Photo courtesy of Spicy Village
Mainstream Chinese food is often synonymous with a cheap and greasy meal, convenient whenever the idea of preparing dinner seems unthinkable. For chefs, however, Chinese means comfort food. It’s fast, flavorful and best of all: open late. It's also interesting: "Chinese cuisine is the most technical, evolved and intricate cuisine in the world,” says F&W Best New Chef 2012 Corey Lee of San Francisco’s Benu. China’s 20-plus provinces each boasts a distinct set of signature flavors and cooking styles, but you wouldn't always know it from local menus stocked with decidedly Americanized dishes like Sweet-and-Sour Pork and General Tso’s Chicken.
“That’s the sad, and kind of beautiful thing about Chinese food,” says Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien. “They make this sweet, sticky sauce and deep fry everything, because that’s what Americans like. I like that a lot, but as a food-loving culture, people do want to taste different things and go outside of their comfort zone.” In honor of Chinese New Year on Sunday, F&W asked some of our favorite Chinese food-obsessed chefs and restaurateurs for advice on how to find restaurants that are authentic and delicious.
1. Chaos matters, except during brunch. “Usually the places where everyone is speaking Chinese are the best,” says Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien. “That’s how I found East Corner Won Ton in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I walked by and saw a line of old Chinese people out front yelling orders. There was no order to anything. And so I went in and said, ‘I’ll have what they’re having.’” But be wary of when the crowds are forming. “In the Chinese culture, brunch is always busy,” says chef Joe Ng of NYC’s RedFarm. “And it’s not busy necessarily because the food is good, but because it’s a time to get together with family and friends that maybe you haven’t seen in a while.”
2. Cheap does not mean good. “A big misconception is that a lot of people think you need to go to a cheap, divey restaurant to get good Chinese food,” says Baohaus chef-owner Eddie Huang. “That’s not true. Dives these days are actually the ones duping people. The really good Chinese restaurants like Ping’s in Manhattan Chinatown serve their best seafood dishes at market price. Great N.Y. Noodle Town is probably the only good ‘cheap’ Chinese restaurant—and even then they’re probably considered expensive for their category.” That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of great hole-in-the-walls, says Joanne Chang of Boston’s Myers + Chang, “but just because a place is little and cheap doesn’t mean it will be good.”
3. Look for regional specialities. “At most restaurants—depending on the region—you already know what the greatest hits are,” says Huang. Find out what a restaurant’s specialty is before going to eat there, suggests Ng. “For instance, a Shanghainese restaurant will probably have soup dumplings and scallion pancakes. It also probably wouldn’t be a good idea to order a Shanghainese dish at a Cantonese restaurant.” Be exceptionally wary of restaurants that serve things that are totally off-base, says Huang. “You don’t want to eat sushi from a Sichuan restaurant.”
4. Ask about the other menu. “This is America, so there’s almost always an English menu,” says Ed Schoenfeld, restaurateur and owner of NYC’s RedFarm. To find the most authentic dishes, find out if there is a separate Chinese menu and if it has different items than the English menu. To figure out if there are different dishes on the Chinese menu, says Schoenfeld, compare the number of items on each menu. If the English and Chinese menus appear to be different, then “look for unfamiliar dishes, which should be less Westernized and therefore more authentic.”
5. Old people are usually right. Okay, so you’re reasonably sure you’re sitting in an authentic Chinese restaurant. What should you order? “A good way to find new delicious things to try is to just look around and see what the old people are eating,” says Bowien. Food always looks better on someone else’s table, says Schoenfeld. “Look on other tables and see what people are eating. If it looks good to you, then ask the servers to bring it over.”
6. Annoy the staff (really!). “If you can talk to the waiter—assuming that they speak enough English—to ask them what their favorite dishes are,” says Chang, “that can sometimes lead you the right way.” But keep in mind that some servers won’t answer with their favorite dish, but with what’s popular. “For some reason, there’s this fear in a lot of Chinese restaurants that people aren’t going to like what’s authentic, or what the staff would have for lunch,” explains Bowien. “Instead, they’ll profile you. Even though I’m Asian, they’d be like, ‘Okay this guy probably wants Sweet and Sour Pork.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t want your Sweet and Sour Pork! I want what you’re eating for lunch.’ So to get what’s really authentic, you have to be really annoying.”