Touch the Heart: A Guide to the Dim Sum Scene in San Francisco

 

Let’s get something out of the way – “dim sum” literally translates to “touch the heart,” and if you’ve ever found yourself at a table with the dim sum cart rolling by, you get it. Dim sum, in its original form, is a Cantonese-style brunch, consisting of an assortment of small, pre-cooked treats that are shared family-style.  Dumplings, baos (steamed or fried buns), rolls, sweet and savory cakes, and other carb-heavy delights form the main parts of a dim sum menu. Tea, rather than booze, is the traditional dim sum brunchin’ beverage of choice. Dim sum in San Francisco is the business. There’s dim sum in SF for every budget, occasion, and neighborhood.  We’ve compiled a list of some our favorites that span all of the above.

Some of the most famous and ubiquitous dim sum dishes are xiao long bao (Shanghai-style soup dumplings – lovingly nicknamed “XLB”), shumai (open face dumplings, most commonly made from pork and mushroom), turnip cakes, and char siu bao (BBQ pork buns).  Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard of most of these already, so we’ll also try to point you to other, more unique dim sum dishes.

No. 6: Yank Sing

Yank Sing is definitely the classiest (read: most expensive) dim sum in San Francisco.  It’s no surprise that both locations are in the FiDi; Yank Sing is a prime spot to bring coworkers or clients that you’re trying to impress (and they take reservations).  The menu is humungous, patrons dine on white linen and we get the joy of picking items off of the bountiful carts that are constantly circling the dining room. Don’t worry, though, if you have a hankering for something specific and don’t see it on the carts, you can also order off of the menu.  We can’t say that service is super fast at this SF dim sum spot, but the ambiance is nice and we’re hoping you can enjoy the company you came with.  And if the company sucks, there’s wine.

Peking duck is a classic Beijing dish (and if you were listening, we said OG dim sum is Cantonese), but we’re willing to overlook that if you are because we just can’t help ourselves when it comes Yank Sing’s Peking duck.  It’s perfectly roasted with crispy sweet/savory skin and served on a cloud-like bun with the classic accoutrement (veggies and hoisin sauce). Spinach dumplings are also a solid choice – omnivore or not.

BONUS: If you don’t have the time or cash to spend on Yank Sing, both restaurants have a to-go area that’s open for the same hours as the restaurants.  The menu is more limited, but you don’t have to pay fancy dine-in people prices.  Peruse the menu here.

Best Wings in San Francisco
Best Wings in San Francisco

No. 5: Dumpling Time

It’s always dumpling time!  Get it?! It wouldn’t be a full view of dim sum in SF without at least one contemporary spin.  Dumpling Time is a trendy joint in the Design District (i.e. east SoMa) with vibes that aren’t particularly Cantonese (or any kind of Chinese), but they pay wonderful homage to the art and process of creating dumplings and hand-pulled noodles.  Take a second to observe the cooks at work when you come in – they built a glass walled kitchen for a reason. The ordering experience is pretty vanilla – no carts or laminated menus, just a fairly standard menu (which is cool, too).  

Dumpling Time serves the classics and does them well, but you can also find those same types of dishes with a bourgie twist.  Great examples: Maine lobster siu mai – carefully steamed open-face dumplings with lobster, chives and buttery truffles, as well as Wagyu beef gyoza – Wagyu beef with black truffles and shiitake mushies.  Fancy, eh? We think so. End your meal on a sweet note with one of their dessert baos – green tea milk is our fave, but they have a sampler option so you can try all three!

Dumpling Time is the only place we’ve ever seen that makes a giant XLB (aptly named the “King Dum”).  This is the type of creativity that makes dim sum in SF a little special and why some of us are willing to pay a premium for their dim sum.  This bad boy is about the size of a baseball, and it’s served with a boba straw for you to puncture the delicate skin and avoid wasting a single drop of the precious, delicious broth.  Order one for everyone at the table, they’re great but not great for sharing.  Check out the menu here.

No. 4: Wing Lee Bakery

A bakery on the list of best dim sum in San Francisco, you say?   Indeed- Wing Lee Bakery is OG SF dim sum in the Inner Richmond.  This is a no-frills, cash only, takeout only, line out the door kind of joint.  Wing Lee is a good choice if you want to swing through to bring dim sum to your next party (and be everybody’s best friend).  The glorious part is you can do this even if you’re ballin’ on a budget. The menu is divided into 3 main sections – dumplings (3 for $2.60, steamed buns for $1.50 each or baked buns for $1.50 each), so order away.  Folks order at the counter here: spend your time in line perusing the menu because you are expected to know what you want by the time it’s your turn to order. If you’re shy or suffering from decision paralysis, just point to whatever looks good behind the glass – we don’t think there are any wrong answers here.

Our two favorite dishes here are the BBQ pork buns and shrimp hargow.  The BBQ pork bun is bigger than your fist and almost a meal in itself. The pork inside is always perfectly tender, and the bun is never dry.  The shrimp hargow are also generously sized (for the little guys that they are), with very delicate skin that’s ready to burst with flavor. We’re getting hungry just thinking about this place.  

BONUS: Wing Lee Bakery is….a bakery!  If you have a sweet tooth, round out your order with a mini pie or a mooncake – they have a constantly rotating selection of delicious pastries – maybe not dim sum, but yum yum.  See the menu here.

Best Wings in San Francisco
Best Wings in San Francisco

No. 3: Hong Kong Lounge

A bakery on the list of best dim sum in San Francisco, you say?   Indeed- Wing Lee Bakery is OG SF dim sum in the Inner Richmond.  This is a no-frills, cash only, takeout only, line out the door kind of joint.  Wing Lee is a good choice if you want to swing through to bring dim sum to your next party (and be everybody’s best friend).  The glorious part is you can do this even if you’re ballin’ on a budget. The menu is divided into 3 main sections – dumplings (3 for $2.60, steamed buns for $1.50 each or baked buns for $1.50 each), so order away.  Folks order at the counter here: spend your time in line perusing the menu because you are expected to know what you want by the time it’s your turn to order. If you’re shy or suffering from decision paralysis, just point to whatever looks good behind the glass – we don’t think there are any wrong answers here.

Our two favorite dishes here are the BBQ pork buns and shrimp hargow.  The BBQ pork bun is bigger than your fist and almost a meal in itself. The pork inside is always perfectly tender, and the bun is never dry.  The shrimp hargow are also generously sized (for the little guys that they are), with very delicate skin that’s ready to burst with flavor. We’re getting hungry just thinking about this place.  

BONUS: Wing Lee Bakery is….a bakery!  If you have a sweet tooth, round out your order with a mini pie or a mooncake – they have a constantly rotating selection of delicious pastries – maybe not dim sum, but yum yum.  See the menu here.

No. 2: Good Luck Dim Sum

  • Address: 736 Clement Street (Inner Richmond)
  • Can’t miss: Chive & shrimp dumplings; turnip cakes

Good Luck Dim Sum and Wing Lee Bakery are just down the street from each other and have similar offerings and price points, so they’re often compared by locals.  Each has its strengths (hence why they’re both on the list), but Good Luck is one of our absolute favorite spots. It gets BUSY, with lines out the door, so come early, cash in hand.  You can order by filling out a pink sheet and hopping in line. There are a handful of tables, so come early to get a seat and avoid the heartbreak of being told your favorite dim sum items are sold out.

We never leave Good Luck Dim Sum without getting their shrimp and chive dumplings and an order of turnip cakes (or at least trying to).  The shrimp & chive dumplings come in orders of 3 and they are a bit on the chive-y side, which we don’t mind. The turnip cakes (which are made from Chinese/daikon radish, not Western turnips) are fried to perfection and have the perfect squishy, savory texture.  If you’ve never tried a turnip cake, this is a great place to do so – they’re made from shredded daikon radish, rice flour, and umami ingredients like shrimp paste and sausage. Some places serve them un-fried, but we live for those crispy brown edges with a soft, decadent center.  Turnip cakes are difficult to make well, which means they’re a good litmus test for dim sum joints. Good Luck passes with flying colors.  Peep the menu here.

No. 1: Kingdom of Dumpling

Ok, we’re low-key obsessed with Kingdom of Dumpling, so it was our clear choice for best dim sum in SF.  This unpretentious joint is worth the drive out to Parkside because everything we’ve ever had there is SO. DAMN. GOOD.  Kingdom of Dumpling has a huge menu that includes a wide variety of dumplings (20 something different types, yaas), other dim sum dishes, and full sized entrees.  We have legitimately never gone wrong with a dumpling order, so if you’re overwhelmed, start there.

One of the most impressive and delicious options for dumplings here is a pan fried xiao long bao.  If you’ve eaten XLB before, you may have noticed that they’re fragile little morsels with thin skin, so Kingdom of Dumpling is really upping the ante by offering a pan fried version.  Spare ribs are also an excellent choice here – fall off the bone tender and never ever overcooked. The portions are generous for their cheap to moderate pricing, so if you’re doing anything right with your life, you shouldn’t leave here hungry.

BONUS: Kingdom of Dumpling operates a separate wholesale shop!!!!  The wholesale shop named Kingdom of Dumpling Wholesale (how apropos) is located at 2048 Taraval Street in SF, and you have the option of buying Kingdom of Dumpling’s meticulously crafted and ridiculously good dumplings for an even better deal!  There’s no food cooked or served here, just a bunch of freezers holding precious little dumplings for you to take home and steam, pan fry, or just toss in broth. Kingdom of Dumpling FTW!  Here’s the menu.

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