If you’re dead set on finding the best dim sum in San Francisco, our first tip is to venture beyond Chinatown. Locals know that some of the best dumplings and steamed buns are found not on Grant Avenue, but farther west in the Richmond and Sunset districts. Here, where to find your ideal dim sum experience, from traditional rolling carts to fresh, authentic and cheap take-out joints.
The best dim sum San Francisco has to offer
Hailed by many as the best dim sum in the city—with the wait-times to prove it—this FiDi standby offers a more refined dim sum experience, complete with white tablecloths, potted orchids and mahogany-paneled walls within the Rincon Center. Well-appointed carts roll by frequently, filled with staples like sticky rice, chicken feet and dumplings galore. The xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, and Kurobuta pork-filled Shanghai dumplings are particular specialties, best paired with the red cabbage salad, which is topped with orange zest and candied walnuts. Don't miss the honey-coated Peking duck, conveniently served by the slice.
You could go to Hakkasan for an upscale, modernized dim sum experience (it's lovely, no joke), but if you want the real deal, head south to this 20-year-old mainstay. The sprawling space includes a koi pond, live seafood tanks, high ceilings adorned with decorative glass and enough seating for 400. Check off what you'd like from the book-length menu or wait for the army of carts to roll by. House specialties include the har gow (shrimp dumplings), xiao long bao and chicken feet. Be forewarned: arrive early or resign yourself to a wait, which can surpass an hour on the weekends.
This beloved dim sum lounge is spacious and simply adorned, with salmon-colored walls and big windows facing Geary. You'll find no rolling trolleys here; instead, each dim sum dish is prepared to order. House favorites include the chicken bao, rice noodles laden with shrimp and, of course, baked pork buns. The menu is uncommonly expansive, including sautéed clams, barbecue pork noodle rolls, shrimp noodle rolls, beef short rib, Peking duck and pork-bone porridge. For dessert, you'll find sugary, hot Chinese doughnuts, vivid yellow egg yolk buns and koi-shaped mango pudding.
The line begins to form an hour before opening at this bustling Alameda eatery, where gilded dragons snake across the walls. Large families gather around the plants up front and cluster on the sidewalk. Luckily for the waiting throngs, the seating here is plentiful, including tables fit for two to 12. Carts roll by in all directions, and each server is wired with a tiny microphone to relay orders to the kitchen. The menu goes on for several pages, offering favorites like barbecue pork buns, shrimp and leek dumplings, shu mai, salt and pepper tofu, taro, porridge and chicken feet. Cap off your meal with a selection of custard tarts, sesame balls and pillowy pineapple buns.
Ton Kiang is a longtime local fixture for dim sum, invariably packed and noisy, especially during peak hours (10am–3pm). Dining rooms on two floors fill up mid-morning with extended families, neighborhood regulars, weekend brunchers, and adventurous tourists all clamoring to get the attention of the ladies rolling around carts of steamed and fried Chinese dumplings, glistening roast duck, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, clay pot stews and sweet egg custard tarts. For novices, the best strategy is to ignore the menu and just point at what looks and smells tasty. Don't miss the Shanghai dumplings, filled with meat and a shot of hot soup, or the crab claws stuffed with shrimp. And save room for a Chinese doughnuts—deep-fried chewy puffs rolled in sugar.
This small Richmond shop serves up authentic dim sum without dominating your day or decimating your wallet. Since there are only six tables available, most opt to take-out. Here, customers check off their desired items on an order form while in line, making the snaking weekend lines move quickly. (The service may be brusque, but it's certainly efficient.) Everything comes out steaming hot and fresh, from pork shu mai and shrimp and chive dumplings to tender pork buns and turnip cakes. (Not to be missed: the golden-brown baked barbecue pork bun and porridge served with pork and preserved eggs.) Feel free to over-order: any 3 items are just $2. Get your doughy goods to-go and picnic in Golden Gate Park.
On any given day in Chinatown's Portsmouth Square, you'll see locals perched on benches, shoveling in dumplings from steaming containers. It’s likely they got them from Good Mong Kok, a tiny bakery nearby. There's no indoor seating here, so follow the system in place: Wait at the entrance until you're beckoned inside by the fast-moving servers at the counter. You’ll find well-executed delicacies like melt-in-your-mouth shrimp har gow, flavorful pork shu mai, and sizable baked and steamed barbecue pork buns. Don't forget dessert: This spot is particularly revered for its custard-filled pineapple buns.
After receiving a tip from the nonagenarian godmother of Chinese cuisine, Cecilia Chiang, restaurant critic Michael Bauer heaped praise (and a 3-star rating) upon this unassuming restaurant last year. (No relation to the original Hong Kong Lounge, above.) But those in-the-know didn't need a foodie to deem this spot worthy: You could always tell it was legit by the crowds of families milling around the sidewalk at all hours and gathered around the circular dining tables inside. Dim sum is served all day, every day here, so you don't have to suppress your dumpling craving until the weekend. The menu features unique spins on the classics, like coffee braised short ribs, durian pastries, deep-fried taro dumplings and egg tarts with a shortcake crust. (Of course, you'll also find traditional favorites like xiao long bao, tofu skin rolls, and baked barbecue pork buns.) There are no rolling carts, but the service is fast and the dishes are freshly-made and served piping hot.
The much-debated challenger to Kingdom of Dumpling just down the street, Dumpling Kitchen serves Shanghai-style comfort food in a narrow, wood-paneled space. Of course, the generously filled dumplings are the main event, but the egg puffs, pork belly, pan-fried noodle dishes and Shanghai-style rice cakes are also popular orders. (Those with dietary restrictions can choose from a variety of vegetarian and gluten-free options, as well.) Don't miss the giant, braised Lion's Head meatballs, served alone or in a steaming soup of rice noodles and shredded cabbage.
Browned ducks dangle above steaming trays of rice and porridge in the front window at this Inner Richmond hole-in-the-wall. (Look for the bright yellow awning and checkerboard tiles out front.) Near-constant lines ensure that everything served is fresh from the oven, fryer or steamer, no matter the time of day. Try the tender shrimp dumplings, perfectly cooked lotus-wrapped rice, flavorful beef curry rolls and hearty jook. The real specialty here is the char siu bao, a Cantonese barbecue pork bun. The fist-sized delicacy is a meal in itself, its pork and onion filling encased in a doughy, chewy shell. Order 7 buns or more and you'll get a sturdy to-go box—a welcome upgrade from the neighborhood's standard, flimsy take-out containers.