There's something for everyone in Chinatown, whether you want to hit a Hong Kong-style cafe for a bowl of macaroni soup with Spam and fried egg for less than $5, or smoke a cigarette with old Chinese men.
First and most importantly, though, if you really want to do Chinatown right, take an entire day to do it -- even if it requires you to take a nap on a bench at Portsmouth Square (which I've done before, post-dim sum).
Second-most-importantly, once you've decided to do it, make sure you stop at these 11 places:
Stop 1: Garden Bakery
765 Jackson St
Here, you'll see older Chinese folks with coffee and a newspaper, usually passionately discussing the news. I asked one of the regulars why he comes here. "It's economical," he said, super excitedly. "At Starbucks, a coffee is $2.50. Here I can get a pastry and coffee for $1.80... with free refills." Plus, "lots of Chinese gossip!" -- which is priceless. I go to feel like I'm part of the gang -- but also for the pastries: the softest spongecake, pineapple bun, and pork bun. All three, plus a coffee, is only $5. FIVE. DOLLARS.
Stop 2: Dol Ho
808 Pacific Ave
My dim sum spot of choice is Dol Ho, because it's cheap and perfect for people-watching. You'll find the OGs camped out here in the morning with their Chinese newspaper, jasmine tea, and chicken rice. Favorite dishes are their shrimp & chive dumplings (which you can order from their take-out window, and they'll deliver in a plastic bag), but I recommend taking a seat -- don't be afraid to ask people to share a table with you when it's crowded.
Stop 3: Juicy Fruit
768 Jackson St
Forget paying $10 for green juice; you can get your green fix here for $3. Ask the owner what's in their version, and she'll point to a photo light box picturing six ingredients: apple, cucumber, celery, bell pepper, and bitter melon. It tastes mostly like cucumber with a hint of spice, but more importantly, it'll help clear out whatever heavy foods you've been snacking on in Chinatown (especially if you follow this guide). It's juice, without the hefty price and the obnoxious lifestyle marketing that may or may not come from a website that rhymes with "poop".
Stop 4: Ming Lee Trading Inc
759 Jackson St
This place could definitely be described as the Berkeley Bowl of Asian snacks. Here, you'll find a robust selection (two whole floors!) of Pockys, ramen, crackers, gummies, jellies, and cookies. It's where all of your Asian snack dreams are finally going to come true.
Stop 5: R&G Lounge
631 Kearny St
If you're going to take your parents to any Chinese restaurant, take them to R&G. 1) This is where all the Chinese families go, and 2) they can pay (because it's a bit pricier). The fried salt and pepper crab is a must, and the baked black cod is so tender, it jiggles like Jell-O when they bring it out to you... which I promise is a good thing.
Stop 6: Empress of China
838 Grant Ave
This place boasts the best views (and pictures of celebrities from the 1970s, including Mr. Chuck Norris). Up on the sixth floor, their floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of Telegraph and Russian Hill. Get a martini and get ready to impress whoever you're with. Also: their happy hour from 3-6pm daily offers half-off drinks and bar snacks. Go then.
Stop 7: Capital Restaurant
839 Clay St
Grab a round table with a group of friends, and order away. They're famous for their fried chicken wings -- lightly battered, extra crispy, and best doused in their chili sauce.
Stop 8: Li Po Lounge
916 Grant Ave
How many Mai Tais are too many Mai Tais? It's a question I always ask myself at Li Po Lounge, and the answer is always the same: one. I also order a shot of Chinese whiskey with a gingerback to amuse the bartender... and myself. [Editor's Note Bonus: Li Po is also across the street from one of the 33 best dive bars in the country!]
Stop 9: Souffles Cafe
1401 Powell St
Souffles (fluffy cakes that taste like a cross between pudding and cake) are made to-order here, a process that takes 30 minutes. The purple yam is my favorite, with a side of condensed milk to pour on top. Order the durian soufflé, and expect the place to stink up in the best way possible.
Stop 10: V.I.P Coffee & Cakes Shop
671 Broadway St
This typical, Hong Kong-style cafe takes Western cuisine and flips it on its head (take that, Western cuisine!). On the menu, you can find baked cheese spaghetti with fried fish and shrimp, plus a club sandwich in the form of a soup (chowder, lettuce, bacon, and sliced ham), fried quail, and boba. The best time to come here is when you're feeling a little buzzed and want to eat trashy on the cheap.
Stop 11: Golden Gate Bakery
1029 Grant Ave
The go-to spot for dan tat, or egg tarts. Bring these guys to an Asian family's gathering, and get mad brownie (or dan tat) points.
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1. Garden Bakery765 Jackson St, San Francisco
2. Dol Ho808 Pacific Ave, San Francisco
3. Soufflés Cafe1401 Powell St, San Francisco
4. V.I.P. Coffee & Cake Shop671 Broadway, San Francisco
5. Golden Gate Bakery, Inc.1029 Grant Ave, San Francisco
6. Juicy Fruit768 Jackson St, San Francisco
7. Ming Lee Trading Inc.759 Jackson St, San Francisco
8. R&G Lounge631 Kearny St, San Francisco
9. Empress of China838 Grant Ave, San Francisco
10. Capital Restaurant839 Clay St, San Francisco
11. Li Po Cocktail Lounge916 Grant Ave, San Francisco
This cheap Chinatown bakery is a perfect spot to start your morning, with an array of pastries (spongecake, pineapple bun, pork bun, etc.), good coffee, and a relaxing atmosphere.
This is one of the best dim sum spots in Chinatown, with fantastic dishes like their shrimp & chive dumplings (which you can order from their take-out window and they'll deliver in a plastic bag).
Souffles makes made-to-order souffles (duh!), but know that it takes about 30 minutes. Order the durian soufflé and expect the place to stink up in the best way possible.
This typical Hong Kong-style cafe has a menu filled with baked cheese spaghetti with fried fish and shrimp, a club sandwich (in the form of a soup of course), fried quail, and boba. The best part, it's cheap!
The go-to spot for egg tarts. Bring these guys to an Asian family's gathering and get mad brownie points.
Forget paying $10 for green juice. You can get your green fix at this Chinatown juicery for $3, in the form of a concoction made with apple, cucumber, celery, bell pepper, and bitter melon, which tastes mostly like cucumber with a hint of spice. And if green isn't your ideal juice, they've got plenty of other tasty options on the menu.
This place could definitely be described as the Berkeley Bowl of Asian snacks. Here you'll find a robust selection (two whole floors!) of Pocky's, ramen, crackers, gummies, jellies, and cookies. It's where all of your Asian snack dreams are finally going to come true.
R &G is one of the nicer spots in Chinatown, with authentic seafood and unlimited amounts of delicious apps and unique drinks.
Head on up to the 6th floor and enter the Empress of China -- you'll be treated to cocktails, fantastic views of Telegraph and Russian Hill, and half-off drinks and bar snacks if you go during their daily 3-6pm happy hour.
The only thing you really need to know about this place is that they've got some of the best fried chicken wings in town -- lightly battered, extra crispy, and best doused in their chili sauce.