Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Debating dim sum is a sport among food fanatics in San Francisco, but the game requires vigilance. The most skilled (and largely unseen) cooks in Chinese restaurants tend to hop from post to post, and the yielding, precision-pleated dumplings savored on one visit can be sloppy or gluey the next. The city's food writers regularly generate smart lists to spur explorations in outlying neighborhoods. Yet for locals and visitors craving a consistent experience in a central location, I stand by Yank Sing, San Francisco's most famous dim sum destination.
Vera Chan-Waller and her husband, Nathan Waller, run the two-location business started by Vera's grandparents in 1958 in Chinatown (which these days is largely a wasteland for notable dim sum). Her father, Henry, opened Yank Sing's primary location in the Rincon Center, near the Embarcadero in the Financial District, in 2001. Dim sum restaurants are often roomy—servers need space to jockey the metal carts stacked with steamer baskets and the trolleys lined with plates—but the size of this place boggles. The restaurant proper sits 250, and on weekends it fills the center's soaring lobby, decorated with WPA-era murals depicting moments in Northern California's history (some of them violent), with tables to feed another 250. It can feel like brunching in a stadium. The roving trundles are plentiful, though, and the service is swift.
Bay Area chowhounds often grouse about two things regarding Yank Sing: Its price and its Americanized approach. Both criticisms have some merit. Baskets of dumplings start at $5.55, about a dollar higher than average, based on my dim sum expeditions. One way to keep down the cost is to avoid the nontraditional dishes. Honey baked sea bass for $19.95? Curried cream cheese shrimp wanton for $10.50? Pass and pass. Sticking largely to the classics, my group got out for around $33 a head.
At dim sum I want to gorge on translucent, pert, just-steamed dumplings, and on that score Yank Sing delivers beautifully. The cart pulls up, we peer at the options as the server opens steamer lids for inspections, and in a flurry we have a feast on the table. I always start with har gau, the coral hue of chopped shrimp and bamboo shoots blushing through the tight, filmy wrappers. My chopsticks jut out next for siu mai, the crimped, open-faced dumplings nestling bits of shrimp and pork. Other worthy fillings include scallop, snow pea tendrils, and mushrooms scented with ginger, and a gauzy shrimp variation revved with cilantro and chives. Some people use soy sauce as a dim sum condiment, others like hot mustard; I prefer the kick of crimson chile oil.
Scallop siu mai; Sesame balls
The menu item listed as "Shanghai Kurobuta Pork Dumplings" turn out to be the restaurant's version of xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, which release a substantial spray of broth upon first bite. (Speaking of xiao long bao, I'm surprised an outpost of Din Tai Fung hasn't yet infiltrated San Francisco.)
Beyond dumplings? Try the baked cha siu bao (smooth pucks filled with sweet-and-sour pork barbecue) over their steamed counterparts. The one modernized dish I enjoy is a generous cabbage salad scattered with honey-glazed walnuts, which lends crunch to the meal—as do Chinese greens slicked with oyster sauce. Sure, grab some spring rolls if they beckon. Just not the ones gilded with sea bass. For dessert the sesame balls come straight from the fryer; the staff cuts them open to reveal their creamy-sweet interior. A couple bites of egg custard tart cut the last few sips of strong tea. Yank Sing can stuff its customers silly in less than half an hour. Which is probably why this place is as crammed with office workers during the weekdays as it is with tourists and casually dressed locals on the weekend.