San Francisco Chinatown: Taste of the City

Today is my 52nd birthday. Happy birthday to me! Because today is a Tuesday (and thus a workday and school day), we celebrated on Sunday with a culinary walking tour of San Francisco's Chinatown. It was awesome. 

Jonna and Suzzi joined us, which made it extra special. Our tour started at 10:30 am under the Dragon Gate

Our guide, Isabella, greeted us with warm green onion buns from New Hollywood Bakery. Oh my gosh - soooo delicious. This is actually half of a bun. It's a good thing she split them for us, since there was a LOT more food to come!   

As we strolled through Chinatown, Isabella taught us all about the history of this fascinating place. Established in 1848 during the Gold Rush, San Francisco was home to the first Chinatown in North America and is one of the largest outside of Asia. 

The neighborhood's 24 square blocks are home to over 15,000 Chinese, most of whom are elderly and live in 100 sq. foot single room occupancy hotels. There are hundreds of shops, restaurants, and small businesses. 

We walked to St. Mary's Square, where we saw the Comfort Women Memorial and a sculpture of Sun Yat-Sen


Next stop: Old St. Mary's Cathedral. Because it was a Sunday, there was a service going on. It's conducted in both English and Mandarin. We spent a few minutes there, but didn't take pictures inside. 


There was exactly ONE person on the passing cable car. Apparently, a Sunday morning in March is a great time to be a tourist in San Francisco if you don't like crowds!

This instrument is called an erhu. This man has been playing at this site for decades. We enjoyed a unique rendition of 'Happy Birthday', among other songs. 

Next, we went to Jade Chocolates, where we sampled the Gold Mountain Salted Caramel. YUM. I didn't try it, but their Peanut Buddha and Mango Jam looked amazing. Everything in the display case did. 

I asked Isabella about this "Two Years Estranged from Andre" street sign. She'd never seen it before and had no idea. Google didn't help. If anyone knows about it, let me know in the comments please!


At Eastern Bakery, we tried warm pork buns and salted egg yolk mooncakes. 


The pork bun was split in half and the mooncake in fourths for those who didn't want to eat the whole thing. I'm glad I got such a small portion, because there was still so much more food ahead!


While we ate, we learned about Bruce Lee, depicted on this mural. 

Can you guess where we went next?

If you guessed Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, you're right!

Fortune cookies are a California invention (read about 15 other foods and drinks that, like me, were born in California) and these were some of the best I've ever had. It was fun watching them being made. I made fortune cookies at home (once) and they're not easy to do. 

You might have guessed the fortune cookies, but can you guess what these are? To give you a sense of scale, these shirts are true to size, but they're made of paper, not fabric. 

They're a form of joss paper, used as burnt offerings to venerate deceased family members on special occasions. This whole shop was filled with a huge variety of joss papers. If your relative liked a particular sport, or did a lot of gambling, or was linked to a certain animal, or favored a specific kind of clothing, you can find joss paper that reminds you of them. 


You never know what you'll find for sale in Chinatown. I didn't need a $4 tiny dim sum keychain, but they're SO cute!

It's weird being completely immersed in Chinese culture and then spotting the Transamerica Pyramid peeking over the rooftops. 

This was painted in 2020, in response to anti-Chinese racism at the start of the pandemic.

At this point, we had eaten an onion roll, chocolate truffle, pork bun, mooncake, and fortune cookie. So naturally, it was time for lunch! We ate at Grant Place Restaurant

That's our new Australian friend, Kim, talking with Jonna. Hi, Kim!

We dined on Peking duck...

... garlic eggplant...

... spicy (not really) green beans...

... and veggie spring rolls or shrimp dumplings. Everything was fantastic. 

I ate very conservatively; we still had multiple stops to make! 

After lunch, we visited Portsmouth Square. It's known as "Chinatown's living room." Remember all the residents who live in SRO hotels? This is where many of them hang out all day. Some were playing instruments, others were reading, a few were people-watching, and some were chatting. The vast majority were playing card games, using cardboard boxes as tables.  

In addition to serving as a de-facto living room, Portsmouth Square has an important claim to fame. It is
where the first public school in California opened. That was in 1848, two years before statehood. 

Next stop, Vital Tea Shop. Here, we learned the proper way to make tea: steep the tea leaves in hot (but not boiling) water for five seconds, then throw that away. Now use the leaves to brew the cup you will actually drink.   

We sampled eight teas, each completely different. We learned about white, green, red, black, and oolong teas and some of the medicinal values of them. I'm not a tea drinker, but trying them was very interesting. Steve and Jonna each found a flavor they liked enough to buy.

With bellies full of tea (and everything else we'd eaten over the past four hours), we went to our final destination: Hunan House

We dined on chicken potstickers and chow mein. Mine had beef, chicken, and pork; others had shrimp in their chow mein. I love that Isabella accommodated not only allergies and food restrictions, but preferences as well. Everyone was happy with their food. 

We thoroughly enjoyed our tour and highly recommend it, whether you are visiting San Francisco from far away or are local like we are. The price was very reasonable for the amount of food we received and the number of places we went. 

Locals Tastes of the City offers a variety of other culinary tours in San Francisco. I could definitely see doing their North Beach tour someday. Thanks to Steve, Trevor, Jonna, and Suzzi for helping me celebrate my birthday in such a fun way!


  1. Two years estranged from Andre is a reference to the plight of Family Estrangement and Children.


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