Chinese food has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Consumed widely, the iconic Americanized dishes have made millions for fast food eateries like Panda Express. As a Chinese-American woman eating her way through New York City, I have a distinctive perspective on the cuisine as I experience it when I visit the city’s many Chinese restaurants. From hole-in-the-wall takeout storefronts to fancy modern restaurants, and even my family’s own home cooking, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with the food in an up close and intimate way over the years. As such, I want to give you the lowdown on the dishes I notice people don’t order nearly often enough at Chinese restaurants.
The popular Chinese menu items are often deep-fried versions of what I or anyone in my family would consider good Chinese food. I chock it up to the American demand for such dishes. However, if you’re unsatisfied with merely chowing down on egg rolls and duck sauce, try to visit the Chinese restaurants in your city that focus on regional Chinese cuisines. Whether they specialize in food from Shanghai, Canton, Guangdong, or Hong Kong, those places will most often offer more nuanced dishes that real Chinese people (like me!) might eat. For a mouth-wateringly tasty—and way more authentic—dining experience, check out this list of dishes I order again and again wherever I can find them.
Instead of lo mein, try ordering chow fun instead. You’ll be surprised by how spot on this dish of flat, wide rice noodles cooked in a perfectly light coating of sauce really is. Less over-the-top saucy than many other Chinese takeout dishes, chow fun is an ideal choice for highlighting good noodles and great protein like beef, chicken, tofu, or shrimp. This Cantonese favorite of fat, fluffy noodles is stir-fried with your protein of choice in a thick and delicious sauce. As far as Chinese takeout dishes go, chow fun is definitely one of my favorites to revisit.
All the Asian greens
If you don’t already know, Asian greens are delicious. Fresh tasting and savory, greens like bok choy, Chinese broccoli, and choy sum are prepared in a couple of ways at most Chinese restaurants. Whether they are gently steamed paired with pungent oyster sauce or stir-fried with ginger, garlic, and sesame oil, these greens are not to be missed. The next time you’re dining at your local Chinese eatery, be sure to order one or two dishes of greens for the table. Feel good about eating your veggies and have a grand time doing so.
Xiao long bao
Xiao long bao is a Shanghainese speciality of steamed soup-filled dumplings. They are often served directly from their steamer baskets in groups of four, six, or ten. Served with Chinese vinegar alongside, these delectable little dumplings burst with juicy pork broth when you bite into them, causing an unbelievable explosion of amazing flavor. The best way to eat them? Place one on a spoon, pour on a splash of vinegar, and take a bite. Hopefully your spoon catches all that delicious broth.
Dan dan mein
Dan dan mein, also called dan dan noodles in the United States, is a wildly popular street food in the Sichuan region of China. Think piles of fresh noodles served in chili oil. Some versions of this iconic dish include minced pork, mustard greens, or pickled veggies. I’ve seen additions of many other extras, too, like peanuts, scallions, soy sauce, and tongue-numbing Szechuan peppercorns. While there are many versions out there these days, dan dan noodles will always be distinctive for its long tender strands of noodle and fiery chili oil.
Ma po tofu
Ma po tofu is a must-order item for me. This dish consists of tofu topped with boldly flavored minced pork, which defies logic for vegetarians, but makes perfect sense to me and the many people who can’t get enough of it. Steeped in broth and tons of chili oil, ma po tofu is not for the faint of heart, as it is beyond spicy. If you love to sweat over your food as much as I do, then this kicky dish is right up your alley. Go for it the next time you find yourself in your city’s Chinatown.
Char siu bao
Universally beloved, char siu bao is a pork bun that makes my heart sing. Don’t go out to eat at a Chinese restaurant without ordering some. A steamed fluffy yeast-risen bun with a filling of sweet and salty barbecued pork is something we all deserve to enjoy in life. This Cantonese snack is a real unifier, as even the least adventurous eater at the table wants in on some barbecued pork bun action.
A mainstay of dim sum, shumai is a delicious dish of steamed pork and shrimp dumplings, although the pork can also be paired with minced scallop or crab meat. A thin layer of dough is wrapped around the savory filling and steamed in baskets. While you will always find shumai served during Chinese brunch, you can likely order them from many restaurants any time of day. If you can, do it.
Salt-and-pepper seasoned dishes
Most Chinese restaurants offer any number of proteins seasoned with salt and Szechuan pepper. Do yourself a favor and order them! While you most often see salt and pepper shrimp on menus, look for the short ribs, tofu, and crab, too. Simple, light, and absolutely divine, these dishes showcase the ingredients rather than the sauces. While most Americanized Chinese dishes are covered in copious amounts of sauce, the salt and peppered ones stand out as delicate and unexpected. For a treat, order a few and taste for yourself.
Hainanese chicken rice
A popular dish in China as well as other parts of Asia, Hainanese chicken rice is one of my favorite no-frills dish. The preparation is delicate and nuanced like the taste of the chicken itself, but never fussy. Cooked on a low simmer, chicken is cooked until it’s completely cooked through and maybe even a few minutes after that point. The chicken is then submerged in ice cold water until the skin pulls away from the meat. Served with tender heaps of rice cooked in chili sauce and the broth from the chicken, this dish is the ultimate comfort food.
X.O. sauce-laden dishes
You’ve probably noticed "X.O. sauce" on Chinese restaurant menus but maybe weren’t sure what it was. Well, it’s time to get acquainted with this excellent sauce and order everything served with it. Made with rehydrated shrimp, scallops, and Chinese pork, X.O. sauce is a fiery condiment seasoned with ginger, garlic, star anise, and cinnamon. Restaurants often offer a wide variety of dishes steeped in X.O. goodness—from noodles to vegetables to meats. You want it all. Trust me.
Why aren’t people eating more Peking duck? In fact, why am I not eating more Peking duck on the reg? Growing up in a Chinese family, the dish always seemed too special for regular everyday dining, but I’m starting to think I should go ahead and order it more often, special occasion or not. With its beautiful lacquered skin and tender dark meat cushioned by layers of fat, this duck dish is traditionally served with paper-white pancakes and scallions alongside with hoisin sauce for dipping.
I grew up eating congee (also called jook), but I did not adequately appreciate it in the folly of youth. My parents forced me to eat this rice porridge when I was sick, which in retrospect probably contributed to the negative feelings. That said, as an adult I can’t get enough! Rice is cooked in an excess of water until the grains become soft, mushy, and delightfully creamy. It can be eaten as-is, or garnished with pork, shrimp, chicken, or tofu. Like chicken noodle soup, congee is simple, humble comfort food that delivers the cozy feels every time. Too bad I was such an idiot when I was a kid! Gah.
Sure, egg rolls are the go-to at a Chinese restaurant, but they’re not the only fried delights on the menu. Next time, deliberately skip the rolls and ask for a plate of fried wontons instead. For a snacky starter to share, I find egg rolls way too filling, while wontons are smaller and come in larger quantities, making you treat them more like a chip-like snack rather than a full-on appetizer. Fried wontons are often served with an addictively good red-hued sweet and sour sauce alongside for dipping. Yum!
Served cold with green onions and sesame oil, jellyfish may seem odd if you’ve never eaten it, but it’s actually quite tasty. While you may think it would be slimy in texture, jellyfish is actually quite firm, resembling glass noodles. Simple and authentic, it’s one of those dishes you should try at least once to see if it’s for you. I have a feeling you might be surprised by how much you enjoy this Chinese delicacy.
Also called "millennium eggs" or "thousand-year-old eggs," century eggs are eggs that have been preserved for weeks or months, not literally years. Chicken, duck, or quail eggs are steeped in a saline mixture most traditionally made with clay and salt. The process renders the yolks incredibly creamy and the whites darkly hued and jelly-like. While century eggs are perfectly savory and delicious on their own, they also pair well with congee or standard steamed rice.
Chicken feet—also called "phoenix claws"—are a Chinese delicacy even as they may make some people squeamish. If you can get past the ick factor of this dish, you’re in for tasty treat—albeit a slightly gelatinous one. After the outer layer of skin is removed from the chicken feet, delicate skin and tendons remain. Chicken feet are prepared differently in different parts of China. While they are frequently fried, steamed, stewed, and simmer in most cases, you may find versions that are simmered in sauce as well. The intense cooking process renders the skin and tendons soft and easy to consume. I highly recommend giving this specialty a go if you’ve never had it.
Hot pot is a fun way to cook and share food right at the table. Popular in China as well as other parts of Asia, hot pot refers to a meal that centers around a simmering pot of broth atop a burner at the center of the dining table. Guests are presented with a wide array of raw veggies, meats, noodles, and the like and everyone cooks their food using the simmering broth. In addition to being a grand, active way to dine with friends and family, hot pot is a unique way to eat flavorful Chinese foods.
Sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and should not be missed. When they are alive, these marine creatures look like spiky slugs, on the grocery store shelf they resemble sausages, and at a Chinese restaurant they take on a sheen and soft gelatinous texture. Prominently featured in Shanghainese cuisine in particular, sea cucumbers are often braised in a shrimp roe and bean paste broth. While this might not be on every Chinese menu, do order it if you find yourself at a joint that focuses on dishes from Shanghai.
Shrimp dumpling soup
A popular dish in Hong Kong that’s available in many Chinese restaurants, shrimp dumpling soup is humble, unfussy, and perfect. Strands of eggy noodles and minced shrimp wontons are served in a rich and savory broth you’ll find yourself slurping every last drop of. What makes this dish so good? I’d have to say the seafood umami flavor of the broth takes it to the next level. The skinny egg noodles are bundled in heaps and easy to eat in abundance. The wontons are light and perfectly filled with shrimp or a mixture of shrimp and pork, which complement the flavor notes of the broth. This dish is aces so you should just get in on it ASAP.
Now that you know the scoop on some of the can’t-miss Chinese restaurant dishes, I hope you get out there and enjoy. There’s a lot more to Chinese cuisine than General Tso’s chicken.