For celebrity chef George Chen, sampling Chinese cuisine while traveling the world is second nature. After eating in countless Chinese restaurants across the globe, he still thinks his adopted city has some of the best food anywhere.
“Chinese food here in San Francisco has to be one of the leaders,” he said.
An immigrant from Taiwan, Chen operates the iconic, multifloor China Live in Chinatown, along with the elegant restaurant Eight Tables above it. Even as he works to open a second location in Paris, Chen senses a major opportunity developing right here.
Tens of thousands of travelers from Asia, potentially including top world leaders like China’s President Xi Jinping, will come to San Francisco this November to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade summit, which will bring a major boost to local Asian restaurants.
“That week could be very, very important for us,” Chen said. “This is about showing the world that San Francisco has a vibrant, diverse ethnic community.”
From Chinatown to Japantown, from Tenderloin’s Little Saigon to the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District, more than one-third of San Francisco’s population is Asian and finding good Asian food is never a problem.
The bigger question, then, might be “How much you can eat?”
According to a Pew research report, the Bay Area has the highest concentration of Asian restaurants in the U.S. outside of Hawaii. In fact, more than one-quarter of all restaurants in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda and San Mateo counties serve Asian food.
Pad thai and comforting beef pho can be found all over the Bay Area, but in San Francisco, you can find a bowl of Xi'an style noodles with spicy lamb and cumin at Terra Cotta Warrior or the Korean ox bone soup known as sul lung tang at Um.ma., both in the Sunset District. Hainanese chicken rice, the beloved national dish of Singapore, is also easy to find.
For any APEC visitors who might be feeling fancy, the medium-rare wagyu beef at PABU Izakaya could become a go-to dish, while reservations at Michelin-starred Benu and Mister Jiu’s will likely book up fast.
Asian food in America is occasionally controversial, as the flavors may have been altered to accommodate Western tastes.
“A lot of the Chinese that used to come here said the Chinese food was terrible,” Chen said. “Because it's Americanized.”
Waves of Chinese travelers, students and deep-pocketed investors have come to San Francisco, and regional Chinese dishes have popped up in their wake. To Chen, this is a good excuse to experiment and get creative.
“Chinese food is interpretive. We're not trying to re-create food from a particular restaurant in Sichuan or Beijing,” he said. “We're doing that with our local take on it.”
The Bay Area’s unique Mediterranean climate also means a wealth of locally grown produce, so Chen will often try new things very often and put them on his menu, such as the upcoming heirloom tomato "roti" bread salad with "Yunnan" ham crisps and the “Neptune” seafood hot & sour soup.
Yuki Sakakibara, a Japanese American who works for the popular Marufuku Ramen chain, said Bay Area eaters understand and appreciate the real thing.
“I’ve been in San Francisco for almost nine years,” he said. “Year by year, we are able to find more authentic Asian food.”
People can learn about Asia’s numerous food scenes through social media apps, he added, even if they’ve never been there.
APEC is still three months away, but Hanson Li, a well-known restaurateur, is already working hard.
Li, a Chinese American from Hong Kong, sits on the board of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Restaurant Association and OpenTable, the popular restaurant reservation app company. He believes Asian restaurants in San Francisco should proactively embrace Asian visitors to the city.
For example, Li anticipates a healthy demand for private rooms, restaurant buyouts and large tables, as diplomats and dignitaries from Asia may prefer a private space to a communal area at the general dining hall. He suggested that restaurants look into menus for groups of eight to 12 people.
Buyouts, it should be noted, do not come cheap—even for the most well-heeled travelers. At the high end, the Michelin-starred Saison charges $50,000 to $70,000 for a group of 20 to 30 people for one night.
“Creating something special will help us stand out for that week,” said Li. “It's very important for San Francisco. This could be a change in the narrative of the city.”
Chen confirmed that China Live has received inquiries about reservations for mid-November. He’s also touting his fine-dining concept, Eight Tables, which he says delivers guests a private and authentically Chinese experience.
“It’s like, ‘Come to my home for dinner,’ and that’s the appeal,“ Chen said. “Maybe Xi will stop by.”
Han Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org