The History Of San Francisco's Chinatown In 10 Dishes

In June, Food Republic is counting the many reasons to love Asian food in America right now. Here's one of them.

Fans of Chinese food in America owe a debt of gratitude to San Francisco's Chinatown. It's the oldest Chinatown in North America, dating back to 1848, and currently the densest Chinese community outside of mainland China, packing in some 15,000 residents within a tight two dozen square blocks. With its narrow streets and distinctive architecture, the neighborhood has served as the backdrop for numerous films, including The Maltese Falcon, Big Trouble in Little China and Godzilla, and it was the birthplace for some of the most famous Chinese-Americans, like The Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan and the great kung fu movie star Bruce Lee, who was born at San Francisco Chinese Hospital. But perhaps the area's greatest contribution to American culture appears on the plate.

Pick a dish from the menu of your favorite Chinese restaurant in the U.S. and chances are you can trace its origins, or at least its North American debut, back to this veritable culinary incubator. "Chinatown was the epicenter for Chinese community going back to Gold Rush days, so much of what became Chinese-American food came from there," says San Francisco restaurateur George Chen. "Chop suey, egg foo yung, moo goo gai pan, shrimp in lobster sauce were all invented in Chinatown."

Chen has witnessed some of that history-making firsthand. During the 1970s, he worked as a server at the legendary Cecilia Chang's hugely influential restaurant, Mandarin, which is widely regarded as the nation's first upscale Chinese restaurant and the first to introduce many Americans to dishes beyond the long-dominant Cantonese style of cooking — dishes like Peking duck and hot and sour soup.

Today, Chen is determined to make history himself by creating a massive 30,000-square-foot eating, drinking and shopping complex in Chinatown called China Live – a sprawling monument to Chinese food in America. This ambitious newcomer may lessen the sting over some significant recent losses to Chinatown's rich gastronomic legacy. Historic Sam Wo closed earlier this year after more than a century in business. So did Empress of China, a Chinatown fixture since the 1960s and the last grand dining house with a view.

Over the years, San Francisco's vibrant Chinese community has expanded beyond Chinatown into other neighborhoods, like Parkside, the Sunset and the Richmond, and that's where you'll find much of the best Chinese food in the city today. Here, we trace the rich history of the city's Chinese food culture through 10 restaurants, from hand-pulled noodles and Halal cuisine to a couple of young chefs on a serious Sichuan Mission.

Traditional Cantonese: R&G Lounge

Historically, Chinese food in San Francisco has been largely influenced by one dominant style. "Back in the 1850s — and for over 100 years — the food was by people coming from the Guangdong province, popularly known as Cantonese," says Chinese-American historian Philip P. Choy, author of San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History & Architecture. Today, perhaps the best rendition of Cantonese cooking can be found at R&G Lounge, which has been packing in Chinese families around Lazy Susans for every kind of celebration since 1985, long before Anthony Bourdain was raving about the place (reservations recommended). Traditional Cantonese specialties like bird's nest and bitter melon soup are served here, much like they appeared at old-school Chinatown banquets back in the day. But what the restaurant is most famous for is its signature Live Crab With Salt & Pepper, which showcases the region's well-known Dungeness crab in its most deliciously battered, fried and imminently sharable form. It's the perfect example of what delicious things are possible when foreign influence meets local ingredients. 631 Kearny St., San Francisco, CA 94108, 415-982-7877;

Dim Sum: Hong Kong Lounge

Dim sum is the time-honored Cantonese tradition of bite-sized foods served with tea, often arriving in steamer baskets or on small plates. In China, the custom dates back to the Sung Dynasty (circa A.D. 960-1279). In San Francisco, which is widely credited for first popularizing dim sum in America, the tradition is widespread, from upscale legend Yank Sing to longtimer Ton Kiang to newcomer Mama Ji's. Presently, though, the best modern incarnation of the ancient practice can be found at Hong Kong Lounge, which opened in 2008, and Hong Kong Lounge II, which opened in 2011. In her book, The Woman Who Ate Chinatown, the late local author Shirley Fong-Torres noted, "If a restaurant is dominated by Asians who are dining happily, you're in the right place." If that's true, then both HK locations fit the bill quite nicely. Here, Chinese families fill up on baked pork buns and har gow (shrimp dumplings), but it's items like coffee pork ribs, egg yolk almond balls and shrimp noodle rolls that make it one of the Bay Area's top dim sum options. 5322 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94121, 415-668-8836; and 3300 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94118, 415-668-8802

Shanghai-Style Soup Dumplings: Dim Sum Club 

The arrival of xiao long bao (XLB), or Shanghai-style soup dumplings, is just one example of the different regional styles of Chinese cooking that began to appear in San Francisco (and America at large) following the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended longstanding restrictions on Asian immigration and opened up the floodgates of culinary influence from across the Far East. "With the changed immigration policy, Chinese from all over brought their culture and their regional cuisine," says historian Choy. Shanghai-style dumplings, filled with hot broth and meat, became popular at places like the scenic Harbor Village, which operated in the city's Financial District from 1985 to 2005. Currently one of the best places for this Shanghainese specialty is not a Shanghainese restaurant at all. It's the Cantonese-leaning Dim Sum Club, located in the very non-Chinese-sounding Da Vinci Villa Hotel, where the underrated "Shanghai dumplings" rank among the freshest in town. 2550 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94109;

Mooncakes: Eastern Bakery

San Francisco is home to several Chinese bakeries, specializing in things like ever-popular egg custard tarts (dan tat) or mooncakes, the circular-shaped pastries filled with fruit, sweet bean paste and egg, a popular treat during Chinatown's annual Autumn Moon Festival. There's a specialist for every baked good you might fancy, whether dreamy coconut buns at AA Bakery in Chinatown, curry buns at Lung Fung Bakery, or char siu bao (steamed pork buns) at Wing Lee Bakery. Eastern Bakery, which opened in 1924, is the oldest in Chinatown, turning out pineapple buns, coffee crunch cake and gelatinous bak tong go (sugar sponge cake). But its mooncakes are most famous. 720 Grant Ave., San Francisco, CA 94108, 415-982-5157;

Hand-Pulled Noodles: House of Pancakes

Hand-pulled noodles (called lamian) are a centuries-old Chinese tradition, originating from northwestern China but still rather uncommon in the States. A few places in San Francisco serve them. Perhaps the best place is the one with the most misleading name: House of Pancakes, a humble restaurant that serves a menu of paper-thin "pancakes," layered with the likes of minced meat or green onions. But catch a peek through the kitchen-door window and you might see one woman back there, hand-pulling noodles, while locals cozy up at a handful of tables. Though hand-pulled noodle stations at Martin Yan's MY China are more of a spectacle, the noodles at House of Pancakes are homemade, chewy and delicious, served in broth. 937 Taraval St., San Francisco, CA 94116, 415-681-8388

Chinese Halal Cuisine: Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant

Chinese halal — the cuisine of the Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslims) — is a rare find in the U.S. Even in modern San Francisco's diverse Chinese food scene, it's quite the anomaly. Old Mandarin Islamic is the city's one Chinese-Muslim restaurant, located just a few blocks from the ocean. Open since 1997, the family-run restaurant specializes in Beijing-style hot pot, with stews prepared in simmering copper pots right on the table in front of you. Peking beef pancakes are a house favorite, as are juicy lamb dumplings. But no pork! (This is a swine-averse halal restaurant, remember.) For a real palatal challenge, try the la si ni, or "extremely hot pepper," which, beyond some bits of chicken and egg, is exactly like it sounds. 3132 Vicente St., San Francisco, CA 94116, 415-564-3481

Shaanxi Cuisine: Terra Cotta Warrior 

Not familiar with Shaanxi (shahn-shee) cuisine? Then journey to the Outer Sunset to perpetually packed Terra Cotta Warrior for a taste of food from the Shaanxi province in northwestern China, known for its intense sour, spicy and salty flavor profiles and preponderance of noodles. The chef and much of the staff come from Shaanxi, so the region's bold flavors permeate, whether in popular mian pi (steamed noodles, served cold, vivid with cucumber, black vinegar and chili oil) or comforting lamb soup. 2555 Judah St., San Francisco, CA 94122, 415-681-3288

Classic Americanized Chinese: House of Nanking 

While plenty of locals roll their eyes at the touristy, Americanized food and "soup Nazi"-style service of venerable House of Nanking, there's no denying its magnetism. A Chinatown favorite since 1988, Nanking still draws perpetual lines, but the "we'll order for you" policy keep tables turning over. Owner Peter Fang created Shanghainese-influenced dishes, heavy on vibrant sauces and robust sweet-sour-savory flavor, a favorite of international celebrities and chefs. Legendary house specialties (Nanking chicken, Nanking scallops) redolent of sesame and accompanied by yams, ultra-fresh snow-pea shoots or the best onion cakes around (with spicy peanut sauce) are evidence of its widespread popularity for nearly three decades. 919 Kearny St. San Francisco, CA 94133, 415-421-1429;

Modern Americanized Chinese: Mission Chinese Food

San Francisco has a long history of innovative Chinese-inspired cooking. Unlike the old-school inventors of New World dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, the modern heir apparent to this grand tradition doesn't come from Chinatown. He comes from the Mission. We're talking, of course, about recent James Beard Award winner Danny Bowien, who, alongside cofounders Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, launched a little food truck in 2008 that ultimately evolved into the bicoastal phenom known as Mission Chinese. The original setup, operated out of the back of humble Lung Shan restaurant in 2010, and its acclaimed East Coast spin-off, which opened in New York City in 2012, garnered unprecedented levels of attention for what is basically gussied-up Chinese takeout, like the storied Kung Pao pastrami, which brings a spicy Sichuan preparation to classic American smoked meat. Think of it as the new chop suey. 2234 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94110, 415-863-2800;

Futuristic Chinese: China Live 

This visionary complex from Betelnut operators George Chen and his longtime chef-partner and wife, Cindy Wong-Chen, is set to become one of the most notable food destinations in the country when it finally opens later this year. Many are calling this multilevel, 30,000-square-foot Chinatown emporium the Chinese answer to Mario Batali's sprawling Italian-themed Eataly in New York. And it's easy to see the comparison. Like its East Coast predecessor, the Avro/KO-designed facility will serve multiple functions. Downstairs is an upscale, interactive Chinese-food market with numerous demo stations and separate bars for noodles, seafood and raw items. There's also an exhibition kitchen, bar, café and grocery. Upstairs, you'll find an exclusive and intimate restaurant called Eight Tables by George Chen, which is accessed through a back alley. Also on the upper level: a futuristic bar overlooking Broadway and an intimate, retro Shanghai-style bar called Madame's Parlour. The ambitious project also includes an exclusive rooftop patio and a restoration of the building's underground movie theater. 644 Broadway St., San Francisco, CA 94113;