Skip to main content
Food

Cantonese, Hunan, Szechuan, Oh My! A Primer on SF’s Many Styles of Chinese Cuisine

Written by Han LiPublished May. 08, 2022 • 8:57am
House Spicy Fresh Fish Filet Boiled in House Special Sauce, one of the many Szechaun peppercorn dishes served at Z & Y Restaurant in San Francisco. | Elliott Alexander

English

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, and given San Francisco’s outsize AAPI population, it’s a big deal here in the city.

One out of every three San Franciscans is of Asian descent, almost a quarter count themselves as a part of the Chinese diaspora and San Francisco Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in the country. All of this goes a long way in explaining why our city boasts such an extraordinarily diverse selection of Chinese cuisines.

As is the case with the culinary traditions of any large country, Chinese food can differ dramatically depending upon its region of origin. While Cantonese, Hunan and Szechuan—the most common styles of Chinese food found in San Francisco—certainly share things in common, they each have distinct flavor profiles.

However, these styles are not the only subgenres to be found here. Read on to learn more about the major categories of traditional Chinese cuisine and where to find them in San Francisco.

Cantonese Dominance

Starting in the 1800s, early Chinese immigrants from the greater Canton, Guangdong, region arrived in San Francisco, setting the bedrock for the development of American Chinese food. Nowadays, Chinese restaurants are practically everywhere in every business corridor in San Francisco, and among them, Cantonese cuisine is dominant.

Preserved Chinese Sausage, pork and duck with rice wrapped and steamed in a lotus leaf served at The Claypot House located at 1000 Clement St. in San Francisco. | Elliott Alexander

Some Cantonese favorites include: dim sum, the “beautiful soup”(老火靚湯, soup simmered for hours), “bo zai faan”(煲仔飯, clay pot rice or “rice cooked with one’s son”) and “siu laap” (delectable roasted duck).

But if you want to impress your Cantonese friends, talk to them about “Wok Hei” (鑊氣, 锅气, the breath of the wok), which refers to the scent and taste of dishes cooked over the high heat.

Harbor Villa Restaurant 海港城 | Dimsum | 5238 Diamond Heights Blvd.
Jumbo Seafood 珍寶家廚 | Beautiful Soup | 1532 Noriega St. 
The Claypot House 煲仔王 | Clay Pot Rice | 1000 Clement St. 
Ming Kee Restaurant 明記燒臘 | Roasted Duck | 1548 Ocean Ave.

Spice it Up

Many of China’s eight major cuisine variants are underrepresented here in America—even in San Francisco. But Szechuan and Hunan, two of the most popular styles of Chinese food in the United States, are famous for turning up the heat.

House Spicy Fresh Fish Filet Boiled in House Special Sauce, one of the many Szechaun peppercorn dishes served at Z & Y Restaurant in San Francisco. | Elliott Alexander

Szechuan cuisine is considered the top of Chinese cuisine with its numb spicy dishes and Hunan, a province bordering Guangdong can provide unforgettable spicy pan-fried pork and oily fish.

Z&Y 御食園 | 655 Jackson St.
Henry’s Hunan Restaurant 湖南小喫 | 1016 Bryant St.

Shanghai Sweet

Shanghainese food tickles a different part of the tongue than Szechuan and Hunan cuisine. Known for its many sugary sweet dishes, it is also deeply influenced by the regional Jiangsu and Zhejiang cultures—both of which have their own unique styles of cooking but aren’t commonly found in the US.

See Also

In case you don’t know, one of the most iconic figures of Chinese cuisine in America, Cecilia Chiang, is from Shanghai. She passed away during the pandemic at the age of 100.

Shanghai House Restaurant 家家福 | Shanghai Rice, Pig Knuckle w/ Brown Sauce | 3641 Balboa St.

Shandong: Northern Exposure

Shandong, a northern coastal region of China, has one of the most historic and influential cuisines in the country. It is known for it’s emphasis on fresh seafood and unique cooking methods.

Pork dumplings with Napa cabbage and pork dumplings with chives served at Happy Family Gourmet Inc., located at 1042 Taraval St. San Francisco. | Elliott Alexander

In San Francisco, the Shandong style of cooking is mostly associated with dumplings and you can find many great spots on the city’s west side.

Happy Family Gourmet Inc 山東水餃手拉麵 | 1042 Taraval St.

Honorable Mention

  • In the English-speaking world, the Outer Sunset’s “Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant” is known as a hotpot destination. In the Chinese-speaking world, we call it by its Chinese name, “The Old Beijing.”
  • Ever have a bowl of Chinese soup so delicious that it made your tongue go numb? There’s a word for that. It’s called “malatang.” There are two great options for this Chinese street food on the west side.
  • Want to try a fusion feast you won’t soon forget? How about Northern Chinese BBQ? Sink your teeth into some cumin-spiced, fire-cooked lamb. You’ll be happy you did.

Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant 老北京 | Hotpot | 3132 Vicente St.
Tang Bar 燙吧 | Malatang | 3251 20th Ave., 2nd Floor (Stonestown Galleria)
Qing Shu 青蔬麻辣燙 | Malatang | 816 Irving St.
Top SF BBQ | Northern Chinese BBQ | 2311 Clement St.

English

Han Li can be reached at [email protected]




Stay on top of what’s happening in your city

SF’s most important stories, delivered straight to your inbox