Spaghetti with bottarga, the must-order at La Ciccia.
There are a couple of things in the food world that are guaranteed to restore my faith in humanity. One is a good trip to a local farmers' market. When I travel to new cities, I try to make that a first stop. The other is lunch at a good, old-school Asian dinner—be it Chinese or be it Vietnamese. I go solo, bring a book to read, and sit down to non-nonsense, quick service; good, inexpensive food; a warming pot of tea; and a room full of people just going about their business. No drama, no pretensions—just lunch.
Since starting at San Francisco magazine, I’ve made Sai’s (505 Washington St. near Sansome St.), a friendly Vietnamese joint on the brink of the Financial District, my go-to. For under $10, I can get a delicious bowl of grilled shrimp with rice noodles (or bun) served to me by a woman’s my mother’s age, while the guy who clears my plate is a tattooed, 30-something, and a 20-something woman lays the check down within minutes of my last bite. I have to assume it’s a family affair—so many of these restaurants are.
In fact, every job I’ve ever had has come with a search for a go-to Asian diner. At my last job in Union Square, I’d go to Jade Café (18 Geary Blvd. near Grant Ave.) for their duck noodle soup with greens. When I worked at Weldon Owen Publishing years ago, I’d make the little trek to New Hong Kong Noodle (667 Commercial St. near Kearny St.) for their won ton soup followed by a cold coconut milk and tapioca dessert. If I wasn’t there, I was at Golden Star (11 Walter U Lum PL near Clay St.) for their perfect imperial rolls, or Golden Flower (667 Jackson St. near Wentworth Pl) for their chicken salad or pho.
The other thing I love about these Asian diners? The city’s trendy restaurant scene might be moving a mile a minute—and it’s my exhausting job to chase it—but like an old friend, these diners are inevitably there for me. I’ve been back to all of them over the years and they’re always just as good.
Where are your favorite Asian diners? Let me know at email@example.com.