After 42 years as one of San Francisco’s most popular Chinese restaurants, Richmond District dim sum institution Ton Kiang will shut its doors permanently at the end of the month. The last orders of plump har gow, tender salt-baked chicken, and delicate egg custard rice cakes will go out on August 31, its owners say.
The Wong family, which has run Ton Kiang for its entire four-decade run, posted a farewell letter outside the two-story restaurant at 5821 Geary Boulevard. “Over the years, you shared your weddings and anniversaries with us, celebrated and had us host you life passages and family gatherings,” the letter reads. “We will miss you all and wish the best for you and your family. Zai jian!”
The COVID-19 crisis wasn’t cited as the specific cause of the closure. But like so many of the city’s big dim sum houses, Ton Kiang has had to shift its business model quite drastically during the shelter in place, absent the large crowds that normally line up for dim sum each weekend. Still, when reached by phone, a manager at the restaurant told Eater SF that takeout and delivery business has been good — their neighbors in the area around Geary Boulevard have been really supportive, she said. The larger factors are the difficulties in hiring and retaining staff at this time and, most notably, the fact that Ton Kiang’s 63-year-old second-generation owner, Richard Wong, is ready to retire.
“It takes a lot of energy to run a good restaurant. I don’t think I have that much energy left,” Wong tells Eater SF, noting that he’s been working for the family business — going all the way back to the original Ton Kiang, which his parents opened in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1978 — since he was in his twenties. The coronavirus crisis simply sped up the exit plan that he already had in place.
For the past couple of decades, Ton Kiang has been known mostly for its dim sum, but it’s also one of just a handful of Hakka restaurants in the city, serving the rustic, soulful dishes of China’s migratory Hakka people — salt-baked chicken and steamed pork belly with dried mustard greens. In fact, the restaurant is named after the Ton Kiang, or “East River,” in China’s Guangdong province, near which many of the Hakka eventually settled.
In fact, when Chin Boon Wong and Ching Su Wong first opened Ton Kiang at its original Chinatown location at 683 Broadway, in the late ‘70s, the restaurant didn’t serve dim sum at all — it was purely a Hakka comfort food spot. A 1982 New York Times article profiling San Francisco’s regional Chinese culinary scene called it “the first Hakka restaurant in San Francisco” and “one of the city’s current stars,” noting the kitchen’s use of Chinese wines in its cooking in particular.
In the early ‘80s, the restaurant opened two new branches on Geary Boulevard in the Richmond District — one near Spruce Street and one next door to its current location near 22nd Avenue. Both of those eventually closed, as did the original Chinatown shop, but the current two-story Ton Kiang has been going strong since it opened 1992. That was when the restaurant reinvented itself as a dim sum shop, Wong explains — though the Hakka dishes continued to feature prominently on the dinner menu. The restaurant has been a neighborhood staple, and a steady presence on various “Best Dim Sum in San Francisco” lists, ever since.
For longtime fans of the restaurant, there remains a small sliver of hope: Wong says it isn’t entirely inconceivable that he might reopen Ton Kiang at some point in the future. According to Wong, the building itself is owned by the Wong family, as is the “Ton Kiang” name — if anyone else opens a restaurant in the space, it’ll be called something else.
But Wong says it’s possible that a year or two years from now, Ton Kiang could rise again: “I need a break; I’ll see if I get too bored.”