Frequently a little greasy, and broadly flavored, dim sum is one of the true pleasures of life in San Francisco. As a meal, it’s completely unlike the eggs-potatoes-coffee-and-mimosa rubric of American-style brunch, yet it makes the ideal substitute. And it’s no coincidence that “dim sum” translates to “touch the heart.”
Granted, dim sum can be a little intimidating to non-Asian newbies, but the thrill of exploration remains intact for even the most hardened experts. You won’t always find many of the trappings of contemporary California restaurants, like fresh vegetables that fluctuate with the season. Few dim sum spots are found in neighborhoods with convenient parking (something a large proportion of Yelpers appear to believe is an important criterion for selecting what to eat.) But each has its own personality.
After burning our tongues on innumerable xiaolongbao — the Shanghai soup dumplings that are hard to stare at for long — we present, in no particular order, San Francisco’s indispensable dim sum restaurants. Go forth and enjoy! And leave the teapot lid askew to indicate to the servers it’s time for a refill, making sure you don’t pour your own before offering any to others. (It’s impolite.)
Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa St., Outer Richmond, shanghaidumplingking.com
When Santa Clara got a Din Tai Fung — the Taiwanese chain famed for its xiaolongbao — people eagerly waited up to two hours for some XLB. But that place is far away, and it’s in a mall besides. Shanghai Dumpling King has some of the most highly regarded xiaolongbao in San Francisco, and it’s only in the Outer Richmond. Atmosphere and amiability this place has not, but the kitchen is skilled. Go nuts ordering dumplings, sure, but don’t forget other standouts like the century egg with tofu.
11 Division St., SoMa, dumplingtimesf.com
When is it not dumpling time, really? The most Instagram-savvy of the lot, Dumpling Time is a project from the team behind nearby Omakase and Okane. This pedigree shows in the beautiful tom yum goong (a variation of Shanghai soup dumplings made with both pork and shrimp, and sheathed in a magenta beet-skin wrap). A bowl of these Shanghai noodles might even convince you you’ve gotten several servings of fresh veggies. But if you’re a glowering purist, take note: Dumpling Time doesn’t serve complimentary tea. It does, however, serve ice water.
4416 18th St., Castro, mamajis.com
At the very western end of the commercial part of the Castro is this utilitarian spot, which serves dim sum by day — the only spot for quite a distance in any direction — and eminently shareable Sichuan food by night. Pan-fried turnip cakes with dried shrimp are the unmissable dish, and spicy cold noodles round out any parade of hot dishes. We’re always delighted when places have liquor licenses, although Mama Ji’s beer selection overshoots the mark. It’s a bit pricey and lacking a basic lager the food all but cries out for. Still, this is a unique restaurant.
1 Kearny St., Union Square, hakkasan.com
One of a dozen sprinkled around the world’s alpha global cities, San Francisco’s Hakkasan is a second-floor gem with the atmosphere of a newly consecrated temple. It’s effortlessly sophisticated, with jade lobster daikon rolls alongside char siu bao, or steamed barbecue pork buns. There’s a $28 dim sum sampler, as well as opulent dishes like truffle-braised noodles with crab and scallops (and even macarons). With a menu particular to this location, a strong emphasis on lighting and presentation, and rotating specialty cocktails, Hakkasan stays au courant.
Dim Sum Club
2550 Van Ness Ave., Russian Hill, davincivilla.com
This is a fairly standard Cantonese restaurant inside a tragically named hotel called Da Vinci Villa, which means you can get fried rice and chow fun. But Dim Sum Club’s dumplings shine, and even dim sum staples like siu mai are made to order. Best of all, it’s a bit below the radar, which means waits are few and far between.
Good Mong Kok bakery
1039 Stockton St., Chinatown.
To hell with the line. If we had to pick a lunch-hour favorite, Good Mong Kok might be it. Even the hungriest human beings can probably fill up for $10 of pork siu mai, turnip cakes, and bao (buns). Small, no-nonsense, hemmed in by Central Subway construction, and staffed by women as gruff as any career lunchlady, Good Mong Kok is an absolute treasure — and it’s 100 percent takeout. We went in the day before Chinese New Year, and while the line was three times longer than usual, there was still plenty of shrimp har gow and the staff wasn’t close to breaking a sweat.
101 Spear St. and 49 Stevenson St., Financial District, yanksing.com
Only five blocks separate the two Yank Sings, and we can’t think of another two-location eatery whose sister restaurants are so close together. But that’s not the only thing that makes Yank Sing an outlier on this list. It is, in a word, expensive. You could feed five people at Good Mong Kok for what one person could easily ring up here, something many patrons discover by accident. (Management also paid $4.25 million in back wages after a 2014 lawsuit.) Still, the Michelin-starred Yank Sing sensed an opening for elegant, formal dim sum with additional dishes like Peking duck (sliced at the table) and a taro root dumpling with shiitakes, shrimp, and pork — and they cornered the market. Note: The Stevenson Street location is a bit more refined, as the Spear Street is in the Rincon Center, so it can feel like you’re eating in a food court.
365 Gellert Blvd., Daly City, koipalace.com
Tanks of crabs and lobsters greet you at the entrance to this eminently old-school banquet hall. Yes, technically, it’s not in San Francisco — it’s not even in the part of Daly City near the BART station that’s just over the border, either — but to overlook Koi Palace would be a sin. This is the land of multi-hued dumpling samplers and abalone tarts, where people queue for an hour in the parking lot hoping for bowls of salty congee.
5700 Geary Blvd., Outer Richmond, dragonbeaux.com
Owned and operated by the same family as Koi Palace, two-and-a-half-year-old, 200-seat Dragon Beaux is as contemporary as its predecessor is classic. Dim sum is available until much later in the day here, there’s hot pot in the evening, and the tea selection is immense. The kitchen gets creative with dishes like sandstorm spareribs, and Dragon Beaux is also prone to flourishes like honeyed bitter melon attractively presented in curlicues. Good fortune abounds: Almost every price ends in .88, eight being a lucky number.
3641 Balboa St., Outer Richmond
Who wants a Chinese doughnut? (It’s more like a plain double churro, really, but you can get one here.) While a spirit of adventure will usually guide you well, at this cash-only spot, it’s best to stick to the tried-and-true. (Not because the rest of the menu is iffy, but because the core of it is so good.) Shanghai noodles, XLB, and potstickers win the day, but Shanghai House also has killer chicken wings, frequently cited as rivals to those at Irving Street’s San Tung.
1935 Taraval St., Outer Sunset
An electric fan and a single prayer niche are all the ambience you’ll get at Dumpling Kitchen, the Sunset’s equivalent of the Richmond’s Shanghai Dumpling King. Equally revered for the juicy goodness of its XLB, this less-than-zero-frills spot still offers 10 of them for a very reasonable $8.95. Sheng jian bao, or pan-fried pork buns, win raves for being neither too thin nor too thick, and having that irresistible sear on the bottom.
644 Broadway, Chinatown, chinalivesf.com
Sheng jian bao for the win! We were initially a little skeptical that a project of this magnitude would succeed, but six months after opening, the gregarious George Chen’s 30,000-square-foot dining-and-retail behemoth seems to have made its mark, no matter how torn up Broadway’s asphalt might be. Not unlike an Eataly for Chinese cooking, China Live quickly established itself as the place for Dungeness crab spring rolls and excellent XLB. And with the addition of the “Shanghai dystopian” cocktail lounge Cold Drinks and upper-echelon dining room Eight Tables, China Live might yet pull off the ultimate coup: pleasing almost everyone.
649 Jackson St., Chinatown, greateasternsf.com
Pictures of a beaming Barack Obama grace the windows of this two-floor Chinatown restaurant popular with out-of-town visitors, where a fleet of servers operates at peak efficiency, distributing steamed spareribs and sticky rice in lotus leaf. As a rule of thumb, Great Eastern seems to overcharge for small items (which start at $4.20) and undercharge for bigger, chef’s menu plates (which clock in at under $10), but the most important thing may be to go early to get everything while it’s fresh.
Hong Kong Lounge II
3300 Geary Blvd., Laurel Heights, hongkonglounge2.com
Don’t get it confused with Hong Kong Lounge, a mile or so west on Geary. Newer and slightly higher rated than its forebear — although the frosted windows can mean a dim interior — this Laurel Heights Cantonese eatery is known for baked barbecue pork buns and pea shoot-and-chicken dumplings. Hong Kong Lounge II‘s Desserts have a wider variety than most of the competition, with intriguing options like peach buns with lotus paste and salted egg yolk.
House of Xian Dumpling
925 Kearny St., Chinatown, houseofxiandumpling.com
With the caveat that this one is a bit of an outlier, we include House of Xian on the list because it’s one of the few remnants of a circa-2013 boomlet of xian food, a spicy cuisine particular to an interior region of China that’s heavy on meat and noodles and light on rice. The xiaolongbao are by no means the best in the city, but they’re plenty good — and it’s difficult to find them served alongside hand-cut noodles (or genuinely fantastic salt-and-pepper chicken wings) anywhere else. Consider House of Xian the place where dim sum can complement your meal.
Check out more from our feature on the best Dim Sum in San Francisco here:
A House With a Pig in It
The art of making xiaolongbao, dim sum’s juiciest dumpling.
Dabbing in Dim Sum, at Harvest on Geary
One dispensary’s monthly event offers dabbers a little sum-thin’ somethin’ of a delicious dim sum buffet — and you won’t get a food coma.