San Francisco has the largest percentage of Chinese-Americans of any big city: 21.4 percent, more than double runner-up Honolulu. And we have a large, vibrant and authentic Chinatown near downtown. So it stands to reason that we have lots of good Chinese restaurants. The rub is that 21.4 percent is enough to have created essentially three Chinatowns, and the informal ones in the Richmond and Sunset districts have the best food.
But the original Chinatown is studded with tiny family restaurants that draw locals; surely there are hidden gems, right?
Here are some suggestions for English-dependent foodies eager to get the most out of this greatest of all Chinatowns:
Follow the crowd
Writing this goes against everything I normally believe about finding a good restaurant, but I've had too many indifferent bowls of noodles to keep making the same mistake. Personally I try to follow locals, not tourists, but mainly because I'm cheap: the quality of the most-touristed places in Chinatown (City View, House of Nanking, R&G Lounge) is better than the quality of a randomly drawn selection. Generally speaking, though, a crowd in Chinatown means people like the food.
The dream of a great hole-in-the-wall where the meat is flavored by generations of grease on the grill is usually just that — a dream. Places that don't care enough to clean up their dining room tend to not care much about what's going on in the kitchen.
How much is that ducky in the window?
Several places do traditional Chinese roast meats well, better than anything else on the menu. Let the hanging fowl be your guide.
Follow President Obama and Jackie Chan
Our president stopped for takeout dim sum recently at Great Eastern (649 Jackson at Wentworth, 986-2500), which happens to be our favorite dim sum restaurant in Chinatown. We also enjoy Yuet Lee (1300 Stockton at Broadway, 982-6020), which has a picture on the wall of Jackie Chan enjoying the food.
Follow the critic
Read former SF Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman's "Rice Plate Journal" archives online!
Get out to the avenues already
Sorry, couldn't resist.
Desserts are often better than mains
It's not just the egg custard tart from Golden Gate Bakery (1029 Grant at Pacific, 781-2627); we find unusual baked goods all the time wrapped in plastic baggies on the counters of shops that may not even sell other food. This is a cheap and literally sweet way to do your own Chinatown exploring.
Rent the Roman Polanski movie Chinatown
It won't help you find a restaurant, and it's not set in San Francisco, but it is a great movie. And being in a good mood makes everything taste better.