America’s oldest Chinatown is serving up something new. In June, San Francisco welcomed Empress by Boon, a modern Cantonese restaurant helmed by chef Ho Chee Boon, who collected Michelin stars in New York and London as the executive chef and culinary director for the Hakkasan Group food chain. Formerly the landmark Empress of China, which welcomed weddings, banquets, and Lunar New Year partygoers for nearly 50 years before shuttering in 2014, the space is sure to once again be the neighborhood’s celebration spot.
By applying traditional Cantonese techniques to unique flavor combinations and fresh ingredients—some of which are grown on the restaurant’s California farm—the Malaysian-born chef has created a revolving four-course prix fixe menu ($78) that’s full of taste-bud curiosities, such as xiao long bao made with Ibérico ham, zucchini-prawn dumplings with black truffle, and Dungeness crab soup with egg white and huangjiu (rice wine). “With 33 years cooking in Cantonese cuisine, I am more concerned about the resulting texture of our food,” Boon says. To wit: The off-menu Peking duck is dried for 24 hours, and then the skin is coated in vinegar and molasses for extra crispiness. Boon offers three versions of the dish (which must be ordered 48 hours in advance): served traditionally, with sliced skin and meat alongside black sesame pancakes, spring onions, and sauce; on housemade Chinese buns with a dollop of caviar; and as what he calls “guest’s choice,” which could be a soup, a stir fry, or another preparation.
Reservations are hard to come by, but for walk-ins fortunate enough to snag a table in the chic lounge, the bar offerings include some tastes from the fixed menu, as well as add-ons such as crispy wasabi prawns, hand-pulled noodles, braised pork belly with truffle, and beef salad, a flavorful riff on a rojak salad (a Malaysian fruit and vegetable street food). This space is notable for its decor, in particular a 24-foot-diameter carved wood pergola that was transported to San Francisco from Taiwan when Empress of China opened in 1966.
The old Empress was once one of five thriving banquet halls in Chinatown, and it’s the latest to be taken over by a top-notch chef. (Mister Jiu’s chef Brandon Jew took over the former Four Seas Restaurant in 2016, while George Chen opened China Live in 2017 in what used to be Gold Mountain.) For his part, Boon hopes to retain some of the old banquet hall’s spirit. “We were honored to take on the responsibility of restoring not only the important original interior design details, but also the vital role the restaurant played in the community as a place to gather with loved ones,” he says. “I hope the new Empress brings excitement and possibilities to neighbors and visitors.”