A YouTuber took me on a food tour of the 5 most popular AAPI restaurants in New York City

When Lisa Nguyen asks if you want to accompany her on a New York City food tour, you don’t say no. A YouTuber with over 3 million subscribers, she became famous with a series that shows her quest to try to build up her spice tolerance.

Nguyen joined the platform in 2018 but had been filming food videos for years before that. She naturally had a love for food and an interest in videography and, despite her lack of formal training in either field, she decided to start filming restaurant videos when she wasn’t busy at her paralegal office.

Nguyen, who was based in Wichita, Kan., at the time, noticed that a lot of local restaurants weren’t taking advantage of social media. At first, only a few restaurants agreed to let her shoot videos of their food, and she gave priority to small, family-run businesses.

That’s what inspired Telehue Food, Nguyen’s original YouTube account, which follows along as she tries out new cuisines and restaurants and learns about the cultures behind them. Revenue started coming in from her social media posts, and she decided to quit her paralegal job and make food videos full-time.

When the pandemic started, Nguyen had to pivot slightly. She started a separate YouTube account that chronicled her adventures in learning to cook for herself. The YouTube cooking tutorial world is highly competitive, and can be intimidating to a newbie, but Nguyen found ways to stand out. One of her most popular videos shows her cooking a steak dinner for herself as she dishes on her most embarrassing dating story.

Now she’s able to travel again, Nguyen flew to New York City to try out some popular Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) restaurants around Manhattan. She used information from Google Maps, and five locally owned restaurants made the cut. I made sure to eat a very light breakfast.

Restaurant No. 1: Shanghai 21, Chinatown

21 Mott St., New York, NY 10013

Shanghai 21 serves authentic Shanghainese food and offers an extensive menu, so we asked the waiter to list the top three most popular dishes. He pointed to the Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings), the Shanghai noodles and the Szechuan-style, sautéed shredded beef.

If there is anything you take away from this article, from this website — from Al Gore’s entire internet — it is that the shredded beef at Shanghai 21 is incredible. I have never had anything like it before, and I have not stopped talking about it for days. My new personality is this shredded beef.

Restaurant No. 2: Rice Kitchen, SoHo

204 Spring St., New York, NY 10012

Rice Kitchen opened in 2020 and has already established itself as one of the most popular Asian restaurants on Google Maps. We opted for one of everything on the menu, including Yubuchobap, aka tofu bites, which Rice Kitchen describes as the perfect “picnic food.”

The tofu bites come topped with your choice of egg, mushroom, spicy pork, bulgogi and Korean stir-fried chicken. We also got Kimbap and the rice bowl with bulgogi — a combination I could easily eat for lunch every single day for the rest of my life.

Restaurant No. 3: Saigon Shack, Washington Square Park

114 Macdougal St., New York, NY 10012

Saigon Shack is small, cozy, casual and has a menu on the wall with only four items on it — all ideal for someone who wants to try to eat everything.

This is the first place I ordered a drink with my meal — a Thai iced tea, because Vietnamese coffee is so amazing and strong that I swear I can see atoms moving in front of my eyes after I drink it. We split spring rolls, the Saigon Shack Phở and a classic Bánh Mì sandwich made up of chả lụa (pork sausage), cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, pickled daikon, red chili, pâté and mayonnaise on a baguette.

If comfort food is what you want, this is the place to go.

Restaurant No. 4: Thai Villa, Union Square

5 East 19th St., New York, NY 10003

You know when you’re presented with a dish that looks so beautiful you feel bad you have to take it apart and eat it? Just me?

As with Shanghai 21, we asked the waiter at Thai Villa for his top three recommendations on the menu. They were the Royal Pad Thai, the Chilean sea bass in coconut milk and the tamarind spare ribs, which literally melted when you softly cut into them with the side of your fork.

The decor also gets bonus points, because it did not feel as if I was in Union Square at all.

Restaurant No. 5: Zen Ramen and Sushi, Midtown South

150 West 36th St., New York, NY 10018

In complete contrast to Thai Villa’s decor, Zen Ramen and Sushi was very simple. Its simplicity ends there, because, although we had just eaten at four restaurants, the menu looked amazing.

The waiter at Zen recommended that we get three of the special rolls and finish off with tempura ice cream — the perfect way to end the day.

After Zen, as I rolled myself into an Uber to take me home, Nguyen announced she was off to dinner.

How we picked the restaurants

Google Maps pulled the most popular locally owned Asian restaurants in Manhattan, and the final list includes cuisines from Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese restaurants. Since we specifically wanted to limit ourselves to Manhattan spots, we had to pass on many hidden gems in other boroughs too.

Google Maps also reported that from April 2021 to April 2022, there have been significant increases in searches for hot pot (425%), ramen (120%), Korean barbecue (170%) and dumplings (160%). The increase hopefully has saved some AAPI businesses from closing, which became a problem at the beginning of 2020, when xenophobia and racism against the AAPI community was seemingly at an all-time high.

New York City’s AAPI residents are its fastest-growing demographic group and make up 28% of the total number of immigrants living in the city. Minority-owned businesses are becoming an increasingly important part of the economy of every borough in New York City. AAPI businesses now make up around 23% of all businesses citywide and 35% of all businesses in Queens.

New York is the only East Coast state listed among the top five states that have the highest number of searches for Asian cuisine on Google Maps. Japanese cuisine specifically is among the most popular options in New York. Sushi and ramen rank second and third in terms of top-searched foods on Google Maps in 2022, surpassed only by pizza.

If you aren’t able to visit AAPI restaurants, or if you’d like to do more for the AAPI community, check out a list of resources here.

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