10 Hidden Gems of San Francisco: East Asian Treasures We Love

Chinatown in San Francisco is entered via the Dragon Gate, with its three pagoda-style roofs tiled in blue green.

The 10 hidden gems of San Francisco that we love are, in this post, focused on the city’s remarkable treasures based on its East Asian communities and heritage.

(We love San Francisco a ton, which is why we chose it as one of our Favorite Destinations for August 2021; you can read about our other choices in this post.)

Here’s a look at a glance; feel free to jump ahead to your favorite;

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Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #1: The Fabulous Contemporary Art in the Asian Art Museum

We admit it: The Asian Art Museum is not exactly a hidden gem.

Still, when it comes to museum recommendations in San Francisco, it tends to trail behind some even bigger stuff, like the Exploratorium, De Young, SF Moma, the Disney, etc.

Guess what? Everything you go to those other places for? Like cool technology, amazing classical and contemporary art, and family fun?

The Asian Art Museum’s got it.

And we love how things are always changing.

On a visit in 2018, we were greeted by this fabulous creature: Taiwanese artist Hung Yi’s Dragon Fortune.

Taiwanese artist Hung Yi's exuberant sculpture Dragon Fortune graced the outside of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum for a while. Brilliant hues of red, pink, blue, green, and gold appear in medallions covering a sculpture shaped like a fish with feet and lion's mane, less scary dragon and more delightful plushy.
Taiwanese artist Hung Yi’s exuberant sculpture Dragon Fortune graced the outside of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum for a while. Less scary dragon, more delightful plushy. Photo 2018, Nan Bauer

Naturally, the Museum features an amazing collection of classical art from all over Asia—including India and West Asia. But for me, the contemporary art, including Hung Yi’s sculpture, is particularly wonderful.

And, given that you’re surrounded by the classical inspirations, pieces like these beautiful vases from artist Fu Shen take on greater meaning.

2 vases by contemporary artist Fu Shen, one black with gold calligraphy, the other featuring abstract splashed of bright orange and black with stylized chrysanthemums from the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco
Vases by contemporary artist Fu Shen. Photo 2018, Nan Bauer

Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #2: Banh Mi in Little Saigon

Let’s say you spend a pleasant morning strolling among the Buddhas, dragons, and plum blossoms at the Asian Art Museum. You’re hungry, right?

A few blocks away, you can grab superb Vietnamese pho and/or banh mi—or both—in the block known as Little Saigon.

Just take Larkin to Turk to Saigon Sandwich (visit The Infatuation for a great Saigon Sandwich write-up and pic).

….or a block further to Pho 2000. (Check out the Pho 2000 Facebook page and get hungry.)

Or pick a different spot; you can see what’s for offer, as well as how popular a place is, just by looking in the window.

In comparison with Chinatown and Japantown, Little Saigon is tiny.

It’s also pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Tenderloin, which remains stubborn in resisting gentrification. My euphemistic way of saying that, yeah, the Tenderloin is still plenty rough.

But around lunchtime, you won’t be alone. And you will be able to get a GREAT and highly authentic Vietnamese meal.

Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #3: Chinese Karaoke, St. Mary’s Square

To find the hidden gems in San Francisco’s Chinatown, ya gotta get past the Dragon Gate.

Still, it makes a great picture.

Chinatown in San Francisco is entered via the Dragon Gate, with its three pagoda-style roofs tiled in blue green.
Steve, in red shirt, waits for me to take his picture at the San Francisco Chinatown semi-official entrance, the Dragon Gate. Photo 2018, Nan Bauer

But walk beyond this splendid structure, and turn the corner on Pine. You’ll find an Only-in-Chinatown site that delights me every time I visit.

At St. Mary’s Square, gender-segragated groups of Chinese senior citizens huddle over tables playing dominoes or cards….

a group of women play cards in St. Mary's Square, Chinatown, San Francisco
Photo San Francisco, 2018, Nan Bauer

…as karaoke is sung with tremendous exuberance and utter disregard for pitch in the background.

a couple performs karoake to an empty St. Mary's Square in San Francisco's Chinatown.Pin
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Of course, there are wonderfully photogenic buildings right across the street, including the Peking Bank.

new peking building in chinatown, a hidden gem in san franciscoPin
Photo 2018, Nan Bauer

This one, around the corner, features the homey touch of laundry on the lower balcony.

An apartment building in Chinatown features a white facade with brilliant turquoise and red decorationsPin
Photo San Francisco, 2021, Nan Bauer

Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #4: Chinatown Shopping

There are, naturally, dozens of places selling Chinese tchotchkes. Pandas are big.

A Chinatown souvenir shop features stuffed pandas, a hidden gem in San FranciscoPin
Photo Nan Bauer, San Francisco, 2021

So are waving cats.

lucky cats wave from a shelf in san francisco's chinatown
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

But the Chinatown Wok Shop is the perfect place to pick up whatever you need to make your own Chinese food, from cleavers, to woks, to chopsticks, to….plastic green corn!

various goods from the Chinatown Wok Shop, one of many hidden gems in san franciscoPin
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Just down the road, behind the creepy fortune telling machine straight out of Big…..

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Photo Amanda Blanton, @sfboogie, 2021, San Francisco. Unlike moi, Amanda is a real photographer, and I am deeply grateful for the use of her beautiful photo.

…you’ll find the Chinatown Kite Shop.

Brilliantly colored kites hang in the Chinatown Kite Shop, one of the hidden gems of San FranciscoPin
Chinatown Kite Shop, Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

That’s the trick with Chinatown: Just keep going further in. Away from the first photogenic but over-visited block, it gets better.

Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #5: Sweet Treats of Chinatown

Truthfully? You are not going to find the best Chinese food in San Francisco here.

(It’s in what some locals are calling the New Chinatown, aka The Sunset and Richmond Districts, depending on who you talk to.)

Also, if you’re here during the day, when the light is lovely, we’ve already told you to pick up a substantial bite in Little Saigon.

You will instead find lots of places with adequate food catering to tourists. Which may completely hit the spot.

But our tip: Save your appetite.

Meanwhile, pick up a big old bag of fortune cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

golden gate fortune cookie copany, one of the hidden gems of san franciscoPin
Where fortune cookies are born: The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Photo Nan Bauer, 2018, San Francisco

The Fortune Cookie Factory is only a slightly hidden gem, but it still needs to make your itinerary. Take a tour and buy a bag, including the swanky pink strawberry and electric green matcha versions.

If you prefer ice cream, you have two choices on Grant Ave, neither of which are Chinese: Magical Ice Cream with its crazy Thai rolled ice cream, or the local branch of Matcha Cafe Maiko, a small Japanese chain. Both shops serve a variety of tasty teas and coffees as well.

If you’re pretty hungry, AND in the mood for a very tasty splurge and a view, AND you’re here at night, AND you have a reservation, you can either blow a ton of money in the newly reopened and gorgeously refurbished Empress dining room—now Empress by Boon—or pop into the bar, which is kept open for drop-ins.

PLEASE first read this article so you’re aware of the concerns that Empress by Boon may be one more gentrifying blow to the neighborhood. Chef Ho Chee Boon has promised that this will not be so, and vows to help revitalize Chinatown.

Fingers crossed. Chef Boon and Chinatown, we’re pulling for you!

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Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #6: Japantown and the Marvelous Hotel Kabuki

Japantown is another Not Exactly Hidden Gem.

Yet it often gets bypassed by city visitors in favor of the bigger, way more famous Chinatown.

Still. It feels like a hidden gem.

You’ll arrive at Peace Plaza, with its iconic concrete pagoda. Feel free to debate its artistic merits. You won’t be the first.

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Photo, Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

(To that end, the monument defied my every attempt to shoot it straight up and down. Or maybe that was just me fighting what I think is kind of a not-so-awesome structure.)

But the lack of crowds does, indeed, lend a feeling of peace. As does the quiet martial arts practitioner you’re almost certain to find there.

Peace Plaza martial arts practitionerPin
Photo, Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

You can follow the walking tour signs that are posted on the buildings and learn a lot. The Japanese community’s struggle before, during, and after the shameful WWII internments is an inspiring one, and the neighborhood is beautiful.

Keep your eye peeled for Japanese architectural details.

a building in San Francisco's JapantownPin
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

And whatever you do, be sure to pop into the utterly marvelous lobby of the Hotel Kabuki, just up Post Street heading west from the Plaza. Next time I’m in the city, I absolutely want to splurge on a night or two here.

This quickie video doesn’t do it justice, but I hope it gives you an idea of how wonderful it is.

Filmed by Nan Bauer, July 2021, San Francisco

Now it’s time to shop.

Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #7: Japantown Shops NOT in Peace Plaza

Two mall buildings flank Peace Plaza. Here’s the entrance to the one on the west side.

The Japan Center West Mall entrance in Japantown, San Francisco
Photo, Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

The one on the east side features this beautiful indoor stairway and bridge. (It’s empty because I was there literally the day after the city opened back up post-COVID.)

Inside the East Mall of the Japan Center, Japantown, San FranciscoPin
Photo, Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

And of course, you’ll find all sorts of cool things to buy inside; get full deets at the informative SF Japantown website.

plush pillows available in the West Mall of Japantown, San Francisco
Fabulous plush pillows—my son is now the proud owner of the avocado toast—from the West Mall of the Japan Center. Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

But we want to direct you to a couple of shops that you’ll miss if you don’t venture off of Peace Plaza and across Post Street.

First, there’s Soko Hardware.

the entry of Soko Hardware in Japantown, SFPin
Photo by Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Beyond all the normal hardware store stuff, there’s a basement with amazingly priced and beautiful tableware and cooking utensils.

beautiful tableware from Soko Hardware in Japantown, San Francisco, one of the hidden gems of san francisco
Tableware from Soko Hardware, photo by Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

And across the street in the pleasing open-air Buchanan Mall, you’ll find the fabulous origami and stationery shop Paper Tree. Which, for an origami-mad friend, proved to be pure, unadulaterated, paper heaven.

a tree made of origami is the center piece of Paper Tree, one of the hidden gems in San Francisco's JapantownPin
Photo by Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Can’t get there? No worries: Shop for origami paper from Paper Tree online.

Meanwhile, if you’re hungry again, Japantown has many, many restaurant choices, which you’ll find detailed here.

We swear we’re not being lazy by refusing to recommend a particular one. But there’s no way to hit them all, so you might as well tailor your restaurant choice to your personal preference, and with more complete information from folks who have really had a chance to explore the area.

In other words, if you fall so in love with Japantown that you find yourself there at dinner—a highly plausible scenario—you’re all set.

This place? Looks Awesome. (It’s Umai Ramen House.)

japantown restaurant, san francisco
Photo by Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #8: Crazy Kit Kats in the Haight

We are not suggesting that you are insane enough to try to do all this stuff in one day.

But if, by chance you are, when you’re heading west to Golden Gate Park to see the Japanese Garden, you can, conceivably, detour through the Haight.

Where you’ll find Candy’s.

Candy's in the Haight, one of the hidden gems of san franciscoPin
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Here’s why we consider it one of the hidden gems of San Francisco, East Asian edition:

candy's japanese kit kat store in Haight Ashbury, San FranciscoPin
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Yes, my friend. You’ve doubtless heard of the many wacky flavors of Kit Kat available in Japan.

Now, you can try them yourself. For a price.

But hey: Sakura Kit Kats!! Count me in.

the crazy flavors of Japanese Kit Kats at Candy's in San Francisco include banana and plum blossomPin
I already counted myself in. Those pink Sakura/Plum-flavored Kit Kats on the bottom shelf? Sold! Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Decidedly UNHidden Gems of San Francisco, #9: The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

Serene.

a perfect half circle in a rust colored metal arcs like a rainbow over a pond in the Japanese Garden in Golden Gate park in San Francisco
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

Stunning.

a pagoda arch in bright orange and pale yellow from the Japanese Garden in San FranciscoPin
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

I just want to live here.

the brilliant red of a Japanese maple floats over a pagoda in the Japanese Garden of Golden Gate Park, San FranciscoPin
Photo Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

You cannot take enough pictures.

bright green, yellow, and chartreuse frame the red and orange pagoda of san Francisco's Japanese Garden
Photo by Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco

To learn everything you need to know about The Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park, visit their website.

Just come.

a buddha at the Japanese tea garden in San FranciscoPin
Photo by Nan Bauer, 2021, San Francisco
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Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #10: The Best Neighborhoods for Amazing East Asian Food

For years, San Franciscan friends have invited me to dinner at restaurants in the Inner Sunset, an area near Golden Gate Park.

The variety of global cuisines available in Inner Sunset inspires; not just Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Korean, but Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian, and, well, tons more.

Also, how often do you get to eat Burmese food? Check out the Burma Superstar menu here to get inspired.

Venture into Outer Sunset, or, on the other side of Golden Gate Park, to Outer Richmond. You’ll find San Franciscans chowing down on great, reasonably-priced food from chefs making the foods they grew up with in Laos, Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Viet Nam, and…I’m sure I’ve missed a couple of cuisines.

Not being a San Franciscan or having a year to truly deep dive and give you well thought-out recommendations, I refer you to the best source for everything you need to know about Eating in SF: Eater San Francisco.

What’s Your Hidden San Francisco Gem? Leave Us a Comment!

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Welcome to Head Roam! I’m Nan Bauer. Join me in rethinking travel in the world we live in now. Learn more about how I got here.

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