The City by the Bay boasts the country’s oldest Chinatown neighborhood. “Amid these steep streets find some of the city’s most addictive and craveworthy barbecue pork buns at old and almost antique dim sum houses where jam-packed dining is the name of the game,” state Michelin inspectors.
And while Chinatown is indeed a spectacle, it’s not the only neighborhood in the city offering up spectacular fare. Here are 19 Chinese restaurants in San Francisco that are not to be missed.
What Our Inspectors Say: “With a higher price tag than the average Chinatown joint, Yank Sing is arguably the place in town for dim sum. The upscale setting boasts reasonable prices, but the zigzagging carts can get hectic. While peak hours entail a wait, one can be assured of quality and abundant variety from these carts rolling out of the kitchen. The signature Peking duck with its crispy lacquered skin and fluffy buns makes for a memorable treat, not unlike the deliciously sweet and salty char siu bao. Of course, dumplings here are the true highlight, and range from fragrant pork xiao long bao to paper-thin har gao concealing chunks of shrimp. Don’t see favorites like the flaky egg custard tarts? Just ask the cheerful staff, who’ll radio the kitchen for help via headsets.”
What Our Inspectors Say: “The jewel of Chinatown’s stylish China Live complex actually has nine tables, but it's still one of the most intimate spots in town (and priced accordingly). Patterned after the 'private chateau' restaurants that are all the rage in the Far East, this one has good looks to spare—from its midcentury-meets-Chinese décor to the marvelous cocktails that are turned out by the hugely talented bartenders. The nine-course tasting menu repurposes luxe Western ingredients in classic dishes, from crisp, lacy dumplings stuffed with foie gras, to char siu made with Ibérico pork. The notable 'nine tastes of China' starter offers the greatest of pleasures, including poached chicken stuffed with cured egg yolk and beef tendon with those tingling Sichuan peppercorns.”
What Our Inspectors Say: "Generations of dim sum diehards have patronized this palace of pork buns, where a small army of servers will surround you with carts from the moment you take your seat. They bear innumerable delights: rich barbecue pork belly with crispy skin, pan-fried pork-and-chive wontons steamed to order and doused in oyster sauce, delicate vegetable dumplings and a best-in-class baked egg custard bun. Evenings are a bit more sedate, emphasizing Cantonese seafood straight from the on-site tanks. As with all dim sum spots, the early bird gets the best selection (and avoids the non-negotiable weekend waits). Thankfully, the super-central Millbrae location, towering over El Camino Real, boasts plenty of parking-and a machine-like staff that knows how to pack them in."
What Our Inspectors Say: “This windowless dim sum lounge looks small from the outside, but there’s room for over 100 diners inside its cherry-red dining room—with dozens more hopefuls lined up on the street outside. The largely Chinese crowd attests to the authenticity of the food, which ranges from steamed pork buns and taro dumplings to chicken feet with peanuts and Peking duck—if you’re hoping to skip out on the wait, go at dinner instead of lunch, or call for takeout. Favorites include rice noodle rolls stuffed with ground beef and aromatic herbs and crispy, golden pan-fried tofu with a silky interior. Shanghai pork soup dumplings arrive in a steam basket in individual metal cups. Served with black vinegar for dipping, they're achingly fragile but terrifically tasty.”
What Our Inspectors Say: "Long waits for a great Chinese meal are common in the Peninsula, which makes this as yet line-free favorite doubly special. The space is no-frills, but the kitchen is all-thrills, knocking out classic dish after classic dish: crisp Chongqing-style fried chicken buried under a mound of dried chiles and numbing peppercorns, tender pork wontons swimming in gloriously mouth-searing chili oil and chewy dan dan noodles tossed with ground pork, peanuts and plenty of chile oil. As with all Sichuan restaurants, those who can't stand the heat will have a hard go of it, but non-fiery options include a flaky rolled beef pancake and garlicky pea shoots. The moral of this story: while Yummy may not be anyone's idea of high style, the food assuredly lives up to its name."
What Our Inspectors Say: "If you like dumplings and noodles—and plenty of them—Tasty Place is your kind of place. Hot or cold, steamed or pan-fried, solo or in soup, this cornucopia of carbs is made entirely by hand, a process diners can watch unfold in a glassed-in room adjacent to the kitchen. It’s likely you’ll find yourself with some time to do so, as waits can get long at peak hours. As with many Chinese eateries, the menu is overly vast, spanning from Sichuan to Cantonese. The happiest diners stick to dough-based items, like tender chicken dumplings with sweet corn, or chewy handmade cold noodles topped with ground pork, mung bean sprouts, green onion and chiles. Pork dumplings with fermented cabbage are ferociously good-equal parts juicy, tangy and toothsome."
What Our Inspectors Say: "With a behemoth $14-million space in the Embarcadero Center to call its own, this restaurant and bar is no mom-and-pop Cantonese joint. In fact, its dining room showcases impressive views of the Ferry building and Bay Bridge from its sunny upper deck patio; add to that a beautiful and polished interior space offering sun-drenched rooms as well as more intimately lit nooks. For lunch, you can order from the extensive dim sum selection, a separate kitchen menu or simply pick whatever strikes your fancy from the passing carts. From sesame balls to fried daikon and shrimp rolls, one really can't go wrong. For dinner though, go for the crispy, golden-brown Peking duck, served with crunchy cucumber and scallions, steamed buns and a decadent house-made sauce."
What Our Inspectors Say: "The surroundings are bare enough to qualify as purgatory, but for lovers of spicy fare, this humble eatery in downtown San Mateo is worthy of ascension into the astral plane. In an area with plenty of Sichuan dining options, the mostly Chinese-speaking crowd demands that the flavors are authentic and on point. As is typical, most dishes here revolve around the interplay of tingling peppercorns, mouth-scorching dried chilies and luscious chile oil, from the delicate pork wontons topped with crushed peanuts and scallions to the silky fish fillets and firm tofu swimming in a delectable bright-red and fiery oil bath. Calm your palate with bites of garlicky sautéed water spinach. Then dive in for another chopstick-full of the spicy, tangy chile pork."
What Our Inspectors Say: "Long regarded as one of the Bay Area’s best spots for dim sum, Koi Palace continues to earn its serious waits (guaranteed on weekends, and common at weekday lunch). The dining room is a step up from its competition, with shallow koi ponds weaving between tables, high ceilings and huge tables to accommodate the Chinese-American families celebrating big occasions. They come to share plates of perfectly lacquered, smoky-salty roasted suckling pig or sticky rice noodle rolls encasing plump shrimp, minced ginger and sesame oil. Not far behind, find lotus leaves stuffed with glutinous rice, dried scallop and roast pork, as well as big pots of jasmine tea. Save room for desserts like the fluffy almond cream-steamed buns and flaky, caramelized custard tarts."
What Our Inspectors Say: "Its façade might not seem like much—look for the bright orange tile and prominent sign advertising Mandarin cuisine—but rest easy as this quiet, longstanding Chinese staple is a favorite of cooking icon, Cecilia Chiang. Inside, you’ll find a warm and inviting décor, starring white linens and a crimson carpet—it's the sort of space that lends itself to group celebrations. The dizzying menu features numerous items, but the genial staff is wonderfully helpful at directing guests to house favorites. Standouts include a beautifully bronzed Peking duck (plan to order it 24 hours in advance); slippery hand-cut noodles studded with savory moo shu pork and crunchy vegetables; or the meltingly tender Shanghai braised rib topped with a flutter of green onions.
What Our Inspectors Say: "The medical staff at the Mills Health Center take plenty of heat in an average day, but that doesn’t stop them from piling into this compact neighboring Sichuan restaurant for their fix of spicy chili oil and numbing peppercorns. Both ingredients are featured in the crispy Chong Qing chicken and shrimp, each laden with chili peppers (be sure to watch out for shards of bone in the cleaver-chopped chicken). Skip the mild Mandarin dishes and stick to the house's fiery specialties, like the nutty, smoky cumin lamb with sliced onion, still more chilies and chili oil. Aside from a few contemporary touches, the décor isn't newsworthy and the staff is more efficient than engaging-but you'll likely be too busy enjoying the flavor-packed food to mind."
What Our Inspectors Say: "Chic enough for the style-savvy, cheap enough for students and authentic enough for local Chinese families, Great China is one of the few Berkeley restaurants everyone can (and does) agree on. Spicehounds should look elsewhere, as the food is somewhat mild, but the ingredients are higher quality than the average Chinese spot. Kick things off with an aromatic bowl of hot and sour soup or an order of vegetarian egg rolls. Then sample generously portioned favorites like the sweet-and-spicy kung pao chicken; beautifully lacquered tea-smoked duck; or the beloved "double skin"-a platter of mung bean noodles tossed with pork, mushrooms, squid and a soy-mustard dressing. Only larger parties can reserve, so be aware there may be lines at peak hours."
What Our Inspectors Say: "It takes a village to feed a big group, and this laid-back spot is a favorite with families. A stylish makeover featured a sleek front bar, contemporary chandeliers and dramatic Chinese art, but one look at the scorching-hot menu options—think spicy Sichuan frog and flaky sautéed fish with pickled chile peppers—confirms the authenticity factor. Skip the Hunan, Mandarin and Cantonese offerings in favor of the Sichuan specialties like dry-fried, bone-in chicken laced with ground chilies and numbing peppercorns. And be sure to order the five-spice hot and spicy pork shoulder. A house specialty, this mouthwatering dish is fork- (or chopstick) tender and rests atop a deliciously piquant chili-oil jus with baby bok choy, scallions and garlic."
What Our Inspectors Say: “Chef/owner Brandon Jew has brought some of the sparkle back to Chinatown with this contemporary treasure, which puts a modern Californian spin on the Cantonese classics that once made this neighborhood a national dining destination. Impressively, the chef also makes all his Chinese pantry staples in-house, like the oyster sauce that coats a stir-fry of smoked tofu with long beans, tripe and tendon; or lap cheong (Chinese sausage), which comes stuffed into roasted quail with sticky rice and jujube. The menu is full of these clever touches, from the tomalley that adds depth to a rich Dungeness crab egg custard to the 'tentacles' of fried fennel that echo the texture of salt-and-pepper squid. Set in a longtime banquet hall, Mister Jiu’s is bright and airy, with dramatic brass lotus chandeliers overhead. Food is served family style, making it ideal for groups. But solo diners will also enjoy the sophisticated front bar that serves up thoughtful, complex cocktails with Asian inflections—like lemongrass milk and green tea. Desserts are excellent, equally skillful and may incorporate black sesame, red bean and osmanthus cream into preparations that will satisfy any sweet tooth.”
What Our Inspectors Say: “Need proof that Yan Can Cook? Just snag a table at the famed PBS chef’s elegant restaurant. Housed under the dome of the Westfield San Francisco Centre shopping mall, M.Y. China is a dark, sultry space full of posh Chinese furniture, antiques and dramatic lighting. Shopping-weary patrons fill the dining room, whereas chowhounds hit the exhibition counter to watch the staff masterfully hand-pull noodles and toss woks. The menu reads like an ode to regional Chinese cuisine, spanning chewy scissor-cut noodles with wild boar, fluffy bao stuffed with sweet and smoky barbecue pork and, when it's in season, delectable pepper-dusted whole crab. Be sure to order strategically, as you'll want room for the flaky, buttery, creamy and outright superb Macanese egg tarts.”
What Our Inspectors Say: "One of the brightest offerings on Geary Boulevard, Sichuan Home lures diners far and wide. Its spotless dining room is a vision of varnished wood panels and mirrors, with plexiglass-topped tables for easy chile oil clean-up and menus that feature tempting photos of each item. A sampling of the wide-ranging Sichuan cuisine should include tender, bone-in rabbit with scallions, peanuts and a perfect dab of scorching hot peppercorns. Fish with pickled cabbage gets a delightfully restorative hit of bold flavors from mustard greens and fresh green chiles, while red chiles star in aromatic dry-fried string beans with minced pork. For dessert, rich and velvety mango pudding, topped with grapefruit sorbet and fresh pineapple, is a tropical treat.”
What Our Inspectors Say: “Some like it hot, and here they are in heaven. Be forewarned: timid palates should steer clear of the super-spicy Sichuan dishes that have made Z & Y a Chinatown smash hit. Nearly every dish is crowned with chilies, from the huge mound of dried peppers that rests atop tender, garlicky bites of fried chicken to the flaming chili oil anointing tender, flaky fish fillets in a star anise-tinged broth with Sichuan peppercorns aplenty. The well-worn dining room may seem unremarkable and the service perfunctory, but the crowds are undeterred. Plan to wait among eager fans for a seat; then settle in for delicate pork-and-ginger wontons swimming in spicy peanut sauce and more chile oil. Allot time to navigate the challenging parking situation.”
What Our Inspectors Say: "Hunanese cuisine often takes a back seat to the Bay Area’s bumper crop of Cantonese and Sichuanese restaurants, so it’s no wonder that this hot spot has caught on with the area’s Chinese transplants seeking Hunan dishes. Expect a wait at peak meal hours—especially for large parties, as the dining room is compact. The boldly flavored dishes incorporate oodles of smoked, cured and fermented ingredients-from the bacon-like pork wok-tossed with leeks, garlic and soy, to the pungent pork, black bean and pickled chili mixture that tops those spicy, chewy, hand-cut Godfather's noodles. The whole chile-braised fish, fresh and flaky in its bath of bright red chili sauce flecked with scallions and garlic, is an absolute must."
What Our Inspectors Say: "You’ll dine like royalty at this Millbrae retreat, which offers an array of Chinese delicacies rarely seen outside banquet menus. Helmed by Chef Zongyi Liu, a onetime Bocuse d’Or China competitor, the décor here is light on regal glamour, opting for a simple, spare interior with well-spaced tables. But the menu teems with sought-after items, from abalone to sea cucumber. Dishes here run the gamut of China's eight great cuisines, with a special emphasis on spicy Sichuan food like white fish in a rich chile-laced broth, or steamed chicken dusted with peppercorns and served in a pool of chile oil. For those seeking milder flavors, the shredded pork in a sweet garlic sauce, as well as fluffy pan-fried sesame cakes, make for ideal choices.
Hero image courtesy of Yank Sing.