As the birthplace of the oldest Chinatown in the United States, San Francisco and its surrounding areas have many family-owned restaurants featuring dishes that represent the diversity of China’s regional cuisine. Without leaving the Bay Area, diners can slurp up unctuous hand-cut noodles and soup dumplings or try Sichuan peppercorn-filled dishes that will leave the mouth tingling and numb.
Thanks to the first Chinese immigrants, who arrived mostly from Toisan, Zhongshan, and other regions of Southern China in the mid-19th century during the height of the Gold Rush, the Bay Area has scores of Cantonese restaurants. Then, starting in the 1960s, immigrants from different parts of the country began arriving in larger numbers, bringing their foods with them.
Chinese regional cuisine can be roughly categorized into eight styles: Sichuan, Canton, Hunan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Shandong, and Anhui. While these categories represent some of the best-known dishes and styles of Chinese cooking, there are, of course, many areas of the country that fall outside those categories, including much of Northwest China. As Al Cheng, a Bay Area food lover and co-founder of Friends of Roots, says: “You can’t really categorize 5,000 years of history and food.”
This guide, put together by Cheng with some historical and background help from Florence Lin’s Chinese Regional Cookbook, aims to help diners navigate menus and explore dishes that may not be familiar. Some tips: Go with a group and share dishes, and ask waitstaff if the menu includes any regional specialties — or check the menu for a list of regional dishes.
The eight main regional cuisines and where to try them
Chuan Tsai, or Sichuan, cuisine includes famous dishes such as freshwater fish in spicy and hot soup, green beans with minced meat, and twice-cooked spicy pork. There are different types of hot and spicy: “mala,” or mouth-numbing, using peppercorns, or dried hot red chiles that leave a mild burning sensation. As one of the more popular styles of Chinese cooking, many Bay Area restaurants serve Sichuan dishes. Visit Chong Qing Xiao Mian for spicy Sichuan noodle soup or Huangcheng Noodle in Oakland for Chongqing noodles.
Head to Newark’s Customize Malatang or Tang Bar at Stonestown Galleria for malatang, a street-style noodle dish that’s similar to hot pot. Both places have customizable malatang, which means you choose your ingredients, which are then weighed by the pound. Finally you select proteins, fresh greens, and broth — or choose “dry noodle” style, akin to a stir-fry. The dish costs roughly $20 per serving, depending on the weight, or you can pay a flat rate of about $22 per bowl if you order to go. Tang Bar also serves Sichuan dishes such as pig ear in spicy Sichuan chile oil.
Known as Yue Tsai, Cantonese food often features fresh seafood and is one of the most popular cuisines of China. Dim sum alone is an extensive category with many great Bay Area options. Try Koi Palace in Daly City or Peony Seafood Restaurant in Oakland Chinatown for a great classic experience. For more modern dim sum dishes, visit Palette Tea House and Dragon Beaux, both in San Francisco. Ming’s Tasty in Oakland is a good casual dine-in or to-go joint, where you can get three steamed barbecue pork buns for $3.95.
For other Cantonese fare, R&G Lounge in San Francisco’s Chinatown is known for its salt-and-pepper crab and baked cod. Riverside Seafood Restaurant has traditional braised squab, a dish from Zhongshan, for $14.50. Visit Harborview in San Francisco is known for roasted pig, but call ahead to check availability. One of the best places to get roasted duck is at Oakland Chinatown staple Gum Kuo, where you can pick up a bird by the pound or sit down and enjoy an extensive menu of steamed rice noodle rolls with different fillings and a savory-and-sweet soy-based sauce.
Toisanese food includes clay pots; try one at Far East Café, which has been open for more than 100 years in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The large restaurant can be a formal banquet experience or casual dining for a drop-in visitor — all at affordable prices. A beef clay pot, for example, is $18.50. The restaurant also features some hard-to-find American Chinese dishes, such as “E Fu wonton” soup and egg foo young.
Fujian, also located in Southern China, has its own specialty cuisine and dishes, known as Min cuisine. One of the region’s most famous dishes is Fuzhou fish ball, a fish paste stuffed with pork and often eaten in soups or hot pot. Tasty Pot, a chain of hot pot restaurants, serves Fuzhou fish balls.
Buddha Jumps Over the Wall is a seafood soup that includes abalone, sea cucumber, and traditionally shark fin, though it’s outlawed in California. You can find the dish, often eaten during the Lunar New Year, at Koi Palace for $43 a bowl. Capital Restaurant serves a Fujian-style egg tofu dish that pairs well with rice for $16.95. Hakka and Chao Zhou-style cuisines also come from China’s southern region. Try Hakka-style stuffed chicken at Hakka Restaurant in San Francisco, though you’ll have to order in advance. For Chao Zhou porridge and dishes, visit Porridge and Things in Millbrae, where the menu includes an abalone and chicken porridge. Other Southern dishes include mei tsai kou rou, or tender pork belly with pickled mustard greens, served by Great China Restaurant in Berkeley.
Hunanese food is well-known in part for its spicy, mouth-numbing qualities — think big chile peppers and peppercorn dishes with aromatics like shallots and garlic. Signature dishes include smoked pork belly and steamed fish head with chopped chile peppers. One of the best places to try it is Wojia Hunan in Albany, a sit-down restaurant with dishes like “toothpick” cumin lamb, classic “Chairman Mao’s braised pork” (Chairman Mao grew up in Hunan), and steamed fish head. Head to Millbrae’s Wonderful for an array of Hunan and Sichuan dishes, including lotus root with smoked pork belly in an iron pot or Hunan cold noodles.
Shandong (and other Northern regions)
What’s not to love about dumplings and hand-pulled or knife-cut noodles? At Oakland Chinatown’s casual Shan Dong, try the handmade noodles with sesame paste or house special pancakes stuffed with leeks. In the Sunset District of San Francisco, you’ll find many restaurants specializing in dumplings. Yuanbao Jiaozi keeps the menu concise, and you can watch workers in the back deftly wrapping dumplings. Try the shitake and sole dumpling or pork-and-three-delicacies dumplings.
Peking duck is a signature Northern dish. Although Hong Kong East Ocean Seafood Restaurant in Emeryville is a dim sum spot, they make a great Peking duck with steamed lotus buns.
Jiangsu, or Su Tsai, cuisine includes that of Shanghai and Suzhou. Some believe this region is the origin of sweet-and-sour and hong shao, or red cooking, done by slow braising in soy sauce until the dish is caramelized. One popular Jiangsu dish is lion’s head meatballs, which can be found in San Francisco restaurants such as Rong’s, a Shanghainese restaurant that also serves red-cooked braised pork belly. Mamahuhu’s sweet-and-sour chicken with rice and the sweet-and-sour fish at Spices 3 in downtown Oakland also represent the classic flavor profile rooted in this region’s cuisine.
Zhe cuisine includes Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Ningbo, and Wenzhou styles of cooking. One of the region’s most famous dishes is dong po rou, or pork belly. Try this dish at Chili House in San Francisco, along with a dong po pork shoulder, or at Noodles Fresh in Berkeley and El Cerrito, which serve dishes from many different regions.
Tofu dishes are a specialty of the Anhui region. One of the most famous is a “furry” beancurd, or fried soft tofu with a layer of mold. Another is an egg dumpling with wrapper made from a thin omelet. Unfortunately, the Bay Area doesn’t currently have a restaurant specializing in Anhui cuisine.
Additional regional cuisines and where to try them
Framing Chinese food around eight cuisines overlooks much of the Northwest, which includes an abundance of halal food and dishes that feature lamb and cumin. For flavorful noodles and soups, visit Northwest China Cuisine in Fremont, which specializes in Ningxia and other Western Chinese food. Try the lianpi, or cold noodles, which originate from Shaanxi Province, and tomato and egg with fresh noodles. Darda Seafood in Milpitas also predominantly serves Northwestern Chinese food and is halal, featuring favorites such as da bing, a huge slab of thick sesame bread. Old Mandarin Islamic in San Francisco is the go-to for many seeking Chinese halal food, and Terra Cotta Warrior, also in the city, features several biang biang, or flat noodles, and a cumin lamb dish. For spicy knife-cut noodles and house-made chile oil, visit Huangcheng Noodles in Old Oakland.
For other Northern-style regional cuisines, visit Hubei Restaurant in Millbrae, which serves food from Wuhan, including lotus root and spareribs soup and hanyang pearl rice meatballs covered in sticky rice.
For Taiwanese food, visit Red Hot Wok, a divey restaurant and bar in Cupertino, for some three-cup chicken, or san bei ji. Also in Cupertino, 02 Valley offers massive Taiwanese-style bentos featuring ingredients such as pork belly out of a small shop in a strip mall. Good to Eat Dumplings in Emeryville serves modern Taiwanese small plates like night market-style grilled squid and lu rou fan, or minced pork over rice.
Though Mongolia is not part of China, the country’s proxominty and deep cultural ties to China mean the two cuisines have heavily influenced each other. The nearly ubiquitous hot pot originated in Mongolia and was traditionally made with mutton. In the Bay Area, there are many hot pot restaurants serving a variety of styles. Try DNM Hot Pot in San Francisco, which serves classic Inner Mongolia hot pot and other dishes. Broth bases start around $10 and a plate of proteins or vegetables starts around $5. They also serve barbecue lamb ribs.
The Lanzhou region is known for hand-pulled noodles, which you can try at Ox 9 Lanzhou Handpulled Noodles in San Mateo, Cupertino, or Milpitas. A brothy bowl with slices of beef and QQ chewy noodles costs $19.99.
For outstanding Tibetan food, visit Nomad Tibetan in Berkeley. The restaurant serves an impressive lamb shank dish in a flavorful sauce and meat or vegetarian momos.
Guilin, located in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region just outside of Sichuan, is known for its rice noodles. Classic Guilin Rice Noodles in Oakland, San Mateo, or Milpitas is one of the only places specializing in Guilin cuisine. Try the beef and tripe noodles, which come with a broth on the side that should be poured over the rice noodles.
Yunnan province in China is known for rice noodle soups, which you can try at Yunnan Style Rice Noodle in El Cerrito. The restaurant serves 10 varieties, some spicy and others not, starting at $12.99 for the original, which comes with more than a dozen small side dishes to add in.