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Dining from the Middle Kingdom

The Mandarin
Royal Court: The atmosphere at The Mandarin lives up to the restaurant's opulent name.

San Francisco's restaurants reflect the astonishing diversity of Chinese cuisine

By Hank Hamilton

February kicked off with the celebration of Chinese New Year, as good a reason as any to contemplate the riches of Chinese cooking--maybe to get out and learn about some new foods, and to discover how imprecise the phrase "Chinese cooking" is.

The cuisine of China is often associated with four geographical regions: the Northeast, which includes the city of Beijing (a.k.a. Peking) and regions such as Inner Mongolia and Manchuria; the East, with large cities such as Shanghai, Nanking and Hangchow; the Southeast, better known as Cantonese, with large cities such as Hong Kong, Macao and Canton; and the Southwest, which takes in provinces such as Sichuan (aka Szechuan or Szechwan) and the large city of Chungking.


The style of cooking known as "Mandarin" is most usually associated with the Northeast and the city of Peking. This was a style that evolved over 16 centuries in the homes of the privileged who could afford to hire professional chefs to cook in their homes. It typically designates an elaborate, intricate style of northern cooking.

The Mandarin
Try the pot stickers, the appetizer sampler plate and the spare ribs. The atmosphere is worthy of a mandarin, even if the food is lesser. 673-8812, 900 North Point, Ghirardelli Square. Lunch, dinner and late dining 7 days. Full bar with an award-winning wine list. Exp$ A C D J M V. Reservations available.

A California kind of Mandarin restaurant, and while the food certainly deserves the imperial designation, the atmosphere doesn't. 621-4819, 205 Oak Street, above Gough, Hayes Valley. Lunch M-F, Dinner M-Sa. Beer and wine. Mod$ V, M. Reservations available.

282-0919, 1500 Church St., at 27th, Noe Valley. Lunch M-Sa. Dinner 7 days. Beer & wine. Mod$ V, M. Reservations available, but a lot of people wait on the sidewalk.

Beijing on Irving
A clean, open, neighborhood place with top food and an extensive menu. 753-9802, 1030 Irving St., above 11th, Inner Sunset. Lunch M-Sa., dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. Mod$ V, M, A. Reservations available.


Outside the privileged households, Northeastern cuisine is more generally influenced by the short, dry growing season and the proximity of nomadic peoples to the north with large herds of animals. Roasts, stews, root vegetables, wheat, soybeans and such are common. Unlike the rest of China, mutton tends to be popular here. Seasonings tend to be mild. Sauces tend to be rich and flavorful to make the limited ingredients more interesting. The many months in which fresh foods are not available make preserved meats, fruits and vegetables desirable.

Gold Mountain
Dim sum breakfast and lunch is a plus here. 296-7733, 644 Broadway, above Grant, Chinatown. Breakfast, lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. A, M V. Reservations for large parties.

Mandarin Palace
Go for the seafood. 673-6789, 2800 Leavenworth St., in the Anchorage Center. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. A D M V.

Kublai Khan
Cook-it-yourself, tabletop barbecue. 885-1378, 1160 Polk St., above Post. Lunch, dinner and late dining 7 days. Beer, wine and sake. Inexp$-mod$ M, V.

Happy Valley
Try the Volcano prawns or the Mongolian hot pot. 399-9393, 1255 Battery St., in Levi Plaza. Lunch M-Sa, dinner 7 days. Cocktails. Mod$ A Di M V.


The eastern city of Shanghai is a very cosmopolitan seaport town which has had many culinary influences, from the Northeast and Southeast regions of China, as well as from other Asian nations and even Europe, via the pre-revolutionary "international concessions." Seafood and fresh-water fish are important here, but the area is mainly known for hams, braised meats with rich gravies, pickled or salted greens, and long-cooked casseroles. The area further south, around Fukien, has greater emphasis on seafood.

Five Happiness
Crowded, popular neighborhood feeding hole. 387-2626, 4142 Geary Blvd., above Fifth, Inner Richmond. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. Mod$ V.

House of Nanking
Come early or come late, or wait on the sidewalk. 421-1429, 919 Kearny St., above Jackson, Chinatown. Lunch, dinner M-Sa. Beer and wine. Inexp$ No credit cards. No reservations.

Wu Kong
957-9300, 101 Spear St., in Rincon Center. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Cocktails. Exp$ A, D, J, M, V.

Fountain Court
Elegant dining room to go with the elegant seafood. And yes, there is a fountain. 668-1100, 354 Clement St., at Fifth, Inner Richmond. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. Mod$ A, D, M, V.

Dragon House
Most Shanghai dishes are not on the English menu, so you'd better know how to read Chinese or be sure to ask for guidance. 751-6545, 5344 Geary Blvd., above 12th, Inner Richmond. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer. Inexp$ V. M.


The people of southeast China were among the earliest to migrate to this country in sizable numbers, and most Americans are familiar with "Cantonese" cooking. In this area, with its mild climate, fertile soils and ready access to the warm southern seas, we find perhaps the most complex dishes of China. This region of China, being so far from Beijing, may well have more international influences than other regions. Taoist traditions also dictated a preparation style in which foods are kept as close to their original state as possible. The fresh ingredients, available all year long, need little saucing to produce intense flavors.

Lichee Garden
Go for the off-menu clay-pot dishes, the quail, the deep-fried chicken and the black-pepper beef. 397-2290, 1416 Powell St., above Broadway, North Beach. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. Mod$ M, V.

Ton Kiang #2
The cooking here is "hakka," of the nomadic people who settled outside of Hong Kong and Macao. Try the salt-baked chicken or the stuffed geoduck clam. A plus is excellent dim sum. 387-8273, 5821 Geary Blvd., Outer Richmond. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. Inexp$-mod$ A, M V.

Golden Pagoda
Dishes of Chiu chow (aka Chao Chow), a small area not far from Canton. Try the oyster omelet or the pan-fried pomfret. 397-1411, 960 Grant Ave., above Washington, Chinatown. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. V, M.

J & J
A special here is the five-spice squab, but try the clams in black bean sauce as well. Dim sum is served from carts. 981-7308, 615 Jackson above Kearny, Chinatown. Breakfast, lunch, dinner Tu-Su. Beer and wine. A, C, D, Di, J, M V.

Harbor Village
One of a small chain out of Hong Kong, I've enjoyed their prawns with glass noodles in clay pot, braised crab with ginger and scallions, and sizzling chicken in black bean sauce. Dim sum is served from carts 7 days. 781-8833, 4 Embarcadero Center. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Cocktails. Mod$-exp$ A, D, JCB, M, V.

Hong Kong Flower Lounge
Another Hong Kong-based restaurant. Favorites are sun-dried scallop bisque, and butterflied catfish, deep fried and dressed with oil and soy. 668-8998, 5322 Geary Blvd., above 17th, Outer Richmond. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Cocktails. Mod$-exp$ A, M, V.

Talk to them about the upstairs dining room and try to organize a group. Expect a choice of dishes with eyes, fins, spines, tentacles and feelers. My particular favorites here are dishes like stir-fried sea whelk/geoduck clam with chives, braised two squabs in clay pot and braised live crab with spicy salt. 982-3811, 631B Kearny at Commercial, Chinatown. Lunch, dinner 7 days. A, M, V. Park free after 5pm. Reservations only for 8 or more.

Yuet Lee
Your fish will probably still be breathing as it's carried to the pan. This is a top spot for late dining. Bring your own wine. I love the salt and pepper squid. 982-6020, Broadway at Stockton, Chinatown. Lunch, dinner, very late dining nightly except Tu. No cards. Beer.

King Tin
A Hong Kong-style barbecue house. The barbecued chicken and pork loin are good, as are the prawns in spicy salt. Vegetarian is available. 982-7855, 826 Washington at Waverly, Chinatown. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and late dining 7 days. Beer and wine. Cash only.


The southwest of China is characterized by a hot, subtropical climate, protected from typhoons and winter winds by three mountain ranges. Hot foods predominate and, when well-prepared and eaten slowly, present the diner with complex, lingering, unforgettable flavors. While the entire region makes use of chicken and pork, the Hunan area has more freshwater fish. Here, dumplings are made by rolling prepared fillings in flour, rather than by wrapping the filling in a prepared paste. Mushrooms are often found in desserts.

Brandy Ho's
A real neighborhood Hunan place. You will enjoy smoked ham with bamboo shoots, calamari with black bean sauce, and chicken curry with garlic and hot sauce. 788-7527, 217 Columbus at Pacific, Chinatown. Lunch, dinner, late dining 7 days. Beer and wine. Inexp$-mod$ A, D, Di, M, V.

Enjoy harvest pork, sautéed with onions, cabbage and hot bean sauce, dry sautéed string beans, cooked with black beans, red hot peppers, garlic and ginger, Diana's special meat pie filled with meat, cheese, vegetables and onions in a deep-fried flour cake. 956-7727, 924 Sansome, above Broadway, foot of Telegraph Hill. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Cocktails. Inexp$-mod$ A, D, M, V.

The food's not as fiery as some people like, but try the dumpling with Sichuan sauce, shredded beef in hot sauce, and spiced prawns in red garlic sauce. 665-6033, Irving St., above 24th, outer Sunset. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. Inexp$-mod$ V, M.

Dim Sum

To the above list I can recommend a few more miscellaneous dining experiences and regional variations--starting with dim sum. The name means, in approximate translation, "heart's delight," a style of finger food served in small portions to be enjoyed mostly at breakfast, lunch and afternoons. Don't try the duck or chicken feet without guidance.

Pearl City
A good selection of dim sum at lunch (try any of the dumplings or rolls), followed by an excellent sit-down dinner menu with items like prawns and scallops in garlic with sizzling platter, and baked crab with spicy salt and pepper. 398-8383, 641 Jackson above Kearny. Chinatown. Breakfast, lunch, dinner 7 days; Late dining F-Sa. Beer and wine. Inexp$-mod$ A, Di, J, M, V.

Yank Sing
Dim sum-R-Us, served from carts that prowl around the room. Point at what you like. A bit Westernized, but that's good if you need an introduction. 781-1111, 427 Battery St., above Clay, Financial district. Lunch 7 days. Late lunch Sa-Su. Cocktails. Inexp$-mod$ A, Di, N, V.

Noodle House

These places specialize in dishes based on noodles topped with meats, vegetables, seafood, whatever. A street-style food in Asia, the original walk-away meal, centuries before McDonald's. Here, we sit at tables and eat.

Sam Wo
I like the pork chow fun and the waiters' attitude (infamous from the time of the Beats). Everyone has to go to Sam Wo once in this life to share the San Francisco experience, to eat late or to save a bundle. 982-0596, 813 Washington St. above Grant (through the kitchen and upstairs), Chinatown. Lunch, dinner, very late dining M-Sa. No alcohol (but get beer across street). $Inexp. No cards.

Yuen's Garden
Noodles, noodles, noodles ... and you're expected to slurp. 391-1131, 1131 Grant, above Pacific, Chinatown. Lunch, dinner 7 days; very late dining M-Sa. No alcohol, bring your own. Cash only.

Roast House

As the name implies, a Chinese cook-house that specializes in roasted things, like beef, pork, bird and such. These are usually found as stalls along the streets in Chinese cities.

Yuen's Garden
Roast chicken, roast pork, and lotsa noodles. See above.


A well-publicized island off the east coast of China, to which the followers of the old regime fled as Mao's Communist government took over the rest of the country. More flexible, more international, much in the fashion of Hong Kong, they've had the time to evolve a reasonably distinctive cuisine. The last time I was in Tokyo, the best meal I had was in a Taiwanese sausage shack, but that's another story.

All-you-can-eat self-cooking buffet with marinated meat, mussels et al. 387-7888, 852 Clement St., at 10th, Inner Richmond. Lunch Sa-Su; dinner, late dining 7 days. Beer. Inexp$. V, M.


This is the furthest west province of China, or not, as the political wind blows. What Tibetan cooking definitely is, is remote mountain cuisine reflecting economy in ingredients and cooking.

Lhasa Moon
Pan-fried dumplings; curry-marinated chicken nuggets; a pancake stuffed with meats and vegetables; curry of lamb and potatoes; you get the picture. 674-9898, 2420 Lombard St., above Scott, Marina district. Lunch Tu-F; dinner Tu-Su; late dining F-Sa. Beer and limited but well-priced wine list. Inexp$ A, M, V.


Like many nations, China is a multicultural society and has a lot of influences that drive its cuisine. Vegetarian and vegan (no-dairy vegetarian) dishes are not uncommon. In San Francisco, Chinese places offer some of the best vegetarian meals available.

Red Crane
Sample delights: vegetarian duck (!) with cashew nuts, snow peas with mushrooms and water chestnuts, won ton soup with spinach. 751-7226, 1115 Clement St., abv 12th, Inner Richmond. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer and wine. Inexp$ V, M.

Specialties here are dim sum and dishes like soup with mushrooms, cloud-ears and bamboo pith; rice porridge with vegetarian ham, mushrooms, water chestnuts, carrots, snow peas and sea moss. 362-9888, 909 Grant Ave., above Washington, Chinatown. Lunch, dinner 7 days. No alcohol. M, V.

Lotus Garden
Now, believe it or not, there are certified Kosher Chinese restaurants, not many, but this has to be the tops. Try the pickled cabbage and preserved bean cake; eggplant sauteed with bean-curd in a black bean sauce; black mushroom with sliced gluten puff and more. 397-0130, 532 Grant Ave., above Pine, upstairs. Chinatown. Lunch Tu-F. dinner Tu-Su. Beer and one white wine. Inexp$ M, V.

Lucky Creation
Dim sum is available, and try the fat choi noodles with black mushrooms and bean curd rolls; spicy shrimp balls in hot sauce; braised eggplant with carrots in clay pot; and mixed vegetable deluxe with mushrooms, fungus, wheat puffs, broccoli, water chestnuts, carrots and gluten. 989-0818, 854 Washington St., above Waverly, Chinatown. Lunch, dinner Th-Tu. Beer and wine. Inexp$ Cash only.

Westernized Chinese

This is a whole new story, about restaurants that start off on an Asian springboard and pass through a hoop that makes them more acceptable to Western tastes. Some might call it "fusion cuisine," but they do good work.

Great decor and atmosphere, OK vegetarian pot stickers; broccoli and shrimp; red-cooked eggplant. 642-3470, 1007 Valencia St., at 21st, Mission district. Lunch, dinner Tu-Su; late dining F-Sa. Beer and wine. Inexp$ Cash only.

Tommy Toy
Party of Infinity: Evel Knievel would be hard-pressed to jump the length of the banquet table in Tommy Toy's Cuisine Chinoise.

Tommy Toy's
The atmosphere is better than the food or the service, but if you work the menu you can be pleased with the roast duck with plum wine sauce, the minced squab, the medallions of beef in garlic and wine, all topped off with the peach mousse in strawberry sauce. The fixed-price lunch is a bargain. 397-4888, 655 Montgomery St., above Clay, Financial district. Montgomery above Clay. Lunch M-Sa, dinner 7 days. Cocktails. Exp$ A, C, D, M, V.

Won Ton House
Throughout Asia you will find the original food-court concept: streets filled with small stalls, each offering a single dish or dishes based on one food. Get a noodle from here, a pork bun from there, fill up on a sausage from the sausage master over here. One of these specialties is the won ton.

Just Won Tons
A small place that might be playing heavy-metal rock at lunch and offering a varied menu of fist-sized won tons stuffed with fish, roast duck, barbecued pork, vegetarian duck and other delectable items. There are other menu items, but why bother? 681-2999, 1241 Vicente St., above 23rd. Lunch, dinner Tu-Su. No alcohol. Inexp$ Cash only.

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From the February 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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