As I have previously written, for the first century of their presence, Chinese American communities were almost exclusively populated by immigrants from rural Toishan outside of Canton and their descendants. As a result, from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1960s, Cantonese food was the only style of Chinese food found in Chinese restaurants in America, albeit a bastardized version, both being Americanized and reflecting an era of the early 20th century that had been frozen in time. During this period San Francisco Chinatown was by far the predominant Chinese American community and remained homogeneously Cantonese, even for decades after the loosening of immigration laws that had prevented Chinese from other parts of China from coming to the United States. Legion are the stories of well meaning visitors attempting to address the locals with a few words of Mandarin Chinese, completely unintelligible to the Cantonese locals. Indeed, even today San Francisco Chinatown is by far the most Cantonese, most Toishanese community in North America today with these dialects pervasive on the streets of San Francisco Chinatown.
With this backdrop, anything other than Cantonese Chinese restaurants have been a scarce to non-existent commodity in San Francisco’s Chinatown for practically its entire life of more than 160 years. Indeed, until very recently, aside from tourist-oriented restaurants offering faux Hunan-style food, or the incredibly popular tourist favorite House of Nanking, non-Cantonese Chinese food has been an extreme rarity in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Offhand my recollection of authentic non-Cantonese Chinese food in 20th Century San Francisco Chinatown is limited to two restaurants on Jackson Street: the now closed Star Lunch famous (or perhaps infamous) for its stinky tofu, along with its Shanghai-style noodles in the diviest dive setting you could imagine, and Sam Lok, serving Sichuan-style food, and now known as Z & Y Restaurant, which still operates today. Also worth a mention was the borderline authentic Taiwan Restaurant, but it relocated outside of Chinatown.
As Bob Dylan said 50 years ago (though it’s taken a few decades to catch up to San Francisco’s Chinatown), “the times they are a-changin’,” and a shift away from Cantonese food is finally noticeable in San Francisco Chinatown. In retrospect, the change probably began a little over a dozen years ago when Master Chef Nei from Nanjing opened his small restaurant Jai Yun on Pacific Avenue in a Chinatown storefront which appears to have once been a residential building. Initially it operated on a shoestring; when I first visited the restaurant in 2001, Chef Nei served as chef, waiter, and busboy. But Jai Yun quickly made its mark as THE restaurant where Chinatown chefs congregated after hours. Soon Jai Yun was written up repeatedly by the local newspapers, jumped onto the best restaurant lists, and was the subject of a feature article in San Francisco Magazine. For the first time a non-Cantonese restaurant had become the most talked about authentic Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.
Jai Yun was and continues to be an anomaly in its current Clay Street location, a quirky restaurant without a menu or regular hours, riding the skills of Chef Nei and his unusual method of operation. However, it did pave the way for non-Cantonese restaurants to make their mark in Chinatown. And especially in the past five years, the once solid Cantonese façade of San Francisco Chinatown food has clearly cracked. The next significant opening was Bund Shanghai on Jackson Street, the first true Chinatown restaurant with a full authentic Shanghai-style menu. At last, real xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), not the Cantonese dim sum restaurant version, lion’s head meatballs, rice cakes, and zha jiang mein could be found. Perhaps the single most dramatic sign that a new day has now dawned was last year’s opening of House of Xian Dumpling on Kearny Street which offers lamb dumplings, lamb skewers, chicken and corn dumplings, and other dishes unimaginable in San Francisco Chinatown just five years ago. And now there’s even hot pot, a Taiwanese favorite, available at Man Kee Hot Pot/Washington Cafe on Washington Street.
Bund Shanghai’s opening in 2009 has been followed by a string of Sichuan-style restaurants. Z & Y remains the leader for Sichuan food in Chinatown with dishes like its explosive chili pepper chicken, mapo tofu, and Yunnan-style add-ons, but now there are other alternatives for this brand of food. One of the older touristy non-Cantonese restaurants alluded to above was The Pot Sticker on Waverly Place, which specialized in Chinese delivery to tourists staying in downtown hotels. However, four years ago, affiliating with Z & Y, the restaurant converted into a Sichuan-style restaurant with not only authentic Sichuan-style dishes, but also bringing the first Guilin-style rice noodle soup to the Bay Area. The Pot Sticker became so successful in its new guise that it spawned a second branch outside of Chinatown in San Mateo called Spicy Empire. This empire grew even further with the acquisition of Waverly Place Cantonese institution Uncle’s Café, now christened Szechuan Cuisine Uncle Café with the same menu as Pot Sticker. Meanwhile, by the strip clubs over on Broadway, Little Szechuan has set up shop. Yes, egg foo young is on the menu, but Sichuan hot pots and potato strips with jalapeño are, too.
Even more recently a new trend has been spotted in San Francisco Chinatown, which might be described as non-Cantonese small eats. With its plethora of take-out bakery cafes, San Francisco has been a bastion of informal eating from the beginning of time, but only for Cantonese dim sum and baked goods. At last there are new choices. The breakthrough came a couple of years ago when Quickly, the Taiwanese boba chain, opened Kobe Bento on Kearny Street, offering a variety of Taiwanese and Japanese snacks such as popcorn chicken, lobster balls, and fried fish balls. While dozens, if not hundreds of similar eateries have operated in the Bay Area in the past 15 years, Kobe Bento is the first of these boba-based snack shops to set up in Chinatown proper, true testament to San Francisco Chinatown’s historic aversion to non-Cantonese food. The most recent addition to the snack parade is 3.3 Snack Bar, located on Waverly Place, which purveys an array of spicy snacks, including spicy leek, spicy tofu, and spicy fish balls starting at $1.50 a pop. The most expensive item on the menu at 3.3 Snack Bar is the $3 hot dog. Right across the street is Cocoa Café, which serves sandwiches and bagels from a bilingual menu. And a couple of existing businesses have added non-Cantonese snacks to their arsenal. Tuttimelon, on the corner of Grant Avenue and Broadway has supplemented its frozen yogurt and gelato lineup with popcorn chicken and other hot snacks. And Sweet Mart on the edge of Portsmouth Square, and well known for bins of preserved fruit and gummy candies, now serves curry fish balls and tea eggs.
Cantonese cuisine probably still accounts for nearly 90 percent of the eateries in San Francisco Chinatown, a far cry from America’s other Chinese communities where Cantonese food is now in the distinct minority. But even here in San Francisco Chinatown, it is clear that the landscape is changing.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.