If you think seeing one Chinatown means you’ve seen them all, you’d be wrong. San Francisco’s is the oldest in the US—being the first site of large-scale migration from the Pearl River Delta in the 1800s—and the history of the city, the state of California and the country itself are closely interwoven with the neighborhood. Present-day Chinatown is a square mile in the center of the city boasting a diverse mix of housing, temples, shops, markets, bakeries and more serving the local Chinese community—including some of the best things to do in San Francisco. And while eating at the best Chinese restaurants and shopping for hours are undoubtedly part of the draw and experience of the place, consumption isn’t the only reason to visit; crowded, chaotic and compact, Chinatown contains some impressive historic sites and is undoubtedly one of the most densely packed cultural areas in the city. Read on for our top picks on what not to miss in the 'hood.
For a guided tour of Chinatown, click here.
This vibrant restaurant turns out Cantonese greatest hits. Diners are drawn primarily by the signature salt and pepper Dungeness crab: battered and deep-fried legs and claws with tender morsels of crab meat, seasoned with a secret salt and pepper sauce and served with the carapace for effect. To stay on the umami train, try the eggplant and salted fish clay pot, a dense stew of braised sliced eggplant in an unctuous stock, studded with savory dried salted fish. The atmosphere and vibe here are characteristic of many traditional smart Cantonese restaurants around the world—suited wait staff, live seafood tanks, family gatherings and lively conversation.
This popular dim sum restaurant frequently has long, well-deserved lines on weekends. Offering reliable and plentiful fare, the flavors are more bold than balanced, but you’ll get value for your money in a homey family setting. Try the tofu skin roll: a filling of minced pork, shrimp and crunchy vegetables wrapped in a wrinkly tofu skin and steamed before being doused in a savory stock sauce.
Stepping into this little restaurant with its nondescript storefront, you might feel transported to a cafe in Hong Kong’s Wanchai. Lucky Creation serves up unpretentious vegetarian fare in a dining room with a relaxed vibe, a handful of wooden tables and an altar in the corner. Originating in Buddhist monasteries in the 1st century, China’s vegetarian cuisine is an underappreciated facet of the mainland’s food culture. A distinctive feature is the use of vegetable proteins to imitate the texture of meat—think deep-fried taro root "fish," or sweet and sour "pork." Tell any meat-obsessed doubters that this cuisine was elevated to the status of imperial cuisine in the Qing dynasty. If it was good enough for the Emperor...
A Chinatown stalwart, House of Nanking frequently has lines clogging the sidewalk. To set yourself apart once inside, stay away from the mushu and potstickers on the menu. Instead, try the seasonal cold sesame noodles: al dente egg noodles tossed with crunchy fresh pea shoots in a sesame, garlic and vinegar sauce. Service is efficient, and if you time your visit during off-peak hours, ask the wait staff about off-menu items like honey shrimp with sweet potato. Chef Peter Fang’s portrait still smiles down from the wall, though the man himself is now installed at the upscale Fang in SoMa.
The hunt for the best egg custard tart is somewhat passé, but there are other highly sought-after bakery items that deserve attention. Mee Mee’s is a family-run bakery at the less hectic end of Stockton Street, and "cow ear snackers" are the specialty here. Named for their gently undulating circular shape, these thin and crunchy cookies with a swirl of cocoa have an addictive sweet and salty hit. They run out by around 4pm, so make sure you’re there well ahead of closing time. As the number of remaining packs dwindles, the aunties in line become restive and tempers can flare.
Everyone will have their preferred all-round grocery store, but Pang Kee is a good bet for a quick shop in a spot that’s less busy than the central stretch of Stockton Street. The shelves are stacked high with quite possibly everything you could be looking for—spices, hoisin sauce, Shaoxing wine, light and dark soy—as well as instant noodles, Japanese curry sauce mixes and herbal grass jelly drinks. There is also a good selection of the packaged snacks and sweets beloved by Asian teenagers, including preserved plums (licorice-flavored, and with a distinct mouth-puckering effect).
A key feature of Chinatown is undoubtedly the fresh fruit and vegetable stores clustered around Stockton Street. These are famously packed on Saturday afternoons, with the prices reportedly dropping towards the end of the day to clear stock and avoid storing fresh produce overnight. Try Dong Hing, with its neat rows of exotic tropical fruit you might not spot elsewhere in the city, like longans and soft-spiked rambutans (both with soft translucent flesh, similar to lychee), jackfruit (an enormous knobbly green fruit, with honeyed yellow flesh) and purple mangosteen.
Char siu bao (steamed buns filled with sweet barbecued pork) are a favorite in Chinatown, and you can see the pillowy white buns sitting on bamboo steamers in many dim sum outlets. But Garden Bakery specializes in a slightly different offering, which is baked instead of steamed. The result is a fluffy glazed bun, filled with a parcel of sweet, juicy pork. Locals sit at tables with buns, tea and shopping bags, taking a break from the day and chatting in Chinese.
We lied when we said that egg custard tarts were passé. They’re still delicious, and the hunt for the best one in Chinatown is always on, with the results in constant flux. Golden Gate Bakery on Grant Avenue might get all the tourists, but we’d urge you to check out AA Bakery & Cafe. Their egg custard tarts are the right size, melt in your mouth and have the perfect balance of sweetness and egginess in a delicate, crumbly pastry.
The museum of the Chinese Historical Society of America is a must-see for anyone wanting to fully understand the growth of the Golden State. With an excellent collection featuring personal testimonials, photographs, original documents and real bits of history (look out for a section of rail from the Central Pacific Railroad), the museum gives a compelling and absorbing account of the history of the Chinese in America—from early arrivals in the 1630s, to the 19th century migrations from the Pearl River Delta, the decades of discrimination faced by the community and present-day life. Don’t miss the miniature dioramas of Chinatown interiors, designed by Frank Wong, a San Francisco native and later a Hollywood set designer. The museum is housed in a striking, ornate brick building with Chinese-inspired motifs, once occupied by the YWCA.
Located in the popular Ross Alley (of Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory fame), 41 Ross is a community arts space, hosting exhibitions and talks on the visual and performing arts. Past events include local artists speaking about the creative process, a shadow puppetry workshop for children and an exhibition of black and white photographs by Ben Kwan, a local journalist who catalogued life in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1980s.
Portsmouth Square started life as the Spanish plaza on the then shores of the bay, when the city was still Yerba Buena. It’s famously where Commodore John Montgomery claimed San Francisco for the United States in 1846, during the Mexican-American War, and where local newspaperman Sam Brannan is apocryphally said to have leapt off a ferry in 1848, declaring the existence of gold in the American River. Today, the plaza is a casual meeting ground where Chinatown’s residents come to play card games and Chinese chess, sitting around cardboard boxes. The Square also plays host to a range of events around the year, from annual music festivals to outdoor ping pong tournaments.
Claimed as the oldest Chinese temple in the US, this is a shrine to Tien Hau (or Tin How), the Empress of Heaven and Goddess of the Seas. It was established by early settlers who, revering the Goddess as the guardian deity of seafarers, believed that she had guided their passage across the Pacific. Located on the fourth floor of a building tucked into Waverley Place, the small temple has a reverent hush, is engulfed in the scent of incense and is hung with hundreds of glass lanterns in front of the shrine, each with a red prayer card hanging from it. From the balcony, you can see the top half of the TransAmerica pyramid right in front of you, and the Coit Tower to the north. Photography is not allowed inside the temple, and you should ask a member of staff before entering.
Festivals are a keystone of the Chinese calendar, and the Mid-Autumn Festival ranks high on the list. A celebration of the summer’s harvest and a thanksgiving to the moon—a symbol of fertility and bounty—the festival is characterized by bright paper lanterns and mooncakes. For weeks before the festival, local bakeries will start turning out these handheld pastries, filled with a smooth lotus seed paste or a dense red bean paste, and surrounded by a thin pastry "skin." Try a snowskin mooncake (made with a mochi-like glutinous rice flour) with lotus paste and a salted egg yolk in the center. The neighborhood shuts down along Grant Avenue between California and Broadway, giving way to parades, cultural performances, way more food than you probably need to eat, cooking demos and an annual Dog Talent & Costume Show. The whole thing culminates with the White Crane Dragon Parade, a bucket-list must-see for many.