Little Saigon, the Tenderloin’s historically Vietnamese enclave, has struggled in recent years—and that’s putting aside last year’s crushing loss of the irreplaceable Turtle Tower. At the same time, few places in San Francisco have anywhere near the density of wonderful, affordable restaurants as this microhood centered on the intersection of Larkin and Ellis streets. Unsurprisingly, banh mi and pho are plentiful, but there’s also Turkish pizza, Korean fried chicken and high tea. Here are Little Saigon’s 11 best places to eat.
Since 1987, this has been the neighborhood’s preeminent noodle house and a great starting point for exploring Little Saigon. The braised duck leg in the famous wonton noodle soup ($14) is cooked for hours with orange peel and other herbs to achieve a specific depth of flavor and level of tenderness—and patrons get their choice of noodles, thick or thin. Teochew Chinese food, the regional cuisine that’s Hai Ky Mi Gia’s specialty, is otherwise rare in Cantonese-heavy San Francisco.
📍 707 Ellis St.
Best Banh Mi: The Saigon Sandwich
Ask nine out of 10 food-obsessed San Franciscans where they should eat in Little Saigon, and they will direct you to the ultimate hole-in-the-wall. For decades, this tiny banh mi shop has been an assembly line cranking out impossibly affordable $5 sandwiches stuffed with jalapeños, cilantro, pickled carrots and pâté, along with meat selections like roast pork, meatballs or the thit cha, or “special combination” that marries chicken and pork loaf.
📍 560 Larkin St.
Best Pho: Golden Lotus
As nondescript as nondescript gets, Golden Lotus is where a bowl of pho becomes exalted. Filled with chewy noodles and plenty of herbs, the large-size bowl of fragrant broth for $16 is almost without equal. Banh cuon thit nuong, or lemongrass pork wrapped in rice-flour noodles, is practically a mandatory appetizer, too. Note that it’s unrelated to the Downtown Oakland vegan restaurant of the same name.
📍 631 Larkin St.
A block outside Little Saigon proper is one of San Francisco’s O.G. Turkish restaurants, Geary Street’s 20-year-old A La Turca. The home for kebabs and doner platters—as well as gozleme, the stuffed and buttered flatbreads that eat like savory turnovers—it’s one of the rare places in the city that serves lahmacun, the paprika-heavy comfort food known as the “Turkish pizza.”
📍 869 Geary St.
This contemporary New American restaurant with a maximalist interior—a bouquet wall has an irresistible neon sign reading “Hello Gorgeous”—is part of the Farmhouse Kitchen group of restaurants. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, it’s all about presentation, from duck confit with garlic quinoa and poached pear to the three-tiered, sweet-and-savory “Alice in Wonderland” tea service for two ($110). While there’s a full cocktail list, don’t miss the adjacent “Secret Bar.”
📍 700 Polk St.
If there were an award for most consistently satiating restaurant, Brenda’s would probably sweep the category. Chef Brenda Buenviaje’s kitchen offers everything wonderful about New Orleans that isn’t tossed from a float: red beans and rice, chicken and andouille gumbo, and beignet flights (the savory crawfish one being a must-try). The vintage “Bon Voyage” ad painted on one wall should be interpreted as a goodbye to any semblance of moderation. At Brenda’s, you’re gonna eat.
📍 652 Polk St.
Hainan chicken and rice is practically everywhere in the Tenderloin, sure. But where else besides this Bay Area mini-chain serves a full platter of it with soy paste, cucumber, broth, a fried egg and liver for $19? Don’t slouch on the fried chicken Cluck Sandwich, either. It’s a shot across the bow at any fast-food fried-poultry giant.
📍 829 Geary St.
Undoubtedly, much of San Francisco’s best Korean fried chicken gets couriered out of this tiny storefront, which entered the pandemic as a tiny lunch spot run by an older couple and exited it as a delivery-only empire with a strong hip-hop vibe. This is the “real” KFC: boneless, skinless chicken in either a garlic-and-soy or sweet-and-sour sauce. Consisting of marinated beef and pickled vegetables tightly wrapped in rice and nori, the bulgogi kimbap is what a sushirrito only wishes it could be.
📍 932 Larkin St.
Of the three Lers Ros locations in San Francisco, this one may be the most beloved. Opened in 2008 by chef Tom Silargorn, it’s Little Saigon’s home for perfectly executed entrees like black bass with crispy basil leaves ($40) or stir-fried venison with coconut milk and housemade chili paste ($28). In other words, there’s no ordinary pad kee mao here. And if the name Lers Ros sounds, well, non-Thai to you, that’s because it’s derived from the Sanskrit term for “excellent taste.”
📍 730 Larkin St.
Hotel restaurants often leave diners feeling cynical. Prices run high, the vibes can feel cosmopolitan yet oddly placeless, and they largely cater to a captive audience of exhausted travelers. That is decidedly not the case at the effortlessly elegant Chambers Eat + Drink, inside the neon eden that is the Phoenix Hotel, which has been put on the market and may not be long for this world. So get a NY strip steak, chicory Caesar salad and cinnamon churros while you can—and peruse the city’s easiest-to-grasp cocktail menu, with its “Rum drink,” “Bourbon drink” and the like.
📍 601 Eddy St.
The Other Best Banh Mi: L & G Sandwich
Is it heresy to suggest that Saigon Sandwich has a genuine rival? Some neighborhood residents swore to The Standard that L & G, diagonally across from the mothership, may actually serve the superior banh mi. Kiloang Giang, a Cambodian refugee, has been cooking her pork and chicken stew and stuffing them into the bread for 10 years. Her barbecue pork is tender and sweet, and at $5 or $6 each, these sandwiches are certainly worth a taste test.
📍 602 Eddy St.