Photograph by Catherine Karnow
Chinese immigrants founded the country’s first Chinatown in San Francisco and also brought to our shores the tradition of drinking tea with dim sum—literally, “a speck of heart”—small servings of snacks.
“The dim sum experience in San Francisco is special because of the city’s place in the Chinese diaspora,” says Bonnie Tsui, author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods. “Because the Chinese have been there so long [since the 1848 Gold Rush], Chinese food culture is now part of the mainstream.”
Today San Francisco’s Chinatown teems with tourist kitsch but remains a real working-class neighborhood, full of dim sum restaurants crowded with locals. San Francisco has also spawned a second Chinatown about five miles west in the city’s Richmond District where dim sum parlors sit cheek by jowl with Russian delis and Mexican taquerias.
Servers at City View (662 Commercial St.) located on the edge of Chinatown in the Financial District, serenely wheel dim sum carts around an airy dining room hung with Chinese landscape paintings. The honey-glazed shrimp and walnuts, baked barbecue pork triangles, and lettuce wraps are solid crowd-pleasers. Both City View and Chinatown spot Great Eastern Restaurant (649 Jackson St.) produce toothsome and reliable selections—dan tat (egg custard tarts), chia siu bao (steamed barbecue pork buns), har gow (shrimp dumplings), and the trendy Little Shanghai dumplings (pouches of meat and broth). For an unusual dessert, order the subtly sweet water chestnut cake, served in jelly-like slabs.
The granddaddy of San Francisco dim sum, Yank Sing (101 Spear St.) is frequented by the buttoned-down crowd. The neighborhood’s pricey real estate means that the dim sum is pricey, too, but also among the most creative in the city. Yank Sing’s abundant menu includes meat-free options such as spinach dumplings and pancake pockets stuffed with tofu and chives. The fried green onion cakes dipped in peanut sauce are somehow both fall-apart flaky and deliciously gooey.
Even the vast dining room at Hong Kong Lounge (5322 Geary Blvd.) can’t contain the mostly Chinese throngs that mob this eatery in the Richmond District. The kitchen cranks out one hearty, skillfully crafted dish after another, including the beef/shrimp/shitake mushroom sticky rice steamed inside a lotus leaf wrapper. You can also opt for the sugar rush of house specialties like the coffee-flavored spare ribs and taro dumplings. The creamy egg yolk custard toasted almond ball will render you utterly mute, which may be just as well given the noisy chatter of patrons.
Visit the May Flower restaurant (6255 Geary Blvd.) to expand your palate. The May Flower specializes in seafood dim sum, evidenced by the burbling fish tanks. On the plate, mini-octopus and seaweed form a bright magenta-and-green tableau served marinated in rice vinegar. The seaweed’s crunchy texture is a perfect contrast to the chewy octopus. For a pungent, slightly fermented dish, sample the tender clams with black bean sauce.
For dim sum on the go, visit the aptly named Yummy Bakery in Chinatown (607 Jackson St.) or Lung Fung Bakery in Richmond (1823 Clement St.). Select from baked goods such as barbecue pork buns and pineapple buns, and for dessert try coconut buns or egg tarts warm from the oven.
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