Famous San Francisco dim sum restaurant Yank Sing is where tourists, co-workers and locals collide

SFGATE’s Madeline Wells embarks on a mission to review all the SF treats tourists rave about, in a series we’re calling ‘Eat like a Tourist’
Dim sum lunch at Yank Sing in San Francisco on Sept. 15.
Charles Russo/SFGATE
Photo of Madeline Wells

Few San Francisco dim sum restaurants enjoy the notoriety of Yank Sing. Adored by downtown office workers and tourists alike, the gargantuan restaurant at Rincon Center is known for drawing incredible crowds, particularly on the weekends.?

But since the pandemic, Yank Sing seems to have quieted down a bit. Nabbing a reservation for six (which, naturally, turned into eight once word got around my office) only a day in advance was a breeze. When my group turned up at 1 p.m. on a Thursday, the restaurant was hardly full.?

I’m going to be honest. I was having a rough week when I visited Yank Sing. But the vaguely fancy decor — white tablecloths, gold accents and fake plants — reminded me so strongly of the Chinese restaurant that my family used to frequent for special occasions when I was a kid that I was instantly soothed. I ordered jasmine tea for the table, and all was right in the world.?

Yank Sing, known for it's dim sum, is now offering take out.

Yank Sing, known for it's dim sum, is now offering take out.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE
Yank Sing, known for it's dim sum, is now offering take out.

Yank Sing, known for it's dim sum, is now offering take out.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE :: Pictured: Shu Ying Li works alongside a team of staffers who quickly stuff and assemble an assortment of dim sum.
Yank Sing, known for it's dim sum, is now offering take out.

Yank Sing, known for it's dim sum, is now offering take out.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE :: Pictured: Mei Lin Leung serves customers at Yank Sing on March 10.
Yank Sing, known for it's dim sum, is now offering take out.

Yank Sing, known for it's dim sum, is now offering take out.

Blair Heagerty / SFGATE :: A portrait of Yank Sing founder Alice Chan hangs in the entrance of the Rincon Center location. Alice is the paternal grandmother of owner Vera Chan-Waller.
(Photos by Blair Heagerty)

The dining room may not have been packed, but the dim sum carts were. Almost instantaneously, they came whizzing by our table, piled high with bamboo steamer baskets. We began ordering with abandon.?

Yank Sing’s Rincon Center location dates back to 1999, but the institution as a whole is actually much older. Founder Alice Chan opened the original Yank Sing in Chinatown at Broadway?and Powell streets back in 1958 with only about 40 seats.?

Three generations later, Chan’s granddaughter Vera Chan-Waller and husband Nathan Waller carry on the family business, serving up to 1,000 guests on their busiest days. They run both the Rincon Center location and a second Financial District restaurant on Stevenson Street.

Despite the fact that most of my dining companions at this Yank Sing lunch have lived in the Bay Area for years, almost none of us had actually visited before (myself included). Perhaps it was the restaurant’s touristy reputation that kept us away, or its heftier price tag than the usual Chinatown haunts.?

竞技宝首页 and drink reporter Madeline Wells and her SFGATE co-workers dine at Yank Sing in San Francisco on Sept. 15.

竞技宝首页 and drink reporter Madeline Wells and her SFGATE co-workers dine at Yank Sing in San Francisco on Sept. 15.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

But at 64 years old, Yank Sing is a nationally renowned San Francisco institution. Celebrated Chinese American chef and restaurant owner Cecilia Chiang visited the original Yank Sing every day for lunch; Sen. Dianne Feinstein famously ate at the old Battery Street location; the former Broadway location was even featured in the 1972 film “Play It Again, Sam,” according to a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle story.

In my book, any restaurant that’s survived that long in our sometimes unforgiving-to-businesses city is worth giving a chance. Whatever had kept us away before, we were glad to be there now, despite the somewhat corporate atmosphere of a restaurant tucked inside the lobby of an office building.?

First, we piled our table high with dumplings. Har gow (shrimp dumplings), pork and shrimp shu?mai, steamed barbecue pork buns, seafood basil dumplings, spinach dumplings, snow pea shoot dumplings, cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) with shrimp and, of course, the famous xiao long bao (soup dumplings).

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE
Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE
Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE
Long life noodles, left, soup dumplings, upper right, and Yank Sing’s signature chili pepper sauce. (Charles Russo/SFGATE)

As a pescatarian, I can’t vouch for every item. But I was obsessed with the fresh-tasting seafood basil dumplings and the slippery shrimp cheung fun — and of course, I’m a passionate devotee of har gow. Everyone was roundly impressed by the soup dumplings, bursting with rich aromatic broth. I doused everything with Yank Sing’s signature chili pepper sauce to kick it up a notch.?

After doing some damage to the dumplings, we moved on to chicken feet, steamed spareribs, pork pot stickers, gai lan with oyster sauce and turnip cake. We also tried the crab claw — a breaded and deep-fried crab claw encased in a fluffy crab and shrimp mousse, served with a sweet and sour sauce. The crispy exterior shattered satisfyingly in my mouth, the salty seafood inside balanced with a dip of the acidic bright red sauce.?

But we weren’t done ordering yet. We moved on to a few things off the actual menu, not the dim sum cart — sauteed string beans with dried shrimp and “long life noodles.” These items weren’t as memorable to me as the dumplings, although I’m always a sucker for a green bean.

A plate of sauteed string beans with dried shrimp at Yank Sing in San Francisco.

A plate of sauteed string beans with dried shrimp at Yank Sing in San Francisco.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

I am certainly no expert on dim sum, but fortunately, my much more knowledgeable SFGATE colleague Fiona Lee, who wrote a definitive guide to Taraval Street’s hidden “dumpling row,” came along for lunch. While she noted that Yank Sing was on the more expensive side, she found it to taste on par with other dim sum places in the city and said she was pleasantly surprised by the soup dumplings.?

As far as that heftier bill goes, it came out to about $41 a head for eight people. Certainly a bit more than I’m used to (recently, a few friends and I enjoyed dim sum at City View Restaurant for $26 per person), but considering the Financial District location and that restaurant prices are rising across the board, it wasn’t outlandish.?

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE
Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE
Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE
Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Dim Sum lunch at Yank Sing, in San Francisco, on Thursday, Sept, 15, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE
(Charles Russo/SFGATE)

I was also very impressed by the service. Every time our teapot emptied, it was refilled immediately without anyone having to say a word. The dim sum cart system was a well-oiled machine, with servers rolling through the vast dining room at frequent intervals.?

We finished our meal with more tea, egg tarts and sesame balls. And oh Lord, those sesame balls. The glutinous rice flour dough stuffed with red bean paste, rolled in sesame seeds and deep-fried was served piping hot off the cart — the best version of the subtly sweet dessert I’ve ever had. The har gow captured my heart, but the sesame balls stole the show.

Sesame balls stuffed with red bean paste at Yank Sing in San Francisco.

Sesame balls stuffed with red bean paste at Yank Sing in San Francisco.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

People may come to Yank Sing primarily for the spectacle of it all — the speedy dim sum carts, the enormous dining room — and its central location does come with an elevated price. But the food actually happens to be fantastic. Some San Francisco institutions are institutions for a reason.?

Yank Sing, 101 Spear St. and 49 Stevenson St., San Francisco. Both locations open Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and Saturday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

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