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Chinatown Treats

Not Just for Tourists

San Francisco’s Chinatown remains one of the most popular spots for both locals and tourists to congregate on any given day. The bright, vibrant colors and small shops and restaurants provide a little something for everyone. But the area can also be intimidating with the language barrier, crowded streets, and unfamiliar items to pick and choose from.

Food instructor and lecturer Joyce Jue grew up in Chinatown and conducts walking tours in the area.

“I always stand in front of the delicatessen with my group and they’re looking at the hanging ducks, and it is very intimidating,” Jue says.

People often wonder what people do with the ducks and they wonder how long they have been hanging there, she says, but they are cooked fresh daily and can easily be prepared at home.

Sue Lee, the Executive Director of the Chinese Historical Society of America agrees, but she says there is so much more diversity now than before, when most restaurants served only Cantonese food.

“Today in Chinatown, you have all kinds of cuisine, not just Cantonese and that sets restaurants apart,” Lee says. “Tourists [just] think of dim sum, but there’s so much more.”

Lee said, unfortunately, many of the restaurants don’t market themselves to the general public. She said that’s partly due to the fact that Chinatown is not just a tourist attraction.

“It’s also a residential neighborhood,” she says. “You have this blend, where restaurants have to cater to the locals, but they also have to welcome tourists.”

Jue agrees, saying you have to order like a local to get the “true Chinatown” experience. “(The menus are) written in Chinese, and you have to know what to order. Otherwise, if you rely on the regular menu, it’s the same old laundry list of sweet and sour pork and mu shu pork — the cookie cutter Chinese food. There’s a menu for locals and a menu for tourists. You just have to convince them that that’s what you want.”

Jue said there are many places to get a great meal and some of the best bargains are the delicatessens, where you can get a roasted duck or suckling pig. She also suggests Jai Yun, where “the food is very elevated, very sophisticated, and unlike anything that most people have ever had in the United States.”

She also recommends Bow Hon Restaurant for its wonderful clay pots.

“If you go into a restaurant, just tell them you want something special,” Jue says. “You want their specialty. Eat it and have a really open mind to it. It’s going to be a totally new experience, but you want something real — something locals would eat.”

Our recommendations:

R & G Lounge
On the edge of Chinatown and the Financial District, the menu here features diverse Cantonese cuisine, including Anthony Bourdain’s favorite, the Salt and Pepper Dungeness Crab.

Bow Hon
This tiny eatery specializes in clay pots. And remember what we said before about specialties?

Jai Yun
Unique is an understatement as you arrive, tell the staff the price range you are looking for ($55 per person and up) and await a feast of small plates galore. (Read the article for SF Station’s archive:

Golden Gate Bakery
Three little words are enough to describe this small shop: egg custard tart.

Li Po Cocktail Lounge
The perfect dive bar, with a good mix of people and extra strong mai tai. Look out for concerters and parties in the basement, like the Sweater Funk weekly on Sunday nights.