San Francisco's Chinatown is full of treasures, one of the few corners of the city that feels relatively untouched by the ever-more-powerful wand of gentrification that has changed the face of many of its other neighborhoods. You'll still find crowded streets bustling with shoppers at Chinese markets, tucked-away bars where all of the karaoke is in Mandarin, and, of course, plenty of dim sum.
And since 1920, generation after generation of Chinatown residents has slipped into Hang Ah Tea Room for dumplings, noodles, and tea.
For 98 years, the cozy dim sum restaurant at 1 Pagoda Place (yep, that's the actual address) has been serving San Francisco locals, tourists, and Chinese families looking for a taste of home. You'll find ha gow (shrimp dumplings), gin cha siu bow (pan-fried barbecue pork buns), and chung yao ban (scallion pancakes) alongside larger meat dishes, noodles, and other classics, all served in a low-ceilinged room full of kitschy, collected treasures.
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Obviously, the restaurant has changed hands a few times over the course of nearly a century. The current owner is Billy Lai, who has been at the helm for a little more than three years. Although his role as its restaurateur is much shorter than its duration as an institution, Lai is committed to maintaining the historical character of the dim sum destination.
In fact, he says the restaurant's history is why he was interested in purchasing it in the first place. "We love the place because it looks different than [what's] outside of Chinatown," he says. He shows me a Chinese character on a poster on the restaurant's wall. "This Chinese character—we believe something, but we don't use this word anymore. In the last hundred years, and before, China tried to use these traditional Chinese letters. Now, they use the simplified Chinese characters to do writing. I don't think a lot of Chinese know what this character means, and how to write it, but it kind of means, 'It's been here for so long.'"
The restaurant got its name because the alley in which it's tucked away—yes, Pagoda Place—used to be home to an incense manufacturer; hang ah means "aroma." (In fact, the restaurant does still smell quite a bit of incense.)
Lai doesn't know much about the original owners, but since its opening, Hang Ah Tea Room has been a haven for local Chinese families. "When Chinese people first came to the US, they didn't have any other places for a getaway during holidays and weekends. The Chinese history in San Francisco, I think, goes back maybe 30 years before the restaurant was opened," Lai tells me. "[Chinese people] came to San Francisco, working in [laundries], and people were trying to live in this area, Chinatown, because they have restaurants and theaters in the area."
Lai shows me a menu from the 1970s, and then, on his cell phone, a digital image of a menu from the 1930s that an older customer had found in their home and sent to him. On that one, an order of ha gow is just 30 cents; jasmine tea, 10 cents; lo mein, a whopping 75 cents.
"Our oldest customer, he's about a hundred, or something—he said the last time he came before his last visit was maybe about 30 years ago," Lai says, flipping through the 40-year-old menu. "He told us a bit of history about the 1960s and 1970s, but before that, we're not too sure. What we know is at the beginning—the dim sum, the food, was not like today. They don't have the materials or ingredients to make that style of Chinese food [anymore]."
The menu has gone through numerous iterations, including an overhaul in the 70s that tightened its focus on dumplings and buns rather than more Americanized Cantonese food. Another change that decade: they got rid of a "fish pool" (a koi pond?) that was in the restaurant's floor. I was curious about how long the somewhat decrepit sign on the restaurant's façade had been there (the "N" in "HANG" is conspicuously absent), but Lai wasn't sure. A shiny new sign for a 96-year-old restaurant might not be fitting, anyway.
These days, the menu focuses on both the expected—fluffy pork buns filled with sweet, juicy meat; mouthwatering dumplings made by hand in the restaurant's kitchen—and the novel, such as their new bak toll gow, or Hang Ah Rainbow Rabbit Shaped Dumplings, which look like tiny bunnies and are filled with a sweet bean paste.
Although Lai didn't seem concerned, some other longtime Chinatown institutions have struggled with the changing face (and price) of San Francisco, despite the neighborhood's self-protective nature. After three decades of service, Chinatown banquet hall Tommy Toy's Cuisine Chinoise shuttered in 2013 despite receiving numerous accolades during its tenure, and nearby Empress of China, a local favorite, closed in 2014.
But Hang Ah Tea Room remains lively, even at lunchtime on weekdays. Lai says that he has seen a change in clientele even just in the past three years, but services such as Yelp and TripAdvisor may be bringing in people who otherwise wouldn't even know to look for the near-centenarian restaurant. "But we get a lot of customers who tell us stories about how they know this place, because their parents, or their grandparents brought them here when they were kids," Lai smiles. "Some told us that they were here, but now moved to other states, but now they bring their kids to visit San Francisco. We have a lot of this kind of story."
"I lived in San Francisco for about 30 years, actually, before I took over this restaurant. I didn't even know we had places like that."