Welcome to the Neighborhood, A Series About San Francisco Neighborhoods
In our third installment of the “Welcome to the Neighborhood” series, we’re going to explore one of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhoods: Chinatown.
If you’re a regular reader of this series, you know our point of view is that to really get to know a city, travelers should go beyond the famous landmarks and tourist attractions. Especially in San Francisco, where the neighborhoods offer the diversity and atmosphere that people from all over the world come here to experience. That is especially true in Chinatown; we can’t think of another neighborhood in the city that has the ability to transport a visitor to another place and time.
The trick is to get off the main street – Grant Street, with its souvenir, luggage and t-shirt shops – to explore the atmospheric back alleys of Chinatown. With a few left turns off of Grant, the tourists are left behind and it’s suddenly possible to forget that you’re in an American city.
By visiting the following three destinations, you’ll find yourself deep in the neighborhood amongst the locals going about their daily business. We suggest you park the easy way: in the Portsmouth Square garage on Kearny Street. When you emerge from the elevator, you’ll step right onto Portsmouth Square. From there, you can work your way up the hill to explore all of the other destinations. Along the way, let yourself be led down a mysterious alley or sidewalk – half the fun in Chinatown is discovering a few things on your own.
Portsmouth Square. We call this Chinatown’s living room, and it is in fact the former center of San Francisco as you will see by the numerous monuments dotted around the square. Currently it is where residents of Chinatown gather to gamble, gossip and pass time. Sit amongst the locals and soak it all in.
Tien How Temple. Up three flights of stairs, visiting this 100 year old temple is a magical experience. Wander on to the balcony for some of the best views in the city.
Chinese Historical Society. Not only will you get a deep understanding of the Chinese community in San Francisco and learn the history of this fascinating neighborhood, you’ll likely meet a couple of long-time Chinatown residents who are staff members. Of note – the building is a former YWCA designed by famous San Francisco architect Julia Morgan.
When in Chinatown, we skip the tchochkes and shop for something that will provide an authentic memory of our time exploring the “real” Chinatown. Here are a few of our favorite destinations:
The Wok Shop. The first thing you probably think of when considering Chinese cuisine is the wok. The Wok Shop has been in Chinatown for over 30 years, so they know what they’re doing when it comes to woks, steamers, cleavers and all manner of chinese cooking utensils.
Stockton Street. Between Sacramento and Broadway, Stockton has a plethora of small grocers, produce shops, butchers, bakers and five and dime type stores. The sidewalks and shops along this stretch are crowded with residents doing their daily shopping. Just insert yourself in the flow, elbow your way along and you’ll be rewarded with interesting, tasty and sometimes bizarre discoveries.
Chinatown Kite Shop. Okay, we’ve advised you to wander off Grant, but there are a couple of good destinations on this street and one of them is Chinatown Kite Shop. Until you enter this shop you think your life is complete without a kite; five minutes later you’re in dither over which one to buy (Dragon? Butterfly? Fish? So many choices!)
Let’s just put it out there: eating off the beaten path in Chinatown can be intimidating. Set aside your fears and grab your chopsticks because we have tasted our way around Chinatown and here are our recommendations:
Sam Wo. Located at 813 Washington, just off Grant, this place is all about the atmosphere. Go through the kitchen, up a narrow staircase, and wedge yourself in. Sam Wo delivers on the collective idea of a little Chinese “joint”. The food is cheap (we like the Chow Fun), the service is (ahem) authentic, and it’s BYO.
Yong Kee Dim Sum. Located at 732 Jackson between Stockton and Grant, this is one of many dim sum shops on the street. The signage is in Chinese, so just look for the shop with the red awning on the North side of the street. Their steamed chicken buns are great, and so are the pork dumplings and the shrimp dumplings. If your Chinese is rusty, the ladies behind the counter will understand your pointing and sign language.
Golden Gate Bakery. Back to 1029 Grant Street for egg custard tarts at the undisputed winner of the “best egg custard tart award”. Okay, there’s not an official award, but if there was, Golden Gate Bakery would have the biggest trophy in Chinatown.
What is your favorite neighborhood in San Francisco? What are your favorite things to do in San Francisco?