I recently spoke with an international student named Raul about the challenges he faced coming from El Salvador to Florida. He talked about the language gap, about the loss of community, and his realization that networking was the most powerful tool for success. All through our conversation, however, he sounded a bit distracted; occasionally, he seemed sad. Part of our conversation was about family, friends, and how they influence our success. I wanted to help if possible so I asked him how he was doing. He said, “I’m hungry, actually.” The food that he wanted most? Pupusas, a native Salvadorean food that he couldn’t find in Florida. It dawned on me that food is one of our strongest connections to culture. Authentic cuisine is healing, affecting your emotional well-being as well as your physical. So if you’ve been eating Chipotle and dorm food for the past 6 months, I have something special to share with you…
Teaming up with experts in local international cuisine (i.e., friends who are international students), I give you SelfScore’s guide to the best Chinese, Indian, and Korean restaurants in the Bay Area. All our picks are affordable for students on a budget without sacrificing taste. You may find more expensive or popular restaurants, but our unique list is focused on the authentic.
Shan Dong (Oakland) — Follow the incredible smells to this tiny little Mandarin restaurant in downtown Oakland. The interior is all fluorescent lighting and cheap kitchen furniture. The tile on the floors is less than attractive. But the dim sum and hand-pulled noodles are flavorful delights at this Chinatown hot spot. It’s often busy so be prepared for a half-hour-plus wait time.
Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant (SF) — Halal Chinese food: a totally unique dining experience. Located way out by the ocean, Old Mandarin is actually featured in the world-famous Michelin restaurant guide. Lamb skewers, braised beef tongue, and la si ni (a tremendously spicy tofu dish) are favorites here.
Spices (SF) — As their name suggests, this Taiwanese restaurant specializes in Sichuan cuisine: that means hot, hot, hot. Check out their (whole) snow crab with fried garlic, ma po tofu, and pig ear in red oil. Don’t eat those red peppers unless you are prepared for major heat!
Hong Kong Lounge II (SF) — On Chinese New Year, the lines for this dim sum staple extend several blocks past Hong Kong Lounge’s Geary Boulevard entrance—always a good sign. Get the baked pork buns, the pork and shrimp shumai, and the Peking duck. Thank us later.
Zareen’s (Mountain View) — Right around the corner from Google’s main campus is some of the best North Indian/Pakistani comfort food in the Bay. Try the pori chole (these little deep-fried delights are available weekends only) and the shami kabab roll.
Madras Cafe (Sunnyvale) — The place to be for legitimate South Indian delights like lentil soup, massive dosas, and the sweet ghee-soaked desert-like dish known as pongal. Very vegetarian friendly and very belly-filling.
Himalayan Kitchen (Mountain View) — The best spot we’ve found for those hearty, saucy Nepalese/Himalayan dishes like goat curry and gulab jamun, cheese balls in a sweet syrup. Order the chicken biryani to soak up all those thick creamy tomato-based sauces.
Crescent Cuisine (Sunnyvale) — Here’s how to enjoy true Hyderabadi food in California: on a rainy afternoon, take a friend to Crescent, order the chicken haleem and the goat biryani, grab two cups of free sweet milky chai and feel the warmth from your head to your toes.
Toyose (SF) — Koreans young and old flock to this tiny spot past the ocean fog to warm themselves with spicy pork hot pot noodles, cheese corn, kimchi fried rice, and soju cocktails. Their chicken wings are crispy, hot, and always made to order. Expect a long wait…and bring some friends to help you with all the tasty food you’re going to want. We recommend going after 9 pm—they’re open quite late and the vibe is more fun after hours.
Han-Il-Kwan (SF) — A great spot for cook-it-yourself Korean barbecue, the kalbi (short ribs), tofu soup, and cold noodles are all must-try dishes at this fantastic spot. If you don’t feel like cooking, their bibimbap bowl of meats, veggies, and noodles (with a sunny-side-up egg on top) is the perfect pre-made alternative.
Muguboka (SF) — Another excellent choice for Korean barbecue with even more generous ban chan (that’s the dozen or so cold salads, veggies, and pickled dishes you get before your barbecue arrives). And—lest we forget: free seafood pancakes. These are a delicious specialty you don’t want to miss, especially once dipped in their mild chili sauce.
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to the Score for more crucial advice and tips for international students.