The first time I had dim sum in San Francisco, it was both Beer Week and Chinese New Year, an auspicious combination that led Fort Point Brewing Company to team up with the venerable Hong Kong Lounge II for a beer tasting and dim sum banquet. Plate after plate of food came steaming out of the kitchen and landed on the lazy susans already fully loaded with char siu bao and har gow and big heaps of garlicky greens. The joint was packed with curious San Franciscans, clearly more familiar with the city’s craft beer scene than its Chinese food, taking pulls off cans of kolsch and puzzling over how (and whether) to eat the whole chicken feet topped with black bean sauce.
I had made my reservation with great enthusiasm, eager to dive back into the deep and varied world of dim sum for the first time since I summered in Hong Kong in 2014. I grew up in a small Southern town that doesn’t even have decent versions of Americanized Chinese favorites like Hunan beef, much less takes on Cantonese fish balls and Shanghai’s famous xiao ling bao. It was good to be back in a city with a bustling Chinatown, even if San Francisco’s best dim sum parlors (and the Chinese community who give them life) have largely spilled out of the neighborhood into Richmond, Sunset, and Oakland.
That shift occurred after the 1989 earthquake, explains long-time San Francisco resident Steve Louie. He and his wife insist they aren’t foodies or experts, but they’ve also eaten a lot of dim sum over the past several decades, and watched San Francisco’s Chinese food scene evolve. It wasn’t the first time an earthquake made a big impact on the city’s dim sum scene. The Great Earthquake in 1906 leveled Chinatown and its restaurants, all of which later had to be rebuilt. There they stayed for the next 83 years until, as Louie put it, it became too inconvenient to get into the old neighborhood and new “centers of gravity” emerged.
Dim sum spread across the city, but the lines out the door were still mostly Chinese. To hear Louie’s recollections about how some of the great old restaurants on Geary Boulevard opened is to delve into the kind of gossip that crops up in close-knit communities and between families. What really set those grand dames apart, though, wasn’t the tea being spilled but the new food combinations imported from Hong Kong. One of the most popular and pioneering dim sum parlors was Ton Kiang, which is still open to this day.
“That has always been one of the most important influences on dim sum in San Francisco,” Louie said of Ton Kiang’s Hong Kong connections. Restaurants will “either bring the chef over or they’ll bring back ideas and start making them here.” That led to major advancements in the quality of San Francisco’s dim sum—a shift that, as you’ll see, reveals just how detail-oriented this style of cooking can be.
“What set Ton Kiang apart from more old-school dim sum was the skins were thinner, more translucent, and tastier,” Louie explained of the restaurant’s take on classic Shanghai soup dumplings. They became so popular in the Chinese community that word started to spread. “Their popularity took off and it started crossing over to the Caucasian community.”
Don’t think that the expanded popularity of dim sum, though, means you’re about to see enchilada bao or guien feng topped with Nashville hot chicken. Dim sum remains largely traditional in its ingredients, while the new school pushes the envelope by finding new techniques and combinations of old favorites. Take the idea to turn traditional Chinese pork barbecue, known as char siu, turned into dumplings that are then deep-fried. Or consider Dragon Beaux’s famous rainbow of soup dumplings, their skins dyed with squid ink, spinach, and beets.
Another variation especially associated with Dragon Beaux is fanciful names for traditional dishes. A trend of whimsical menu stylings have sometimes left long-time dim sum fans scratching their heads. Sometimes, Louie notes, it’s hard to puzzle out not just how one parlor’s take on a classic like siu mai differs from another, but what the same general dish is called on different menus. For newcomers to dim sum, however, it’s all part of the dizzying spell of the steaming bamboo baskets, whizzing metal carts, and the huge palate of flavors.
The other direction in which San Francisco’s dim sum scene has expanded its horizons is in price point and fanciness. There will always be hole-in-the-wall dumpling joints and noodle shops, but the earthquake of ‘89 wasn’t the only thing to shake up San Francisco. The city’s infamous tech boom and shift in business culture means there’s money to burn on elevated dim sum that leaves behind the Formica countertops of the ‘70s and ‘80s in favor of white tablecloths and flowers on the tables. No restaurant is more emblematic of that fine-dining approach than the one that paved the way—Yank Sing, the Michelin-starred SOMA flagship of San Franciscan Chinese food.
“Suddenly it wasn’t ‘oh we’re slumming and getting some really great food,’ it was ‘oh you can dress to go there and it’s fancy and it’s really good food,’” explained Louie. No longer was dim sum just novelty weeknight food or a comforting family brunch—now it was something you could take your business partner to. It wasn’t just diners taking note, either. As Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions note, looking at the way dim sum parlors utilize ingredients, present food, and even arrange their dining rooms has inspired chefs and restaurateurs in all culinary niches.
That’s also inspired San Francisco’s Chinese chefs to get even bigger and splashier, going for the kind of grandeur you usually only see in Hong Kong or major Chinese cities. There’s a new generation of exciting new dim sum concepts including China Live, the new Ghirardelli Square project by the team behind Koi Palace and Dragon Beaux, Mr. Jiu’s, and even Yank Sing’s second location.
This is one of San Francisco’s many fascinating contradictions: that a city so deeply associated with transforming the way America eats and kick starting the slow food movement has run parallel to and is now influenced by a fast-paced style of super-traditional dining that crossed the Pacific in the Gold Rush days. Since then, this cuisine has thrived not by blending in or branching out, but by continuing to remix and reimagine itself. It only took 150 years for the city’s dim sum to step into the spotlight.
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