Most tourists in San Francisco find their way to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero. They all scale the hills aboard a famed cable car, and most will take a stroll through the busy avenues of Chinatown. Several will even venture to the northeast corner of the city to explore Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s answer to Manhattan’s Central Park (which in my estimation meets the ante and raises the stakes).
My family of three beelined around the city in a single day, joining the throngs of camera-clad visitors at all the usual haunts. There was much to enjoy about each stop, but the runaway favorite occurred in an unassuming neighborhood on the city’s east side, when we took a pace or two off the beaten asphalt path.
From Embarcadero Station, we boarded the outbound L train and rumbled for nearly an hour through sinewy byways to a nook of San Francisco called Parkside. Nothing about our arrival at Sunset and Taraval Streets was outstanding, except for the queue of hungry San Franciscans snaking from the door of a smallish, white storefront a half a block up the hill.
The same lengthy line forms each day, because loyal patrons know they will be treated to time-honored, hand-crafted Chinese cuisine for a mere handful of single dollar bills — and they are willing to wait.
I have seen actual holes in walls that are bigger than this mom and pop. Called the Kingdom of Dumplings, our arrival felt a bit like Dorothy’s visit to Oz — an epic journey with a destination antithetical to the travelers’ assumptions. But the wizard behind this Kingdom’s curtain (pinkish and tattered, in this case) is the real deal, magically frying up mounds of hand-crafted jiaozi and serving them piping hot to throngs of hungry guests.
My family of three squeezed around our table, a 24 inch square, and drank jasmine tea from tiny porcelain glasses as we absorbed the laminated menu. I asked our waiter, who happened to be a co-owner of the famed dumpling haunt, if one order each of Shanghai soup dumplings, chicken-corn dumplings, and pork-chive dumplings would fill three bellies. Without hesitating, he told us that we needed an order of beef chow fun, perhaps to round the order, out or more likely to bolster the bill’s bottom line. Either way, I was delighted to oblige.
The closet of a space was stuffed with San Franciscans, all tucking into platters of bulbous dumplings, saturated sautéed greens, and nests of thick, brown noodles. Clearly, and much to my delight, we were the only patrons that lacked a local address, and we chose not to mind the subtle gawks aimed in our direction.
Our orders came from the kitchen as they were ready, giving us time to devour each platter before the next emerged. The first to arrive was a blue and white porcelain plate of the humble chow fun. With a short, simple list of ingredients and thick, silken noodles, the dish is a time-honored comfort food of children and adults alike. The Kingdom’s take is simply a quality rendition of the classic recipe — no additions or subtractions needed.
The Shanghai soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, appeared next, in their standby bamboo steam basket. The molten broth filling nearly scorched our palates as delicate ginger and scallion flavors blossomed in our cheeks, sending a decadent drizzle of soup dripping from our chins.
As the soup dumplings vanished from the table, the final plates of chicken-corn and pork-chive dumplings arrived in tandem. The sweetness of the golden corn balanced the brine of the dipping sauce for a taste that pleased all corners of the mouth, and the bright tang of the chive-spiked pork packed a blast of savory flavor into each chewy, soft bite.
If you ask my wife or son, they will tell you that the chicken-corn dumplings were the clear winner, but I know in my heart that the pork-chive recipe is the worthy recipient of my highest accolades.
The next time you visit a city — San Francisco or otherwise — make a trek to a storied local eatery, far from the hubbub of the tourist hotspots. Donate a couple of hours to the cause, and in return you will receive not only a great meal, but a taste of the city itself. (A veritable encyclopedia awaits you at RoadFood.com.)
My family is currently traveling around the USA in a 10 foot Shasta Compact travel trailer from 1969. We are currently camped near San Francisco, California and up the coast. Keep it right here for tales from the journey, and please also join us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Nothing keeps us motivated more than the encouragement of hearing from our readers, so please keep in touch by commenting below. Thanks!