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Chinese cuisine in the San Francisco Bay Area

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Introduction to Chinese food in San Francisco

This page is intended for people who have eaten Chinese food outside of San Francisco and wish to experience Chinese food here. There may be significant differences depending on where you are visiting from.

It is common to hear or read complaints from visitors that Chinese food here is not like the Chinese food back home. Whether you are visiting from Asia or from the Midwestern US, you are likely to find such differences. This page attempts to advise you on the characteristics of Chinese restaurant food in San Francisco, so that you can make an informed choice of which Chinese restaurants to eat at, depending on your preference for familiarity or novelty.

Restaurants are cited as examples. This does not constitute a recommendation for or against the restaurant, unless specifically stated as a recommendation.

There are several main types of Chinese restaurants in San Francisco:

  • those primarily serving immigrants from Hong Kong ("'Hong Kong style"')
  • those primarily serving San Franciscans who are not Asian immigrants and who desire a more current taste ("'California Chinese'")
  • those primarily serving tourists or other people accustomed to Chinese food as it has been served in the United States for many years ("'Americanized Chinese'")
  • those primarily serving immigrants from other areas or a particular dietary need or interest (regional cuisines, vegetarian, Muslim, Sinicized Western food)

There may be some mixing between these various classifications (for instance, a Hong Kong style place in Chinatown may also serve Americanized Chinese). Each category may influence the others, for instance, the Americanize dish known as Chop Suey is often not served even at Americanized Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. Also, while outside the scope of this article, Chinese vegetables such as bok choy and pea sprouts (not to be confused with bean sprouts) may turn up on your plate at California Cuisine style restaurants.

This page has some general guidelines for finding and choosing a restaurant which fits into your desired type without having a specific recommendation. Some of these choices may require a trip into a non-tourist area.

Hong Kong style

  • Description: Serves authentic, flavorful food as served in Hong Kong.
  • Common ways to identify:
    • Neon signage in pastel colors.
    • Signs on wall in Chinese characters (these are typically dishes you can order).
    • Live fish and shellfish tanks (not to be confused with an acquarium).
  • Food characteristics:
    • Light sauces.
    • Simple preparations.
    • Emphasis on fresh or, for certain dishes, dried ingredients as opposed to canned.
    • There will often be a set dinner for groups of 3 to 10 people. This is not to be confused with the English-language family dinners (with 4 people add, etc.). This set dinner is usually only listed in Chinese, but some restaurants list it in both Chinese and English. It is usually an excellent deal with lots of good food. If you order it, don't order rice, as the last dish will be a rice or noodle dish.
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
    • Fish, shellfish and chicken are often served with head and tail still attached.
    • Chicken may be cut up with the bone still in.
    • Some main ingredients may be exotic, such as pig's blood or sea cucumber (if you do not want it then do not order it).
    • There may be translation problems if you decide to try a dish whose name is only shown in Chinese, if you do not read or speak Chinese.
  • Example restaurants:
    • Chinatown
      • R & G Lounge (moderate to expensive)
      • Great Eastern (moderate to expensive)
      • Great Oriental (moderate)
      • Chef Hung's (inexpensive)

California Chinese

  • Description:
  • Common ways to identify:
    • Neon signage in pastel colors.
    • Subdued inside lighting.
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:

Americanized Chinese

  • Description:
  • Common ways to identify:
    • There are no Chinese people in the restaurant, except perhaps the staff.
    • There are few or no signs in Chinese on the wall.
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:

Regional Cuisines

Hakka

  • Description:
  • Common ways to identify:
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:

Nonya (Singapore/Malaysia)

  • Description:
  • Common ways to identify:
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:

Shanghai

  • Description:
  • Common ways to identify:
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:

Vegetarian Chinese

  • Description:
    • A vegetarian variant of Chinese food, deriving from the cooking of Buddhist monks. The menu may list many "meats", but they are actually vegetarian imitation meats.
  • Common ways to identify:
    • There will almost always be signs in English (and, typically, Chinese) indicating that the food is vegetarian.
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:

Muslim Chinese

  • Description:
    • Chinese Restaurants that meet Islamic Halal requirements.
  • Common ways to identify:
    • No pork on the menu
    • Islamic calligraphy or a photo of the Qaba
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:
    • Fatima's in Cupertino

Sinicized Western food

These primarily serve immigrants from Hong Kong as well as long-time San Francisco residents of Chinese ancestry. They are good for getting a reasonably priced European meal.

traditional style

  • Description:
  • Common ways to identify:
    • Beverages on menu include Ovaltine and Horlick, but not Bubble Tea aka Tapioca Pearl drinks.
    • Entree includes soup, roll, and often (gelatin) dessert.
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:

modern style

  • Description:
  • Common ways to identify:
    • Beverages on menu include Ovaltine, Horlick and Bubble Tea aka Tapioca Pearl drinks.
    • Entree includes soup, roll, and often (gelatin or sweetened bean) dessert.
  • Food characteristics:
  • Challenges for people unused to this style:
  • Example restaurants:

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