unwitting tourists with Americanized versions of Asian food, with numerous souvenir shops. That said, our Chinatown has the largest population of Chinese outside of mainland China. Where do the locals eat and shop? The answer—at least in part—is not on Grant Avenue.
This writer has fond memories of leaving the office and spending many an afternoon wandering though Chinatown’s narrow streets and funky alleys, listening to old women bark out fish orders in Cantonese and occasionally peering down into one of the ubiquitous gambling parlors. If lucky, one might find a stash of live razor clams or spot prawns just waiting to be scooped up and cooked on the plancha—or wok—with a bit of oil, salt, and lemon. It was an immersive experience and the closest to being in a foreign country without ever leaving the city.
Good Mong Kok
Nestled in the middle of bustling Stockton Street (1089 near the corner of Jackson Street), this is the place to go for counter dim sum and baked goods. On any given day, you will find a line outside the door, consisting of hungry locals—often including the UPS driver who is working the Chinatown route. Everything is take-out, as there are no tables or chairs inside. However, the line moves quickly, and Good Mong Kok is well worth the wait. Order an assortment of dim sum—the steamed vegetable dumplings are extraordinarily fresh and pristine, as are the minced pork versions. Order a pork bun or two, as well. While you are at it, ask for a piece of the warm and savory onion bread—a little something to nibble on the way home.
Back in your kitchen, you might make a little dipping sauce of vinegar, hot mustard, and a few drops of soy. If the dumplings are cold, you can reheat them in a steamer basket over boiling water or in the microwave. Open every day from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m.
The Pot Sticker
Hidden away on a tiny side street at 150 Waverly Place (between Washington and Clay Streets) amid massage parlors and a Chinese opera school, you will find The Pot Sticker. When chef Truman Du and dining room manager Jenny Wu (both alums from Z & Y a few blocks away) took the reins of this old-time spot in 2010, they made headlines. Any new Szechuan eatery in a neighborhood dominated by Cantonese is a big deal. Despite the name, you will not be ordering pot stickers—though they are available. Instead, embrace the fiery and very spicy cuisine from this famous region of southwestern China. Start with the green beans deep-fried in salted duck egg yolks and a savory skewer of lamb dusted with cumin. For the main event, share the Szechuan pepper fish cooked in hot oil and served tableside in a large bowl with plenty of peppercorns. The firm-fleshed white fish meshes perfectly with the savory, fiery oil. Open every day from 11 a.m. until 9:15 p.m.
Specializing in Shanghai cuisine, Bund Shanghai, located at 640 Jackson Street, is a favorite among locals. The name refers to Shanghai’s famed riverfront street that retains its beautifully preserved low-rise ‘30s-era art deco and beaux arts buildings. For the perfect Bund meal, start out with the cold, salted duck. It may sound odd to eat duck cold, but this is a typical appetizer and a great way to open one’s palette. Next, indulge in the xiao long bao or soup dumplings, a specialty of the restaurant. The dumplings are steamed and contain a fragrant hot broth that permeates your mouth when you bite into them. Since it is still crab season, order the whole Dungeness crab with rice rolls (ginger, scallion, sesame oil, white pepper, soy sauce, rice wine, chicken stock). The rice rolls are cut into pieces and served with the crab as pasta, and they have a lovely chew to them. Ask for a side of the silken bean curd sheets with pickled cabbage (note this translates to mung bean vermicelli sheets), a delicious compliment to the crab and its spices. Open every day from 11 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.
Z & Y Restaurant
Considered by many to be the best Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, Z & Y—located at 655 Jackson Street—delivers an authentic Szechuan experience. On most days, there is, at least, a 30-minute wait for a table during lunch—so arrive early and put your name in. The dining room is small and very intimate, with red Chinese lanterns overhead, good lighting, and acoustics. Owners Michelle Zhang (originally from Shanghai) and husband/chef Li Jun Han (originally from Beijing; he has cooked for Chinese presidents and diplomats) have created a beloved dining institution. We are talking Szechuan, and it’s all about embracing the heat. Crab season lets you go big at Z & Y, and you’ll want to order the very impressive Szechuan chili crab (on the menu it’s labeled “fresh crab with spicy sauce”). The crab is boiled and then deep-fried and arranged on a glorious platter of bok choy, sliced celery, an array of peppers, and salty peanuts. It is a very festive Chinese dish and unusual to find in San Francisco. The crab is spicy and will numb your lips, but not in a bad way. This dish should be ordered with the special potatoes (not on the menu), which are prepared with a mandolin and have a pasta-like appearance. They make for a great companion to your spicy feast.
Also ask for the shaved bitter melon with honey. When the spice level from the crab becomes too much, a piece of this wondrous fruit will have the most welcome, cooling effect on those burning lips. Open Monday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Hon’s Wun Tun House
If you do not have a lot of time and just want something quick but delicious, stop in to Hon’s Wun Tun House at 648 Kearny Street, on the corner of Clay Street. From the sidewalk you can see the large pots of simmering broth made every day for the restaurant’s signature noodle dishes. Sit at the small counter and order the tea-smoked hard-boiled egg. It’s deceptively simple and absolutely scrumptious. Your next dish should be the wun tun noodle soup, perfect for a cold San Francisco day. The noodles are steeped in a rich broth and perfectly al dente. A side of the rolled rice rolls served with a slightly spicy sauce, and the braised pig’s trotters over steamed cabbage, will round your meal out nicely. Open Monday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
James Stolich’s CookWithJames.com provides regional Italian and Spanish dishes for all occasions. He has been featured in UrbanDaddy.com, AgencySpy.com, and Jenn Garbee’s intriguing book, Secret Suppers, about rogue chefs and their little known culinary lives.