September 18, 2017

Li Po. Its been a long time. The years keep rolling by.

September 18, 2017

Li Po. Its been a long time. The years keep rolling by.

Chinatown is easily San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhood. So why is it that no one knows quite where to go? Yes, the language barrier can make exploring intimidating, but there’s a misconception that there’s no good food to be found. And that’s just not true — in reality, Chinatown is filled with everything from inexpensive dim sum and sweet treats to new-guard tasting menus and cocktails.

Black Sands executive chef Eric Ehler has chosen to spend much of his free time eating and drinking in the few-block radius for the past eight years, which, combined with his Asian heritage, makes him a total expert on where to go.

The following 17 places reflect Ehler’s and Eater’s picks on the best places to dine and drink in Chinatown, with expert tips on what to expect, what to order, and how to succeed at dining there. Start tackling the neighborhood with these 17 spots, and you’ll be a Chinatown expert in no time.

1 Begoni Bistro

The deal: Begoni Bistro is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, started by executive chef Howard Wong, who was born in Canton, China and worked at the once-famous Tommy Toys Cuisine Chinois for over 20 years until it closed. Now he’s here, cooking that same French-influenced Chinese food in a more upscale setting than most of the restaurants nearby.

Eric’s tips: Begoni Bistro is probably the best hidden gem in Chinatown, and it’s the definite go-to for Peking duck. It boasts a well-trained chef, has a wine list, and serves Vietnamese, dim sum, and Chinese classics (all pretty well). The Peking duck is textbook great: The skin is thin, crispy, and very well-seasoned, the meat is always roasted to perfection and super tender. It’s served traditionally with mushu pancakes, scallions, and hoisin sauce. This is the spot for a second Tinder date.

2 Capital Restaurant

The deal: The menu here is massive and it can be chaotic inside, making Capital seem intimidating to the uninitiated. But past the fluorescent lighting and basic decor is a homey, welcoming vibe and delicious food that is great for groups.

Eric’s tips: This is my absolute favorite restaurant in Chinatown. The three must-get dishes are the chicken wings, fried egg tofu with spicy meat sauce (like fried custard that holds it shape with a sweet & salty meat sauce with roasted peppers), and empress clam. The empress clam is a show-off dish of a giant surf clam that is steamed, sliced thin, and tossed with scallion oil vermicelli, then put back in the clam’s shell. They come two per order, so order one plate per two people. Beyond that, Capital does everything from American diner lunch food to the most obscure classic Chinese dishes.

3 Chong Qing Xiao Mian

Opened by ex-employees of Sichuan favorite Z&Y, the newly-opened Chong Qing Xiao Mian focuses more on noodles, but still Sichuan-style. Here, you can get springy, spaghetti-like noodles dressed up in tingly sauces with a variety of meats. Go for the house cold noodles spiced with Sichuan peppercorn and hot oil, the won tons in spicy chili oil, and spicy numbing beef tendon.

4 City View Restaurant

The deal: Yank Sing may get all the SF dim sum glory, but City View should be sharing the spotlight. It’s your standard cart-style dim sum, which makes it a fun place for out of towners.

Eric’s tips: Literally seconds after you sit down, you’ll be bombarded with carts flaunting tasty dumplings and delicious small plates. There’s a pretty good selection, and all of the stand-bys are done well.

5 Golden Gate Bakery

The deal: This is the famous spot for egg tarts, and with reason — they’re really that good. Hours vary wildly, so best of luck catching it open (there’s even a website dedicated to monitoring its open status).

Eric’s tips: Every time you are walking around Chinatown, check to see if Golden Gate Bakery is open. It likely isn’t, but if you happen to be there at the right time, get an entire box of egg custard tarts, and share them with people you love. They’re the absolute best version in town: tender, flaky, and rich, and a slightly sweet crust holds the smoothest and most wobbly of egg custards. Cash only.

6 Good Mong Kok Bakery

The deal: Be prepared to wait in line at this bakery-style dim sum joint, where you order at the counter as you walk by the options and take them in a box to go. Don’t know what you’re seeing? Don’t be afraid to ask.

Eric’s tips: This is a favorite for a quick snack. If you don’t have much experience here, start easy with har gow (shrimp dumplings), shu mai (steamed meatball dumplings), and char siu bao (steamed pork bun). Beyond that, you really can’t go wrong. Orders usually come with three pieces, and will cost around $1.50 per order, though prices have been going up. Bring 20 bucks and see how much you can get, then go walk around Chinatown as you eat. The workers are used to tourists, so don’t be timid. If you are unsure about ordering, just point and smile. Cash only.

7 Hon’s Wun Tun House

The deal: Wonton soup shops are like the ramen shops of Hong Kong, and Hon’s Wun Tun House is a good representation of that. Which means: order the wonton soup.

Eric’s tips: Super quick, super cheap, and decent portions. Get the #15 (wonton noodle soup with extra noodle and wonton), and be sure to doctor up your bowl with the house chile oil and a bit of white pepper. If you want to try something new, go for the beef stew noodle. Just don’t expect great service, and do expect to be seated with a stranger. Cash only.

8 Hunan Home’s Restaurant

The deal: Hunan Home’s is the safest Chinatown spot in that it’s what most Americans associate with Chinese food, making it both the perfect place to satisfy your nostalgic memory of Chinese and to bring your family to see the iconic neighborhood.

Eric’s tips: Not only does Hunan Home’s do Americanized Chinese food really well, but its xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are almost worth the trip alone. The Shanghai-style stir fried noodle is another great option. Finally, there’s ample seating, warm service, and it accepts credit cards.

9 Li Po Cocktail Lounge

The deal: You’ve probably heard of Li Po because Anthony Bourdain visited for its famous Chinese mai tai (dark rum, light rum, 151 rum, Chinese liqueur, pineapple juice), but this grimy drink den is so much more than that.

Eric’s tips: If you only know Li Po from what you’ve seen on some travel show, you are completely missing out. Get one Chinese mai tai for the experience, but make sure to try its array of old school cocktails (like the Rusty Nail, with Drambuie and scotch), too. Just don’t think of Li Po as a hip cocktail bar — this is a place to drink, unwind, and have fun. One of the owners, who bartends on Friday and Saturday nights, always plays super good 90’s/2000’s hip hop mash ups from her collection of mixed CD’s. If she’s not around, don’t fret, the jukebox is full of bangers as well. Go there for a good time, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Cash only, absolutely no outside food, and the back room is a service dead zone. Order at the bar.

10 Mister Jiu’s

The deal: SF native chef Brandon Jew is bridging the gap between Chinatown locals and those who want to know the neighborhood and its cuisine. The beautifully remodeled space has two dining options: a banquet-style feast for $69 per person in the dining room, or the long entrance bar, where bar manager Danny Louie mixes up Asian-inspired cocktails alongside Jew’s refined and craveworthy Chinese food, available a la carte.

Eric’s tips: The insider move here is to sit up at the bar (where there are aquariums with fish), order one of the house cocktails, and get a taste of the food magic that is going down in the kitchen. When you’re finished, make sure to mosey your way into the dining room to check out the scene. The view is epic, the kitchen is pristine and open, and most likely, the people will be beautiful.

11 My Canh

The deal: My Canh is your go-to for two things in this neighborhood: Vietnamese and late night food.

Eric’s tips: My Canh is open until 3 a.m., and often later if you ask nicely. The women in the kitchen are very friendly and make all the Vietnamese noodle classics. My top picks are the bun bo hue (beef noodle soup with seafood, pig’s blood, and sprouts), banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe with herbs, lettuces, pork, and shrimp), and the off-menu raw beef salad (basically Vietnamese carpaccio with fish sauce dressing). Cash only.

12 New Lun Ting Cafe

The deal: New Lun Ting Cafe is as close to a diner as you’ll get in Chinatown. The comfort food is a homey mix of Chinese, Mexican, and American food in rice plate form.

Eric’s tips: Places like New Lun Ting created a cuisine of their own, in necessity to cater to hardworking San Francisco laborers, usually Chinese, Mexican, or American. To appeal to them all, New Lun Ting offers rice plates with everything from braised oxtails to hamburger patties to corned beef — there’s even a nice prime rib plate, too. It may sound confusing to some, but at its core, it’s just delicious blue collar food. Go during lunch to rub elbows with neighborhood regulars, or go late and sit by old school Chinese gangsters. The owners — and therefore the service — are very sweet and welcoming. Last note: The bathroom is in the basement. Don’t be scared.

13 New Sun Hong Kong

The deal: Don’t be misdirected by New Sun Hong Kong’s low Google and Yelp reviews. Yes, it has its downfalls, but as long as you know what you’ll get going in — bad service and great late night food — then you won’t be disappointed.

Eric’s tips: If you are super hungry post-midnight, New Sun Hong Kong will always be there for you. The service is terrible, the rumors are true, but they’re usually dealing with the drunk North Beach crowd. Any time of day, though, the salt and pepper pork chop is as good as you can get, and the egg foo young is pretty solid as well. It’s a huge menu, but just pick something and it’ll likely be good.

14 Sam Wo Restaurant

The deal: This iconic, century-old restaurant has reopened in a new spot with much of the same food, but in an updated environment with an easy-to-peruse menu that can be simpler for newcomers to work their way through. It’s also open until 3 a.m. on weekends, in its age-old tradition.

Eric’s tips: For any time of day, get scrambled eggs with barbecue pork over rice. Most people probably haven’t had wok scrambled eggs before, but they’re wonderfully different than your standard omelette. To prevent an impending hangover, get any of the jooks (rice porridges) and make sure to add a Chinese doughnut for dipping. The beef chow fun is pretty iconic as well.

15 Spicy King

The deal: There are only a few places for Sichuan in the neighborhood, and Spicy King is an under the radar option. Z&Y is the perennial favorite, but can have long waits. Which is where Spicy King comes in handy.

Eric’s tips: The menu is huge, but if you are unfamiliar with this kind of food, just order the mapo tofu, couple’s sliced beef, cumin lamb skewers, chicken wings with explosive chile peppers, and dan dan noodle. Though it’s not Sichuan, there’s also a great version of Taiwanese three cup chicken. The food isn’t that spicy anymore, but it is a huge salt bomb. If you are with a big group of people, please get a whole fish or do hot pot. Service is decent, and they take credit card, but they will not split the check between more than two people, so be prepared to Venmo.

16 V.I.P. Coffee & Cake Shop

The deal: The menu at this standard Hong Kong-style bakery and cafe seemingly makes no sense — there’s everything from pork chop with spaghetti to macaroni soup with fried egg and hotdogs. The best way to start is to just begin.

Eric’s tips: The menu selection is huge, and everything is just pretty okay. But you shouldn’t be going here for some eye-opening food experience; you should be going here to eat some food that makes no sense at all. There are pictures of the menu items on the wall, so choose something that looks strangely tasty and then get something out of the bakery cooler for dessert. The pastries are actually pretty good and the eclairs are spot on.

17 Z & Y Restaurant

The deal: Welcome to President Barack Obama, living Chinese legend Cecilia Chiang, and Chron critic Michael Bauer’s favorite Chinatown spot. They love it for a reason — it’s really, really good. The Sichuan classics are just as spicy as you want them to be, but there is a massive wait for them. Once you get in, order the chilled beef tendon, chicken with explosive chili pepper, couple’s delight, and the cold bitter melon with honey to cool it all down.

Eric’s tips: Just go and get in line. Michael Bauer blew it up too hard.