Just how all-American is Chinese food? We’ve been placing delivery orders since the 1920s, and there are now more than 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., nearly three times the number of McDonald’s, according to Chinese Restaurant News.
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With this expansion, Chinese kitchens have pushed well beyond General Tso’s chicken, introducing more regional dishes such as Sichuanese pepper frog legs. The result is a reinvigorated debate over what makes for authentic Chinese food, plus plenty of tantalizing, adventurous eating.
You’ll find restaurants setting the bar higher in immigrant enclaves like New York City’s Flushing neighborhood, but also in Vermont, Chicago, and Salt Lake City. Some are family-owned, hole-in-the-wall joints, while others have spawned celebrity chefs like Peter Chang, originally from Hubei Province.
Lao Sze Chuan,
Awards continue to rack up for Lao Sze Chuan, one of the first area Chinese restaurants to earn three forks from the Chicago Tribune, and a designated “Bib Gourmand” in the 2012 and 2013 Michelin Guide. Owner Tony Hu, dubbed the Mayor of Chinatown, has seven Chinese restaurants, with four more slated to open by the end of this year. Yet people continue to wait in line for a table at this Sichuan spot, known for its extraordinary spiciness and fearless dishes like sour pickle and pork stomach soup and Peking-style duck tongue (milder options are also available).
Gourmet Dumpling House,
Expect to be one of only a handful of English-speaking diners at this small, family-owned restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown. Though the menu leans toward Taiwanese and coastal cuisines—the soup dumplings filled with pork, crabmeat and a delicate broth and the scallion pancakes are not to be missed—you’ll also find skillfully executed Sichuan dishes, like the sliced fish, revered for its perfect balance of heat and tenderness.
Peter Chang Café,
A native of Hubei Province, Peter Chang got his start at a no-frills restaurant inside a strip mall in Fairfax, Va., in 2005. Eight restaurants in nearly as many states, a cult-like following, and countless awards later, Chang opened his namesake restaurant in Richmond. The bold, exotic flavors will leave your tongue numb, especially if you opt for the Hot & Numbing Hot Pot, a combo of seafood, chicken, beef, and veggies submerged in a fiery red sauce. The oversize portions are meant to be shared and arrive on an as-ready basis.
Ping Pang Pong,
At Ping Pang Pong, housed inside the off-strip Gold Coast Hotel & Casino, you’ll find regional specialties from across China, from dim sum served on pushcarts (Cantonese) to salt-and-pepper frog legs (Sichuan) and double-braised scallop hot pot (found throughout China). The night market fried rice is another standout, a satisfying mix of tender beef tossed with chiles, bean sprouts, and tomatoes. No matter which region they’re from, Chinese in Vegas can likely find their hometown specialties here.
Xi’an Famous Foods,
New York City
This no-frills noodle house, with locations in Flushing, Chinatown, and the East Village, is a rare local restaurant devoted to the cuisine of Xian, where Middle Eastern and Chinese flavors meet. It’s become famous indeed for inexpensive and flavor-packed food: stewed pork and cumin-infused lamb burgers run just $2 a pop; spicy cumin lamb with hand-ripped noodles, potent and rich lamb pao mo soup, and hand-pulled biang biang noodles are always crowd-pleasers, too.
Perhaps best known for the made-in-house noodles—Judy’s noodles, sautéed with spinach, jalapeños, shiitakes, and green onions in a garlic wine sauce, is their most popular dish—Shandong is a frequent reader’s choice winner in Portland. The restaurant is sleek and modern (a step up from many) and serves some of the best northern Chinese food in the state; don’t miss the hot and sour soup and the Chilean rock crab and shiitake dumpling, so plump and juicy.
Most of D.C.’s best Chinese places are actually out of the District—in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. One notable exception: Wolfgang Puck’s contemporary, three-level restaurant in Penn Quarter, a favorite of both high-profile politicos and local chefs. Turn up on Saturdays for the lounge’s dim sum brunch, a great value, or go the tasting-menu route in the formal upstairs dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows. You’re in the capable hands of Scott Drewno, whose take on Chinese includes sesame-miso cones filled with ahi tuna; suckling pig with quince-apple purée; crispy frog legs with blistered shishito peppers; and lacquered duck with sweet and sour huckleberries.
A Single Pebble,
Within a charming row house, A Single Pebble is helmed by Chiuho Duval, a Taiwan native who emphasizes fresh ingredients from local farmers. The family-style dishes come to the table as they’re ready. Warm up with the mock eel (crispy fish with braised shitake mushrooms and ginger) and the dry fried green beans (wok-tossed with pork, black bean and garlic) before digging into tangerine-peel chicken with broccoli.
Daly City, Calif.
Koi Palace recalls a southern Chinese teahouse, complete with a koi pond and tanks full of enormous crab and rock cod. While it's celebrated for dim sum, we say it’s even better for those seeking seafood. The 450-seat restaurant has filled up with guests hungry for Shanghai crab dumplings and lobster, as well as jellyfish and abalone. Other signature dishes: shark-fin soup served in fresh coconuts and roasted suckling pig, harmoniously crispy and tender.
Salt Lake City
This restaurant is run by Greek-American Angel Manfredini and his 84-year-old father, who work daily alongside four Chinese cooks with classic training and four Hispanic cooks, to turn out dishes from various regions in China, like beef with green beans in a black bean sauce and Peking duck. To make room for all its fans, Mandarin added 150 seats to the restaurant as well as a gluten-free menu, something you’d be hard-pressed to find at most Chinese restaurants. Though the food here tends to be more Americanized, it’s not uncommon to hear patrons assure their companions that Mandarin is “the best Chinese food I’ve ever had.”
See more of the Best Chinese Restaurants in the U.S.