When you move to San Francisco, you quickly learn that Ghirardelli Square is a landmark, like the cable car turntable in Union Square or the Tonga Room, but it’s not real San Francisco. You’re only supposed to come to this former chocolate factory with visiting relatives so they can get free chocolates, and then inevitably drag you to Fisherman’s Wharf. When you’re not playing tour guide, though, you can go to Palette Tea House. This dim sum restaurant from the Dragon Beaux people is in the center of the city’s own chocolate tourist fortress, and we like it so much that we’ll come here even on our own time.
Like a lot of restaurants in tourist areas, Palette Tea House has a theme, but it doesn’t involve eating around props from B movies or dealing with servers dressed as pirates. Instead, everything you order here comes out looking like Bob Ross quit painting and decided to open a restaurant. It makes the entire experience more fun, but even if we ate here blindfolded, the food would still be fantastic.
There are charcoal taro puffs shaped like swans you’ll want to put on a shelf next to your souvenir teaspoon collection - until you try the sweet pork, duck, and shrimp filling, and then they’ll disappear faster than actual swans getting chased away by an angry golfer. You’ll be attracted to the colorful xiao long bao like Danny Ocean to a heist, and will want more after you try the rich soup and pork filling. The only blatant connection to the theme is the plates shaped like actual paint palettes. They have useful dents to hold the chili oil, Chinese mustard, and other sauces you’ll dip each dumpling into as if you were frantically creating a masterpiece.
Aside from dim sum, Palette Tea House has larger plates like tender roasted duck and typhoon Dungeness crab covered in spicy breadcrumbs. They’re not as clever looking as the lobster ha gow with pipettes of butter to inject into each dumpling, but they’re great to split and will make you thankful no one sucked you into getting mediocre seafood or bread bowls nearby. There are still a few reminders that you’re in tourist country - like the “how to eat soup dumplings” instructions on the menu, or the occasional diner with a map sticking out of their bag, but you won’t care. You’ve found a spot in Ghirardelli Square that’s as much for you as your visiting family. But when they force you to go to the wharf after, you’re on your own.
These soup dumplings come with five different flavors, so everyone at your table should order their own to get the full experience, but it’s worth it. They’re all fantastic, especially the rich yellow ones with crab roe and turmeric. Order a lot of these.
The coolest thing about this is the pipette of butter they bring you to inject into each individual dumpling. Even without the butter, these would still be great. The lobster in these is tender and they’re the only lobster dumplings we’ve had worth ordering.
The crab cheung fun is light, lemony, and not greasy. Order with confidence.
These are some of the best xiao long bao we’ve had in San Francisco. The wrappers are more reliable than run-flat tires, and the dumplings are always rich and full of pork. If you’ve never eaten soup dumplings before, there are instructions on the menu.
These are stuffed with shrimp, pork, and duck, and the filling has a sweet sauce in it that brings everything together. The taro outside of the swans turn into tiny shrapnel after you bite in, but it’s worth it to get to play with your food.
The shrimp brings most of the flavor, but the XO sauce on top adds some heat. We also really like the chewy rice noodle wrapper they come in.
This crab is covered in spicy breadcrumbs that you gnaw off the shell as you eat the meat. It’s a messy job, but if you love crab it’s worth it - make sure to eat the meat hiding under the pile of breadcrumbs on the top shell.
Only one big piece of scallop comes on top of this siu mai, and the rest of the filling is shrimp. They’re good, but you might as well just order shrimp siu mai - unless you’re obsessed with scallops.
This version of honey walnut shrimp comes as three individual shrimp dumplings covered in Japanese rice puffs and sweet walnut sauce. Aside from the soup dumplings, these are the best dim sum on the menu. Get some on your table.
Throwing wagyu beef into a dish is usually done to be flashy, but here the rich, tender slivers of beef make a large difference in these great stir-fried rice noodles.