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Way Beyond Canton: S.F.'s 15 Best Regional Chinese Restaurants
Luke Tsai | Photo: Peter Earl McCollough | March 30, 2015
How to tell your Hakka from your Shaanxi.
Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
Now that immigrants from throughout China have settled in our historically Cantonese city, it’s easier than ever to find a variety of regional cuisines—especially once you venture beyond Grant Avenue. Here's a guide.
Like much of the country’s northern region, China’s capital city is famous for its dough-based cuisine of dumplings, noodles, buns, and pancakes. Here, try Beijing Restaurant (1801 Alemany Blvd.) for warm pots (soup with pickled vegetables) and stir-fries featuring spaetzle-like flour balls, or House of Pancakes (937 Taraval St.) for hand-stretched noodles and flaky-crisp savory pancakes filled with meat or scrambled egg. While it’s tough to find a passable version of Beijing’s most famous culinary export, Peking duck, decent renditions can be found, ironically enough, at high-end Cantonese spots like R & G Lounge (631 Kearny St.).
Rather than being emblematic of one region, Hakka cuisine is the rustic, home-style cooking of a group of nomadic Chinese (Hakka translates literally to “guest families”), many of whom eventually settled in Guangdong. Linda Lau Anusasananan, author of The Hakka Cookbook, describes Hakka cooking as a kind of Chinese soul food or a “country cousin” of Cantonese cuisine, in which slow-cooked meats, offal, and salt-preserved and pickled vegetables play a starring role. The best place to sample it is at Hakka Restaurant (4401 Cabrillo St.), where house specialties include salt-baked chicken, clams stir-fried with basil, and lush slices of braised pork belly served over preserved mustard greens.
Arguably the spiciest of the major Chinese cuisines, Hunanese cooking is distinguished not only by its use of fiery fresh chilies, but also by the smoked and cured meats that have made the Hunanese perhaps China’s most famous producers of charcuterie. Both Made in China (1033 Taraval St.) and the North Beach location of Henry’s Hunan (1398 Grant Ave.) feature such Hunan specialties as a whole fish head with chilies, Hunan-style “bacon,” or smoked ham, and a version of braised pork belly that was reputedly Mao Tse-tung’s favorite dish.
Shanghai cuisine is known for light flavors, precise cooking techniques, and gently sweetened sauces that allow high-quality soy sauces and rice wines to shine. Characteristic dishes include “red-cooked” braised pork belly, giant “lion’s head” meatballs, and the perennially popular soup dumpling xiao long bao. Shanghai House (3641 Balboa St.) is a good place for xiao long bao and salty soy milk, a savory-spicy soup spiked with chili oil, pickled vegetables, fried Chinese doughnuts, and tiny dried shrimp. If you’re up for a splurge, snag a reservation at Jai Yun (680 Clay St.) for a refined prix fixe meal of banquet-style dishes—the array of tiny cold appetizers alone is one of the best Chinese eating experiences that San Francisco has to offer.
One of the lesser-known regional cuisines to emerge in San Francisco in recent years, Shaanxi cooking is famous for its wide variety of noodles, generous amounts of lamb and pork, and bold sour and spicy elements. For a good introduction, head to Terra Cotta Warrior (2555 Judah St.), where a meal might start with a cold plate of garlicky sliced pig ears and cucumber. Make sure to try one of the rou jia mo, griddled buns filled with juicy shredded pork or cumin-spiced lamb.
This northern coastal region is known for delicate soups, seafood, vinegar, raw garlic, and a wealth of noodles, dumplings, steamed breads, and other dough-based items. Shandong Deluxe (1042 Taraval St.) is one of a handful of restaurants in the city that serve boiled fish dumplings, hand-pulled noodles, and other characteristic Shandong dishes. And because many of Korea’s ethnic Chinese originally came from this province, restaurants serving Korean-Chinese cuisine often have a Shandong connection—you can try specialties such as jjajang-myeon (noodles with black bean sauce) at Zazang Korean Noodle (2340 Geary Blvd.) or the ever-popular San Tung (1031 Irving St.).
Even though this southwestern province is notorious for the sweat-inducing fire of many of its well-known dishes, its cuisine’s signature ingredient isn’t the chili pepper but the Szechuan peppercorn (hua jiao), a citrusy, tongue-numbing spice that creates a deliciously addictive effect called ma la, or numbing heat. The best Szechuan meals are balanced and nuanced, with prominent vinegary and garlicky flavors. In San Francisco, Z & Y Restaurant (655 Jackson St.) and Spices 2 (291 6th Ave.) are good bets for authentic versions of classics such as chili oil–spiked “water-boiled fish” and ma po tofu (a dish best ordered only at a Szechuan establishment). For the communal tongue-scorching of a ma la hot pot meal, try the Inner Richmond’s Grand Hot Pot Lounge (3565 Geary Blvd.).
Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco