“Sek um sek gong jong mun ah?”
San Francisco has the highest per capita concentration of Chinese Americans of any major city in the United States, and has one of the largest populations of Chinese people outside of Asia. Cantonese is spoken on buses and trains and at doctor’s offices, and written on informational signs in public places. Why Cantonese isn’t mandatory in San Francisco schools is beyond me, considering that Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrants from southern China have lived in the Bay Area since the 1850s. In the oldest Chinatown in North America, the average San Franciscan will learn basic phrases like da bao and mai dan to get by in restaurants; for those who use Cantonese without thinking about it, here is your guide to San Francisco, whether you can speak English or if you are with Grandma’s best girlfriend visiting from Hong Kong who doesn’t have to worry about switching tongues.
Kowloon Tong Dessert Café (393 7th Ave)
Open from teatime at 5 p.m. until 1 a.m., this Hong Kong–style café serves typical cha chan tang fare like popcorn chicken and curried fish balls. What’s comforting here includes grass-jelly fruit bowls, waffle ice cream sandwiches, and not-too-sweet hot and cold desserts, all under $12.
Hong Kong Lounge (5322 Geary St)
Yum cha on a Sunday morning means waking up early to battle taitais for a ticket in line at this joint where servers hand you a laminated menu to tick your order. You’d be wrong not to order multiple servings of their sweet, flaky-crusted, barbecued char siu bao. If you’re feeling extra, you can order off-menu for old Hong Kong specialties. I usually ask for plain cheung fun street-style, without the too-sweet sesame sauce.
Wonderful Dessert and Café (2035 Irving St)
Bubble tea served in a bucket is an artery-clogging trend in the Bay Area, but large sizes always mean compromised quality. Get normal-serving-sized diabetes-in-a-plastic-cup or fruit smoothies for under $5 and load up on preserved plums, rock candy, sour gummy cola bottles, and sugar-drenched power belts that are sold by the pound.
Hai Ky Mi Gia (707 Ellis St)
Al dente egg noodles! Savory jook! Soup or dried noodles! Cash only! This Tenderloin Vietnamese/Teochew gem offers quick service, steaming soy milk, and lots of chili oil to douse your one-bowl meals. Everything on the menu can be combined and customized: Want fish balls in your satay ow lam? Ask politely! Feeling both egg and rice noodles? Solicit with grace! Can’t choose between broth and oil? Get them both on the side.
Beyond Tourist Spots
Tin How Temple (125 Waverly Pl)
The entrance is tucked next to Blossom Bakery, and the temple is a four-story walk-up atop a music school. Need a fortune told or a pick-me-up blessing? They accept donations starting from $1 and have an English oracle on-site to translate your kau cim sticks. Fun fact: my lineage is tied to the original Chiuchow immigrants who in 1852 brought over Mazu, the sea goddess who protects travelers on perilous waters, for protection as they crossed the ocean for a new life.
Castro Nail Salon (431 Castro St)
Squeezed in between the Castro Theatre and the US Bank ATM on Castro Street, this four-chair nail salon does it all: mani-pedis, shellac, and waxes. Susan and her team can get you in and out in an hour; just make sure to politely ask for two people to work on you, mm-goi. On Monday through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., mani-pedis are $35. Don’t forget to thank Susan and the rest of the ladies with a doh je sai–sized tip.
Lee Hong Hair Styling (3107 16th St)
Don’t let the old-school magazine cutouts that line the mirror fool you. Miss Lily knows exactly what to snip—buzz cuts, sideburns, fades (even for those with short, thin hair)—for a total of $21. No lines, no fancy, pampering shampoo wash, and you’re in and out in 15 minutes, on your way back to the 16th Street Mission BART station.