San Francisco’s charming Chinatown streets are home to many firsts. The first Chinatown in North America, established in 1848, it’s also the largest (and most densely populated) Chinese enclave outside of Asia. Since the first flush of 49ers arriving for the Gold Rush of 1849, Chinatown’s population quickly grew, leading to more firsts like the first Asian church in North America, Old St. Mary's, opened in 1853.
For food lovers everywhere, we owe Chinese food’s popularization in the Western world to San Francisco. Chinese residents faced the many ups and downs of economy, building railroads and racist travesties like the national Chinese Exclusion Act. Yet SF’s Chinatown residents survived, even thrived. At first, Chinese food was mainly eaten by Chinese locals. But enterprising Chinese cooks in San Francisco created Americanized Chinese dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, mainstreaming Chinese food across North America.
In 1961, the legendary Cecilia Chang (who just turned 99) opened Mandarin, the nation’s first notable upscale Chinese restaurant, introducing the Western world to Peking duck and hot and sour soup. Here, Chang inspired generations of chefs and influencers, including George Chen, who waited tables at the Mandarin in the 1970s. He went on to open iconic SF restaurants, Betelenut and Shanghai 1930, and now China Live, which, alongside the restaurant Mister Jiu’s, has led the revival of modern Chinese food and drink in SF’s Chinatown.
30,000-square-foot China Live is a complex, not merely a restaurant or bar, though it includes a few of each. Fine dining Eight Tables (holding only eight spaced-out tables) is a game-changer in Chinese fine dining. Next door is Cold Drinks, a futuristic-chic, Blade Runner-esque, Scotch-centric cocktail bar. Downstairs is a modern dim sum/Chinese food restaurant, alongside an upscale Chinese grocery and plateware shop, tea cafe and bar. Often called the “Chinese Eataly” by the press, China Live is a complex of forward-thinking Chinese food and drink. There’s nothing like it in the U.S.
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In a similar pioneering spirit, chef Brandon Jew opened Mister Jui’s in 2016, dubbed [Bon Appetit’s #3 America’s Best New Restaurants 2017, and soon after, garnering a Michelin star. He leads an all-star team that boasts talent like James Beard-nominated pastry chef Melissa Chou (formerly at Mourad and Quince) and visionary, laidback bar manager Danny Louie.
Jew has cooked in kitchens from Bologna to Shanghai, but was born and raised in San Francisco’s Sunset district. In a city that is nearly 35 percent Asian, there are four “Chinatowns” in the city alone (with more across the Bay Area), including the Sunset, offering hundreds of restaurants and eateries in every category of Chinese food, from Hakka to Shanghainese.
Much of the restaurants in SF’s original Chinatown suffer from touristy mediocrity — whereas out in the Richmond, Sunset or Parkside districts, they remain fiercely local. But Chinatown’s deep community knows the neighborhood’s narrow streets contain a wealth of under-the-radar Chinese bakeries, markets and pioneers like The Wok Shop.
“I had most of my memories of Chinatown as a kid,” recalls Jew, “going to the market with my grandma. But I wasn’t coming back here very often as an adult. When we opened Mister Jiu’s, I felt it was necessary to attempt to open this restaurant in Chinatown as I wanted to come back here more and have other people enjoy the history of this neighborhood.”
It took Jew and team three years to transform Chinatown’s historic Four Seas Chinese banquet hall into Mister Jiu’s after signing the lease in 2013. Three gold lotus chandeliers from Four Seas still line the ceiling, but he pays homage to the space’s history and the neighborhood’s many now-closed banquet halls in an about-to-open upstairs lounge, Moon Gate Lounge. It will be focused on cocktails and bites only served upstairs in an expansive space. Like the tables downstairs at Mister Jiu’s, Moongate banquet tables front lofty windows gazing over Chinatown, the iconic Transamerica Pyramid and the Bay. In this new space, Lord Stanley wine director Luisa Smith is crafting the wine list, bartender Alex Kulick (who has worked at Jiu’s since they opened) is crafting a Moon Gate cocktail menu with Louie.
“The more I work with Chinese cuisine, the more I really understand a lot of its intricacies,” explains Jew. “But I also know that some of the things maybe I didn’t immediately like eating in Chinese food, sometimes those things were because of the way they were presented or how they looked. We try to really understand the essence of the recipe and the flavor combinations that we feel are the heart of the dish, then try to dissect those flavors. [We] contrast [those traditional flavors] with what is available seasonally at the market. It’s a way of honoring the past but trying to distinguish this region and how we use traditional techniques as inspiration.”
He recently was playing with sa cha (aka shacha, a Chinese paste made from soybean oil, garlic, shallots, chilis, dried shrimp) in a chicken fried rice dish, given Italy-NorCal-meets-China flair by adding local artichokes, which grow heavily in the area and along the coast south of the city. “Sa cha ends up almost tasting like bagna cauda [a hot Italian dipping sauce, heavy on anchovies and garlic] to me,” he says, “so you get this anchovy, dried shrimp, slow-cooked, oily sauce.”
Gaining inspiration from Chinese cuisine as a whole, Jew explains: “The great thing about how vast the cuisine is, when we get inspired by ingredients here, we draw from Taiwan, Szechuan, Hunan. Every season, we have the opportunity to take something that worked last year and try to make it better... We’re not even where I want to be yet.”
Inspiration doesn’t merely come from the vast depth of Chinese cuisine or even the endless produce and natural wealth that is California. It also comes from SF’s Chinatown itself. “There’s so much history here of restaurants that have set the standard of Chinese American cuisine in the world,” says Jew. “This is the birthplace of chop suey, egg foo young and some of these things that started here. We don’t have any of these dishes on the menu but they are still inspiring to me.”
Mister Jiu’s is ever-evolving. “We’re able to tell a story now,” Jew comments. “This is an immigrant population that’s a real success story in this neighborhood… I’ve been inspired by how this community has weathered so many storms. Trying to break down some of those walls and have people understand the culture and [Chinese] people? A lot of that started with food.”
Modern-day pioneers like Chen and Jiu hope to expand the impact and breadth of this one-of-a-kind Chinatown now and for the future. “We’re really proud to carry on the legacy of Chinese American food. This community has been extremely resilient and vibrant,” says Jew.
From Chinatown’s narrow lantern-strewn streets to its packed Stockton Street food markets, it’s easy to hope Chinatown never changes. Yet these bold interpretations of old traditions bring many to the neighborhood who might not otherwise hang out there, carrying its impact forward for new generations. The juxtaposition of young and old, hip and classic, new and old world breathes life into these fabled streets, backed by its tenacious, resilient community.
Top Image: San Francisco's Chinatown | Virginia Miller