The first time you take a stroll through the Tenderloin, the San Francisco neighborhood surrounding HI-City Center, you might feel a little disoriented: you thought you were in San Francisco, right? So what’s with all the Vietnamese signs, restaurants, and markets?
Welcome to Little Saigon, a two-block stretch of Larkin Street, between Eddy and O’Farrell Streets, officially recognized by the city of San Francisco as a neighborhood with the same cultural significance as Chinatown or Japantown. The city gave Little Saigon its moniker a decade ago in recognition of the Tenderloin’s active Vietnamese community and huge number of Vietnamese-owned businesses. Today, a pair of dragons sitting atop stone pillars greet visitors crossing the neighborhood’s official threshold at Larkin and Eddy Streets. But Vietnamese culture in the neighborhood isn’t limited to Little Saigon’s technical boundaries. Venture past the dragons, duck through the Tenderloin’s doorways, and amble along its streets, and you’ll soon feel transported straight from San Francisco to Saigon. Here are a few of our favorite ways to start your journey.
We’re of the opinion that there are two types of people in this world: those who love Vietnamese coffee, and those who haven’t tried it yet. The Vietnamese spin on the cup of joe is extra-strong, brewed to order, and served in a glass with enough super-sweet condensed milk to give an Oompa Loompa a mouthful of cavities. Stop into one of the Tenderloin’s many hole-in-the-wall coffee shops to try it out yourself – you’re almost guaranteed to come out with a new favorite morning pick-me-up.
Little Saigon may be SF’s friendliest – and tastiest – neighborhood for travelers on a tight food budget. Here, it’s easy to score yummy, filling, and authentic banh mi – sandwiches on baguettes served with toppings such as jalapenos, pickled carrots, and cilantro – for around four bucks a pop. Saigon Sandwich Shop, about two blocks down Larkin Street from HI-City Center, is the undisputed favorite of local lunchtime crowds. During prime lunch hours, the line’s likely to be out the door, but don’t be intimidated: this place is so small, an overflow crowd is inevitable. A veritable banh mi emporium just around the corner from the hostel, Lee’s Sandwiches offers dozens of bahn mi fillings, plus a rainbow of exotic Vietnamese desserts, freshly baked take-home baguettes, and smoothies ranging in flavor from avocado to durian to cranberry.
Of course, the banh mi’s not the only tasty steal to be had in Little Saigon. All over the neighborhood, Phở, broth with meat, herbs, greens, and heaping tangles of skinny noodles, comes served in oversized bowls that can easily feed two people for less than $5 each. The crowded local favorite is Turtle Tower, where rice noodles are made fresh and broth is served without adornment, in the Northern Vietnamese style. Next door, bustling Phở2000 lets you slurp your soup while sitting elbow-to-elbow with a mix of Tenderloin residents and office workers on their lunch breaks.
Feeling creative? You can also stock up on Vietnamese ingredients nearby to take back to the hostel kitchen. Find fish sauce, chili paste, and bags of unpronounceable, exotic wonders at Larkin Street’s handful of bodegas. Or, hunt for fresh sugar cane, daikon, and lemongrass at the Heart of the City Farmer’s Market, operating out of the Civic Center’s United Nations Plaza on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
If you’re looking for a different kind of creative inspiration, don’t miss the Asian Art Museum. About a five-minute walk from the hostel, the museum prides itself on its huge collection of art from all across Asia. Tickets are normally $12 ($8 for students), but admission is free the first Sunday of each month.
Each winter, the Tenderloin becomes the best place in the city to celebrate Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. This year’s celebration, put on by the Vietnamese Community Center of San Francisco, will take place on Jan. 25 from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. In United Nations Plaza, just a few minutes’ walk from HI-SF City Center, celebrate the Lunar New Year with entertainment, food, games, dance, and more. The free event has drawn tens of thousands of revelers in the past, all coming together to celebrate Vietnamese culture in the Tenderloin. During your next stay at HI-City Center, or in San Francisco, we hope you’ll take some time to do the same!
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