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Food & Drink

Bend the knee to Four Kings, the hottest restaurant in San Francisco

The chefs behind the most coveted reservation in town know how to cook a great story.

Two chefs work in a kitchen with Asian decor, including a maneki-neko (lucky cat) and a neon sign.
Franky Ho, left, and Mike Long, right, prepping in their kitchen at Four Kings on Sunday, May 12, 2024. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

It is a fact: Food tastes better with a good story behind it. Chefs Franky Ho and Mike Long of Four Kings understand this on a cellular level. 

The “cooks” (as they call themselves on their website) behind the hottest-coolest reservation in town work with their partners Millie Boonkokua and Lucy Li; the foursome have taken their stripped-down sentimentality for Cantonese cuisine and infused it into the menu. Eating at the counter of their little Chinatown spot, diners are inevitably getting a taste of the cooks' respective upbringings. The nostalgia and the restaurant are inseparable.

Four Kings is less a restaurant than an immersion program. Have a seat at the long counter and you'll hear the clank of a spatula on a carbon steel wok as flames intermittently light up the room. Set in the middle of Chinatown, the narrow restaurant is named after the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop, an integral part of Hong Kong music history that hit its stride in the ’80s. Competing with the kitchen exhaust, which thrums like a jet engine, Cantopop croons on a loop. On the walls, the owners have tacked up pictures of Cantopop stars like the subjects of a teenage crush. While Ho and Long both worked for Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s just up the way, they keep things casual here (though perhaps not in price; their signature claw-intact fried squab is $45).

A busy café with wooden décor, patrons dining, posters on walls, and a barista at work.
The dining room at Four Kings is packed minutes after its opening on Sunday. Pictures of Cantopop stars adorn the walls. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
Multiple clay pots with soup and bacon, a hand ladling broth into one.
For a clay pot dish that they grew up with, Franky Ho pours chicken fat on sausage and bacon combined with rice and chicken stock. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Like most, I am a sucker for a good culinary yarn—a tale of inspiration. The snails with an XO butter tasted more romantic once I knew they started as a dish Ho had cooked for Boonkokua’s birthday picnic. The clay pot, made with Ho's family recipe for Chinese sausage and bacon, was more tempting when Li told me it wasn’t just a favorite childhood dish, but it had been given a gold star by an elder.

“An auntie told me the clay pot was one of the best she’d had,” Li said. “You’d normally never hear that from our parents’ generation—they’re very closed-lips with their compliments.”

I didn’t leave Four Kings necessarily dreaming about the food as much as vibing off the infectious energy—something that can only be felt at a restaurant that knows who it is and is having fun with it.

Tip: Walk-ins are welcome; I spotted space at the counter at 6 p.m. But if you need a set thing, Four Kings starts taking reservations at midnight three weeks in advance. Before setting your alarm to 11:59 p.m., read the following tales behind some of its key dishes, as told to us by Long. It’ll make everything taste that much better.

A plate of udon noodles topped with green onions and sesame seeds, with blurry bowls in the background.

A Chinese dish with a little Japanese twist, the hot mustard jellyfish salad is served cold. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Hot mustard jellyfish salad
“For a Chinese banquet, jellyfish is a very common first course, often served as a cold salad tossed with a sweet sesame dressing. Our take is inspired by Japanese takowasa, a cold octopus that’s made with with wasabi—we just used Chinese hot mustard for the punchy kick. The people who are adventurous enough to order it like it.”

Two chefs are working in a busy commercial kitchen with pots steaming on the stove.
Mike Long, left, and Franky Ho prep in their kitchen at Four Kings on Sunday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Whole fried Dover sole 
“The inspiration for this special was a classic brothy Chinese stew made with sour fermented mustard greens and slivers of fish. For our version, we salt a whole Dover sole, hang it to dry for about three days, then deep fry it to order. We also ferment our own mustard greens from a market in Chinatown called Produce Land, where the owner, Candy, hand-picks the ones with a good amount of leaf and stem.”

A bowl of noodles garnished with green onions beside a beer bottle and glass. Blurred plants in the background.
Mapo spaghetti, a comfort food mashup buzzing mildly with Sichuan peppercorns, goes perfectly with a Taiwanese pomelo Belgian-style witbier. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Mapo spaghetti
“Franky’s mastermind creation is kind of a take on chili and pasta—like chili spaghetti, but the seasoning is what you’d use for mapo tofu, including Sichuan peppercorns, chile flakes, aromatics and doubanjiang (spicy fermented broad bean paste). We use ground chuck and beef tallow to give it that richness. Some of our dishes are about flexing our chef muscles, but this one is just kind of playful—something we like to eat ourselves.”

Seafood supreme
“A traditional Cantonese crispy noodle is often served with seafood like shrimp, maybe scallops and a gravy sauce. For our take, we ball out with our ingredients, including a whole Maine lobster, then scallops and shrimp, all smothered in a lobster gravy made from the lobster stock. It’s meant to be shared and is like a statement piece. When our servers walk it out of the kitchen with it, heads turn.”

A dish with sliced seafood and green herbs on a brown-striped plate, with vibrant colors on a yellow table.
Four Kings’ chili crisp pig's head is inspired by the charcuterie plate that's typically part of the first course at a Cantonese banquet. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Chile crisp pig’s head
“For many Cantonese banquets, the first course often comes with an assorted cold charcuterie plate, like thinly sliced pig trotters. For ours, we take a pig’s head, debone everything and season it with five-spice and Sichuan peppercorns, then roll it into a roulade and poach it. It’s served sliced and topped with our housemade chili crisp.” 

Rows of roasted squab on racks in a metal oven ready for frying.
The apple-chip smoked squab, which has been aged for a week in Four Kings’ walk-in, is ready for frying. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Fried squab
“This dish is kind of our bread and butter. It showcases something from Franky’s hometown, Shiqi, in Guangdong, China. For it, we take squab, dry it for over a week to concentrate the flavor and make the skin crispier, then we smoke it the day of service and deep fry it to order. It’s served whole, bones and all, with a salt-and-pepper dip.”

A waitress is taking an order from guests at a sunny outdoor restaurant entrance.
Millie Boonkokua checks in diners at Four Kings on Sunday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

XO escargot with milk bread
“Franky was throwing a picnic for Millie's birthday, and he made a compound butter with XO [a classic sauce flavored with dried scallops, ham and aromatics]. We swapped it out with snails for a more pinkies-up kind of dish, and it made sense to serve with a side of bread.”

📍 710 Commercial St., San Francisco
🔗 itsfourkings.com

Sara Deseran can be reached at sdeseran@sfstandard.com